We didn’t know what to expect from the newly-appointed Environment Minister when she took on her role a little over a month ago. Dr Aileen McLeod’s political experience had been largely focused on European policy work, although she was clearly highly educated and we knew she’d be well advised by the wildlife crime policy officers in Holyrood. Nevertheless, it would inevitably take time for her to achieve the level of insight and knowledge of her predecessor, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, who had the benefit of two years in office and was beginning to achieve considerable momentum against the raptor killers, until he was pushed out to another department in the Cabinet reshuffle in November.
Obviously, the jury is still out on Dr McLeod’s effectiveness and we need to give her a bit of time to get her bearings, although we fully expect her to adopt the Government’s stated intolerance of wildlife crime and to do everything she can to ensure that the raptor killers are brought to justice.
Two recent statements show that she has a thoughtful and measured approach, although we have cause to question a few of her comments.
First off, she has responded to the concerns of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee, who wrote to her (see here) after taking evidence on wildlife crime from Police Scotland, COPFS and the former Environment Minister.
Here is her response: Environment Minister response to RACCE Committee Dec 2014
On the whole, her response is non-contentious and is pointing in the right direction, but she does say a couple of odd things. On the issue of the detection and prosecution of wildlife crime she says:
“Reported crime numbers also reflect not only public awareness of wildlife crime, but also confidence that there will be an appropriate response from the authorities. Police Scotland has worked hard to ensure that consistent structures and resources are in place throughout Scotland and we expect this to produce improved results in wildlife crime reporting“.
We haven’t seen any evidence of this, in fact the complete opposite. We would agree that Police Scotland has been consistent, but not in a good way; consistently poor responses to reports of wildlife crime (with a handful of exceptions) seems to have been the norm for a very long time.
On the subject of the absence of species potentially indicating criminal activity (i.e. the absence of certain raptor species from vast swathes of driven grouse moors) she says:
“We know that there may also be other non-criminal explanations for the absence of species. Nevertheless I agree that this would be useful work for the PAW Scotland Science sub-group to take forward“.
What other non-criminal explanations are there for the absence of certain raptor species from driven grouse moors? All the science (and there has been plenty of it, some dating back almost two decades) indicates a direct link to the illegal persecution of raptors on those moors. Sure, natural factors such as habitat, climate, prey availability, predation etc can and do affect the natural distribution of species, but we’re talking about species that have either ‘disappeared’ from their former natural ranges or their breeding attempts in parts of those ranges consistently fail. It’s no coincidence that these areas just happen to be managed as driven grouse moors.
On the subject of increasing the investigatory powers of the SSPCA she says:
“I am also aware of the need to carefully balance a number of factors such as resources, accountability and proportionality in coming to a decision on whether to extend further powers to the SSPCA as regards wildlife crime“.
‘Proportionality’ is an interesting word. It suggests that the measure of extending the SSPCA’s powers should be fair, reasonable and appropriate. Who would argue that extending the SSPCA’s powers would be a dis-proportionate response to the rising level of wildlife crime in Scotland and Police Scotland’s inability to cope? Well we already know the answer to that – see here and here. The question is, will the Environment Minister consider it a disproportionate measure? We’ll find out soon enough, although if the last sentence of her letter to the RACCE Committee is anything to go by, she’ll do the right thing:
“Tackling wildlife crime is a key priority for the Scottish Government and one that I am keen to take forward robustly in my new role“.
Other statements in her response letter were very encouraging, and we particularly welcome her intention to consider including the locations of illegally placed poison baits and traps on the annual PAW raptor persecution maps. That’s something that we (and others) have been asking for for a long time (e.g. see here).
We were also pleased to see a (diplomatic) dig about Police Scotland’s ridiculous press statement on the cause of the Ross-shire Massacre (here is some background on their idiotic statement, in case you missed it). Dr McLeod says:
“Police Scotland’s press release on 24 October was designed to bring about a reduction in speculation that was widespread across social media on this high profile case. I am confident that lessons will have been learned on the need to be very careful with wording of such communications“.
She went a bit further in a recent statement published in the Scottish Farmer (here), where she announced NFU Scotland as a new member of PAW. In that statement she reiterated that the Ross-shire Massacre was the result of criminal activity. In other words, it wasn’t the result of an accidental poisoning.
So, all in all a good start from her, with just a couple of questionable statements. Come on, Aileen, let’s see what you can deliver in 2015…