More on Aswanley Estate gamekeeper – how the finer details matter

Last month we blogged about the failed appeal of convicted Aswanley Estate gamekeeper Craig Barrie (see here). In October 2011, Barrie had been fined £520 at Aberdeen Sheriff Court for the illegal possession and control of a live wild bird (a pigeon) that had been discovered inside a cage trap on this Aberdeenshire estate.

More detail has now emerged about this case, reported in the latest edition (#66) of the RSPB’s Investigations Newsletter Legal Eagle. The article describes the background to the investigation, including how an RSPB Investigations officer had discovered the pigeon inside the trap in September 2010. Crucially, the trap doors were not ‘set’. The RSPB Investigator called out Grampian police, who came to investigate the trap, accompanied by Barrie. The article says: “They found the trap complete with captive pigeon and Craig Barrie admitted that he was responsible for operation of the trap“.

Interestingly, the article says that although Barrie was convicted for possession and control of a live wild bird (contrary to the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981), “a plea of not guilty to illegally using a cage trap was accepted“.

So here is a gamekeeper who has reportedly admitted that he was responsible for the operation of the trap, and has been convicted of being in control of the pigeon that was found inside the trap, and yet it was accepted that he was not guilty of illegally using a cage trap! Without knowing the complexities of the legal argument put forward, it may be safe to assume that this plea was accepted because even though there was a pigeon in the ‘lure/bait’ compartment of the trap, and Barrie was responsible for the pigeon being in there, the trap wasn’t actually ‘set’ at the time it was discovered, so it could be argued that the trap wasn’t ‘being used’ in the strictest sense of the word. Perhaps it was argued that because the live pigeon was inside the trap, it was being used just as a sort of make-shift aviary, not as a trap! The devil’s in the detail, as they say.

Legal Eagle #66 has yet to be published (we were given a sneak preview) but when it is published you’ll be able to find it on this page here.

Eyes wide shut

It’s often said that the number of reported raptor persecution incidents in Scotland represents just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, which means that many more incidents probably remain undetected and thus unreported (see here for an earlier blog post about this). This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of our regular readers, who understand that the combination of remote locations, increasingly-aware gamekeepers and some less-than-interested police forces can often result in an inaccurate (under)-estimation of the number of persecution incidents taking place each year.

With the imminent publication of the Scottish government’s 2011 Raptor Poisoning Map, due out any day now if they follow the pattern of previous years, we’ll soon hear claims from the game-shooting lobby that poisoning figures have dropped. We’ll also hear from the conservationists that the officially reported figures may have dropped but that the real extent of persecution remains unreported. The poisoning maps are a good example of this, because apparently they only show the areas where poisoned birds have been detected. What they don’t show, we’re told, is the areas where poisoned baits have been discovered. If that’s true, why do you think poisoned baits are not mapped and reported?

The Raptor Poisoning Maps also don’t show the extent of other types of illegal raptor persecution, such as shooting, trapping, nest disturbance, egg-smashing, chick killing etc. Nor do they show the last known locations of satellite-tracked raptors that have mysteriously ‘disappeared’ into thin air. Perhaps it’s time that the Scottish Government started to publish other maps to depict the extent of these various other incidents. Why don’t they do this already?

Inevitably, many potentially illegal incidents will slip through the net. We’ve been told of one such incident that happened very recently on a shooting estate in Scotland. We’ve been asked not to identify the estate or the gamekeeper for operational reasons.

So, a member of the public (let’s call him John) goes for a walk on this estate and sees what he thinks is a buzzard, in some distress, flapping around with a Fenn (spring) trap dangling from one of its legs. John is fairly clued up and immediately calls the police to report it. It’s a Sunday afternoon, so the Police Wildlife Crime Officer isn’t available (?!). Instead, an ‘ordinary’ police officer is sent to investigate. Mr Police Officer heads onto the estate to look for the distressed buzzard. He is met en-route by a certain gamekeeper, who asks him what he’s looking for. Mr Police Officer explains, and Mr Gamekeeper tells him that, by pure coincidence, he is also looking for a missing Fenn trap that has disappeared from a site where he had set it (legally), inside a tunnel to prevent non-target species from getting caught. His explanation for what had probably happened went something like, ‘Oh, the buzzard must have got inside the tunnel and then got caught in the jaws of the trap and flew off with the trap still attached’. Mr Police Officer apparently believed this explanation and off they went together to find the buzzard. They located it, and Mr Police Officer apparently asked Mr Gamekeeper what to do, and Mr Gamekeeper said the buzzard wouldn’t survive and it would be best if he killed it and disposed of the body, which he duly did. No body, no trap, no evidence, end of story.

The following day, two people visited the area where the buzzard had been found. Mr Gamekeeper appeared, challenged them, apparently told them to ‘get ‘arf my land’ (although his language was reportedly more colourful than that) and then told them ‘come back and collect your car tomorrow’, before dashing off down the road to block the exit with a tractor and trailer, preventing the visitors from leaving. The police were called, and eventually Mr Gamekeeper was instructed to remove his tractor.

The incident in question may or may not have been a case of persecution. Mr Police Officer clearly thought is was just an accident, which of course it could have been. Had he been aware of this estate’s history though, he might have viewed the incident differently. The estate in question has a well-documented track record of alleged raptor persecution (although none of the incidents have ever resulted in a prosecution). The incidents include the reported discovery of at least three poisoned raptors, and multiple nesting failures of breeding hen harriers in suspicious circumstances. In addition, at least two gamekeepers on the estate have a reputation for what might be generously called ‘obnoxious behaviour’ towards members of the public, dating back over a number of years, including claims of alleged assault (prosecution failed) and the deliberate blocking-in of vehicles to inconvenience visitors (presumably to discourage them from further visits). The police would be well aware of this history. Whether Mr Police Officer knew is not known, but hopefully he has now passed on the details of this latest incident to the Police Wildlife Crime Officer. If nothing else, the WCO could pay Mr Gamekeeper a visit to make sure his Fenn traps are being set legally (ie. covered).

We’re told that this estate is one of the 250+ that have signed up for the new Wildlife Estates Initiative. Unfortunately this cannot be verifed yet as the Initiative doesn’t seem to be interested in transparency at this stage of its development, even though one of its stated aims is ‘to introduce an objective and transparent system that demonstrates how wildlife management undertaken by Scottish landowners, in line with the principles of biodiversity conservation, can deliver multiple benefits for society and rural communities’. We’re all looking forward to the time when the Initiative is opened up to public scrutiny.

SNH wildlife management survey: here’s the link

Further to the post on 22 February 2012 (see here), SNH has commissioned an on-line survey to find out what people think about how Scotland’s wildlife is managed.

The link to the survey is now available here

(Interestingly, at the beginning of the survey, you are prompted to identify your ‘role’, such as gamekeeper, land owner, member of the public etc. Depending on which choice you make, you get asked a completely different set of questions!!!!).

You can be sure that landowners, land managers and gamekeepers will be providing their thoughts to the survey, and you can probably guess what they might be saying (‘we want licences to legalise the killing of raptors, badgers, pine martens and any other protected species vermin that dares to interfere with our production of artificially-high gamebird populations’).

If you are sick to the back teeth of watching the destruction of our native wildlife at the hands of landowners, land managers and gamekeepers, then make sure you take part in the on-line survey and let SNH hear your views.

The survey closes on 19 March 2012.

news round-up: burned barn owls, shot buzzards & illegal trapping

Police in Merseyside are appealing for information after the charred bodies of six barn owls were discovered in a barn in Moss Lane, Formby. Police believe the owls had been deliberately set on fire. It is not known when they were burned, or whether these were wild or captive owls. Less than half a mile away, the body of a shot buzzard was found. News article in the Liverpool Echo here.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country a joint police/RSPB investigation has started in North Lincolnshire after the discovery of three dead buzzards in the area since October 2011. At least two of them are believed to have been shot. News article in the Grimsby Telegraph here.

In Leicestershire, a previously convicted farmer/part-time gamekeeper, Ivan Peter Crane, has been fined £2,500 (+ costs) after being convicted of using a Larsen trap without an appropriate licence. Crane already had wildlife crime convictions from April 2011, for trying to kill raptors with an illegal pole-trap and also for the illegal and unsafe storage of pesticides (see here). It was because of these earlier convictions that Crane could no longer trap birds on the farm without applying for an individual licence, which he failed to do. Press release from Natural England here.

Now we are two

It’s our second birthday today! Happy birthday to us!

At the end of our first year, this blog had reached 55,000 ‘hits’. At the end of our second year, we are about to reach 173,000 hits. That’s a phenomenal growth curve and we’d like to thank all our readers for the continued interest.

Looking at our list of subscribers, you’re an eclectic crowd, including a number of university academics, police officers, barristers, solicitors, gamekeepers, falconers, wildlife conservationists, raptor biologists, sporting agents, landowners, civil servants, MSPs, journalists (national & regional), wildlife rehabbers, hedgefund managers, independent TV producers, BBC producers, procurators fiscal, gundog trainers, RSPB staff, RSPCA staff, SSPCA staff, BirdLife International staff, SGA staff, GWCT staff, FCS staff, Animal Aid staff, Hawk & Owl Trust staff, wildlife researchers, magazine editors…

Our top six posts (ie. the most read) since we started are:

  • 3 golden eagles & other raptors found dead on Skibo Estate, Sutherland
  • Review of ‘Fair Game?’ documentary – our “ugly secret”
  • Golden eagle found poisoned on Glenbuchat Estate, Aberdeenshire
  • Scottish sea eagles reach plague proportions
  • Skibo Estate Results
  • Moy Estate Results

Are we having an impact? We like to think that we’ve helped to raise awareness about Scotland’s long-running failure to properly address the issue of illegal raptor persecution. And judging by some of the scathing comments that have been written by certain organisations about this blog, we think we’re on the right track. We’re all on to them, and they know it.

Thanks again for your support and here’s to year three!

Scottish gamekeeper jailed for poison scare

Ok, ok, so the headline is misleading but we couldn’t resist! What, you really thought that a gamekeeper had been sent to jail for a wildlife poisoning offence? Don’t be daft, this is Scotland after all!

This is the story of Scottish gamekeeper Graeme Thompson, who sparked a major scare by [falsely] claiming he’d swallowed the banned poison Cyanide, along with some razor blades, in a bid to commit suicide “in a blaze of glory” (see here for earlier blog about this).

Thompson, of Primrose Crescent, Perth, was yesterday sentenced to 25 months in jail (see report in Daily Record here).

Amazing that a gamekeeper who had falsely claimed to have a banned poison can receive a two-year & one month jail sentence, whereas a gamekeeper who has actually been convicted of using a banned poison to kill protected species has never yet been given a prison sentence! Funny old world, isn’t it?

Mountain hare protection begins today

Thanks to the recent Wildilfe and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 [also known as the WANE Act], there is now a closed season which prevents the killing of hares during certain periods in the year. The closed season for mountain hares begins today (March 1) until 31 July. This means that it is now an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure or take a mountain hare in the closed season. The closed season for brown hares is Feb 1 – Sept 30.

It’s important that this new legislation is effectively enforced. Hares are an essential part of the golden eagle’s diet, especially in the summer months, and there have long been concerns that the widespread killing of mountain hares on grouse moors (estimated at 25,000 per year) is having a detrimental impact on golden eagle breeding productivity in certain parts of the country (see the SNH Conservation Framework for Golden Eagles here).

During the closed season, ALL killing of mountain hares is now unlawful, unless a specific SNH licence has been granted to permit killing within this period. Licences can only be granted for specific purposes which include preventing spread of disease and preventing serious damage. However, SNH guidance states that a licence will only be granted in exceptional circumstances (see here).

This is important for the general public to understand. If anyone sees any evidence of mountain hares being killed between now and 31 July, it will most likely be unlawful (although not ‘certainly’ unlawful) and should therefore be reported straight away so that the authorities can check with SNH whether a licence has been issued.

There are also restrictions on the methods used to kill mountain hares – and these restrictions apply throughout the year (even during the open season when killing mountain hares is permitted). In general terms, it is an offence to trap mountain hares in snares (although again, there are exceptions and a special licence is available in some circumstances). Whether the snare has been set to target the mountain hare specifically, or for some other animal (e.g. a fox) is irrelevant. It could be considered ‘reckless’ under the legislation if a snare has been set in an area known to be frequented by mountain hares. The ‘approved’ method of killing mountain hares is to shoot them (but only during the open season, NOT during the closed season, and even then there are further restrictions on the type of shooting permitted).

Anyone out and about on the moors this spring and summer should keep an eye out for any sign of unlawful mountain hare killing. Take photographs, note your location and REPORT IT. We recommend informing the police and especially the SSPCA.


Mountain hare information from the Hare Preservation Trust here

Mountain hare information from The Mammal Society here