Peregrine chicks stolen from nest site in southern Scotland

The BBC is reporting that peregrine falcon chicks have been reported stolen from a nest site in Moniaive, Dumfries & Galloway, sometime between 25 May and 5 June.

An un-named police spokesman has appealed for information and said the force was committed to fighting wildlife crime, although the appeal for information doesn’t seem to have yet reached the Dumfries & Galloway Constabulary’s website…

BBC news article here

SGA leaders try to spin the science….but fail

Those award-winning scientific gurus at the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association have been sharing their intellectual acumen as they interpret recent scientific research relating to raptors.

First up is Professor Bert Burnett, who chose Facebook as his outlet (well, scientific journals are just so passé) for an examination of the recent paper on historical eagle distribution in the UK and Ireland (see here). His thesis starts with this: 

The RSPB are even more powerful than i thought. The are now able to contact the dead, who had the foresight to record raptor numbers on blocks of stone knowing that the RSPB would be needing the info in 3,000 years time. Has anyone actually checked the validity of this latest garbage from RSPB? We have also had teradactals  etc in the uk, have the RSPB got the population info on them as well? With a bunch of irate 21st century farmers breathing down their necks, me thinks the RSPB are getting fidgity“.

Thirty-four minutes later, Professor Burnett decided that actually, this peer-reviewed scientific paper might be useful after all, as it appears to support his hypothesis that eagles are not constrained by persecution and certainly not by gamekeepers, no siree bob:

looking at the post 3000 year population figures from RSPB i note that the golden eagle pop. was 650 for the uk as a whole. Scotland has 440 now, living in a much changed counryside from 3000bc, i would think this is a huge success story not the doom and gloom pushed out by the RSPB“.

Had Professor Burnett studied the data in a little bit more detail, he would have noted that the golden eagle breeding population estimate for c. 500 was actually 1,000 – 1,500 pairs. Oops.

Professor Burnett’s esteemed colleague, Professor Alex Hogg, also had his own unique interpretation on recent scientific research, this time on the DEFRA buzzard ‘study’. Choosing that highly-acclaimed scientific journal Shooting Times to report his scientific results, Prof Hogg wrote this:

In Scotland, we are already ahead of where England is now with this [the proposed buzzard ‘study’ that included the destruction of nests and permanent removal of adult buzzards into captivity]. The trials have been done“. (Read full article here).

Really? Where and when were these trials done in Scotland, and where are the published, peer-reviewed results?

Professors Burnett and Hogg are not the only ones from the game-shooting community who have been demonstrating a shocking ability to misinterpret science….more in a following post.

Bend it like Beckham: the rules of admissable evidence

Last week we blogged about what we see as double standards being applied to decide whether evidence is considered admissable or inadmissable in certain wildlife crime cases (see here). This stemmed from the COPFS decision not to proceed with a prosecution against the gamekeeper who was filmed apparently battering crows to death with a stick inside a crow cage trap, because COPFS decided the film evidence was inadmissable. Basically COPFS decided that the public interest was best served by concentrating on the legality of the evidence as opposed to focusing on the alleged crime itself.

It’s been a source of frustration for many of us that the prosecutors will accept what seems to us as improbable evidence such as, ‘I wasn’t using that illegal poison you just found in my shed; I just had it in there because I didn’t know how to dispose of it properly. Honestly officer, I had nothing to do with the poisoned raptors that you’ve found nearby even though government testing has shown they were poisoned by the same illegal substance I’ve got in my shed” and yet they seem so reluctant to accept evidence from those who are legitimately undertaking raptor site monitoring and who happen to find evidence of alleged wildlife crime during the course of their legitimate monitoring activities.

Our article attracted a number of comments and one in particular stands out. Rather than have it ‘lost’ in the comments section of the blog, we’ve decided to re-post it here to make sure that it is read by as many people as possible, and especially by those who are out and about and likely to stumble across evidence of wildlife crime. It is an articulate and insightful comment and we thank the commentator, ‘Edinburgh Observer’, for taking the time and trouble to write it.

Why should the interests of justice be compromised by an interpretation of the law that is seemingly biased in favour of the criminal? Perhaps it’s time to play them at their own game. Here’s what Edinburgh Observer had to say:

This thread begs two questions: (1) what types of access are lawful and what is not? and (2) in each case, what factors affect the admissibilty of any evidence secured in relation to a crime wirnessed in the course of exercising such access.

First, access: as the posts indicate the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 provides rights of responsible access to most land, and certainly all land where wildlife crime is an issue – but not, of course, to dwellings or buildlings. Unfortunately, however, these rights are associated with the purpose of the visit. These are primarily for recreation or education – the latter including wildlife research or monitoring. So, if one visits land for those purposes and happen, by chance, to encounter a crime, the evidence is probably admissable. However, it is arguable that visiting land primarily or knowingly for the express purpose of obtaining or seeking to find such evidence, makes that access unlawful. This ‘unlawfulness’ is, however, only in relation to statutory access rights under the 2003 Act (see below), and the admissibility or otherwise of any evidence must be subjected to the second issue (see further below).

Notwithstanding the above, the 2003 Act also creates a statutory right to “cross land” that is not conditional on the purpose – so any access for the purpose of obtaining or seeking to find evidence while “crossing land” should be lawful – perhaps all raptor workers/OneKind staff should be forever heading somewhere else and, therefore, only “crossing land”!!?!

As well as statutory access rights under the 2003 Act, many access campaigners also argue that, in Scotland, there are traditional rights of ‘customary access’ (see Blackshaw, 1999 in Edinburgh Law Review at Such rights would apply to the kind of open countryside where wildlife crime is an issue – and are not subject to the limitations of purpose described above. Thus, access for any purpose could – according to Blackshaw be lawful.

Secondly, is evidence obtained by lawful or unlawful access (as distinguished above) admissible? This boils down to a decision, ultimately, for the court to determine – on the basis of balancing competing concerns. Of course, in the OneKind case referred to above (and in several other wildlife cases), the Court has not been asked to make a determination because the Procurator Fiscal has (pre)determined the answer and decided not to proceed. Procurators should, of course, make such judgements in cases where the balance of competing interests is so obvious that no reasonable court would reach an alternative conclusion. However, in these wildlife cases, this obvious-ness is less clear and Procurators appear to be pre-judging the answer – and, as suggested, creating double standards.

The origin of the doctrine of balancing competing interests was the case of Lawrie v Muir (1950 JC 19, 1950 SLT 37, [1949] ScotHC HCJAC_2, see and has developed since, and is discussed in detail in “Illegally Obtained Evidence and Scots Law: A Fair Balance?” (Stark and Leverick, 2010 – online but as a word document – google it!). The rule seems to be that a court, in determining admissibility, should balance the “upside” of securing justice via prosecution against the “downside” of seeming to allow irregularity or unlawfulness in the securing of the evidence. In extreme cases, for instance, where a housebreaker witnesses a murder, the unlawfulness of housebreaking may be overlooked to secure prosecution for murder – and, of course, the housebreaking could be subsequently prosecuted. These issues, of course, will mean lots of variables in comparing and contrasting the interests of justice with the interests of the accused or other deterring other irregularities, and are affected by various modern legislation both on access and on human rights. However, as Stark and Leverick rightly conclude the approach of the Scottish courts to the question of whether illegally obtained evidence should be admitted in or excluded from criminal proceedings is “unsatisfactory” and “largely incoherent”. They also discuss the need for reform of the law which has gone unaddressed for over fifty years.

So, in the wildlife cases, it seems the procurator has taken the view that the court would consider the irregularity of unlawful access (trespass!?) to be a more serious issue than the alleged wildlife crime, and not a matter of such relative insignificance that it might be overlooked by the court. However, one might ask, when has the Crown ever tested such an argument in Court? Very few reported cases are available – and those that are have special circumstances. To date, no Court has determined whether the public interest in securing justice, convicting an offender and deterring wildlife crime is or is not greater than the public interest in not encouraging the (potential) unlawfulness of ‘irregular’ access to open countryside.

In this issue, the comparison with Malta above, and incidentally England, is notable – the post above suggests that the Maltese jusisdiction has admitted such evidence, as has regularly been the case in England. It is scandalous that this is not, apparently, the case in Scotland – but perhaps even more scandalous that the determination of the public interest has, to date, rested with the COPFS. It is time that the relevant arguments were made in Court – to date, no full exploration of all the issues has been made or a definitive Court judgement sought. Pressure should be applied to the COPFS to make a test case of one such as that described above – or do they find it useful to have “unsatifactory” and “incoherent” law that allows them to make arbitary decisions as they wish?

In addition, of course, it is probably time that wider concerns raised by Stark and Leverick were addressed. Something for the Scottish Parliament?

Where eagles dared: new study reveals historic British & Irish range

A new study has revealed the former range of the golden and white-tailed eagle in Britain and Ireland (going back 1500 years) in comparison to the two species’ current ranges, which are much more restricted.

The paper, published in the journal Bird Study (read abstract here), highlights the differences between historical and current eagle distribution and population sizes and provides evidence that at least one eagle species was present throughout much of Britain and Ireland in former years – an issue that has been previously disputed by those arguing against eagle reintroductions. The study also provides compelling evidence of the effect of persecution, an issue that continues to this day (e.g. see here).

The paper includes several maps to show the former and current distribution of the two species. It’s worth noting that the map depicting the current distribution is missing some important eagle locations – probably deliberately to protect these vulnerable sites. It’s a sad reflection on us that this is still neccessary in the 21st century.

BBC news article here; Scotsman article here

Pigeon fancier gets police caution for killing sparrowhawks

An un-named pigeon fancier in Bedfordshire has received a police caution after admitting to shooting (and killing) sparrowhawks.

The joint investigation by Bedfordshire Police and the RSPB took place between February – May this year and culminated in the discovery of three dead sparrowhawks. An air weapon was seized during the investigation.

Police Inspector Tracey Day, Bedfordshire Police’s wildlife crime officer said: “Wildlife crime in Bedfordshire is taken seriously and the force will continue to ensure that a positive approach is taken to all matters reported that involve crime against wildlife“.

So, why wasn’t this man named and why did he only receive a police caution for offences that can attract fines of up to £5,000 and/or a six month prison term?

Bedfordshire on Sunday article here

Thank you to the contributor who sent us this link.

George Monbiot: a journalist who says it like it is

George Monbiot is fast becoming my favourite journalist (and not just because he uses this blog as a source of information!).

In his latest article, due to be published in the Guardian tomorrow but released on his website tonight (see here), Monbiot digs a little deeper inside the #buzzardgate debacle and uncovers some fascinating information.

In addition to #buzzardgate he also discusses the scandalous state of the English hen harrier population. He is one of very few authors willing to state, categorically and without caveats or apologies, that the missing English hen harriers [approx 329 pairs] ‘have been shot or poisoned by grouse-shooting estates’. There’s no dilution or ‘maybes’ or ‘possiblys’ in the name of so-called ‘partnership building’ – English hen harriers have been wiped out by grouse-shooting estates and Monbiot is not afraid to say so.

If you read Monbiot’s biography  (here) you’ll see that the thing he fears is ‘other people’s cowardice’.

We can all learn from him.

Would jubilee’ve it: hen harriers finished in England?

We’ve been hearing rumours that the last remaining pair of hen harriers attempting to breed in England have now failed. We don’t yet have confirmation but several (usually reliable) sources are telling us the same thing.

In a recent BBC news article (here), a spokesman from the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation said:

We are unaware of any instance of human interference with hen harriers in England in recent years“.

Yeah, of course you are. Just like Bashar al-Assad is unaware of any instance of government troops massacring the Syrian people?

So, while the country celebrates ’60 glorious years’, take a moment to reflect on the effects of 60 years of raptor persecution.

Inadmissable evidence: double standards for wildlife crime offences?

In February we blogged about the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) decision not to accept the video evidence showing a head gamekeeper apparently bludgeoning crows to death with a stick inside a crow cage trap on a Scottish sporting estate (see here). The video had been filmed by a field officer from the charity OneKind who, by chance, happened to be in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your view).

OneKind appealed against the COPFS decision not to initiate court proceedings against the gamekeeper but the Lord Advocate ruled that the COPFS decision would stand. In response, OneKind submitted a petition to the Scottish Government, signed by over 2,000 members of the public who were disgusted by what they’d seen in the video. OneKind asked the Scottish Environment Minister, Stewart Stevenson, for greater clarity on what is / isn’t considered admissable evidence in wildlife crime cases.

Here’s his reply:

“….the Scottish Government believes it is vital to all our efforts in tackling wildlife crime, for members of the public who come across anything suspicious to report what they have seen to the police.

I would however note that there is a difference between cases where members of the public come across evidence that seems to point to a wildlife crime, and those cases where a person who is employed as, or is acting in some capacity as, a wildlife crime investigator, reports such evidence. It is for the Crown Office to decide on how a court would deal with evidence in either of those cases, and their decision on whether to prosecute a case is final”.

See here for the full update on the crow-killing incident provided by OneKind.

So, what have we learned? If you’re a member of the public who doesn’t really know what you’re looking at, or how to record evidence that might be crucial in a subsequent prosecution, then your ‘evidence’ will probably be admissable. However, if you’re someone who knows exactly what you’re looking at and has been trained in the best techniques of evidence collection and preservation, then your evidence will probably be inadmissable.

And the logic in that is….what, exactly? Are there any other areas of criminal law where these double standards apply? (This is a genuine question – we don’t know the answer but would like to hear from anyone who can enlighten us and help us to understand these rules).

Is it any wonder our wildlife crime conviction rates (and especially for raptor persecution incidents) are so pathetically low? How many more legal obstacles are going to be placed in the way of bringing these criminals to justice?

Police cautions for Devon peregrine disturbers

Back in March we blogged about the activities of Police Wildlife Crime Officer Josh Marshall, who had been installing covert cameras at active raptor nest sites in Devon in a pro-active effort to deter/catch would-be wildlife crime offenders. Within 48 hours, two suspicious characters were caught on camera visiting an active peregrine site (see here).

Today, PC Marshall has announced that the two men have both received police cautions and were issued with ‘strong words of advice’ (see here).

Well done Josh, keep up the good work!

Yet another golden eagle mysteriously ‘disappears’

Last month we blogged about the ‘disappearance’ of a satellite-tagged golden eagle (see here). Now 22 days later we’re blogging about another one. Isn’t it strange how many UK satellite-tagged raptors go ‘missing’; not just golden eagles, but white-tailed eagles, hen harriers and red kites too. Wonder how these figures compare with tagged raptors in other parts of the world?

The last signal from the latest young golden eagle (#32857) to go ‘missing’ was received on May 11, just to the north-east of the Cairngorms National Park (see here).

Was it just a satellite tag failure and the eagle is still alive and well? Possibly.  Did it die of natural causes? Possibly. Was it poisoned? Possibly. Was it shot? Possibly. Was it caught inside a crow cage trap and bludgeoned to death? Possibly. Will we ever find out? Possibly. If it is found to have been killed illegally, will the perpetrator be brought to justice? Probably not (see here for the ever-growing list of dead and/or missing eagles in recent years for which nobody has ever been prosecuted).

Somebody asked a question the other day and we’ve still not been able to provide an answer:

What does it take to secure a conviction for killing an eagle in the UK?”.

We’ve heard all the excuses in the book, some valid, some not:

(i) The discovery of a poisoned eagle on a sporting estate isn’t enough to secure a conviction because either it could have been poisoned elsewhere and then flown to die at that location, or, it could have been ‘planted’ on the estate by the anti-game-shooting lobby (according to claims made by various gamekeepers over the years although without any actual evidence).

(ii) The discovery of a poisoned eagle lying next to a poisoned bait on a sporting estate isn’t enough to secure a conviction because it’s virtually impossible to identify which individual gamekeeper laid the bait, especially when they all deny it.

(iii) The discovery of a poisoned eagle and a stash of the same poison found on premises on the same sporting estate, and an admission from an individual gamekeeper that he had sole access to the poison isn’t enough to secure a conviction because….well, we don’t know the answer to that one, you’d have to ask COPFS.

(iv) The discovery of a poisoned eagle and a stash of the same poison found in vehicles and traces of it on knives and gamebags on the same estate isn’t enough to secure a conviction because….we don’t know the answer to that one either – ask COPFS.

(v) What if somebody was filmed laying out a poisoned bait and was then later filmed returning to remove the eagle poisoned by that bait? The film evidence would probably be ruled inadmissable because the cameraman was operating ‘covertly’ (i.e. without the landowner’s permission!).

(vi) What if a gamekeeper was found with a dead eagle in the back of his vehicle, and the eagle had injuries consistent with being caught in an illegal spring trap (e.g. broken legs) and having had its head caved in with a blunt object (e.g. smashed skull)? This wouldn’t be enough to secure a conviction because the keeper would probably claim he had just found the dead bird and was taking it home to report it to the authorities. At best he’d be charged with ‘possession’.

The shocking truth is, there has never been a successful prosecution for the illegal killing of an eagle in the UK, in spite of the sometimes overwhelmingly compelling evidence in some cases. So, just what does it take for someone to be convicted of killing an eagle in the UK?