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.
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 (email@example.com) and copy in Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham (CabSecECCLR@gov.scot).