On 30th November last year, gamekeeper Peter Givens from the Cathpair Estate in the Scottish Borders was convicted at Selkirk Sheriff Court of recklessly killing a barn owl and a goshawk in September 2020.
The two supposedly protected species had become caught inside a cage trap operated by Givens but they starved to death because Givens had failed to release them as he was required to do by law.
Givens was fined a pathetic £300 and a £20 victim surcharge (see here).
[Photograph of the unlawfully operated trap on Cathpair Estate. Photo by Stuart Spray]
Givens’ sentence was derisory, there’s no doubt about that, especially when you consider raptor persecution is supposedly a National Wildlife Crime Priority.
But the £300 fine from the court wasn’t Givens’ only sanction. On conviction, Givens was automatically banned from using the General Licences, including those which permit the killing of some birds (especially corvids) but also GL14, the licence that permits a person to use certain traps to kill stoats in Scotland for the conservation of wild birds or the prevention of serious damage to livestock.
This automatic ban on using the General Licences came in to force the day gamekeeper Givens was convicted, because General Licences ‘cannot be used by those convicted of a wildlife crime on or after 1 January 2017 unless, in respect of that offence, they are a rehabilitated person (for the purposes of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and that conviction is spent), or a court discharged them absolutely‘, according to the terms of the General Licences.
If Givens is the only gamekeeper on Cathpair Estate (and I have no information about that) then being prevented from killing crows and stoats would probably have a negative impact on the estate’s ability to host a gamebird shoot, unless the estate employs other gamekeepers to conduct those duties. Although, as ridiculously as ever, a convicted gamekeeper may still apply to use an Individual Licence to carry on operating traps and guns to kill corvids and stoats as if he’d never committed his crimes at all.
When gamekeeper Givens’ sentence was announced, I was interested in how this automatic ban on using the General Licences would apply, and I especially wondered whether it would extend for three years, as per the usual General Licence restriction imposed on estates where evidence of wildlife crime is apparent but insufficient to result in a prosecution.
However, when I looked up how long it would be before Givens’ conviction could be considered spent, I found it was only 12 months (according to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 as amended by the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019). So this means Givens would not be allowed to use the General Licences to kill corvids and stoats for a period of only 12 months (unless he applied for an Individual Licence) but after those 12 months had expired (30th November 2022) he’d be able to return to killing wildlife under the conditions of the General Licences.
Eh? That seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? On the one hand, regulator NatureScot can impose a three-year General Licence restriction on an estate where the police have evidence of criminal activity but insufficient evidence to pin it on any named individual. But when the authorities secure an actual conviction for wildlife crime on an estate, then the General Licence sanction only applies for one year, instead of three, if the criminal has been convicted and handed a ludicrously tiny fine that is likely to have been paid by his employer anyway!
That didn’t make sense to me so I contacted NatureScot and asked them about it. They agreed that it was counter-intuitive and that this scenario hadn’t really been considered before, probably due to the incredibly low prosecution/conviction rates for raptor persecution, especially in recent years. However, now that this ridiculous situation had been brought to their attention, NatureScot advised that they would be looking at tightening up the terms of the General Licences to better reflect the lack of trust that a conviction for a wildlife offence implies.
This will probably come too late to be applied to gamekeeper Givens, and to be fair to NatureScot they can only work with the existing terms and conditions that apply at any one time, but I was encouraged to hear that part of the planned review will also be to consider how Fiscal Fines and Fixed Penalty Notices for wildlife offences impact the ability of an individual to operate under General Licences.
Meanwhile, if anyone is out and about for a walk on the Cathpair Estate in the next ten months it may well be worthwhile having a look to see whether any traps are being operated to kill corvids and stoats. If they are and you’re suspicious of their legality, take photographs and a grid reference/What3Words and report them to Police Scotland on 101. Please share your report with the RSPB’s Investigations team so they can follow up with the police.
[The Cathpair Estate boundary (in blue), from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website]