New wildlife crime reporting app launched

PAW crime app screen 2A new smartphone app has been launched by PAW Scotland to help the general public to record and report suspected wildlife crime in Scotland.

Using the free app, the public can complete an on-screen reporting form and can upload scenes of crime photos that are automatically tagged with a GPS reference. This information is then sent directly to Police Scotland via email.

The app was the brainchild of former Police Wildlife Crime Education Officer, Andy Turner, who is now employed as Wildlife Crime Officer for SNH. Here is a short video of Andy explaining how to report wildlife crime and his introduction to the new app.

The government has issued a press release about the new app here.

It is good to see anything that raises awareness of wildlife crime in Scotland, although just how effective this new app will be remains to be seen; rural mobile phone coverage is not brilliant in large parts of Scotland – will this app work if you’re standing on a remote grouse moor looking at a poisoned eagle?

There are other concerns, too. Comments made in the government’s press release suggest that the reporting of wildlife crime is a problem in Scotland. That is simply not the case. Many people are reporting suspected incidents – it’s the police follow-up that is lacking in many areas. Not everywhere – there are some excellent Police Wildlife Crime Officers who can be relied upon to follow up every single reported incident – but it’s a bit of a lottery – if you happen to be in an area where (a) there isn’t a Police WCO or (b) there is a Police WCO but they are unreliable, then reporting an incident via this app won’t make a blind bit of difference.

A more serious concern as far as we’re concerned is the exclusion of other investigatory agencies. In his video, Andy makes a point of saying that Police Scotland is the investigatory agency for wildlife crime – and blatantly ignores the statutory reporting status of the SSPCA. This app will not forward reported incident details to other investigatory agencies such as the SSPCA or the RSPB – the information just goes directly to Police Scotland. That is certainly not ideal. By excluding the other agencies, there won’t be anybody to follow up / chase up Police Scotland to ensure that the incident is actually being investigated. As we’ve seen time and time again, when Police Scotland are left to their own devices then many reported incidents just get buried /hidden / unpublicised / forgotten.

We would encourage anybody who is reporting a suspected wildlife crime to the police, either using the app or not, to also notify at least one of these two agencies at the same time (if not before!) –

RSPB Scotland Investigations: 0131-317-4100

SSPCA 24hr hotline: 03000-999-999

If you haven’t already added these numbers to your phone, now is the time to do it.

Whilst Andy Turner deserves credit for helping to raise awareness at least, we doubt very much whether the use of this new app will improve prosecution or conviction rates. Do you think we would have seen a prosecution or conviction for the Leadhills poison baits had the incident been reported via this app? Of course not! Although had the poisoned baits been reported via this app we the general public would still be very much in the dark about that crime because Police Scotland have refused to issue a press statement about it, eight months after the discovery. If they are being provided exclusive information via this app then we can expect to see much more of the same. That, for us, is unacceptable.

No prosecution for poisoned baits found on Leadhills Estate?

leadhills estateEight months ago (March), a significant haul of pre-prepared poisoned baits was discovered on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire. The baits comprised chopped up pieces of rabbit, liberally sprinkled with the banned poison Carbofuran, that had been placed inside two gamebags that had been hidden inside a wood next to a grouse moor.

The discovery was made by fieldworkers from Project Raptor and they duly reported their finding to the police. We waited for a press release and an appeal for information from the police but nothing came, so three months later (June) we blogged about it (here) because, unlike the police, we considered it a newsworthy item in the public interest, as apparently did BBC Scotland (here).

Recently, an update on the police investigation appeared on Project Raptor’s website:

24th October 2013. Project Raptor have contacted South Lanarkshire police and they have now informed us that evidence gathered from the two game bags has come back negative. This means that unless further evidence comes their way then this case is just another in a long line of wildlife crimes that have taken place within the Leadhills area over the years that will never be solved”.  See here for full update.

When Project Raptor says that ‘evidence gathered from the two gamebags has come back negative‘ they do not mean that the analysis of the poison came back negative – SASA has already confirmed the poison found on those baits was Carbofuran and they included the incident in their quarterly report on poisoning incidents. Rather, what we think Project Raptor is referring to is that any fingerprint or DNA testing that might have been done on the two gamebags has come back negative.

This means that there is no evidential link between the two gamebags and any individual person and therefore it is not possible to charge anyone for committing an offence in relation to these items.

This case is an excellent example of just how difficult it is to bring illegal poisoners to justice. It’s not the fault of the police that there isn’t enough evidence, although to be frank they are not blameless in this particular situation – had they had the foresight and interest to install a covert camera overlooking the site where the poisoned baits had been found they may well have caught the criminal(s) in the act of retrieving the bait or even adding more bait to the secret stash. They could (should) also have conducted a thorough search of the surrounding area, particularly the adjacent grouse moor, to see whether any of the baits had already been placed out on the hill. Given that one of the bags was full (of bait) and the other bag was only half-full, this would have been a reasonable assumption, especially given the reported history of poisoned baits being found on this estate (see here). Instead, the police decided to arrive on site in two marked police vehicles (thus alerting everybody to their presence and allowing any nearby criminal to hide any other incriminating evidence) and they quickly removed the gamebags and left the site without conducting a wider search. On top of all that, they still have not issued a press release about this case, giving us the impression that they’re just not all that bothered. At the very least they should be alerting the general public to the potential threat of people and their pets stumbling across what is a fatally toxic poison in a publicly-accessible area.

So is that it, then? Will the discovery of these baits (which we believe to be the biggest stash of pre-pared baits found since 32 poisoned baits were found on Glenogil Estate in 2008) just be conveniently ignored and everyone carries on as usual? For certain, these baits will not feature in any ‘official’ raptor persecution statistics because, as we were recently told by the Environment Minister’s office, where poisoned baits have been discovered but ‘no raptors were involved’ they cannot be listed as a raptor persecution incident. We don’t actually know whether ‘no raptors were involved’ at Leadhills because the police didn’t conduct a search to look for poisoned carcasses!

It looks certain that no action will be / can be brought in the criminal courts. But what about other types of action?

There’s the possibility of civil action – we will wait to see whether any single farm payments are withdrawn from Leadhills Estate by the Scottish Executive (as they were from Glenogil Estate in 2008 – see here) although we suspect any such action would be strongly challenged by the estate precisely because there is no evidential link between the baits and any employee of Leadhills Estate.

Great, isn’t it?

Is there any other type of action? Well, yes, there is. What we would really like to see is action taken by Scottish Land and Estates, the representative body of Scottish landowners. The only response we saw from SLE about the discovery of the poisoned baits on Leadhills Estate was a false accusation levelled at this blog for reporting the incident! (see here).

Doug_McAdam from Moorland ForumInterestingly, in a comment made on Mark Avery’s blog today, SLE Chief Executive Doug McAdam claims, “…..a range of partners, Scottish Land and Estates included, invest a significant amount of time and resource into working with and through PAW Scotland to help achieve this [eradication of golden eagle persecution], not just for golden eagles though, but all wildlife crime” (see here for his full comment).

So what, exactly, has SLE done about the continuing issue of alleged and confirmed illegal raptor persecution on Leadhills Estate? We’ve asked this time and time again but the question is just met with silence every time.

We’re not sure that Leadhills Estate is a member of SLE, although given that the owner of Leadhills Estate (Lord Hopetoun) also just happens to be a Board member of SLE, it would be quite strange if Leadhills Estate wasn’t an SLE member. Why doesn’t SLE publicly condemn the crimes that are alleged and confirmed at Leadhills Estate? If Leadhills Estate is an SLE member, why hasn’t SLE kicked them out, just as they did with Glasserton Estate earlier this year following the conviction of their gamekeeper (see here). McAdam may argue that nothing has been proven at Leadhills in relation to the latest discovery (in terms of a legal evidential link) and that would be accurate, but there is a long, long, long, long list of alleged and confirmed incidents from this estate, dating back decades (see here), several of which have resulted in criminal convictions.

It seems to us that SLE is repeatedly turning a blind eye to reported activities on this estate that the rest of us can see very clearly. Why would they do that if they’re so keen to eradicate raptor persecution?

So long, Sheriff Drummond

DrummondOne of the most influential figures in the world of Scottish wildlife crime enforcement, and particularly in relation to raptor persecution, has finally retired. There are some who will be delighted with this news, others not so much.

Sheriff Kevin Drummond QC left office this week after 13 years in the Sheriff courts of the Scottish Borders. In addition, he’d played a significant role on various PAW Scotland committees, including Chair of the Legislation, Regulation and Guidance Sub Group (see here), and was a member of the high-level PAW Scotland Executive Group (see here). He was also heavily involved in the provision of ‘mock trials’ as part of a training programme for police wildlife crime officers and procurators fiscal to help prepare them for dealing with wildlife crime trials. Prior to being appointed Sheriff, he had worked as a leading defence QC whose clients included gamekeepers accused of wildlife crimes. His own reported hobbies include shooting and fishing (see here).

An article in the Selkirk Advertiser reporting his retirement (see here) describes the Sheriff as ‘well-respected’, ‘fair and consistent’ and ‘kind and approachable’. We’d agree with ‘consistent’ at least. In a number of cases over which Sheriff Drummond presided around 2006-2007 there was opportunity to sentence the convicted gamekeepers in his court to jail time – a provision that had at the time been recently introduced in an attempt to crack down on raptor persecution. Disappointingly, Sheriff Drummond decided that community service orders were adequate punishments for these convicted poisoners, including one case that had been described by one RSPB investigator as ‘the worst he had seen in 20 years’. This reluctance to send convicted poisoners to jail is still very much in evidence in Sheriff courts right across Scotland – there still hasn’t been a single one.

Sheriff Drummond held strong views against the introduction of vicarious liability – his visibly agitated performance in front of the WANE bill committee in 2010 was quite a display – and he also strongly opposed the concept of increasing the investigatory powers of SSPCA inspectors to allow them to take on raptor persecution cases (e.g. see here).

There were calls for the Sheriff’s dismissal from the PAW Scotland group following another of his outbursts at the Police Wildlife Crime Conference in 2010 when a wildlife investigator asked whether there should be tougher sentences for wildlife criminals. Sheriff Drummond’s reported response, “Get a life“, was met with ‘shock and bewilderment’ by conference delegates but was later defended by then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham (see here).

Many years earlier RSPB Investigator Dave Dick also found himself on the receiving end of one of the Sheriff’s seemingly characteristic tantrums. Here’s an excerpt from Dave’s 2012 book, Wildlife Crime: The Making of an Investigations Officer:

Thursday 20 June 1991. Jedburgh Sheriff Court and Jimmy [a gamekeeper] has got himself a QC – or more correctly, Jimmy’s boss, a wealthy Austrian banker, has got Jimmy a QC. Kevin Drummond, QC, who walks into the Fiscal’s office just before the trial is due to start, where I am having a last-minute conference as was the normal, efficient practice by 1991. Kevin announces that he is going to win this case because Section 19 of the 1981 Act does not permit a constable to enter land and search for evidence. The Fiscal may have been used to this robust, even arrogant approach but I wasn’t and in my naivety, combined with experience of Section 19 in court, I blurted out, “Do you really think that’s what Parliament thought, when they drew this up?” The resulting angry out-burst (‘You may be very good at what you do out there, Mr Dick, but in here, I’m in charge!’) was my first sight of an apparent lack of control which I have since witnessed many times“.

It is without question that Sheriff Drummond has had considerable influence on the approach taken to tackling wildlife crime in Scotland, at both a strategic governmental level as well as on the front-line level in court. That influence has been welcomed by some, while exasperating others.

Today is his 70th birthday and we wish him a long and enjoyable retirement – here’s hoping he doesn’t ‘do a Dysart‘ – we’re all hoping for the start of a new era.

Golden eagle voted nation’s ‘favourite’ wild animal

The golden eagle has taken pole position in a vote to identify the nation’s favourite wild animal. The poll was organised by SNH and VisitScotland to highlight the Year of Natural Scotland and included the so-called ‘Big 5’ species: golden eagle, red squirrel, red deer, harbour seal and otter. The golden eagle won by a landslide majority (see here).

But so what? Will winning this poll make any difference to the number of illegally poisoned, illegally shot or illegally trapped golden eagles that keep turning up on Scottish grouse moors? Or any difference to those young satellite-tagged golden eagles that keep mysteriously ‘disappearing’ over Scottish grouse moors? Or any difference to the number of grouse moor gamekeepers and grouse moor estate owners that are never prosecuted for killing our favourite species?

Here’s a link to all the blog entries we’ve written about golden eagle persecution in Scotland – a fairly comprehensive overview of how appallingly our favourite species is treated by those who won’t tolerate it on their moors and by those who are supposed to be protecting it.

Here’s a photo of the golden eagle that was found shot and critically injured on a grouse moor in southern Scotland last year. Despite top veterinary care, he didn’t make it. This is what we’re allowing to happen to our ‘favourite’ species…

optable

Persecution case dropped as alleged raptor killer dies

Barn Owl Miles HerbertLast month we blogged about Robert Simpson, a 66-year-old from Cleghorn in South Lanarkshire who was facing three charges of alleged wildlife crime, including the illegal trapping and killing of a barn owl. His case was continued without plea for four weeks as he was considered too unwell to attend court (see here).

His case was due to re-start at Lanark Sheriff Court yesterday (31st Oct). However, a local reporter has informed us the Fiscal did not call the case yesterday as Mr Simpson has died.

Barn owl photo by Miles Herbert.

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