Dear First Minister – from Jon Dunn

Jon Dunn is a birder, author and more, as his letter to Nicola Sturgeon about the poisoning of a young White-tailed Eagle in Strathdon demonstrates.

Dear First Minister,

I don’t expect you to have heard of me – though I have to say as a Shetland resident, I have admired the SNP’s governance of Scotland as a whole, and your performance as leader of the party, for many years now. Your handling of the current Covid-19 pandemic has been nothing short of exemplary – my family, south of the border, wish they had someone like you at the English helm.

But back to me. I am a writer – a nature and travel writer. My first narrative non-fiction book, Orchid Summer, was one of the Guardian’s ‘Best Books of 2018’. (I know you enjoy reading, and I would be delighted to send you a copy if you would allow me to do so).

I am, by way of professional background, an economist, and worked as such for 15 years for Shetland Islands Council, initially working with land managers here in the islands, but latterly managing large capital projects (Fair Isle Bird Observatory etc) and working with the oil and gas sector.

Hence I have rather a unique perspective – I am a warm-hearted naturalist, but also a cold-blooded economist…

I’m writing to you this evening about something that touches on both of these groundings. You will, I am sure, be aware that yet another bird of prey has been found dead on a grouse moor in Scotland recently – in this instance a young White-tailed Eagle, in the Cairngorm National Park. It was found only because it was satellite-tagged, and stopped moving. It had been poisoned, deliberately, by persons unknown.

This is far from a shocking aberration – we know there has been a litany of cases of birds of prey being shot, trapped, or poisoned on Scottish grouse moors over the years. Those we know about, sadly, are just the tip of the iceberg – finding a corpse, or witnessing an act of persecution is, statistically, always going to be unusual. However, the ecology of the Scottish highlands does not lie. Where there should be hundreds of pairs of Hen Harriers, Common Buzzards, Golden and White-tailed Eagles, etc, there are dozens at best and, in many instances, none at all. We know this from the hard data of breeding bird surveys.

This is fact, not conjecture.

These birds are illegally harried and persecuted at every turn. They have been, for decades. This begs the question of why?

Their illegal persecution is a hangover from the Victorian days of English gentry travelling to Scotland to indulge in grouse shooting weekends on Scottish estates. The gamekeepers of those estates exterminated any wildlife that they considered anathema to generating large bags of Red Grouse to be shot for ‘sport’.

To this day, that practice of persecution continues. Prosecutions for these crimes are rare. But crimes they most certainly are.

I am writing to ask that you give serious consideration to finally outlawing driven grouse shooting in Scotland. The ‘sport’ of shooting animals for fun is surely an anachronism that has no place in a 21st century, enlightened nation like ours. Remove this redundant, blood-stained and immoral practice and, with it, you will remove the motivation for sustained illegality on the part of the gamekeepers in question.

Now, I know what the grouse moor owners, and their gamekeepers and representative organisations will say. They will claim that the driven grouse shooting industry contributes significantly to the rural economy. 

I would counter this by pointing you towards regions of Scandinavia that have thriving rural economies based on alternative land use by the public, rather than a monied elite. People spend money on leisure activities undertaken in biodiverse rural settings not at all dissimilar to what Scotland would once have looked like before sheep and grouse moors scalped the Highlands and changed them to what they are now. Those employed on those moors, and those in ancillary industries (hoteliers, caterers etc) would be absorbed into a rejuvenated, more equitable, and morally defensible rural economy. 

I started this email by telling you that I was a natural history writer, and an economist. I will end by telling you about another string to my bow. I am a wildlife tour leader – indeed, I make most of my self-employed living from showing people wildlife. I do this here in Shetland, where our wildlife is not persecuted and harried by gamekeepers – and I take guests overseas to see wildlife throughout Europe.

But mainland Scotland? No. I don’t run tours there. I couldn’t, even though I would like to. The biodiversity there is a shadow of what it could, and should be. It’s embarrassing, and it makes me both sad and angry that it should be so in the 21st century.

Please change that. Please apply the same moral fortitude you have displayed over the years addressing social and educational reform in Scotland to addressing what rural Scotland looks like, and how it behaves. 

At the moment, it’s a Victorian theme park, a relic of a bygone era. One with blood on its hands. Let’s change that, please.

Yours sincerely,

Jon Dunn

If you are maddened or saddened by the level of wildlife crime in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park then please write to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ( and copy in Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham (

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8 Replies to “Dear First Minister – from Jon Dunn”

  1. I am so pleased to see this. So many tour companies know this persecution goes on and yet do nothing about it. Very often the birds that are shown to clients (and we have been) are on private estates that the public would not even know about, let alone get easy access too.
    It is of course understandable. They are running a business that is highly competitive with many companies after the same clients. To be denied access to an estate may be the difference in allowing your clients to see lekking Black Grouse or Capercaillie. This may mean having to bite your tongue.
    However, I do hope that Jon’s letter encourages more companies to follow his lead. It is imperative that the SG understands the importance of wildlife for tourism in the country and it needs to come from those that are best placed to know.

  2. Brilliant letter Jon. Just the sort of honest reality check that the Scottish Government need to hear.

  3. Indeed an eloquent and reasoned letter, Wish I could write like that. Lets hope all these communications are falling on open minds and ears because we really need the Scottish government to do the right thing here rather than further debate etc.
    One thing who on earth manged to consult their 2 or 3 brain cells and dislike Jon’s letter? Either somebody from planet drugged to the eyeballs or some ne’er do well from the shooting numpties. They of course haven’t the nerve to put forward a real argument cogent or not.

    1. 2 or 3 brain cells? I think you’re being generous to the pro shooting brigade there!

  4. Fantastic letter Jon, incidentally I loved Orchid Summer. Re persecution of wildlife and loss of ecotourism opportunities it’s chilling to consider that if the young bearded vulture in the Peak District had wandered north it could have joined that WTE as a pile of crumpled, poisoned feathers. We should be able to get excited at the prospect of a recovering vulture population, of several species, in southern Europe meaning that with increasing regularity they wander north to at least spend sometime as a spectacle here even if we’re just too far north for breeding…maybe. Sad instead we have to worry about their illegal persecution. Spot on re the (non) economic issues about DGS here are a couple of relevant blogs from this blog you might have missed –

  5. Yet another example of our treatment of the natural world. I will be very surprised if Sturgeon’s government will do anything about it, the usual hot air about this criminal activity then it will be forgotten about. How long has Roseanna Cunningham been in the post? Too long I fear and that gives you an idea of how the government care about the environment.

  6. I live in Sweden and your comparison with Scandinavian practice is most telling and relevant.

    I am currently enjoying your book “Orchid Summer”.

    Wishing you well,


  7. Beautifully written and tightly reasoned but I would expect nothing less from my polymathic old friend.

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