What we learned from today’s Parliamentary debate on raptor persecution

ScottishParliamentChamberEarlier today there was a debate in the Scottish Parliamentary Chamber about eradicating raptor persecution from Scotland. The debate stemmed from a motion lodged by Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse (see here for details of that motion and several suggested amendments).

We very much welcome the Environment Minister’s action of bringing this topic to the attention of Parliament, although given the recent foul catalogue of current crimes against raptors, and the enormous public response to these on-going crimes, he had to be seen to be doing something.

The debate lasted for an hour and twenty minutes, beginning with an opening address from the Minister during which he expressed his “anger, revulsion and utter frustration” that these crimes continue in 21st Century Scotland. He ran through a list of previous measures brought in since 2007, some of which are still to be fully implemented. He said he understood the calls from some quarters for further measures to be introduced now, but insisted that more time was needed to allow these measures to take effect. Here’s one quote that we’ll be reminding him of in due course when we see the next inevitable incident, and the next, and the next:

If and when we judge it necessary, I am committed to taking further action. If that involves licensing certain types of businesses, then we will do so“.

He’s made this commitment before, on many occasions, and there are only so many times that he can make such a commitment before he will be forced to actually follow up his words with action.

During his opening speech he was questioned by Liam McArthur MSP about the alleged police response to the poisoned peregrine incident at Leadhills (see here for info on that incident). The Minister’s response:

We do believe proper procedures were followed“.

Really? How interesting. We look forward to reading the full written response that is now due about this incident following the emails that were sent to him by RPS blog readers in early April. [Incidentally, we haven’t yet received a response – if anyone else has, we’d be interested in reading it]. We’ll also be paying close attention to his written answers to the parliamentary questions that were raised about this issue by Claire Baker MSP and Liam McArthur MSP.

One significant point he made was that proceedings have commenced in the first vicarious liability case at Stranraer Sheriff Court. We believe this case relates to the Glasserton & Physgill Estates buzzard poisoning case in June last year, where gamekeeper and SGA member Peter Bell was convicted of several poisoning offences (see here). The news that this vicarious liability prosecution is going ahead is excellent news and we await the outcome with great interest.

There were a number of other MSPs who spoke during this debate, with many of them being strongly supportive of the consultation to increase the SSPCA’s investigatory powers, and a number of them expressing concerns about the ability of Police Scotland to prioritise wildlife crime.  Dennis Robertson MSP demonstrated a refreshingly sceptical view of the SGA and their claimed attempts to eradicate raptor persecution.

Talking of the SGA, their parliamentary cheerleader, Jamie McGrigor MSP, gave a rousing but wholly irrelevant speech about the SGA’s Year of the Wader project, and mentioned the SGA’s briefing document for today’s debate in which they apparently call for an investigation into the cause of wildlife crime, i.e. the old ‘too many’ raptors routine. Perhaps they mis-read the title of today’s debate as ‘Eradicating Raptors from Scotland’. At one point, Mr McGrigor announced:

Wildlife crime is being perpetrated by a very few individuals, rather than any sector of the Scottish countryside“.

Oh dear. He clearly needs to go back and look at the statistics of where the majority of raptor persecution incidents take place [on land managed for game-shooting] and the occupation/interests of the majority of those convicted for these crimes [gamekeepers].

Mr McGrigor also gave a surprising commentary on the possible cause of the Ross-shire Massacre, in which he suggested that the “hand-fed” (?!!) red kites at Tollie Red Kite feeding station may have been fed contaminated food. He did admit this was based purely on rumour but we were surprised that such speculation on a live police investigation would be allowed during a parliamentary debate.

The Environment Minister ended the debate by saying that he was looking into a poisons amnesty. In our view, a total waste of time and effort – it’s been done before with little, if any, effect. Besides, some of these poisons (e.g. Carbofuran) have been banned since 2001 – that’s 13 years ago – how many more chances are these criminals going to be given to comply with the law? The one saving grace of an amnesty is the potential for anyone found to be in possession of poisons AFTER the amnesty has passed would then face a more severe penalty. That’d be good, if only we could believe that a severe penalty would be handed down. The Minister did mention that there is currently an academic review being undertaken to review the penalties for wildlife crimes and the authors of that review are expected to report in December this year.

Video footage of the debate is available here for about a month [starts at 1:29; ends at 2:49].

The official transcript of the debate can be read here: Minutes of debate: eradicating raptor persecution 6 May 2014

20 thoughts on “What we learned from today’s Parliamentary debate on raptor persecution”

  1. It was useful that the SG accepted Claire Baker’s amendment for Scottish Labour about examining the experience of other countries in licensing or issuing permits for hunting, Reference was made several times to Peter Peacock’s attempt to amend the WANE bill to provide for grouse moor licensing and there seemed to be more support among MSPs for licensing now. That would be a step forward, even for the worst of reasons – persistent misconduct.

  2. I received this response from SNH, don’t know if it helps:

    Dear Mr. Tyler

    As Scottish Natural Heritage’s Licensing Manager I was passed your e-mail to our Chief Executive regarding the dead peregrine found near to the boundary of Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire. Scottish Natural Heritage condemns any form of wildlife crime and we support and work closely with those involved in investigation of offences and enforcement of the law. We are appalled at the continued persecution of raptors.

    As you may know, as part of a package of measures to help combat raptor crime in particular we have been asked by the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change to examine how and in what circumstances we could restrict the use of General Licences where we have good reason to believe crimes against wild birds have taken place. We have been working with the Police and others to develop a mechanism to deliver this that is workable but also legally robust in the event of challenge. This will be presented for the Minister’s consideration shortly. If approved we would intend to use any evidence gathered by the Police since the 1st January this year in order to inform any decision about implementing a restriction – this would include the incident you refer to in your email.

    Kind regards

    Ben Ross
    Licensing Manager
    Scottish Natural Heritage
    Tel: 01463 725245
    Mob: 07717413478

    For standard Licensing queries phone 01463 725364

  3. The most used phrase was ‘the few individuals’ who carry out these crimes and failed to stress the hierarchy of modern shooting estate management where a very rich owner delegates ownership to his off-shore company that employs a factor who dictates to the head-keeper who then dictates to the under-keeper who then tells a teenage probationary keeper what to do; the long arm of the law has therefore no chance to define the guilty party.

    It is obvious from listening to this that most of them rarely communicate with shooting estates or the workers on the land and have a hearsay policy of repeating the usual utterances and fail to realise that many shooting estates are laws unto themselves in remote rural communities. I think I am correct in saying that grouse shooting and its link to persecution was not mentioned once.

    For example, only yesterday we hosted a talk about Glen Esk in Angus at the museum by a local couple who have lived in the glen all their lives and had seen many changes in the community there, which is mainly involved in sport shooting. Our speaker was livid that one well known estates (well known for raptor persecution and grouse ‘farming’) had recently barricaded a frequently used footbridge, built hundreds of years ago, with spiked railings and razor wire on their march side. No consultation with the farmer, locals and hill-walkers who use it was undertaken and this is typical of the self declared, independent state that this estate owner has granted upon himself and effectively his staff; who by the way have to isolate themselves from the local community by signing a no-talk contract and live in a job tied property with the threat of eviction if things are not done to the hierarchy’s satisfaction. This has led to a high turnover of untraceable and unscrupulous young ‘keepers’ who are used, then dumped and therefore the police are left bamboozled by the complexities of collating evidence in this chain of ‘whodunnit in absentia’ carried out on what is really a feudal estate managed to Mafia standards.

    1. Grouse shooting and its link to raptor persecution was mentioned by Graeme Dey MSP, who was citing figures from this blog about the death or ‘disappearance’ of 28 eagles being linked to grouse moors.

      You are right about how many times the phrase ‘a few individuals’ was used, by MSPs on all sides. The reality, of course, is somewhat different. It takes more than a ‘few individuals’ to cause population-level impacts on species such as golden eagles, hen harriers, peregrines, goshawks and red kites.

    2. If this bridge is a right of way, they could contact the Ramblers Society or the Scottish Rights of Way Society or both. They would fight something like this and possible get it into the news, the estate would not like that.

      1. It is not part of a right of way but a traditional crossing point that actually carries the village water supply pipe underneath. The local newspaper has been contacted and councillors.

        1. A landowner can not just close of access at a whim, they must behave responsibly. The Council will have an Access officer who has the power to order the opening of the route.

  4. The one really positive thing seems to be that the first vicarious liability case is going ahead. Not that this is any guarantee of progress in the final analysis, but it’s a welcome respite from having tons of legislation which is simply never used.

  5. As soon as Wheelhouse mentioned thanking PAWCS…you knew it was going to be the same old tripe. The entire system is not fit for purpose – the weakest points being the justice system and the civil service who advise government….The only reality here is this vicarious liability case – which of course will focus undue pressure on one case, which will no doubt be used by the defence agent..

    …Its worth reminding everyone that we have had a wording of law, making it an offence to “knowingly cause or permit” a person to commit crimes, such as wildlife poisoning [in the amended Wildlife and Countryside Act], for around two decades. I am not aware of any successful prosecutions under that Law, which was clearly aimed at shoot managers and owners. What that shows you, is the “closed ranks” culture that surrounds shooting estates and gamekeeping….No wonder that MSPs have no idea of what is really happening (unless of course they regularly read raptorpersecutionscotland).

  6. Hi

    In February 2009, a Golden Eagle was found poisoned in County Donegal, Ireland. The bird had been released in Ireland as part of the Irish Golden Eagle Reintroduction scheme. It had been collected, under a licence from the Scottish Government, from a nest in Scotland, as a young chick. The Irish project team are extremely grateful to all Scottish raptor workers and the Scottish Authorities for all their support, to date, with the Irish reintroduction programme.

    The Scottish Authorities invited the Irish project team to Edinburgh to discuss the circumstances around this single persecution event. It was quite legitimate for them to examine if the Irish project was fulfilling the Reintroduction criteria as laid down by the International IUCN reintroduction criteria. Some serious allegations had been made by the SGA in relation to the extent of poisoning in the Republic of Ireland. The SGA said they had concerns about the extent of poisoning in Ireland and the availability of poisons in the Republic of Ireland based on contacts they had with Irish residents!

    This review of the Irish project in 2009 was a worthwhile exercise and a clear example of the need for transparency in order to explore the murky context of illegal persecution. However, the SGA even went as far as to express their concern that the collection of ‘Irish’ donor stock was limiting or even reducing the Scottish Golden Eagle population. Raptor Persecution is still a threat to several Irish raptors, but at least the Scottish review added to the pressure on the Irish Authorities to examine its enforcement procedures. (All forms of poisoning of non rodents, under previous strict rules, were banned in October 2008 – so the February 2009 eagle poisoning incident in Ireland was definitely an illegal act.)

    From a distant perspective, the recent debate in the Scottish Parliament appears to be lacking in transparency. Surely the primary discussion should have been focussed on why Birds of Prey are being persecuted? Then one could focus on trying to minimise these causes (and also the more relevant perceptions that justify illegal activity). Only by openly discussing the actual reasons for persecution – and leaving aside all other distractions – can your elected representatives hope to find a lasting resolution.

    Poisoning laid out for foxes and crows, primarily by hill sheep farmers, was a traditional control method in Ireland. For several decades there were no carrion eating raptors in Ireland. We have had an open debate about that issue in Ireland and yet we still encounter numerous persecution incidents annually. The Scottish Authorities and a representative of the Scottish Government were fully entitled to request a forthright discussion on the poisoning situation in Ireland – where they were licensing the removal of Scottish Golden Eagle donor chicks for relocation.

    That cold clinical review of Ireland’s procedures in relation to wildlife crime, post mortems and enforcement has assisted in implementing better Irish procedures. Of course we need to and are trying to improve our persecution response and awareness continuously.

    However, it does seem ironic that during the recent debate, the Scottish MSPs failed to collectively explore and enquire about the real reasons for raptor persecution in Scotland. Clearly there are several well known views on the matter, across a wide spectrum of Rural Scotland. But your elected representatives need to follow the same rigorous enquires regarding Scottish persecution, as the Scottish Government carried out regarding Irish persecution, after repeated criticisms of Ireland by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

    Lorcán O Toole
    Golden Eagle Trust

    1. “The SGA said they had concerns about the extent of poisoning in Ireland and the availability of poisons in the Republic of Ireland based on contacts they had with Irish residents!”

      So the SGA had contacts in Ireland, and it is possible that those contacts held illegal poisons, or had a knowledge of the availability of illegal poisons. I wonder if the SGA, once they were in receipt of this information, alerted the police and other investigative organisations? If they did not, then surely that could be seen as condoning illegal activity?

  7. This parliamentary debate has got me thinking about the issue of raptor persecution in the context of the independence referendum, and whether the result of that vote will make a difference in any way. Of course at one level it should make no difference as the Scottish parliament currently has all the devolved power necessary to deal robustly with it. However, I think that a large part of the raptor persecution problem is closely linked to the fact that large parts of Scotland are essentially the private playground of very wealthy individuals, many of them at the very heart of the British establishment (see Andy Wightman’s recent blog article about the shady links). As a result, part of the solution must lie in effective land reform, and that is something that I think is more likely to be properly addressed if we are independent, rather than the current position where the likes of the House of Lords have influence on our legislation. There are no guarantees of course (depends on what sort of government we elect), but I doubt that many sporting estate owners will be voting yes.

    1. You are right, the referendum is a big can of worms…. my concern is that the SNP remains intact and in charge post yes vote. There are too many right wing nature haters in senior positions in the SNP. If it splits up and we have more traditional left and right politics – then we should get the type of government that will be willing to tackle the problem of rogue landowners……it would be up to us to make sure that it gets the attention and priority it deserves.

    2. I would be astonished to find that landowner’s tentacles of influence did not extend into all political parties and centres of power completely irrespective of who is in government and whatever constitutional setup exists. It has always been thus.

    1. Neither is the RSPB’s attitude to wind-farms. They recently withdrew any objections to the massive Nathro Hill wind-farm in Angus, even although it is a short distance away from an SPA for Golden Eagles and the CNP.

  8. Quite agree Dave, one half of the organisation doesn’t know what the other half is doing. They condemn the illegal persecution of eagles in an area & in the same area support developments which will legally slaughter them..

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