Review of ‘Fair Game?’ documentary – our “ugly secret”

The BBC 2 Scotland documentary, ‘Fair Game? Scotland’s Sporting Estates’ was aired last night and opened with the BBC reporter visiting the Leadhills Estate with an undercover investigator from OneKind. This investigator was the guy who watched gamekeeper Lewis Whitham staking out a rabbit laced with Carbofuran in April 2009, leading to a conviction in 2010 (see blog post 17 Nov 2010). The BBC reporter, David Miller, was shown what was alleged to be an illegal ‘snapper trap’, and in forestry a few feet away he was shown the rotting carcasses of foxes and other animals, piled up at a ‘stink pit’ – used as a lure to draw in predators who are then snared as they approach the area. Also in the forest, he was shown the decomposing bodies of two raptors that someone had apparently tried to conceal under pine needles. Miller was visibly disturbed by what he’d witnessed in one small corner of one sporting estate, calling it ‘our ugly secret’ – not quite the public ‘conservation’ image that the shooting industry likes its estates to portray. The OneKind investigator has written an excellent account of his time out on the hill with Miller:

The discovery of the dead raptors and the apparently illegal snapper trap led to a later police search, in which a third raptor corpse was discovered, in addition to more raptor skulls. The trap was removed, and Leadhills Sporting Ltd denied all responsibility for the dead birds. Fountains Forestry, the owners of the private forest on the shooting estate, also denied any knowledge of the bodies and said the snares found were illegal as they had not given permission for anyone to set snares on that ground. Later in the programme, we learned about the weight of evidence of alleged criminal activity on Leadhills Estate. Since 2003, the RSPB has recorded 46 incidents where the government, police and/or other agencies have confirmed that poisoned baits have been set or birds have been illegally killed, just on Leadhills Estate. We were told that the current management at Leadhills Estate took over in 2008 and they say they ‘deplore wildlife crime’. However, the RSPB has since recorded 10 incidents since 2008, although none since 2009 – following the conviction of gamekeeper Lewis Whitham.

There followed a series of interviews with various people, including Dave Dick, the former head of RSPB Scotland Investigations (and a regular contributor to this site – thank you Dave), who talked about the hundreds of raptor persecution incidents he had seen first-hand over the last 20-30 years. We also heard from Mark Oddy from Buccleuch Estates who spoke briefly about the old glory days of grouse-killing at Langholm, and then we went to the RSPB’s Abernethy Reserve where Duncan Orr-Ewing showed Miller that it is possible for grouse-shooting and raptors to co-exist. Orr-Ewing also discussed the RSPB’s persecution figures and how these clearly show the effect of persecution on some raptor species. Government scientists have predicted that there should be 500 pairs of hen harriers on the UK’s grouse moors – there are actually only five. You don’t need to be Carol Vorderman to work out the missing numbers.

Next up was gamekeeper Peter Fraser from Invercauld Estate, who is also the SGA’s new vice chairman (see blog post 26 Nov 2010). There followed a fascinating conversation between Miller and Fraser, when Miller pointed out that 3 poisoned buzzards [and a poisoned raven] had been discovered on Invercauld Estate in 2003 [our sources suggest it was 2005] for which no-one was ever prosecuted:

Fraser: “All keepers know and understand that if they do that [poison a raptor] and they’re caught, you automatically lose your job”. NOT TRUE, Mr Fraser, as anyone who has read the contents of this blog site can attest.

Miller: “There are scientists who argue clearly that birds of prey in Scotland are being killed, shot, poisoned on our hills. Does that happen on this estate or neighbouring estates?”

Fraser: “Well, as I’ve said on this estate, if anyone does that we’re finished, and I can honestly say no. Never”.

Miller: “So, how do you explain the dead birds which routinely turn up in the Scottish countryside?”

Fraser: “I wish I could answer you that. Erm, in every walk of life there are some that lets the profession down and unfortunately we’re no different to everybody else. And it has been known that these birds have been planted on various areas so it’s a ticklish subject to deal with and to be quite honest, but er, I would like to think that poisoning has been greatly reduced over the years”. NOT TRUE, Mr Fraser – read the government statistics!

Miller: “Just to be clear, when poisoned or shot birds of prey are found on a gamekeeper’s land, clearly the stakes are very very high. Are you suggesting that those birds may have been deliberately placed there by a third party?”

Fraser: “Well, I haven’t got that evidence on me but erm I’m quite sure that has happened, quite sure that has happened”.

So there you have it. Peter Fraser, vice chairman of the SGA, admits that he has no evidence to support the claim that poisoned raptors have been ‘planted’ on sporting estates. It’s a shame Miller didn’t mention the poisoned buzzard found here in 1992, nor the 1997 conviction of an Invercauld Estate gamekeeper for the illegal use of a spring trap (see blog post 4 March 2010). Also a great pity that Fraser wasn’t asked how many breeding pairs of golden eagles and hen harriers are present on Invercauld Estate.

We then heard from Mike Yardley, a journalist and shooter, who stood smugly bragging about the ’20 safaris’ and other trips he has taken in Africa, North America and throughout Europe to shoot animals – and we were even treated to viewing some of his home videos of these trips. He probably met every expectation that the general public has of a typical shooter. It was hilarious. Not all shooters are of his ilk, of course, but the programme failed to get this across.

We heard from Robbie Kernahan from SNH who admitted that the evidence of illegal raptor persecution ‘should not be ignored’. We also heard from the laird at Alvie Estate, Jamie Williamson, who didn’t really discuss the issue of raptor persecution at all, and then we heard from an apparently very cagey Simon Lester, head gamekeeper at Langholm Estate who was obviously trying to pick his words carefully and not put his foot in it. Unfortunately he didn’t have anything substantial to offer in the comments that he did make. There was also an interlude at Mar Lodge Estate, although this was mainly about deer management and not really raptor persecution.

Miller went on to provide some interesting details about the performance of the procurator fiscals at the Crown Office. The BBC had asked them about the number of gamekeepers they had taken to court. Amazingly, they said they had only started recording their performance on wildlife crime early last year! Why? Since then, they’ve had one successful prosecution – Lewis Whitham from Leadhills Estate. There is ‘a handful’ of cases in the system – presumably these include the current cases concerning Skibo Castle Estate, Moy Estate and Inverinate Estate. We await these results with great interest to assess whether the extent of the charges brought are an accurate reflection of the evidence uncovered.

The finale came with an interview with Doug McAdam, CEO of SRPBA. Another apparently cagey performance that included what some might perceive as a blatant lie. Miller asked McAdam whether he thought the game industry was being unfairly targeted:

McAdam: “I think that there is a feeling out there amongst landowners and estates that there are people who would seek at every opportunity to damage the reputation of landowners and estates. If we look at the statistics, 28 cases of confirmed bird of prey poisoning incidents in Scotland in 2010 – it’s small, it’s in the tens, and it is a decreasing number”.

Actually, Doug, if you care to look at the official poisoning statistics that your organisation helped to analyse, you’ll see that the number of poisoned raptors discovered in 2010 was GREATER than the number discovered in 2009. Do you think that if you say it enough times (i.e. that the poisoning figures are declining) that somehow we’ll all forget the official statistics and believe your version? I don’t think so.

Miller also asked him: “Your very well informed members must know where those [poisoning] cases are taking place, surely?”

McAdam: “Er, I don’t, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, no”.

So, our ignorant landowners are now pushing for licences to kill protected raptors as a method of reducing illegal persecution incidents, but they ‘don’t neccessarily’ know where these incidents are taking place. Brilliant.

For those of us hoping for some words of wisdom from SGA chairman Alex Hogg, sorry, he wasn’t included. I wonder why?

The programme is available for one week on the BBC iPlayer:

Here is the SRPBA response to the programme: FairGameSRPBAresponse May 2011

13 thoughts on “Review of ‘Fair Game?’ documentary – our “ugly secret””

  1. Much as I enjoyed watching myself and pals playing music down the local pub…this programme was a big disappointment…

    The blogmeister here has done a very good breakdown of the programme..I would just add a few points of my own.

    1.I dont know the OneKind guy weve never met…but if I had trained him he would never have handled dead buried bits of raptor [such as beak and talons] without gloves…a complete safety no no…and a very poor message to the public.

    2. Agree fully with blog about keepers not being sacked…that lie needs nailed…and easily done by a journalist..using this site alone a few phone calls to estates with conviced keepers would do the job.

    3. No mention of alternative uses of the Uplands…or very few…and no mention of how shooting compares in financial terms to other areas of the rural economy – such as tourism. Just a breakdown of one unusually well run small estate [Alvie]…not exactly representative of the Scottish Uplands.

    4.SNH who actually commissioned and wrote up the damning golden eagle and harrier reports quoted as saying they must look at habitat and food supply [!] aspects of raptor ecology along with persecution. Their own reports show that persecution is the overwhelming reason for absence and declines.Golden Eagles thrive on the wrecked over grazed moors of Lewis for gods sake…a grouse moor is an artificial food paradise for these birds.

    5. After a reasonable start the programme fell into the usual bog of “compromise”. As if allowing killing of raptors is a compromise. It would be an utter dereliction of duty by the scottish government…to the overwhelming majority of its own people and to our european obligations.

    6. and finally….the area I know most about…the Scottish Justice System got off “scot free” [if I could use such a term here!]. Inefficient, idle, disintertested and at times downright corrupt police officers; Crown Office officials who are in the pockets of shooting and Sheriffs so partisan or ignorant its like a Monty Python sketch in some courts.Steve Redpath on about enforcement not having worked….Steve, its not even been tried!!…a pathetic handful of cases have been won…despite the unbalanced nature of the system with £1000 a day QCs against depute Procuratort Fiscal with huge workloads who are being discouraged from using the very experts [RSPB and SSPCA] who could help them.

    So…no, not a very helpful programme…anything that makes the raptor killers look anything less than the crimninal thugs and shysters they are…hasnt presented the true story.

    So..what to do about it?…write to your MSPs sharing your concerns about this whole subject [including this programme] now theyve been newly elected…and ask them to resist any seeming compromises on full protection for our raptors.

  2. Oops, sorry, I forgot to mention the input from Steve Redpath of Aberdeen University. Steve’s idea of how to solve the problem is not to improve enforcement and prosecution of criminal landowners and gamekeepers, but rather, remove the raptors from the Scottish hills and transplant them somewhere down in southern England. Its perhaps best I forgot to include him in the review after all.

  3. The programme lacked a cutting edge. I think that the estate owners were given a very soft ride.

    The plain and simple truth needed to be firmly emphasised. People who kill raptors to improve the availability of birds for shooting are criminals.
    There is not a whit of difference between that and any person/business stealing to improve their income.

  4. To my mind this is par for the course with the BBC, they had the opportunity to nail the Raptor persecutors where it would hurt them most, “PUBLICITY”, what did they do, let them off the hook and whitewashed it as I expected them to do. The estates got off very lightly in view of the overwhelming facts that were available to the BBC if they’d been inclined to use them, instead the estates came out looking far from the villains, in fact you almost had to feel sorry for them being at the receiving end of all these “uncalled for” accusations when all they are trying to do is make huge profits from the well heeled shooting fraternity. Of course this persecution is all very beneficial to the general wildlife, there’ll be no Hares, no Raptors, no Foxes, no Crows, no Weasels, no Stoats, no Pine Martens, no Badgers or Wild Cats, but there’ll be plenty of Red Grouse, assuming there’s any Heather left for them to feed on and nest in after they’ve burnt it off, but then there’s always the Red-leg Partridges, Pheasants and Deer to fall back on.

    Opportunity missed, or was that what was intended !!!


  5. A comment was made that no further incidents have been recorded since 2009 well i can put that one to bed at least 2 poisoned birds have been found 1 in 2009 [Raven] and 1 in 2010,[Buzzard] and that is what i know of, so it is a mystery to me how they haven’t been put through the system and been recorded……….. PS not to mention the raptors that have gone missing at nest sites.

  6. So let me get this straight. From 2003 to 2010, the RSPB has recorded 46 incidents of either confirmed poison bait or illegal bird killing on Leadhills (48 according to Peregrinepete). During this period, there has only been two convictions – one in 2005 (for shooting a short-eared owl) and one in 2010 (for laying poison bait). Two other court hearings were dismissed due to ‘evidential difficulties’ (2003 – alleged dog cruelty filmed by RSPB was ruled ‘inadmissable’; 2008 – sheriff accepted birds were being poisoned but could not identify the individual keeper).

    That’s a total of four court cases, out of 46 (or 48) recorded incidents! Who isn’t doing their job here??

    Is it the RSPB? Unlikely – why record the incidents and then not alert the police?

    Is it the police? Are they not investigating these incidents? Are they not passing on the case details to the fiscals?

    Is it the procurator fiscals? Are they not acting on the information they receive, or is there not enough evidence in those 42 (or 44) incidents to merit a prosecution?

  7. That “ugly secret” bit is looking a bit silly now isnt it…wheres the secret when you have hundreds of cases reported to [and some even investigated by] the police?

    Re Leadhills…and lets not get too hung up on them despite their record – there are plenty of other estates with long term records of reported prosecution – I can assure you the RSPB did [and no doubt still does] report all clear evidence of persecution.

    On one point …the 2003 surveillance evidence…which involved alleged cruelty to a gun dog, not the shooting of a harrier….this was thrown out at the PF stage, quite wrongly in my opinion. Two other cases where RSPB surveillance was used were allowed and convictions followed in that same year, in Stonehaven and Aberdeen Sheriff Courts, respectively. It all depended on which Fiscal or Sheriff you got – I will leave it at that!

    1. Dave, you are absolutely right in your first comment. The OneKind investigations officer should have worn gloves and he normally does. We accept that wasn’t the right message and would like to reassure you that it was an exception. Would be delighted to meet up some time though.

      We gave the BBC information concerning snared badgers, dead snared foxes and deer, as well as the dead buzzards and poisoned baits at Leadhills, and hoped the programme would highlight the animal suffering caused by traps, snares and poisons. We had already given our information to the police and the Scottish Government although we were not able to secure a meeting with the Minister to discuss this.

      I also wanted to raise on this forum that figure about “Shooting, especially driven grouse shooting, is vital to the economy of rural Scotland. It’s worth £240m a year”.

      As you know, this figure comes from the 2006 PACEC report, based on data gathered on behalf of the shooting industry in 2004. So a single year, not an annual figure. It covers all shooting, not only grouse. SNH commented last year that the PACEC estimates of total GVA supported by shooting appeared “too high” relative to the figures gathered on first round spend, and estimates of employment supported were “generous”. SNH itself put the value of field sports tourism, including angling, at £136 million. The Fraser of Allander economic survey of grouse moors found that grouse shooting “might” contribute £23.3 million to GDP.

      Does anyone have any reliable information about the economic value of shooting?

      Finally, hats off to Elaine Murray MSP for her first parliamentary question of the new session:

      S4W-00007 Elaine Murray: To ask the Scottish Executive whether it remains its position that “the balance of public interest [is] not at present in favour of issuing licences for the control of birds of prey to protect non-native reared game birds” as stated by the Minister for Environment at the meeting of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee on 3 Nov 2010 (Official Report c. 3330).

  8. Libby [apolgies to the rest of you for this internal correspondence – it is relevant!]..many people picked up on the no gloves…so I wont go on about it…

    re the economics of shooting…surely they are irrelevant?..are we saying that because theres money involved these birds should have less protection. I wonder what the percentage of GDP [domestic economy] shooting had in 1954 and again in 1981 when the democratic process created the 1954 Protection of Birds Act and the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act…are they saying it went up since then…ah dinnae think sae!!

    There are very good figures on wildlife tourism and tourism generally which of course dwarf even the inflated shooting figure mentioned. That economy is endangered by these criminals.

    What we are looking at is a changed political situation where the raptor killers think they see an opportunity…after previously,quite rightly, being excluded from the decision making process [except by normal democratic channels like the rest of us]. This has been brought about as a result of the near to useless Partnerships set up by successive governments, Civil Service and the Police.

    One of the few points which was made by this weak programme wasa reminder that the government has so far said it wont give out licences while the illegal killing continues – thats why this Forum is so important. Those who wish to legalise their criminal activities by way of licences are desperate to make things look rosy. Im afraid Fair Game may have helped them rather than hinder.

    Elaine Murray is well on side, I received a personal assurance of that yesterday….we should all talk to our MSPs [by e mail or letter] to remind them that this talk of a “compromise” is nothing of the sort.

    and here endeth the political lesson!….DD

    1. I agree that supposed economic benefits are no justification for killing wildlife but surely, if figures are to be quoted, they ought to be correct. The “£240 million each year” is used over and over again, particularly by Scottish Government, to illustrate the importance of shooting and why practices such as snaring – for example – apparently have to be retained. It was repeated in the programme but I felt it should have been challenged – and as you rightly say, the relevance could be questioned as well.

  9. I see that Mark Oddy representing Buccleuch Estates tried to come across prim and proper, but how come xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxx xx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxx xx xxx xx xxxx xxxxx

    Note from Editor: Thanks for your post Red, but as before you need to provide documentary evidence of your claim before we can publish your comment in full.

  10. Hah!…Looks like he needs a super-injunction….but yes blogmeister you do need to be careful about publishing possibly libellous personal stuff…dont want to give a notoriously dirty fighting opposition any ammunition…

    Enetraining though Red’s post might have been!

  11. Being in England I had to watch the programme via i player and yes the Beeb made attempts to be even handed when it is inappropriate but nonetheless it was very clear what is going on thes so called sporting estates. It is also quite clear that the same is true for most upland sporting estates in England, we may not have iconic eagles poisoned regularly but we have almost no peregrines nesting successfully on or adjacent to grouse moors and we all know the state of the english harrier population and we also know what the direct cause is.

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