New raptor crime reporting protocols – but for whose benefit?

Two new raptor crime reporting protocols have just been published on the PAW Scotland website. One covers the ‘collection of evidence for incidents of raptor crime’ and the other is ‘guidance for people who lose contact with satellite-tagged birds’.

Both protocols come from the Scottish Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (SRPPDG). This group was established in 2009 as a sub-group of PAW Scotland and these protocols are the first ‘deliveries’ from the group. Before discussing each protocol in turn, it’s worth bearing in mind which organisations make up the SRPPDG, because then you’ll understand why landowner appeasement and suppression of news reports seem to be prominent elements in the protocols.

The current make-up of the SRPPDG is as follows:

Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA), Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), British Association for Shooting & Conservation (BASC), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), Scottish Police, Scottish Government, Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), RSPB, Scottish Raptor Study Groups (SRSGs).

Let’s start with the ‘Collection of evidence for incidents of raptor crime’ protocol. You can read it here. This protocol is not just about the ‘collection of evidence’ – importantly, it’s also about how to report a raptor crime.

Incredibly, this protocol suggests that all suspected incidents of raptor crime ‘MUST’ be reported to the police. Now that’s not actually true. If the raptor crime involves a situation where an animal’s welfare is at risk (e.g. a live raptor caught in an illegally-set trap), then the SSPCA have a statutory authority to investigate the incident and report it for consideration for prosecution to the Crown Office. They can do this without needing police assistance – they have a highly experienced Special Investigations Unit to coordinate it. Nowhere in this protocol is that option given as a recommended course of action.

Also missing from the reporting options is a recommendation to report a suspected raptor crime to the RSPB. Now, unlike the SSPCA, the RSPB does not have any statutory authority to investigate. If they are involved, they have to work with one of the statutory authorities. Nevertheless, to exclude them entirely from this protocol is a dangerous business. They, too, have a highly specialised Investigations Unit, whereas some Scottish police forces still don’t even have a full-time wildlife crime officer, even though this was a recommendation made by the Scottish Government about five years ago!

The dead golden eagleWe have seen time and time again instances of suspected raptor crimes that have been reported to the police but the follow-up investigation has left a lot to be desired. Here is just one example from 2010. Also in 2010, the then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham admitted that police action on wildife crime investigation was “a challenge” (see here). Have things improved since then? Well, if you look at the recent incident of that golden eagle that was found dumped next to an Aberdeenshire lay-by, you could easily argue that things have not improved. The police did not issue a press statement about the illegal killing of that eagle, and nor did they even apply for a search warrant to search the land, buildings and vehicles where the bird was ‘downed’ for several hours before it was moved and dumped in the lay-by. The only reason the public found out about that incident was because the RSPB issued a press release 4.5 months after the incident (see here), perhaps in exasperation that the police hadn’t bothered.

We’re not suggesting that all Scottish police forces are useless at investigating wildlife crime. Some of them are very good, others not so good. Yes, we all recognise that prosecuting wildlife criminals is fraught with legal obstacles, but surely because of that it makes sense to involve as many specialist agencies as possible?

In whose interest is it, not to recommend reporting suspected raptor crime incidents to the SSPCA and RSPB? If we do as the protocol says and just report the incident to the police, who is going to follow up and ensure that the case is properly investigated? Who’s going to keep us, the general public, informed of raptor crime incidents? If the incident is reported solely to the police, who’s to know about an incident if the police decide to suppress it from the public arena? It doesn’t take much imagination to guess at who would benefit from such a protocol.

It is our strongly-held view that ALL incidents of suspected raptor crime should be reported to the RSPB Investigations Unit. If  the police need to be involved then the RSPB will contact them, or you can contact them yourself in addition to contacting the RSPB. If a live animal is involved, the first port of call should be the SSPCA. In our opinion it is vital that these agencies are not excluded from the reporting process – just think about the long list of raptor persecution incidents that the RSPB publishes each year in their annual report – nobody else publishes these because it isn’t in their interests to do so!

RSPB Scotland Investigations Unit: 0131 317 4100

SSPCA 24-hour animal welfare hot-line: 03000 999 999

The second recently-published protocol provides guidance for people who are actively involved in raptor satellite-tracking projects in Scotland. You can read the protocol here.

This one’s amazing. The protocol is, if the signal from your satellite-tagged bird has either ceased or is transmitting from the same area for more than 24 hours, you are to contact the National Wildlife Crime Unit (presumably for ‘intelligence’ on the given area). If you think the circumstances are not suspicious you should contact the landowner and then go looking for the bird. The problem with this is two-fold.

Firstly, what is defined as ‘suspicious’? Surely, any ‘downed’ bird on a piece of land that is used for game shooting must be considered suspicious until proven otherwise? In which case, the landowner should not be informed until a covert search for the downed bird has taken place.

Secondly, just how good is the NWCU’s ‘intelligence’? In a recent NWCU report (NWCU Strategic Assessment, Feb 2011) the following statement appears in the section about peregrine persecution:

Almost half of these reports originated from the RSPB but were not reported by the police force the offence occured in“.

Christ, if that’s not reason enough to persuade you to report raptor crimes to the RSPB then nothing is!

We don’t know how good the NWCU’s intelligence is. Based on the killing of that golden eagle mentioned above, and the subsequent ‘investigation’, you could argue that their intelligence is rubbish. The history of the area, in terms of dead raptors being found in suspicious circumstances, should have been an instant trigger to set off a request for a search warrant. We still have not been given a satisfactory explanation as to why a search warrant was not requested.

The protocol goes on to explain how any media publicity will be handled after the police investigation. Basically, the police ‘may choose’ to issue a press statement. That means they probably won’t say anything at all or if they do, they undoubtedly won’t mention any estate names. The NWCU will advise the satellite-trackers, and also several nominated groups from the SRPPDG (Scottish Government, BASC and Scottish Land & Estates!!!!!!!). The protocol ends with this:

There should be no further public comment on the finding“.

What? So it all gets quietly brushed under the carpet, none of us are any the wiser and the game-shooting lobby can continue to claim that they’ve all cleaned up their acts and with no evidence to the contrary they should now be allowed licences to legally cull raptors?

Ah, partnership working at its finest.

Countryside Alliance nicked our text!

Well, well, well. Take a look at the Countryside Alliance’s website (see photos below) – they’ve only gone and nicked our text on the Lochindorb trial verdict, without acknowledging us as the authors!! They’ve even got ‘Copyright © Countryside Alliance’ at the foot of the page!

Seems like a breach of copyright to us, not dissimilar to the claims made by BASC last year when a video produced by the League Against Cruel Sports had to be removed as they’d included BASC footage, without permission for use (see here). The shooting press called that an ’embarrassing blunder’.

Here’s a message to the Countryside Alliance – either acknowledge where you lifted the text from, or remove it from your site. We’re flattered that you should think our blog is worthy of replication but we do not want anyone to think that we write for a shit outfit like yours.

UPDATE (17.00hrs). ‘Embarrassing blunder’ all sorted – our text now mashed up with their own.



Implications of the Lochindorb hare snare verdict

mountain hare by Steve GardnerThe almost four-year long Lochindorb Estate hare snare trial concluded today at Inverness Sheriff Court. The accused, former head gamekeeper and long-time SGA committee member David Taylor was found not guilty of illegally using snares to catch mountain hares on the Lochindorb Estate in 2009.

This has been a lengthy and complex case, seen by many as an important ‘test’ case. For previous blog entries see here, here, here, here, here and here.

The ‘not guilty’ verdict, however, only applies to the particular circumstances of this specific case. On this occasion, at that specific location and at that specific time, the evidence was deemed insufficient to merit a conviction. Sheriff Abercrombie accepted that Taylor was operating within the law and in good faith. This verdict though, does not mean that a future case with a different set of specific circumstances, could not result in a conviction. The verdict does NOT mean that it is legal to snare mountain hares in general terms; only within the terms of this particular case.

One of the key issues was whether a snare could be described as a ‘trap’. The prosecution said yes, the defence argued no. Sheriff Abercrombie deemed that a snare could be described as a trap. This is important for future potential cases.

The defence had also argued that the snares in question (the w-shaped snare) were selective; i.e. that they only caught the target species. Several gamekeepers spoke as defence witnesses and stated that in all their (combined) years of snaring, they’d never caught a non-target species using this snare-type. Whether you believe that or not is up to you – the fact of the matter was that the prosecution could not provide evidence to show that the w-shaped snare was indiscriminate. This should hopefully be a moot point in future cases as the use of the w-shaped snare to trap mountain hares has since become prohibited. Under the Snares Scotland Order (2010), it is no longer legal to use a snare in a way that an animal could become partially or wholly suspended.

The other important issue highlighted by this case was the lack of current scientific understanding of mountain hare population ecology in Scotland. We hope SNH will get their act together and implement an appropriate research and monitoring strategy for what many believe is a keystone species; i.e. one that plays an important role in the survival of other species such as the golden eagle and probably the pine marten.

BBC news article here

SGA statement here

Defence agent’s statement here

Gamekeeper charged with six offences

North Yorkshire police logoaA gamekeeper from Pickering, North Yorkshire, has been charged with six offences for the illegal use of cage traps to capture a buzzard.

This is the gamekeeper whose arrest was reported last October (see here). He has still not been named, and nor has the estate/shoot where the alleged offences took place. It is not yet known whether he is a member of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation.

He has been charged with six offences under the Wildlife & Countryside Act and the Animal Welfare Act. He has been bailed to attend Scarborough Magistrates court next month. Article in the Ryedale Gazette & Herald here.

In other court news, the long-awaited verdict in the Lochindorb Estate hare snare trial is due tomorrow…..

Purdey Awards to tighten their vetting procedures

purdey_logoThis is topical, given how we were just blogging about the need for strong leadership and zero tolerance…

In December we blogged about the results of the 2012 Purdey Awards (see here). These awards are held in high esteem by the game-shooting industry, recognising ‘those who achieve most in game conservation’ (Purdey Awards website here). We questioned whether one of the 2012 award winners was a suitable recipient, as we believed he may have been connected to a gamekeeper who was recently convicted for wildlife offences relating to raptor persecution. [As it turns out our suspicions were correct, but the gamekeeper was apparently sacked once his offences had come to light].

In response to that blog entry, one of our contributors contacted the Purdey Awards to ask them about the eligibility rules for Purdey Award nominees.

Yesterday, that contributor sent us the letter that he had received in reply from Richard Purdey: Purdey Reply

It is well worth a read. It’s impressive on a number of fronts. First, that he bothered to engage at all. Second, that he instigated an internal investigation into the alleged connection between the award winner and the criminal gamekeeper. Third, that he has now decided to strengthen the vetting procedures for potential Purdey Award winners, which will come into force with immediate effect. And fourth, that he kept our contributor fully updated with a comprehensive response to the questions that had been raised.

Well done Richard Purdey. He sounds like a man of integrity and sincerity. Time will tell when the 2013 winners are announced but we hope he is a man of his word. We also hope that others within the industry follow his lead and start to demonstrate that they, too, are willing to discern between the good and the bad. It will take a lot to restore the confidence of conservationists but this is a damn good start.

Also well done to the contributor who took the time to contact the Purdey Awards. An excellent example of how one person CAN make a difference, and in this case, have a significant influence. Nice one.

Eagle persecution featured on the One Show

One-Show-smallYesterday evening, the BBC’s One Show ran a feature on golden eagle satellite-tracking in Scotland, featuring two legendary raptor fieldworkers from the RSPB, Stuart Benn and Brian Etheridge.

Thanks to these two, the message about illegal raptor persecution was heard by a mainstream tv audience (an estimated 5 million viewers) both during the film (when they were sat-tagging an eaglet) and then again when Stuart was interviewed in the studio.

Two top blokes doing a top, top job. Well done!

For anyone who missed it, catch it on BBC iPlayer here (20.37 min – 28.41 min) for a limited period.

Here is a link to Stuart’s blog about the filming day last summer.

National Wildlife Crime Unit – worthy of more funding?

NWCUThere has been a lot of media attention in recent weeks over the issue of whether the UK government would provide continued funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU). Journalists, bloggers, campaigners, concerned members of the public…all wrote in support of the unit and such was the strength of feeling that even a petition was started to lobby the government into committing to another round of funding.

We wonder how many of those lobbyists were campaigning on the principle alone, or perhaps just because of the unit’s name, without actually knowing whether the NWCU is effective or whether it’s actually a drain on scarce resources that could be better utilised elsewhere? Many people argued that by dragging their heels on the funding decision, the government was sending a clear message to the wildlife criminals: ‘Wildlife crime isn’t a priority for us so go ahead, fill your boots, we don’t care what you do’. The sentiment of the campaigners is one with which it’s easy to sympathise. Nobody wants to see the government send out that sort of message, whether intentionally or not. But the big question, for us at least, is whether the NWCU is actually delivering and therefore worthy of more funding.

This questions is asked from the standpoint of raptor persecution alone. We are well aware that the NWCU has a much wider remit than just this one issue – for example it is well-documented that NWCU has worked well on international projects aimed at targeting the international wildlife trade. Perhaps that alone is worthy of more funding – the wildlife trade is horrific, incredibly damaging, and deserves our full attention.  However, the NWCU is also tasked with addressing wildlife crime in the UK, and particularly five currently recognised UK-specific priorities: Badger persecution, Bat persecution, Freshwater Pearl Mussels, Poaching, and Raptor Persecution. We do not have the expertise to be able to assess their delivery on four of these priorities, but we can try to evaluate their delivery on raptor persecution.

So, what has the NWCU acheived, in terms of addressing raptor persecution, since the unit was first established in 2006? Well, it’s very hard to tell. If you go to their website (here), you’ll be disappointed to see that it is still not functioning. It has been ‘under construction’ for several years now. The next-best information outlet would be their annual report.  However, the last one published (that we’ve been able to find) relates to 2010. This isn’t helpful if you’re looking for information on their recent activities.

So what is it they do, exactly, in relation to addressing raptor persecution? Two of their staff gave presentations about their work at last year’s wildlife crime conference (here and here).

We also know that they’re quite big on ‘paperwork’ crime, particularly in relation to captive birds of prey, e.g. the bird is unregistered or has been stolen from the wild. That’s good work, and it’s important work, but it isn’t the main issue in terms of addressing raptor persecution.

We know that they also participate in the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group – another one of those ‘partnership working’ initiatives that includes many ‘partners’ that really don’t like raptors. This group has been going for several years and has just, in the last week, produced its first output. (This relates to reporting raptor persecution incidents and we’ll be blogging about that shortly). Not quite what you could call a productive initiative, although that’s hardly the fault of the NWCU.

What else do they do? If you look in the 2010 annual report (here) under the heading of Conservation and Prevention Work, sub-heading ‘raptor persecution priority delivery group’ (p.13), you’ll see they only list one output. This relates to the annual persecution maps produced to highlight raptor persecution hotspots. What they don’t say is that the RSPB have been producing these maps, on their own, for years. Now they’ve just been hijacked by several groups (PAW Scotland included) who seem to want to take credit for the work.

So is that the extent of their acheivements? We look forward to seeing the latest annual reports covering the years 2011 and 2012 to see what else they’ve been up to, and hopefully the list of activities will be a bit longer.

Actually, they have, allegedly, done one other thing. We have it on very good authority that the NWCU has spent valuable time and resources trying to find out who is behind this blog. Why would they do that? Are we wildlife criminals? Do we poison raptors? Do we go hare coursing? Are we badger baiters? Are we pulling the wings off bats? Are we selling ivory? Trading illegal egg collections? No, we don’t do any of these things. So why is the National Wildlife Crime Unit wasting tax-payers money on trying to find out the identity of some perfectly lawful bloggers? More to the point, who put them up to it, and what were they planning to do with the information had they been able to get it? We know that at least one NWCU staff member has what we’d call a ‘very close relationship’ with the game-shooting lobby…

This blog entry is getting a bit depressing, but that wasn’t the intention. We really would like to see the NWCU succeed and have a major impact on raptor persecution crimes in the UK. Have they done that yet? In our opinion, no, although as already mentioned, it is hard to evaluate their effectiveness when there’s so little information being made available about their work.

Today it was announced that the UK government has agreed to continue the NWCU’s funding for another year (see here). We actually welcome that news, not just because it sends a message to the wildlife criminals, but also because it gives the NWCU another 12 months to prove the doubters (including us) wrong. It’s a shame that the funding is only for one year though – as the RSPB say in their press release (here), the NWCU really needs long-term funding so that a strategic approach can be undertaken. Nevertheless, we hope they put the funding they have got to good use.

Strong leadership and zero tolerance required

Zero-toleranceThere’s been quite a reaction to the strong words of condemnation provided by the National Association of Regional Game Councils (NARGC) in response to the recent shooting of a buzzard in Ireland.

For anyone who missed it, here is the story and here is what Des Crofton, Director of NARGC had to say:

“The shooting of birds of prey, who are all protected, can only be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The person who shot this bird is not fit to have a firearm. I would urge the authorities, if the person is identified, that they are prosecuted, have their firearm licence revoked and never allowed have one again. This is inexcusable. If I ever found one of my members was responsible for something like this, he would be out of the association so fast his feet wouldn’t touch the ground”.

Have we seen the same level of leadership from the equivalent groups in Scotland when raptor persecution incidents hit the news? If only. To be fair, sometimes there will be a public statement of condemnation, but more often than not there’s either silence, or an attempt to deflect the blame, usually onto the RSPB who have been consistently accused of stashing raptor carcasses in freezers and then wheeling them out and ‘planting’ them on various estates up and down the country as some sort of elaborate plot to ‘frame’ the estates!

The Scottish (and English for that matter) game-shooting industry would do well to follow the example of Des Crofton. He left no room for misinterpretation. The NARGC is clearly operating a zero tolerance policy and that’s what we should all expect from the Scottish and English counterparts, as a bare minimum.

There will be those within the game-shooting industry who claim that they ARE working against raptor crime. They’ll cite their membership on various ‘partnership working’ initiatives such as PAW Scotland and the Environment Council’s Hen Harrier Dialogue process. That’s all fine and good for what it’s worth (which so far is very little – the persecution continues), but when you examine their activities outwith these groups, it begins to look more and more like they’re just paying lip-service to it all.

For example, if you were a leader within the game-shooting lobby and you had a serious intent to crack down on raptor persecution, would you want your organisation to attend an industry-related event on an estate with a shocking record of raptor persecution? Would you accept raffle prizes from estates with a known track record for persistent illegal raptor persecution? Would you list notoriously bad estates in a Top 20 of ‘great shoots’? Would you run ‘best practice’ training courses on estates with a long history of raptor persecution? Would you give a ‘prestigious’ industry-award to an estate with a history of raptor persecution? Would you accept sponsorship from a company owned by someone who also owns a notoriously bad estate? Would you have the owner of an estate with a 20+ year history of raptor persecution on your governing Board?

No, you wouldn’t. Not if you were serious about eliminating raptor crime. You’d blacklist them as soon as there was the faintest whiff of criminality. You’d distance yourself from them at every opportunity. If you were serious.

These ‘leaders’ need to stop legitimising the criminals. Only by doing so will we believe that their intentions are credible. If the industry itself doesn’t distinguish between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, why the hell should we?

Buzzard shot in the Irish Republic

common buzzardMany thanks to the contributor who sent us the following article from the Leinster Express (dated 15 January 2013).

Take note of the strong words of condemnation from the Director of the National Association of Regional Game Councils.

Bird of prey dies after shooting

A protected bird of prey was shot and left for dead on New Years Eve near Ballacolla. The female common buzzard, believed to be one of a mating pair in the area, was rescued and treated, but so badly wounded it had to be later put to sleep.

The buzzard was initially brought to Dan Donoher, wildlife rehabilitator with Kildare Animal Foundation on New Years Day.

We got a call from the man who had found the bird injured in the Ballacolla Abbeyleix area. When he arrived up with it, the buzzard was cold and starving, so we put it into a special incubator, gave it fluids and painkillers and bandaged its wing. We thought maybe a car had hit it, or it had hit off wires. We took it to the vet the next day who x-rayed the wing, and found it had been shot with a shotgun. It had to be euthanized, because the damage was too great. It was upsetting to think someone would do this on purpose, buzzards are beautiful birds”, said Dan.

He said buzzards are not a threat to farm animals or humans. “They usually go for carrion or roadkill. This bird was probably one of a breeding pair, they are ony making a comeback”, he said.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service are investigating the shooting. Noel Bugler, conservation manager is appealing to the public for any information.

We are very concerned, this bird is a protected species and it is against the law to shoot it. It was gone from Ireland but came back after the practice of laying poison was banned twenty years ago. It normally feeds on carrion, rats or birds, it is harmless, it has got its place in Irish wildlife”, he said.

The NPWS have informed the Gardai about the incident. If traced, the person responsible for shooting the buzzard could face a fine from €1,000 if it is a first time offence, up to €5,000, under the Wildlife Act.

There is a higher fine for this because birds of prey need more protection”, said Mr Bugler.

The crime has been strongly condemned by the National Association of Regional Game Councils, who promote hunting, game preservation and conservation.

The shooting of birds of prey, who are all protected, can only be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The person who shot this bird is not fit to have a firearm. I would urge the authorities, if the person is identified, that they are prosecuted, have their firearm licence revoked and never allowed have one again. This is inexcusable. If I ever found one of my members was responsible for something like this, he would be out of the association so fast his feet wouldn’t touch the ground”, said Des Crofton, Director of the NARGC.

To help [people are] asked to contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service on 057 9137811.