Wildlife Crime Penalties Review Group calls for tougher sentences

Wildlife Crime Penalties Review Group Report 2015 - CopyThe Scottish Government has today published the long awaited report from the Wildlife Crime Penalties Review Group – and it is very good news.

You may recall that this Review Group was established in July 2013 by then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, as part of a series of measures aimed at tackling the continued persecution of birds of prey (see here). It was his response to growing levels of public concern and a lack of confidence in the judiciary to deal with raptor-killing criminals. Criticisms of the system have often centred around perceived corruption, vested-interests and biased Sheriffs, and we have come to expect unduly lenient and inconsistent sentencing in most cases (e.g. see here).

The Review Group was tasked to explore how wildlife crime was treated within the criminal justice system, including an examination of whether the penalties available properly reflect the seriousness of the damage caused to vulnerable wildlife and fragile habitats and ecosystems.

The Group was due to report in December 2014 and we’ve been frustrated by the number of subsequent delays involved, but the report has now been published and it was well worth the wait.

The Review Group’s conclusions are clear. The current system of wildlife crime penalties in Scotland is wholly inadequate and the currently available penalties do not act as an effective deterrent to would-be offenders. This will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog, so we’re delighted that this independent Group has reached the same conclusion.

The Review Group has made ten short-term and medium-term recommendations for the Scottish Government to consider. These include raising the maximum penalty for summary convictions to at least £40,000 and 12 months imprisonment. The current maximum penalty is £5,000 and 6 months imprisonment.

The Group also recommends the extended use of ‘forfeiture provisions’, including a provision that where a firearm or shotgun is involved in the commission of a wildlife crime, the court should have the power to cancel the relevant certificate.

They also recommend the development of sentencing guidelines for wildlife crimes to enhance the consistency and transparency of sentencing.

This Review Group’s report is an impressive piece of work – and we’re not just saying that because we agree with its conclusions and recommendations. Unusually for a Government report, it is extremely well-written (and thus easy to understand), detailed, and well-supported by documentary evidence. Professor Mark Poustie (University of Strathclyde Law School) and his fellow Review Group members are to be commended.

The report can be downloaded here: Wildlife Crime Penalties Review Group Report 2015

So what happens next? Well, the Scottish Government now has to consider the report’s recommendations and decide whether to implement any of them. Current Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod is quoted this morning:

I will carefully consider all the recommendations and will make a further announcement on how we intend to take this work forward“.

Let’s hope she gets on with it. She still hasn’t made a decision on whether to increase the investigatory powers of the SSPCA, even though the public consultation on this issue closed over a year ago on 1st September 2014 (see here).

And in fact, the SSPCA consultation is highly relevant to the Wildlife Crime Penalties Review Group report. It would be pointless to have a robust set of penalties for wildlife crimes if the enforcement measures responsible for getting the wildlife criminals before a court are ineffective. It wouldn’t matter how strong the available penalties are if the actual criminal involved hasn’t been brought to court. Harsher penalties will not be an effective deterrent if the would-be offender knows that the chance of being caught / charged is virtually nil, which is how things are at the moment. Problems with wildlife crime enforcement by Police Scotland have been well documented (e.g. see here) and there needs to be a massive improvement in this area. Granting an extension of powers to the SSPCA would, in our opinion, greatly enhance the effectiveness of enforcement. If this is also coupled with the recommendations of the Wildlife Crime Penalties Review Group report, then we might, just might, be making some progress.

This is the perfect opportunity for Dr McLeod to make her mark and demonstrate, in a tangible way, the Scottish Government’s oft-claimed commitment to stamping out raptor persecution. Over to you, Minister.

Police Scotland explain failure of vicarious liability in Kildrummy case

waneLast month we blogged about the failure of the Crown Office to initiate a vicarious liability prosecution in the Kildrummy case (see here).

A quick re-cap: in December 2014, Kildrummy Estate gamekeeper George Mutch was convicted of a series of wildlife crime offences that took place on Kildrummy Estate in 2012, including the trapping of a goshawk which he then beat to death with a stick (see here). In January 2015, Mutch was sentenced to four months in prison – the first gamekeeper in the UK to receive a custodial sentence for raptor persecution crimes (see here).

In September 2015, the possibility for a vicarious liability prosecution against Mutch’s employer became impossible as the case had become legally time-barred (i.e. three years had elapsed since the commission of his crimes). We wanted to find out why a vicarious liability prosecution had not been brought in this case so we asked the Crown Office for an explanation. They responded by saying that as nobody had been reported to them for consideration, they couldn’t take forward a prosecution. We speculated (here) about the reasons why nobody had been reported, and thought that it probably had something to do with the fact that Kildrummy Estate is registered as an off-shore company (in Jersey) and thus identification of the actual owner was well hidden; this situation had been expertly uncovered by Andy Wightman’s research earlier this year – see here. However, to find out if this really was the reason why nobody had been reported to the Crown Office, we really needed to hear from Police Scotland, so last month we asked them why they hadn’t reported anyone from Kildrummy Estate to the Crown Office for consideration of a vicarious liability prosecution.

Police Scotland has now responded with a cryptic masterpiece, but if you look closely at their carefully-worded reply it is actually quite revealing:

Police Scotland is committed to tackling wildlife crime whilst recognising that these investigations can often be challenging and prolonged. In 2013, a report about George Mutch was submitted to the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit (WECU) at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) alleging the unlawful taking and killing of birds of prey at Kildrummy Estate, Aberdeenshire in 2012. Following a criminal prosecution Mr Mutch was convicted and sentenced to 4 months imprisonment in January 2015.

In parallel with the investigation surrounding the activities of George Mutch, enquiries were made to establish whether any further charges could be brought in terms of Vicarious Liability legislation (Section 18A of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981). However, this legislation does require an offence to have been committed and therefore charges can only be formally libelled once a conviction has been confirmed. Significant international investigations were undertaken by Police Scotland but after consultation with COPFS it was established that due to insufficient evidence the additional charge of Vicarious Liability could not be libelled.

The experience of this case has, however, identified opportunities for refining future Vicarious Liability investigations, a matter currently being explored with COPFS. Please be assured that Police Scotland will continue to ensure that robust and modern investigative tactics are utilised to bring those committing wildlife crime to justice. Police Scotland’s wildlife crime commitment is additionally reflected in our membership of PAW (Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime) Scotland.

I hope the above information addresses the issue raised by you in your correspondence.

Yours sincerely,
Sean Scott, Detective Chief Superintendent”.
For the purposes of our interest, the first paragraph can be ignored. Where things start to get interesting is in paragraph two. Pay close attention to the wording:
Significant international investigations were undertaken……..it was established that due to insufficient evidence the additional charge of Vicarious Liability could not be libelled“.
International investigations” can only relate to an enquiry about either the land owner, or Mutch’s employer, or who owned the shooting rights; in other words, the individual who could be liable for a potential vicarious liability prosecution. “Insufficient evidence” implies that Police Scotland knew who was responsible for managing Mutch, but just couldn’t prove it. Why? Because the details are hidden in an off-shore holding.
It is apparent then, in the Kildrummy case, that justice has been defeated because the details of land ownership (or at least the hierarchical management structure from Mutch upwards) are concealed. This has big implications for any future vicarious liability prosecutions on estates where the land is registered as an off-shore company (a convenient ploy to escape a potential criminal prosecution) and we’re pretty sure Andy Wightman will have something to say about this in terms of his work on the Land Reform Bill currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament. (Update: Andy Wightman has blogged abut this latest development – see here).
The first line of paragraph three, (“The experience of this case has, however, identified opportunities for refining future Vicarious Liability investigations….“) is interesting and we’ll watch to see what this ‘refinement’ might entail.
As an aside, we were interested to read that Police Scotland thinks that vicarious liability charges “can only be formally libelled once a conviction has been confirmed“. That’s not actually what the legislation says. The legislation allows that the person who committed the primary offence need not be prosecuted in order for a prosecution to be brought against the person in management or control (see here). We’re a bit bemused by Police Scotland’s interpretation of this in their above statement, but, as we say, it’s a bit of a side issue in this case because even if Mutch hadn’t been convicted but an attempt was still made to undertake a vicarious liability prosecution, presumably Police Scotland would still have faced the same issue of being unable to identify the person in management or control because these details are squirreled away in an office in Jersey, apparently beyond the reach of Police Scotland.
So, even though vicarious liability has failed in the Kildrummy case, we feel it’s important to acknowledge that in this case, as far as we currently understand what went on, the failure is through no fault of Police Scotland or the Crown Office. This failure is, though, an indication that Vicarious Liability is not the panacea the Scottish Government would like us to believe it is for putting an end to raptor persecution crimes. Since vicarious liability was introduced as an option on 1st January 2012, there has still only been one single successful prosecution. In almost four years, that’s not a good return rate by anyone’s standards.

Stody Estate receives £221,000 subsidy penalty for mass raptor poisoning

stody buzzardsRegular blog readers will know that in October 2014, gamekeeper Allen Lambert was convicted of a series of wildlife crime offences on the Stody Estate, Norfolk, including the mass poisoning of birds of prey (10 buzzards and one sparrowhawk) which had been found dead on the estate in April 2013. He was also convicted of storing banned pesticides and other items capable of preparing poisoned baits (a ‘poisoner’s kit’) and a firearms offence (see here and here).

Lambert got off pretty lightly when he was sentenced in November 2014. Even though the judge acknowledged that Lambert’s crimes had passed the custody threshold, Lambert received a 10-week suspended sentence for poisoning 11 raptors (suspended for one year), a six-week suspended sentence for possession of firearms and dead buzzards (suspended for one year) and was ordered to pay £930 prosecution costs and an £80 victim surcharge. In our opinion (see here), this was absurdly lenient for one of England’s biggest known mass raptor poisoning incidents, and on top of that, Lambert wasn’t even sacked – it was reported that he’d been allowed to take early retirement from the Stody Estate.

Regular blog readers will also know that for the last year, we’ve turned our attention to the minted Stody Estate to try and find out whether the Rural Payments Agency had penalised the estate for breaches in cross-compliance and had removed any of their £MILLIONS of agricultural subsidies as punishment. To receive these tax-payer handouts, estates must comply with a number of measures (like don’t poison raptors) and if they don’t comply, then cross-compliance subsidies can be removed.

It’s taken a while to get any useful information about potential subsidy penalties at Stody Estate. Getting the RPA to reveal anything about this case has been like getting blood out of a stone, or the truth out of Allen Lambert. The RPA has wriggled and squirmed and done its best to avoid answering straightforward questions: see here for previous blogs about our correspondence with the RPA. However, we’re pretty much there now, although not quite there.

Our latest FoI received a response this week. We had asked the RPA (again) whether they’d now enforced a cross-compliance penalty on Stody Estate. They answered: “Yes“.

We asked what the penalty was for, exactly. They answered: “The penalty that has been applied was for a breach of farmer requirement A1, of the pre-2015 Statutory Management Requirement 1 (wild birds). The requirement reads: ‘You must not intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird‘”.

We asked how much was the penalty applied to Stody Estate for this breach. They answered: “The financial amount has yet to be confirmed, however the penalty is 75% of the Single Payment Scheme payments made to the Estate in 2014“.

So, we now know a penalty has been imposed, but, unconvincingly, the RPA still claims it isn’t able to tell us how much that penalty is. Either they’re incompetent or unwilling to embarrass the Estate. Or maybe both.

Anyway, we’ve done a bit of digging. We’ve discovered that the Stody Estate received £295,929.01 from the Single Payment Scheme in 2014:

Stody SPS 2014 - Copy

75% of £295,929.01 is £221,946.75.

That’s a massive subsidy penalty! As far as we’re aware, this is the biggest ever civil penalty imposed for cross-compliance breaches in relation to raptor persecution crimes. Previously, the largest was £107,000 imposed on Glenogil Estate in 2008 following the discovery of 32 poisoned baits suspected of being used to target birds of prey (see here). Earlier this year, we blogged about the £66,000 subsidy penalty imposed on vicarious liability landowner Ninian Johnston Stewart, whose gamekeeper had been convicted of poisoning a buzzard (see here).

There may well have been other cases where a penalty greater than £221,946.75 has been imposed for cross-compliance breaches related to raptor persecution, but we’ve been unable to find any information. We’ve blogged previously (here) about why increased publicity is needed when these penalties are applied – the realistic threat of having thousands of pounds worth of subsidies removed from your business has got to be a far greater deterrent than the pathetically weak sanctions handed down in the criminal courts.

For this reason, over the next few months we intend to re-visit some other recent cases where a successful conviction has been secured for raptor persecution crimes and start asking some questions about whether those estates involved have also received a subsidy penalty (e.g. Kildrummy Estate, Cardross Estate for a start, and there are others).

There has previously been some discussion in the comments section of this blog about whether the new system for the Single Payment Scheme (replaced this year by the Basic Payment Scheme) would still allow for subsidy penalties for cross-compliance breaches relating to raptor persecution. Some readers thought the new system wouldn’t allow for penalties and other readers thought it would. It’s our understanding that the cross compliance rules for BPS in England still contain a Statutory Management Requirement (SMR) for Wild Birds (SMR2) stating that you must protect all wild birds, their eggs and their nests, so technically any recipient of BPS could still be fined for non-compliance with SMR2 if they were liable, vicariously or otherwise, for raptor persecution on their land.

However, the new system seems to be slightly different in Scotland where SMR2 states that you must protect all wild birds, their eggs and nests if you have land classified as a Special Protection Area. That could mean that a Scottish recipient of BPS could only be fined for breaching SMR2 if the breach took place in an SPA. If that interpretation is correct, it would exclude rather a lot of land. We’ll be seeking clarification from the Scottish Government about whether raptor persecution on non-SPA land would be considered a breach of the new SMR2.

A final word – thank you to all the blog readers who have exerted pressure on the RPA over the last year regarding the Stody Estate case; we know that a number of you have been involved. Had it not been for this sustained effort, the Stody Estate may well have escaped a penalty altogether, or perhaps been given a much smaller penalty. Well done!

Photo of some of the poisoned buzzards found at Stody Estate is by Guy Shorrock (RSPB Investigations)

Licences to kill buzzards were unlawfully refused, says High Court

buzzard 3The High Court has this morning ruled that Natural England acted unlawfully when it refused to issue licences to kill buzzards.

In 2013, Natural England issued licences to Northumberland gamekeeper Ricky McMorn, allowing him the right to destroy buzzard eggs and nests ‘to protect’ his pheasant shoots.

Later the same year, McMorn applied for further licences, this time to shoot 16 buzzards and 3 sparrowhawks. Natural England refused his application.

In 2014, McMorn submitted more applications, wanting to shoot ten buzzards ‘to prevent serious damage’ to his pheasant poults. Natural England refused his application again.

McMorn, financially supported by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, brought a judicial review against Natural England and claimed NE had acted unfairly and inconsistently when considering his licence applications.

The High Court judge, Mr Justice Ouseley, has agreed with McMorn’s case. He held:

(1)   Natural England had unlawfully operated an undisclosed policy about how buzzard applications were to be treated. Natural England’s undisclosed policy had been to require more factors to be proved and proved by far higher quality evidence than for other species, to require individual birds to be identified as predators with proof that only those would be controlled, and to require any suggestions it made to be carried out punctiliously on pain of refusal;

(2)   Natural England unlawfully took into account public opinion by applying a different and more demanding approach to the grant of a licence to kill buzzards than other species because public opinion is in part hostile to the grant of such licences;

(3)   Natural England unlawfully applied published policy inconsistently as between buzzards and other species. The substantial reason for the difference in approach was some hostile public opinion;

(4)   Natural England’s decision was unreasonable because it operated the derogation under the Birds Directive so as to render it excessively difficult to obtain a licence;

(5)   Natural England acted unfairly in failing to raise with the claimant its own technical assessor’s suggestion of a live capture licence instead of a licence to kill.

The full decision can be read here: Judicial review buzzard licence verdict Nov 2015

So what does this all mean? For sure, this ruling will encourage more gamekeepers to submit more applications to kill buzzards ‘to protect’ their pheasants. It doesn’t mean that all licence applications will be successful, as each case will still have to be assessed on its individual circumstances and all tests will still have to be met (e.g. has the gamekeeper done everything else in his/her power to solve the perceived problem?). Nevertheless, Natural England will no doubt be wary of appearing ‘unreasonable’ when assessing future applications. This is where things will get really interesting because there is still no scientific evidence to demonstrate that buzzards have a significant impact on pheasants. Indeed, even the game-shooting industry’s own science has shown the impact to be virtually negligible, with an average of only 1-2% of pheasant poults taken by birds of prey. There are also numerous alternative measures for reducing alleged predation that should be tried and tested before the ‘kill’ option is chosen, including diversionary feeding.

If, however, buzzard-killing licences are issued, this will pave the way for what is effectively a criminal’s charter. The game-keeping industry is rife with criminals who are not averse to breaking the law; we see it time and time again, particularly in relation to the illegal killing of raptors. Let’s say a gamekeeper successfully applies for a licence to shoot ten buzzards. What’s to stop him from shooting 50? Who will know whether he’s shot his permitted ten, or whether he’s shot 50? Who is going to supervise his buzzard-killing activities to ensure that he sticks to his allotted number? Nobody! If a member of the public sees him shooting a buzzard (a highly unlikely scenario anyway but let’s just go with it for now), and reports him to the police, the gamekeeper will simply wave his buzzard-killing licence at the investigating police officer and say, “Look Guv, I’m allowed to kill ten and this is only the third one I’ve shot this year”. The police officer will have no option but to withdraw and let him get on with killing as many buzzards as he likes because it’ll be virtually impossible to prove that the gamekeeper has acted illegally, unless of course the keeper is stupid enough to leave the shot buzzards lying around as evidence, but even then it’ll be impossible to show that that individual gamekeeper had shot all the dead birds – he’ll simply claim someone else did it and dumped them on his ground.

IMG_5013 (2) - CopyAs absurd as it is, the bottom line is that DEFRA (and thus Natural England, acting on DEFRA’s behalf), permits gamekeepers (even those with criminal convictions) to apply for licences to kill protected native species like the buzzard, to allow the wholesale slaughter of millions of non-native gamebirds like pheasants, just for fun. There’s something fundamentally askew with that logic, even if you’re a die-hard supporter of game-bird shooting. A recent analysis of the GWCT’s National Gamebag Census revealed that by 2011, approx 42 million pheasants and almost 9 million red-legged partridges were released annually into the British countryside, for ‘sport’ shooting. The impact on biodiversity of releasing 50 million non-native gamebirds hasn’t been formally assessed. The game-shooting industry should accept that if they’re releasing birds in such magnitude, they should expect losses. How many are killed on the roads? An educated guess would suggest it’s a far higher number than the known 1-2% lost to raptors. If the game-shooting industry can’t operate without accepting such losses (as they claim they can’t), then it’s pretty clear evidence that this industry is unsustainable and as such, has no future.

The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation response to today’s ruling can be read here

We’ll update this blog later today as more responses are published.

Photographs copyright RPS

UPDATE: 15th November 2015: There’s a fascinating blog on the legal issues of this case, written by a legal academic at a London barristers’ chambers – see here.

UPDATE: 19th November 2015: A response to the judgement from the Northern England Raptor Forum – see here.

Previous blogs on this issue:

12 Nov 2015: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/licences-to-kill-buzzards-judicial-review-decision-expected-tomorrow/

12 June 2015: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/judicial-review-underway-for-gamekeeper-who-wants-to-kill-buzzards/

25 Nov 2014: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/buzzard-licence-applicant-gets-high-court-approval-for-judicial-review/

1 Oct 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/why-we-dont-trust-the-national-gamekeepers-organisation/ 

26 Sept 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/buzzard-licence-applicant-tries-for-four-more-licences/

13 Aug 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/natural-england-claims-release-of-buzzard-licence-info-not-in-public-interest/

20 June 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/hand-in-of-buzzard-petition-today-at-holyrood/ 

5 June 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/natural-england-says-no-to-buzzard-killing-licence/

5 June 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/surely-the-buzzard-licence-applicant-doesnt-have-prior-convictions-for-poison-offences/

3 June 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/buzzard-licensing-turning-up-the-heat/

30 May 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/two-important-questions-to-ask-about-the-buzzard-licence-applicant/

25 May 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/05/25/new-petition-snh-do-not-licence-buzzard-culling-in-scotland/

23 May 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/natural-england-issues-licence-to-destroy-buzzard-eggs-nests-to-protect-pheasants/

10 Jan 2013: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/the-buzzard-blame-game/

13 June 2012: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/buzzardgate-aftermath/

30 May 2012: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/defra-backs-down-on-buzzard-management-trial/

24 May 2012: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/defra-responds-to-public-outcry-over-buzzard-management-trial/

23 May 2012: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/rspb-response-to-defras-proposed-illegal-buzzard-trial/

21 May 2012: https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/buzzard-management-trial-gets-govt-approval-and-375k-funding/

Raeshaw and Burnfoot Estates to appeal General Licence Restriction orders

Raeshaw Corshope GL restriction map 2015Further to last week’s news that SNH has suspended the use of General Licences on four estates for what it said was “clear evidence that wildlife crimes have been committed on these properties”, which includes the discovery of poisoned raptors and illegal traps (see here and here), two of the estates involved are set to appeal.

According to quotes in this week’s Scottish Farmer, defence agent David McKie, representing Raeshaw Estate in the Borders, said: “We are disappointed by this decision and will be vigorously challenging it“.

A spokesman for Burnfoot Estate said: “We absolutely dispute the conclusions reached by SNH and consider the decision to be unfair. We will be appealing the decision“.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Scottish Land & Estates is quoted: “Our concerns about the level of evidence and robustness of process, which were raised previously along with other land management organisations, remain. We will be working with key industry stakeholders to learn more about the circumstances surrounding these new restrictions“.

A spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association is quoted: “It is up to the estates involved to take counsel and make a case if they feel there is insufficient evidence for the measure to proceed. When this measure was initially subject to consultation, the SGA opposed it, not in the spirit of what it was trying to do, but rather that it was simply not a good proposal“.

Article in Scottish Farmer here

Wonder if Raeshaw Estate or Burnfoot Estate is a member of the SLE?

Licences to kill buzzards: judicial review decision expected tomorrow

High Court London 2The long-running legal battle about Natural England’s refusal to issue a gamekeeper with licences to kill buzzards and sparrowhawks to ‘protect’ his pheasants is due to reach a climax tomorrow.

Northumberland gamekeeper, Ricky McMorn, backed by financial support from the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, brought a judicial review to challenge Natural England’s decision. The judicial review took place in the High Court (London) over three days in June 2015 and the decision was deferred. We understand the decision is due to be announced tomorrow.

A quick re-cap:

In 2013, Natural England secretly provided Mr McMorn with a licence to destroy buzzard eggs and nests in order ‘to protect a pheasant shoot’ in Northumberland.

Later in 2013, McMorn submitted four more licence applications to Natural England, this time to shoot 16 buzzards and 3 sparrowhawks. Natural England rejected the application.

In 2014, McMorn submitted another licence application, this time to shoot ten buzzards “to prevent serious damage” to pheasant poults. Natural England rejected the application.

We’ve blogged extensively about this issue (see here for a summary).

It’s worth noting that the judicial review concerns whether Natural England acted fairly when rejecting McMorn’s licence applications. McMorn has argued that Natural England has unlawfully acted inconsistently in the way it has dealt with the licensing of buzzards as compared with other species of bird and that Natural England has been unlawfully influenced by public opinion. He has also argued that it was unreasonable for Natural England Directors repeatedly to reverse the recommendations of Natural England’s specialist scientific advisers that a licence should be granted.

The review is NOT about whether DEFRA/Natural England should entertain a licence application from a gamekeeper with a previous conviction for possession of banned poisons (apparently that’s not a problem, according to DEFRA/Natural England), nor whether the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation should expel a member with a conviction for possession of a banned poison (apparently not, according to the NGO), and nor whether there’s any scientific evidence to demonstrate that buzzards (and sparrowhawks) have a substantially detrimental effect on game bird shoots (there isn’t any evidence).

Tomorrow’s long-awaited decision will no doubt be interesting, whichever way it goes.

SNH reveals reasons for general licence restrictions on Raeshaw & Burnfoot Estates

Raeshaw Corshope GL restriction map 2015Last week we blogged about the implementation of General Licence restrictions on parts of four properties: Burnfoot Estate & Wester Cringate Estate in Stirlingshire, and Raeshaw Estate & Corsehope Estate in the Borders (see here).

At the time, SNH did not reveal the reasons for the General Licence restrictions, other than to say “There is clear evidence that wildlife crimes have been committed on these properties” [since 1st January 2014, when the new regulations were enacted].

We speculated that the General Licence restrictions at Burnfoot and Wester Cringate in Stirlingshire were related to the poisoning of a red kite (July 2014), a poisoned peregrine (Feb 2015), and the illegal trapping of a red kite (May 2015).

We had no idea why the General Licence restrictions had been implemented at Raeshaw and Corsehope in the Borders, because there hadn’t been any publicity about any recent raptor persecution crimes in this area.

However, last Saturday (7th November 2015), a bit more information was revealed during an interview with SNH Wildlife Operations Manager, Robbie Kernahan, on the BBC Radio Scotland Out of Doors programme.

Amongst other things, the presenter asked Mr Kernahan directly about the reasons for General Licence restrictions on these four properties. Here’s what Mr Kernahan said:

Stirlingshire GL restrictions:Relates to some issues associated with poisoning birds of prey, birds of prey being found poisoned in that location, and illegal use of traps“.

Borders GL restrictions:There are issues about the illegal placement of traps“.

No further explicit detail was provided, although there was a general wider discussion about the use of General Licence Restrictions and their deterrent value in tackling raptor persecution.

The interview can be heard here for the next 26 days (starts at 02:15; ends at 09:06).

Peregrine poisoned in Shropshire blackspot: police appeal 5 months later

Peregrine male poisoned at Cleehill 2015 Shorrock2 - CopyWest Mercia Police have issued an appeal for information following the discovery of a poisoned peregrine.

The male bird was found dead in a quarry at Clee Hill, Shropshire. This is a well-known persecution blackspot, with two peregrines poisoned there in 2010 and another one poisoned in 2011.

The latest victim was discovered on 15th June 2015. It’s not clear why it has taken five months for the police to issue an appeal for information. This is a recurring and yet avoidable problem, e.g. see here and here for two other recent examples of long delays before the police ask for help with investigations into raptor persecution crimes. It’s just not good enough.

The RSPB and the Shropshire Peregrine Group have offered a £1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.

Police press release as follows:

West Mercia Police are appealing to the public for information after it was confirmed that a peregrine falcon found dead in a quarry in Clee Hill, Shropshire had been poisoned.

There have been previous problems in this area with two peregrines poisoned in 2010 and another in 2011. Over the last few years the Shropshire Peregrine Group (SPG) has been organising volunteers to keep an eye on the location. On the 15 June this year a volunteer reported a dead adult male peregrine at the base of the breeding cliff. The body was recovered by the RSPB and passed to Natural England in order that toxicology tests could be arranged. These have since confirmed the bird was poisoned by diazinon, the same product as in previous incidents.

Peregrines are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and anyone convicted of killing these birds could receive up to six months in prison and/or a fine.

The RSPB and the SPG have offered a reward of £1000 for information leading to the conviction of anyone involved in this incident.

John Turner of the SPG said: “This is yet another tragic incident at this site. The female parent also disappeared and we are concerned she may have also been poisoned. The situation was made even worse as the two chicks in the nest also died with the loss of the parents.”

Wildlife Crime Officer for West Mercia Police, Constable Julian Ward said: “There have been previous incidents in this area and the illegal use of poison poses a risk to wildlife and to people. We believe somebody in the local community will have information about who is involved and we would urge them to contact police.”

Information can be reported to West Mercia Police on 101 quoting reference 649S of the 15/06/2015. You can also give information anonymously to Crimestoppers UK or 0800 555 111


Photos of the poisoned peregrine by RSPB (G Shorrock)

Peregrine male poisoned at Cleehill 2015 Shorrock1 - Copy


Satellite-tagged hen harrier Holly “has died”

Hen Harrier Holly 2015Three weeks ago we blogged (here) about two Hen Harrier chicks that had been satellite-tagged as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier Life+ Project. The two birds were named Holly and Chance, and members of the public could follow their movements on the Hen Harrier Life+ Project website.

Chance was a 2014 bird from SW Scotland, and she traveled to France for the 2014 winter, then back to the UK in spring 2015, and is currently back in France.

Holly was a 2015 bird from a site on MOD ground in Argyll. She fledged in August 2015 and in mid-October was reported to have dispersed to ‘the uplands of Central Scotland’.

The following statement has just appeared on the Hen Harrier Life+ Project website:

Holly – Latest Movements

“Unfortunately, recent data received from Holly’s satellite tag suggests that she has died. This is being followed up, and we will provide further information as soon as possible”.

There isn’t any further detail provided. The wording above suggests that her corpse has not been recovered (if it had, project staff would know for definite that she was dead, rather than inferring death from her sat tag signal). If that is the case, then obviously the cause of death can’t be ascertained until her body has been retrieved and examined. It’s hard not to assume the worst given the grouse-shooting industry’s inherent hatred and intolerance of this species, but it’s also worth being cautious at this stage. As unlikely as it sounds, it’s entirely possible that her sat tag has simply dropped off and it is just the tag that’s drilling a hole in the map. Time will tell.

We look forward to further updates from the project team.

Photo of Holly from the RSPB Hen Harrier Life+ Project website.

Peregrine found shot dead in Halifax, West Yorkshire

Peregrine FalconA peregrine has been found shot dead in Halifax, West Yorkshire. It’s body was discovered by a maintenance worker at the foot of a 200 ft chimney at a disused carpet mill.

It’s not known if the bird was shot at the mill or whether it had been shot elsewhere and finally succumbed to its injuries at the mill.

Details from the bird’s BTO leg ring identified it as a bird that had fledged from a church steeple in Devon (St Michael’s Peregrine Project, Exeter).

Article in Exeter Express & Echo here

Recently published preliminary results from the 2014 National Peregrine Survey indicate that illegal persecution of peregrines on upland grouse moors is so high it is affecting this species’ national distribution (see here).

Peregrine photo by Martin Eager