Investigation reveals widespread burning on grouse moors despite government ban for protected peatlands

Yesterday, the investigatory branch of Greenpeace, Unearthed, published the findings of its research into the extent of burning on English grouse moors after the Westminster Government introduced new rules to protect blanket bog.

[Grouse moor burning in the North Pennines AONB, photo by Steve Morgan]

Here’s a summary of the findings:

  • The investigation identified 251 peatland burning incidents – instances of at least one fire – between 1 October 2021 and 15 April 2022, the first burning season since the new legislation was introduced. Burns took place on moors owned by rich landowners ranging from the Queen and the emir of Dubai to software millionaires and retail tycoons. 
  • One in five of these burns (51 out of 251) was on land protected by multiple conservation designations,  and which Natural England’s latest available map identifies as deep peat. Unearthed understands that no licenses were issued for burning on deep peat during the past season, so all of these instances warrant investigation as potential breaches of the ban. 
  • However, while Natural England’s database is the best official data available, it is based on modelling and does not conclusively prove the presence of deep peat. So Unearthed carried out spot checks on three moors where the map indicated potential breaches of the ban: while tests on the Emir of Dubai’s Bollihope estate found that all burning was in fact on shallow peat – and therefore legal – we found that the fire above Grimwith reservoir, on land known as Appletreewick moor, was on deep peat. Tests carried out by the BBC at Bowes moor in the Yorkshire Dales also identified burning on deep peat. Unearthed sent registered letters to the owner of the land at Appletreewick moor, and the owner of the land at Bowes moor for comment, but neither responded. 
  • More than 40 of the burning incidents identified in Unearthed’s analysis were on land mapped as blanket bog by Natural England’s data – the habitat the government says the legislation is most designed to protect. The fire at Appletreewick moor was one of them. 

Unearthed has shared details of all the potentially illegal burns it identified with Natural England’s enforcement team; the regulator is reviewing the evidence and identifying potential sites to investigate.

For the full story, this article on Unearthed‘s website is well worth a read. The BBC was also involved in the follow-up to ground-truth some sites to determine peat depth and has published an article here.

If you’re one of those who contributed data to the RSPB’s call for sightings of upland burning in recent months, well done, you have made a difference.

Dorset Police’s generic FoI response on poisoned eagle investigation is inaccurate and unsatisfactory

Earlier this morning I mentioned (here) that yesterday, Dorset Police had finally got around to responding to some Freedom of Information requests made to them by members of the public about the premature closing of the investigation into the poisoned white-tailed eagle found on a shooting estate in January 2022.

I said that the responses that I’d seen (the ones that had been forwarded to me by blog readers – thank you) seemed to be a cut and paste job, just repeating the rhetoric that the investigation was ‘full and proportionate’ (no, it was neither of these things) and that the post mortem results were ‘inconclusive’ (no, the pm report revealed the eagle’s liver contained 7 x the lethal dose of the rodenticide Brodifacoum, which can only be a result of (a) mis-use of the rodenticide or (b) deliberate abuse of the rodenticide. Either way, these are both offences).

I thought it’d be useful to publish the generic response so you can see how Dorset Police is dodging specific questions and at one point, denying that political interference was even a prospect (er, even though we all read MP Chris Loder’s tweets, suggesting the police shouldn’t be investigating this crime!). This is highlighted in red below:

I’m looking forward to receiving Dorset Police’s response to my request for a review of their decision to refuse my FoI original request made on 4th March 2022 (that response is now two weeks overdue), and also a response to my most recent FoI request to Dorset Police, which was due yesterday:

Premature closure of poisoned eagle investigation was ‘proportionate’ claims Dorset Chief Constable

Yesterday evening Dorset Police held an hour-long live web chat on Facebook offering the public an opportunity to put questions to Chief Constable Scott Chilton and the Dorset Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) David Sidwick.

Many thanks to all those who posed questions about Dorset Police’s unfathomable decision to prematurely close the investigation into the death of the white-tailed eagle found poisoned on an unnamed shooting estate in January this year.

To their credit, the Chief Constable and the PCC took two questions on this subject but I’m afraid their answers were unconvincing and simply a repeat of the damage limitation exercise they undertook last month (here).

The Chief Constable maintained that the decision to close the investigation without first conducting a search of the estate to look for evidence of potential criminality was ‘proportionate’. He also said that following complaints, he’d asked a senior detective to review the case and he, too, had determined that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ and ‘no outstanding lines of enquiry’ to progress the case. Well of course, if you fail to conduct a search you’re not going to find any evidence, are you? It’s simply bonkers.

Both the Chief Constable and the PCC were adamant that undue political interference did not take place. “Absolutely not true“, said Chief Constable Chilton, and “No credibility to that whatsoever“, said PCC David Sidwick.

You can watch a recording of the chat here. The two questions about wildlife crime and the poisoned eagle are at 28.35 and 33.17 mins.

[The poisoned white-tailed eagle found dead on an unnamed shooting estate in Dorset in January 2022. Photo by Dorset Police]

Yesterday also saw the release of a number of FoI responses from Dorset Police (although not mine – that’s still way overdue) and the ones that some blog readers have shared with me seem to be a cut and paste job, just repeating this line:

As a result of the sea eagle being found dead on land in the North Dorset area, our team has carried out a full and proportionate investigation under Section 1 of the Wildlife Countryside Act 1981 in conjunction with Natural England, National Wildlife Crime Unit, the RSPB and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation to identify any offences and perpetrators who may be responsible‘.

But that’s just not true. The RSPB has questioned the decision to close the investigation without undertaking the pre-planned investigation, and called the decision ‘completely baffling’ (here).

There’s still much, much more to come out about this case. For reasons that will become clear, I need to wait until the end of the week to publish some of it.

For a full list of previous blogs on this case please see here and scroll to the bottom.

Your opportunity to question Dorset Police Chief Constable on poisoned eagle case & breaches of FoI law

Here’s your opportunity to ask questions of Dorset Police Chief Constable Scott Chilton and the Dorset Police & Crime Commissioner David Sidwick about the Force’s failure to fully investigate the circumstances of a poisoned white-tailed eagle found dead on an unnamed shooting estate in January this year (see here).

The police investigation was closed prematurely, without even a search of the estate. This coincided with the Force’s award-winning wildlife crime officer going on long-term sick leave and, reportedly, being told that if/when she returned she’d no longer be leading the wildlife crime team (now rebranded as the Rural Team).

Both Dorset Police and the Dorset Police & Crime Commissioner are also in breach of the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to requests for information about their communication with local Conservative MP Chris ‘eagles aren’t welcome in Dorset’ Loder, who published a series of tweets berating Dorset Police for investigating the poisoning of the eagle.

Many thanks to Miles King (@MilesKing10) for sharing the details of a Facebook Live event, taking place this evening at 6.30pm, where the public is invited to put policing questions to Chief Constable Chilton and Commissioner Sidwick:

Unfortunately I can’t make this evening’s event but here are some questions you might like to ask:

Who took the decision to close the investigation into the poisoned eagle without conducting a search of the estate?

On what basis was that decision made?

Was the decision unduly influenced by political interference?

Why isn’t Dorset Police searching for evidence of poisoned baits?

Why isn’t Dorset Police searching for evidence of unlawful poison storage?

Was this decision unduly influenced by political interference?

How does Dorset Police justify the potential risk to other white-tailed eagles in the area?

Why has the word ‘wildlife’ been removed from Dorset Police’s Rural Wildlife crime team?

Who took the decision to remove it?

On what basis was that decision made?

Was the decision unduly influenced by political interference?

Why has Dorset Police’s award-winning wildlife crime officer, Claire Dinsdale, been told she will no longer lead on wildlife crime when/if she returns from long-term sick leave?

Where are the toxicology results of all the other dead raptors found on estates in north Dorset in recent months, suspected of being poisoned?

Why is Dorset Police refusing to respond to FoI requests, in breach of legislation?

Why is the Dorset Police & Crime Commissioner refusing to respond to FoI requests, in breach of legislation?

Photos released of shot sparrowhawk found glued to a stick & dumped in a ditch in Doncaster

Three days ago, South Yorkshire Police appealed for information after a sparrowhawk was shot dead, glued to a stick, wrapped inside a plastic bag and dumped in a drainage ditch (here).

The grisly discovery was made by a member of the public in the Thorne area of Doncaster, close to the canal, on Sunday 10th April.

Photos have now been released, including an x-ray showing the pellet embedded in the bird’s body:

Investigating officer PC Sarah Barrowcliffe of South Yorkshire Police said:

Sparrowhawks are a protected species and it is an offence to harm themThis was a shocking act of violence against a beautiful and defenceless bird, and officers are working hard to identify those responsible.

South Yorkshire Police is committed to the investigation of serious wildlife offences, including the killing of birds of prey.

Anyone with information please call South Yorkshire Police on Tel 101, quoting incident number #918 of April 11th 2022.

Big decisions for National Trust’s policy on grouse moors in Peak District National Park after latest loss of hen harriers

Earlier this month the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group (PDMG) announced the suspicious disappearance of two male hen harriers, and the subsequent failure of two hen harrier nests each containing five eggs (see here).

[One of the abandoned hen harrier nests. Photo by PDRMG]

Both nests were situated on a grouse moor owned by the National Trust and leased to a tenant. The grouse moor isn’t currently being used for driven grouse shooting (the tenant is believed to be focusing his energy on another moor that he owns) but the nests were close to the National Trust’s boundary and the moor is adjacent to other, privately-owned and intensively managed driven grouse moors, many that have been at the centre of other raptor persecution investigations for a number of years in what is a well-known raptor persecution hotspot (e.g. see here).

The Peak District National Park Authority has issued a statement in response to this latest incident:

Responding to reports of the failure of two hen harrier nests following the disappearance of male hen harriers thought to be supporting the nests in the area, the Peak District National Park Authority said:

“We share the immense frustration and disappointment of the National Trust and all those involved in monitoring our birds of prey, that the opportunity for not one, but two potentially viable nests for the iconic hen harrier has been lost again in the Peak District this year. This is a species which is emblematic of our uplands and where their haunting and often enigmatic presence should be welcomed.

“The fact that successful nesting attempts for the hen harrier in the Peak District remains firmly in single figures across almost two decades, demonstrates the significant challenge that remains for all those working to see their return in a long-term and sustainable way – addressing both conservation needs and the potential impact of wildlife crime.

“We understand a police investigation is ongoing into the matter and stand ready to provide any support to this”‘.

The National Trust has a new General Manager in the Peak District, Craig Best, and his reaction to the suspicious disappearances of the two harriers was as follows:

It’s deeply concerning to learn of the disappearance of two male hen harriers from the High Peak and subsequent abandoning of nests by the females. While the circumstances around this incident are not yet clear, it is indefensible that these beautiful birds still face persecution. The incident has been reported to the police and we’re working closely with statutory agencies and the RSPB to find out what happened.

We want to see a landscape that is full of wildlife, including birds of prey, and we work hard with a range of expert partners to create the right conditions for these species to thrive. Over the past few years we have seen several instances of successful hen harrier breeding in the Peak District“.

The disappearances attracted a lot of media attention, some of it accurate, some of it not so much, but it made local and national news and I was pleased to see that a couple of them had picked up on the fact that now 70 hen harriers are confirmed missing or illegally killed in the UK since 2018. Here’s some of the coverage in Sheffield Star, BBC News, and The Times, reproduced below:

There was also a feature on the BBC’s East Midlands Regional News, where BBC journalist Simon Hare interviewed Mike Price from the PDRMG – you can watch the video here:

The loss of two more hen harriers and their nests sparked a number of calls for the National Trust to ban driven grouse shooting on its land. I think that’s because many people assumed the harriers had been killed on the grouse moor where they were attempting to breed. The NT faced similar calls for a ban in 2016 when I posted footage of an armed gamekeeper who had been filmed crouching in the heather next to a decoy hen harrier on another NT-owned grouse moor in the Peak District National Park, presumably trying to entice a harrier to come in close so he could shoot it (see here).

That footage was so disturbing and the public reaction to it so strong, it prompted the National Trust to pull the shooting lease early and replace the shooting tenant with someone more conservation-focused, in what was a significant response at that time although some campaigners saw it as a lost opportunity to remove driven grouse shooting altogether (see here).

Since then, the NT has modified its tenancy agreements (e.g. see here), at least one new tenant has been and gone, and at least one current tenant is hosting a number of successfully breeding raptor species whilst moderately managing a driven grouse shoot (far less grouse shot last year compared to the thousands shot on some of the more intensively-managed moors). It has been reported recently that the NT has agreed to introduce even more modifications on its moors such as the removal of medicated grit, burning restrictions and the removal of traps and snares, although I haven’t yet seen a formal statement on this from the National Trust.

Some may argue that banning driven grouse shooting entirely from National Trust land is the only way forward, but some local raptor workers suggest the situation is a bit more nuanced than that and that just banning it on NT moors could actually lead to an increase in raptor persecution. They argue that as long as the NT has raptor-friendly shooting tenants, those tenants’ gamekeepers are acting as a sort of shield against gamekeepers from neighbouring, privately-owned estates from entering NT land and killing whatever they want. Of course, that doesn’t stop the raptors being killed if they fly from NT land on to neighbouring private estates to hunt, which is what many suspect has happened with these latest two ‘disappearances’.

It seems to me that the Peak District National Park Authority should be the organisation banning driven grouse shooting across the entire National Park. That would seem to be a far more effective prospect than a piecemeal approach by the National Trust, at least in terms of tackling the rampant raptor persecution taking place inside this National Park.

That’s not to say that the National Trust shouldn’t be banning driven grouse shooting, though. As we know, raptor persecution is only one of many environmentally-damaging issues associated with driven grouse shooting – burning, widespread and unregulated use of an environmentally toxic veterinary drug (medicated grit), and the lawful killing of thousands of native animals (e.g. foxes, stoats, weasels, corvids etc) to name just a few, all to create an artificial environment to maximise the production of red grouse for paying guests to shoot in the face for a bit of a laugh. That the NT still supports this management in what are supposed to be enlightened times, is quite remarkable.

However, if the National Trust has recently changed its policy, as has been reported, this could effectively lead to an end of driven grouse shooting on NT land without a formal ‘ban’ having to be introduced. But where will that leave the raptors trying to nest on NT land, still surrounded by privately-owned intensively-managed driven grouse moors?

Interesting times ahead in the Peak District National Park.

Sparrowhawk shot, glued to a stick & dumped inside plastic bag in Doncaster

South Yorkshire Police is appealing for information after a sparrowhawk was shot dead, glued to a stick, wrapped inside a plastic bag and dumped in a drainage ditch.

The grisly discovery was made by a member of the public in the Thorne area of Doncaster, close to the canal, on Sunday 10th April. The bird is believed to have been shot with a pellet gun.

[Sparrowhawk photo by Getty]

Investigating officer PC Sarah Barrowcliffe of South Yorkshire Police said:

Sparrowhawks are a protected species and it is an offence to harm them. This was a shocking act of violence against a beautiful and defenceless bird, and officers are working hard to identify those responsible.

South Yorkshire Police is committed to the investigation of serious wildlife offences, including the killing of birds of prey.

Anyone with information please call South Yorkshire Police on Tel 101, quoting incident number #918 of April 11th 2022.

UPDATE 30th May 2022: Photos released of shot sparrowhawk found glued to a stick and dumped in a ditch in Doncaster (here)

Police Scotland changes its mind about ‘deliberately shot’ buzzard in Fife

Last month, Police Scotland issued a press statement and an appeal for information after what was described as a ‘deliberately shot buzzard’ was found in woodland at Monimail, near Ladybank, Fife (see here for original police appeal).

[Buzzard photo by Jerome Murray]

Today, Police Scotland has issued another statement, this time on the Fife Police Division’s Facebook page, stating that the buzzard hadn’t been shot at all.

Sometimes I despair. This isn’t rocket science. Why on earth did Police Scotland put out an appeal for information about a ‘deliberately shot buzzard’ without actually confirming that it had been shot?!

It’s good that they’ve now updated the information and clarified that it wasn’t actually shot at all, but the consequence of making the basic error in the first place is that it’ll be used by the raptor persecution deniers and apologists within the game-shooting industry to cast doubt on the veracity of other, genuine, raptor persecution incidents.

Another consequence is that these examples of ineptitude (and see yesterday’s report about Derbyshire Police’s basic procedural errors, here) don’t inspire public confidence in the police’s general ability to investigate these crimes properly, and that’s damaging when the police are often reliant on reports from members of the public about suspected raptor persecution and other wildlife crime offences.

Thankfully, these examples of ineptitude are relatively rare and certainly not the norm in the field of raptor persecution investigations, where there are many excellent, motivated and skilled officers leading on investigations.

Nevertheless, these mistakes simply shouldn’t be happening.

Derbyshire Police criticised as prosecution collapses against alleged peregrine egg thief in Peak District

The trial of a man accused of stealing peregrine eggs from a nest site in the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire has collapsed after elements of the police investigation were ruled unlawful.

This case relates to the alleged theft of peregrine eggs in 2020, where video footage filmed by the RSPB showed an individual climbing to a peregrine nest and removing the eggs (see here, here, here and here for previous blogs).

[A peregrine with eggs. Photo by Barb Baldinger]

The trial began at Chesterfield Magistrates this week but collapsed yesterday as the defence lawyer challenged certain procedural aspects of the police’s investigation, namely the arrest and the subsequent search of the man’s property.

The judge considered the evidence and ruled in the defendant’s favour, i.e. that certain aspects of the police investigation were indeed unlawful. The defendant left court with a not guilty verdict.

I am awaiting the full details of this judgement before commenting on Derbyshire Police’s failure to follow police procedural rules but this does seem pretty basic stuff. And surely the lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service should have picked up these errors before the case even reached court? Hopefully the court will publish the judgement so we can see the extent of the police’s apparent ineptitude in this case.

A BBC reporter, Simon Hare, tweeted this yesterday from the court:

This evening, the RSPB has published its video footage of a man stealing the eggs from the peregrine’s nest site.

It’s such a disappointing result. With excellent footage from the RSPB that will have taken a great deal of time and skill to procure, this is a case that should have been straightforward. It’s doubly frustrating because as you’ll all know, it’s so rare that good quality evidence is available in so many raptor persecution cases, so when it is available we all hope it will lead to justice being served.

Understanding what went wrong in this case will be important and lessons need to be learned, not least by Derbyshire Police’s Rural Crime Team.

Further breach of Freedom of Information Act by Dorset Police re: poisoned eagle

Yesterday I blogged about how Dorset Police and the Dorset Police & Crime Commissioner, David Sidwick, were both in breach of the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to Chris Packham’s FoI requests about the poisoned eagle incident within the statutory period of 20 working days (see here).

Today I can report a further breach of the Freedom of Information Act by Dorset Police in relation to my FoI requests, also relating to the poisoned eagle incident.

[The poisoned white-tailed eagle found dead on an unnamed shooting estate in North Dorset in January 2022. Photo by Dorset Police]

Regular blog readers may recall I submitted an FoI request to Dorset Police on 4th March 2022, asking for copies of all correspondence between Dorset Police and local Conservative MP Chris ‘eagles aren’t welcome in Dorset‘ Loder on the subjects of wildlife crime, police wildlife crime officers, and eagle reintroductions, from 1 January 2022 to date.

On 17th March 2022 Dorset Police tried to fob me off with a refusal notice with what is perhaps the most ludicrous excuse I’ve ever seen (see here to read it in full).

I appealed that decision and requested a review of it on 14th April 2022. According to the FoI Act, the public authority has another 20 working days in which to respond to that review request. Taking into account all the public bank holidays in April and May, Dorset Police should have responded no later than 17th May 2022.

It’s now 26th May 2022 and Dorset Police hasn’t responded. I have written to them, again, to remind them of their legal obligations. If their silence continues I will escalate my complaint.

Meanwhile, you may also recall that I’d sent a similar FoI request to the Dorset Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) (David Sidwick) in early March. After a series of reminders to the PCC’s office (see here), I did finally get a response in late April 2022.

However, under scrutiny it became apparent that some of the correspondence I’d requested to see between Chris Loder MP and the PCC, David Sidwick, was missing from the bundle of information I received (see here).

So I wrote back to the PCC and asked them to forward ALL the correspondence, not just the bits they were happy for me to see.

That response was due back next Monday (30th May 2022) but I’m pleased to say it has arrived early and is now sitting in my inbox.

I’ve had a quick skim-read and it’s immediately obvious why ‘someone’ might not have wanted me to see it. I don’t have time to blog about that right now but will come back to it shortly…

UPDATE 16.00hrs: There’s quite a lot going on behind the scenes. For strategic reasons, I won’t be blogging further on this FoI response from the PCC until later next week. I’m sorry I can’t explain why right now but it will hopefully become apparent (and in a good way) next week. Thanks for your patience.

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