Millden Estate – plausible deniability or wilful blindness to gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies’ crimes?

Further to the conviction and jailing of Millden Estate gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies earlier this month for his crimes involving animal cruelty and firearms offences (see here), there’s been quite a lot of commentary about the role of the estate.

In the media coverage I’ve read on this case, an unidentified spokesman for Millden Estate has commented as follows:

The estate does not condone or tolerate any illegal activity relating to the welfare of animals or wildlife.

We were shocked to learn of all the allegations when they came to light.

The employee involved was suspended by the estate with immediate effect and resigned a few days later when the police investigation was still at an early stage. At no stage was the estate itself the focus of the investigation. These offences did not take place on the estate but happened at locations some distance away and unconnected to the estate“.

I want to examine the plausibility of the estate’s denial.

First of all, of course the estate is going to state that it ‘doesn’t condone or tolerate any illegal activity relating to the welfare of animals or wildlife‘. It’s hardly going to say, ‘Oh yes, officer, we encourage all our employees to break the law and inflict sadistic cruelty on wildlife‘, is it?! And I would imagine, given the potential for a vicarious liability prosecution for raptor persecution these days, an estate of this size and prominence will have all its paperwork in order (e.g. statements in its employees’ contracts, evidence of on-going training etc) that it could produce to defend itself if an employee was caught committing wildlife crime.

This sort of paper trail is now commonplace on Scotland’s large shooting estates and has been encouraged by various shooting organisations who have provided advice (e.g. BASC here, Scottish Land & Estates here) and in some cases training (e.g. GWCT here). Ironically the document produced by SLE on vicarious liability acknowledges the help of someone believed to be linked to the sporting management of Millden Estate!

Whilst arse-covering paper audits might convince the authorities, what actual effect does it have on the activities of an estate’s employees?

Very little, judging by the criminality undertaken by gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies, working on a estate that has a ‘horrendous catalogue‘ of wildlife crimes according to Alan Stewart, a former Police Wildlife Crime Officer who’s patch included the Angus Glens.

But the spokesperson from Millden Estate said: “We were shocked to learn of all the allegations when they came to light”.

How plausible is that? How plausible is it that Rhys Owen Davies’ injured and scarred dogs, kennelled next to his cottage on the estate, weren’t seen by any of the estate’s other employees, including the multiple gamekeepers he worked alongside, for the 18 month period when he was using the dogs to inflict sadistic cruelty on foxes and badgers?

In my opinion, that’s pretty implausible. Have a look at this photograph of two of Davies’ mutilated dogs. It was published in the Daily Record and appears to show the dogs tethered to a vehicle that it would be reasonable to assume is a work vehicle:

In court, Davies’ defence barrister told the Sheriff that the dogs’ injuries were as a result of lawful ratting and foxing, which are part of a gamekeeper’s regular duties. It seems implausible to me that his work colleagues didn’t notice these injuries or that the extent of the injuries didn’t raise any suspicion as to their cause. They’d also know, I’d argue, that Davies wasn’t seeking professional veterinary advice on the treatment of those injuries.

Gamekeeping duties often involve the use of the keepers’ own dogs (e.g. see photo below) and the multiple gamekeepers employed on Millden Estate would have had ample opportunity to see Davies’ dogs at work and to ask him about what the Crown Office described as ‘obvious injuries’. Any concerns could have been raised with the Head Gamekeeper and /or the sporting agent / estate Factor.

The estate’s statement also included the line:

At no stage was the estate itself the focus of the investigation. These offences did not take place on the estate but happened at locations some distance away and unconnected to the estate“.

The estate WAS the focus of the investigation as the search warrant included a provision to search various sites on Millden Estate looking for evidence of badger sett disturbance. And Davies’ tied cottage and associated outbuildings on the estate were also searched, under warrant, where a number of serious firearms offences were uncovered, specifically, an unsecured Benelli shotgun was found propped up against a wall near the front door; two unsecured rifles were also found: a Tikka .243 rifle on the sofa and a CZ rifle in the hall cupboard next to the open gun cabinet;  and an assortment of unsecured ammunition was found including 23 bullets in a pot on the floor, five in a carrier bag behind the front door and one on top of a bed, according to a statement by the Crown Office.

As Davies was employed as an under-keeper, I’d argue that Millden Estate should bear significant responsibility for these serious breaches on the estate of shotgun & firearms legislation. Where was the supervision from Davies’ immediate supervisor, the Head Keeper? Davies’ estate cottage was unlocked and unattended when the SSPCA and Police Scotland arrived to execute the search warrant. Imagine who else could have walked in, found those firearms, shotgun and ammunition. If, as we’re led to believe by the shooting industry’s propaganda machine, that most if not all illegal behaviour on sporting estates is perpetrated by ‘unknown criminals’ totally unconnected to the estate, you’d think that the security of firearms, shotguns and ammunition would be of uppermost importance, wouldn’t you?

You can draw your own conclusions, of course, but it’s my opinion that Millden Estate’s efforts to distance itself from having any knowledge of Davies’ crimes are predictable but implausible. Especially after I’ve recently learned that there was another investigation into alleged badger baiting on this estate about 13 years ago; an investigation that didn’t go anywhere because apparently the procurator fiscal at that time refused to advance the case.

As for the bags of dead raptors found during the search in October 2019 at three different locations on the estate, and reportedly containing at least three shot buzzards, we now know that the Crown Office is not pursuing a prosecution (although the detailed rationale for this decision has not been divulged, see here) which means that Millden Estate will avoid a prosecution for alleged vicarious liability. I wait with interest to see whether NatureScot imposes a General Licence restriction in relation to the discovery of these dead raptors.

22 thoughts on “Millden Estate – plausible deniability or wilful blindness to gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies’ crimes?”

  1. So … one of the most prestigious estates with all those gamekeepers, land managers, farm hands, relatives, friends etc etc wasn’t aware of 11 dogs – some badly injured – in kennels and an outbuilding on the estate’s property during an 18 month period!

  2. i grew up in the area and later worked as a beater for an adjoining estate and although I dont live there now can vouch for Millden s longstanding reputation as a heavily managed estate (and I had also heard of the [previously alleged] badger baiting incident that Ruth has uncovered). However I think there is an inconsistency between a couple of the posts – Brechin ( which is where I grew up) which is given as the site for the raid on Davies’ home is not on the Millden Estate, although it is around 20 minutes drive away and there are tied cottages there belonging to adjoining estates. There are also of course tied cottages on the Millden estate.
    None of this detracts from the main point that it would have been a remarkable feat of concealment by Davies if his fellow keepers had been unaware of his activities, and not one that seems probable from someone who sent his crime scene photos off for development.

    1. i don’t know if there is a Turnabrae in Glen esk — Turnabrae as reported in the media — but there was a Turnabrain when i lived there. It was situated on Millden Estate but on the south bank of the River Northesk, across the river from the main estate buildings. it6 had an inhabitable house there at the time which was far from a ruin. I’d guess that this was simply a typo from the media.

  3. Anybody who knows anything about dogs would know it would take a badger to inflict that kind of damage on a terriers jaw.
    A fox simply does not have the power.
    The people I am most dissappointed with are the police and SSPCA no doubt under pressure from the money people at the head of all this for not doing the estate for more offences .
    We can hardly expect better from the perps they will never admit the truth, but if the law is unwilling to prosecute this barbarism will never stop.

    1. Alan,

      I think your disappointment in the SSPCA is misplaced. They conducted a thorough, forensic investigation and provided so much evidence that Davies ended up pleading guilty, even with a QC defending him. As a result, he was given a custodial sentence, which as you’ll know, is rare.

      I share your disappointment with the police on this particular investigation. There were a number of ‘easy wins’ for them, had they followed up with the same level of vigour as the SSPCA.

  4. I’m puzzled at your reference to a barrister. Unless someone provided a lot of cash the defence representative would have been a solicitor, perhaps working on Legal Aid. Engaging an advocate, Scotland’s equivalent to a barrister, would involve, in addition, a solicitor to prepare the case and sit with him or her. So, do you know who actually appeared?

    1. Hi Ewan,

      Davies was represented by solicitor Brian Bell. However, I’m also reliably informed that a QC was involved, which isn’t unusual when gamekeepers from large estates find themselves in court. It begs the question, of course, who paid?

      1. Thanks, I see he’s a local court man, who would normally just appear himself (as I did in Glasgow over four decades). Legal Aid would not fund a QC for this sort of case and to coax one out of Edinburgh would cost a lot.

  5. All of the firearms offences are probably linked to his job on the estate unfortunately…not linked to vicarious liability. Are Mildens gamekeepers responsible for the purchase of their own firearms AND ammunition?
    Presumably the police took the time to search his phone and social media? I wonder what picture that painted of his non-relationship with his work colleagues and neighbours?
    If his dogs were injured by foxes(!?) then the head keeper must have approved their use for fox control on the estate…and his working alone in the dark, in remote areas, with fire arms. Did they check the risk assessment?

  6. Just goes to show what a waste of space the vicarious liability legislation is. Estate owners should know what their employees are up to on their estates and with their equipment. It looks to me like it was drafted as a sop to the groups demanding action but with motorway sized loopholes for the miscreants to escape justice through.

    It is totally reminiscent of the England & Wales Hunting with Dogs Act: as Tony Blair admitted, it was drafted to pay lip-service to a commitment but in such a way that it would be unenforceable.

    1. “It is totally reminiscent of the England & Wales Hunting with Dogs Act: as Tony Blair admitted, it was drafted to pay lip-service to a commitment but in such a way that it would be unenforceable.”

      It is called the Hunting Act. And yet it has been enforced, on occasion. I read that there has been “over 573 successful prosecutions under the Hunting Act from 2005 to 2021. A further 47 people have admitted an offence under the Act.”

  7. I was just browsing the SGA website. Any reader of their discreet statement about Davies in ‘News’ – who looks no further, might be forgiven for thinking Davies had ceased being a keeper when in fact he was very busy with his badger baiting while employed at Millden – reputedly the ‘Holy Grail’ of sporting estates. I wonder if Alex Hogg has been in touch with anyone at Millden or among it’s management company? Whether members of his organisation or not, he ought to be livid with them that they have again undermined the “good name” of keepering that he does (genuinely) seem to work hard to try and prop up. I would bet though that he knows his place, and wouldn’t have the temerity to dare complain about or to one of the modern day ‘big boys’ of the industry. I could be wrong though.

  8. Is there not a case for the Health and Safety Executive to investigate the illegal storage of firearms by Rhys Owen Davies? What was the policy of the estate on firearms storage? What measures did the estate undertake to check that its policy was being adhered to? Did the estate inspect the firearms storage of its employee?

  9. As the owner of the tied cottage and the employer of Rhys Owen Davies at the time of the offences, I would have thought the estate is also classed as liable for any criminal activities that take place at the cottage, irrespective of whether they are aware of them or not.

    1. Does that mean a landlord of a flat in Glasgow is liable for a cannabis farm the tenant has been growing in there?

      1. If the managers of the cannabis farm and those who benefit from the property income are acting in concert with one another – as they sometimes are, then I would say yes ofcourse. Regards grouse moors – getting to the truth of who is controlling what and who can be proven to be benefiting is almost impossible within current legal framework and with no regulatory system worth its name to speak of.

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