Millden Estate’s sporting agent signatory to ‘best practice’ scheme!

Millden Estate, the (now former) employer of depraved gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies, sentenced to jail earlier this month for his crimes including animal cruelty and some pretty serious firearms offences (see here), is managed for gamebird shooting by a sporting agency called BH Sporting Ltd, which is owned solely by Nicholas Baikie.

Shooting estates under the management of Mr Baikie are the subject of many discussions amongst raptor workers and his name often comes up: “Oh, it’s a Baikie estate” is heard with almost as much frequency as, “Oh, it’s an Osborne estate”. I might come back to this in a future blog.

Anyway, these two individuals are associated with the management of many, many shooting estates across Scotland and England since their time at the notorious Leadhills Estate in the early 2000s. Between 2003-2006 Osborne was listed as a Director of Leadhills Sporting Ltd, a company who held the sporting rights at Leadhills. Baikie is reported to have been one of his gamekeepers before apparently training as a land agent under Osborne (according to this court document) and then setting up his own consultancy on grouse moor management, including taking on Millden Estate in the Angus Glens, which has been on Baikie’s books now for many years.

For someone in such high demand in the grouse-shooting world, Baikie keeps a relatively low online profile. Although here’s a photo from the Perthshire Picture Agency, taken in the Angus Glens in 2014. Baikie (on the left) is wearing the Millden Estate tweed and is standing next to a Millden Estate gamekeeper, also in estate tweed and the estate’s uniform of lilac shirt and orange tie.

Now, according to the website of British Game Assurance (formerly the British Game Alliance but rebranded in the last year), BH Sporting is one of a number of sporting agents that have:

COMMITTED TO A GOAL OF OFFERING SPORTING DAYS EXCLUSIVELY ON SHOOTS AND ESTATES THAT ARE MEMBERS OF THE BRITISH GAME ASSURANCE FROM THE START OF THE 2023 SEASON. THIS WILL ENSURE THAT THE PROMOTED VENUES ARE ALL PARTICIPATING IN THE INDEPENDENTLY AUDITED ASSURANCE SCHEME, DEMONSTRATING THAT THE SHOOTING SECTOR IS ADHERING TO BEST PRACTICE AT ALL TIMES‘.

Shurely shome mishtake?

How can BH Sporting (or its sole director, Nick Baikie), be certain that any estate on which it offers shooting ‘is adhering to best practice at all times’?

This is the sporting agency that failed to notice the ‘obvious injuries‘ (quote from the Crown Office) to five of gamekeeper Davies’ dogs. Here’s a photo of two of those mutilated dogs, tied to what looks like an estate vehicle. Pretty hard to miss, I’d say:

This is also the sporting agency that failed to notice the very serious and reckless firearms offences committed by Davies at his tied cottage on Millden Estate.

This is also the sporting agency that failed to notice the three bags of dead raptors reportedly found on Millden Estate during a joint SSPCA/Police Scotland raid in October 2019 and apparently containing at least three shot buzzards.

This is also the sporting agency that failed to notice the ‘horrendous catalogue‘ of wildlife crimes uncovered over many years on Millden Estate (for which Millden Estate has repeatedly denied responsibility and for which nobody has ever been prosecuted).

Funny, all these things this sporting agency failed to notice and yet Nick Baikie was reportedly invited to show around Professor Werritty and co during the Govt-commissioned Werritty Review into grouse moor management, where Millden Estate was held as an example of ‘best practice’. Who’s idea was that??!

And now we’re supposed to accept that as from the 2023 shooting season, BH Sporting will only offer shooting on estates that have demonstrated ‘best practice’? What due diligence has the British Game Alliance done on this?

Is Millden Estate registered as a British Game Assurance member? We don’t know, because the names of all the BGA-endorsed shoots were removed from the BGA website several years ago, resulting in criticism of the BGA for its lack of transparency and accuracy (here), two fairly important commodities when you’re asking the public to trust your brand, I’d have thought. But maybe that’s just me.

I’m sure it won’t be the last criticism of the BGA. In fact I know it won’t be the last, because there’s another sporting agent listed on the BGA website whose presence undermines the entire credibility of the BGA and what it claims to represent. More soon.

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.

No prosecution for shot raptors found on Millden Estate, Angus Glens

On 8th October 2019, the Scottish SPCA executed a search warrant with Police Scotland on various properties on Millden Estate in the Angus Glens looking for evidence of animal cruelty and animal fighting, including badger baiting, after 58 gruesome photographs were reportedly sent to a printing shop in England by a Millden Estate employee.

Millden Estate is known for its grouse shooting (having been described in a sales brochure in 2011 as being ‘The Holy Grail‘ of grouse moors and ‘One of the finest sporting estates in Scotland‘) The estate also hosts pheasant and partridge-shooting on its low ground.

Millden Estate has also been described as a ‘savage, stripped, blasted land‘ by author and photographer Chris Townsend (here).

Millden Estate gamekeepers, along with others in the Angus Glens, have previously been feted by senior politicians, including former Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Fergus Ewing MSP, former Minister Graeme Dey MSP, and by Prince Charles who was photographed with Millden keepers as he opened a tweed workshop in Beauly in 2019.

Millden Estate was also visited by Professor Werritty and his colleagues in 2018 during the review of grouse moor management; they visited the estate apparently to see an example of ‘best practice for managing grouse moors’.

The estate, one of a number in the Angus Glens, is also long- known amongst conservationists as a raptor persecution hotspot after the discovery of poisoned and shot buzzards in 2009 and 2011 (here), a poisoned golden eagle (Alma) in 2009 (here), and a satellite-tagged golden eagle seemingly caught in a spring trap and then apparently uplifted overnight and dumped on Deeside with two broken legs & left to die (here). Nobody has ever been prosecuted for any of these alleged offences and Millden Estate has denied any responsibility.

In October 2019 during the morning raid at Millden Estate the SSPCA did find evidence of animal fighting and cruelty, including badger baiting, and after two and a half years of protracted legal process, in May this year 28 year old gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies was convicted of a number of animal cruelty, animal fighting, and firearms offences: (for previous blogs on this case see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here). Davies is due to be sentenced on Monday.

Other evidence of alleged wildlife crime was also uncovered during that search of Millden Estate back in October 2019, including the discovery of a number of dead raptors wrapped in bags at at least three separate locations, apparently including at the residences of two estate employees.

Whilst the SSPCA led on the investigation into animal cruelty/animal fighting, Police Scotland led on the investigation into the dead raptors (because the SSPCA don’t, yet, have the powers to investigate cases where a wild animal is already dead – bonkers, I know – see here for the background on this).

I have spent the last two and a half years chasing Police Scotland about these dead raptors and asking for status updates on the investigation. I have to say I’ve been summarily unimpressed. The investigation has been conducted at a snail’s pace and communication has been dire. I understand that the dead raptors all underwent post mortems and it was determined they’d been shot. No information has been provided about the number of species involved (although it’s been reported that some were buzzards), nor the number of individuals confirmed to have been shot, although I know of at least three.

Earlier this week I asked the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) about this case and whether it was progressing (i.e. has anyone been charged?). To its credit, the COPFS response was fast, but the case outcome familiarly frustrating:

The Procurator Fiscal received a report relating to a 28 year old male and incidents said to have occurred between 1 January 2019 and 8 October 2019. After careful consideration of the facts and circumstances of the case, including the available admissible evidence, the Procurator Fiscal decided that there should be no proceedings taken at this time. The Crown reserves the right to proceed in the future should further evidence become available‘.

I doubt we’ll ever be informed about the extent of the raptor persecution uncovered (even now, nearly three years after the raptor corpses were found, Police Scotland has failed to issue any press statement) and we’ll certainly not learn any more detail about why charges weren’t brought because the COPFS is not obliged to inform the public about its decision-making process. Apparently transparency doesn’t apply.

To be fair, a prosecution would depend on an individual suspect being identified but there are multiple employees at Millden Estate (16 were listed in the estate’s sales brochure in 2011) and a recent photo on social media suggests there are multiple gamekeepers (there’s a photo online showing 13 men dressed as gamekeepers in Millden Estate tweed at the start of the 2020 grouse season).

I think it’s fair to say that any employee could have the motivation, means and opportunity to commit wildlife crime – we now know that at least one of them, Rhys Owen Davies, was doing exactly that, apparently right under the noses of his colleagues and bosses on Millden Estate – but just having the motivation, means and opportunity isn’t sufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution. Having a carrier bag full of shot raptors at your house isn’t enough for a court of law to convict, although if there was a bag of dead raptors at my house I’m pretty sure I’d notice them and I’m pretty certain I’d have notified the police.

So where does that leave us? We await the sentencing of gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies on Monday but I don’t expect any of us have high hopes for a fitting sentence.

Millden Estate must surely now qualify for a General Licence restriction, a monumentally ineffective sanction but the only thing left on the table until the Scottish Government pulls its finger out and introduces the licensing scheme it promised to develop in November 2020.

But even if the authorities do decide to impose a General Licence restriction on Millden Estate, that won’t curtail the estate’s ability to continue to host grouse, pheasant and partridge shoots. The estate, which is run through a series of companies and limited liability partnerships (LLPs), including one called Millden Sporting LLP, reported tangible assets in 2021 of £17.5 million.

That’s a lot of money, and with it comes a lot of influence.

Farmer receives pathetic fine for poisoning two buzzards & a raven

This article appeared in The Journal today:

Farmer fined €500 for poisoning protected bird species in Co Wicklow

By Lauren Boland

A FARMER HAS been fined for poisoning protected birds in Co Wicklow after pleading guilty to what a judge described as a “serious crime”.

Christopher Thomas Noel Doyle, also known as Noel Doyle Senior, with an address at Crehelp in Co Wicklow, came before the Carlow District Court over a breach of restrictions on the use of poisoned bait.

The judge imposed a €500 fine and €1,500 in expenses that he must pay within four months.

A conservation ranger told the court he had discovered two dead buzzards, a dead raven, and a sheep carcass on lands at Athgreaney, Co Wicklow.

[Buzzard, photographer unknown]

The court heard that the ranger first found a dead buzzard and after further investigation identified a second dead buzzard, a dead raven, and a sheep carcass placed near a fox den.

Post-mortems by the Department of Agriculture and testing by Dublin Regional Veterinary Laboratory and the State Laboratory found that the birds died due to high levels of poison (carbofuran) in their systems.

The sheep had been cut open and the wound was laced with large amounts of carbofuran.

The ranger said that the levels of poison were extremely hazardous to all forms of life and that it was very fortunate that no humans had been accidentally poisoned.

He said it was likely that other wild animals had scavenged the carcasses and died from poisoning but were never found. 

Judge Marie Keane said there was an “astonishing amount of poison” used in what she described as a “serious crime” and “a deliberate enterprise” to try to persecute the local wildlife.

In a statement, Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan called it a “particularly heinous and disturbing wildlife crime”.

Buzzards are a protected species and deliberate poisoning of them is an offence under the Birds and Natural Habitats (Restrictions on the Use of Poisoned Bait) Regulations 2010.

Carbofuran was previously used as a pesticide in agriculture but is now banned because of its toxicity to wildlife, especially to birds.

Approval for the use of carbofuran products was withdrawn throughout the EU in 2007, including in Ireland in December of that year.

After an 18-month period to use up remaining stock, it was banned fully from 2009.

ENDS

General Licence restriction imposed on Moy, a grouse-shooting estate, after discovery of poisoned red kite

Press release from NatureScot, 21st June 2022:

General Licence restricted on Highland estate

NatureScot has restricted the use of General Licences on Moy Estate for three years

The decision was made on the basis of evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds.

This evidence included a poisoned red kite found on the estate in 2020, and incidents in relation to trapping offences.

[Red kite. Photographer unknown]

Donald Fraser, NatureScot’s Head of Wildlife Management, said: “We consider the information from Police Scotland provides robust evidence that wild birds have been killed or taken or there has been intention to do so illegally on this land.

“Because of this, and the risk of more wildlife crimes taking place, we have suspended the use of general licences on this property for three years until June 2025. They may still apply for individual licences, but these will be closely monitored.

“NatureScot is committed to using all the tools we have available to tackle wildlife crime. This measure will help to protect wild birds in the area, while still allowing necessary land management activities to take place, although under tighter supervision.

“We believe this is a proportionate response to protect wild birds in the area and prevent further wildlife crime. We will continue to work closely with Police Scotland and consider information they provide on cases which may warrant restricting general licences.”

General licences allow landowners or land managers to carry out control of common species of wild birds, such as crows and magpies, to protect crops or livestock, without the need to apply for an individual licence.

In addition to this restriction, there are currently three other restrictions in place on Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park, Lochan Estate in Perthshire and Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire.

ENDS

The restriction notice reads as follows:

In line with NatureScot’s published General Licence restrictions: Framework for Implementing Restrictions we hereby give notice that a restriction has been applied to the land outlined in red overleaf. This restriction prohibits the use of General Licences 01, 02 and 03 on that land between 21st June 2022 and 21st June 2025.

Please note that this restriction does not imply responsibility for the commission of crimes on any individuals.

This one has been a long time coming. Moy is one of those estates where if its name comes up in conversation amongst raptor conservationists in Scotland, eyes tend to roll and knowing looks are exchanged. It has been identified as a raptor persecution hotspot for many, many years.

Here is a map we created way back in 2016 to highlight the extent of raptor persecution crimes in former Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing’s constituency (given his strong support of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association) and this shows the concentration of incidents on and close to Moy Estate:

Here is a selection of examples, but this is by no means an exhaustive list:

Moy Estate was raided by police in 2010 after the discovery of poisoned bait and dead raptors and illegally set traps. A gamekeeper was later convicted of possession of a red kite after its bloodied corpse was found in the back of his vehicle. It had two broken legs, consistent with being caught in spring traps, and a head injury. A bloodied shinty stick was also found in the back of the vehicle. Notably, the gamekeeper wasn’t convicted for killing the kite, just for having possession of it. Nobody was charged with killing this kite.

These baited traps were discovered on the moor (the illegally-set spring traps were originally disguised under moss, removed here for evidential purposes). No charges were brought.

The remains of two further red kites were discovered on the moor, including a severed red kite leg and some wing tags that had previously been fitted to a kite, all found buried in holes under some moss. No charges were brought.

A jar in one of the gamekeeper’s houses contained the leg rings of four young golden eagles – nobody could account for how they had ended up inside that jar. Perhaps he’d found them whilst ‘metal detecting at his uncle’s farm’ like gamekeeper Archie Watson, who recently gave this implausible explanation to the court for how he’d come to possess BTO leg rings from a buzzard and a red kite attached to his keyring.

This male hen harrier was found caught by its leg in an illegally-set spring trap on Moy Estate in 2010. No charges were brought. It survived after being rescued by raptor workers from the Scottish Raptor Study Group.

In May 2011 a satellite-tracked red kite ‘disappeared’ on Moy, and another one ‘disappeared’ in August 2011.

In 2016 Police Scotland issued an appeal for information following the discovery of disturbed and abandoned buzzard and goshawk nests in the Moy Forest. One goshawk and four buzzard nests were abandoned in suspicious circumstances, with some evidence of illegal disturbance. These nests were being monitored by staff from Forestry Enterprise Scotland (see here). No charges were brought.

In 2017 masked gunmen were caught on camera at a goshawk nest in Moy Forest. A few days later the nest and a clutch of four eggs was found abandoned (see here). No charges were brought.

In 2018 Police Scotland issued an appeal for information after a buzzard was found caught in an illegal pole trap in the Moy area (see here). No charges were brought.

In 2020 a poisoned red kite was found dead, containing traces of a banned pesticide, leading to a police appeal for information (here).

In 2021 an individual was charged with the alleged killing of a bird of prey in this area. This case is believed to be progressing through the courts so I can’t comment further at this stage.

Of course, a General Licence restriction doesn’t amount to much of a sanction in real terms, as I’ve discussed on this blog endless times before (e.g. see here). However, it’s currently the only tool available to the authorities until we finally see the introduction of the promised grouse moor licensing scheme by the Scottish Government. Had that scheme been in place already, we’d hopefully have seen the removal of Moy Estate’s licence to shoot for a number of years, if not permanently.

Meanwhile, what will be really interesting to see is whether the Moy Game Fair goes ahead this year, given that the shooting organisations have all claimed to have a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to raptor persecution. I don’t think the likes of Scottish Land & Estates, Fergus Ewing MSP and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association can expect anything other than high-level criticism if they attend this event on an estate that has now been sanctioned for wildlife crimes by the statutory nature conservation advisor, based on e

Evidence provided by Police Scotland. Mind you, the conviction of a gamekeeper on Moy Estate in 2011 didn’t stop them attending (see here and here).

UPDATE 14th July 2022: Scottish Gamekeepers Association plans award ceremony at disgraced Moy Estate (here)

UPDATE 6th August 2022: Fergus Ewing MSP & his shooting industry pals disregard sanctions imposed on Moy Estate for wildlife crime (here)

Dorset Police continues its damage limitation exercise re: its botched investigation into the poisoned eagle

Dorset Police is still desperately undertaking a damage limitation exercise in relation to its botched investigation into the poisoning of a white-tailed eagle found dead on an unnamed shooting estate in January.

The following article appeared in the Dorset Echo yesterday, reproduced here:

DORSET Police said it has “never been in any doubt” the poisoning of an “extremely rare” white tailed eagle is a “serious offence”.

An investigation was launched in February after the bird had been found dead in North Dorset.

Despite finding high levels of rat poison brodifacoum in the eagle, named G461, Dorset Police dropped the investigation, a decision which “baffled” the RSPB.

Dorset Police said tests were “inconclusive” and it was not possible to confirm if a criminal offence had been committed.

Now, after large criticism and a Freedom of Information request revealed correspondence between West Dorset MP Chris Loder, who reportedly said the investigation should not be a priority, and Police and Crime Commissioner David Sidwick, a specialist investigator has been brought in by police.

A spokesperson for Dorset Police said: “We understand that concern has been expressed as to whether more could have been done in respect of the investigation into the death of the white-tailed sea eagle.

“Therefore, in the interests of transparency, it was important for a senior detective to review the investigation, seeking expertise from the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme and liaising with a specialist prosecutor from the CPS to ascertain if the evidential threshold for prosecution is met. We hope this will give confidence in decisions made.

“It has never been in any doubt for Dorset Police that if poisoned deliberately, this is a serious offence as the sea eagle is protected by the law.

“We have always been keen to secure a prosecution if at all possible and have been working with a range of partners to try and achieve this.

“We have increased the number of officers with knowledge of wildlife crime offences and are working with our partners to ensure we are able to utilise our different powers, expertise and resources to their best effect.

“We will of course reflect on any learning in respect of the initial or future investigations.”

The spokesperson added the force was always open to new information and hoped it could give “further transparency” to future decisions.

Correspondence between Mr Loder and Mr Sidwick showed the latter saying the pair needed to get their “ducks in the row on this one”.

In a statement on the PCC’s website, he said suggestions the investigation was politically impeded were “bizarre and entirely without merit”.

He added: “It is a plain and simple fact that the team continues to do what they have always done, which is to tackle all aspects of rural, wildlife and heritage-related crime in Dorset.”

Answering what was meant by getting “ducks in a row”, Mr Sidwick said: “All this meant was that was there was a need a for a mutual understanding about the independence of Dorset Police to carry out investigations as they see fit.”

The eagle was released as part of a reintroduction project by Forestry England in a bid to bring the breed back to the country after an absence of over 240 years, by releasing up to 60 birds over five years.

ENDS

It’s a nice try by Dorset Police, but, as I’ve said previously, asking a senior officer from the same police force to review the investigation is effectively just Dorset Police marking its own homework. Had it been a review undertaken by a senior officer from another force it might have been more credible, although of course that would depend on the integrity of that force/officer. As regular blog readers will be only too aware, there is huge disparity between how different police forces and different officers tackle wildlife crime investigations. Some are fantastic, some are not.

But anyway, the ‘review’ undertaken by the senior officer from Dorset Police has already been done according to comments made by Dorset Police Chief Scott Chilton in a Facebook live chat almost three weeks ago, and that officer 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.

And increasing the size of the force’s rural crime team is utterly pointless if investigations are going to be closed down prematurely. Dorset Police could employ 3,000 wildlife crime officers but if they’re not allowed to undertake a search to look for evidence when an eagle has been found poisoned with 7 x the lethal dose, then what’s the point?

Besides, they don’t need 3,000 wildlife crime officers – they had one (Claire Dinsdale) who was brilliantly committed and effective and who was leading on the poisoned eagle investigation until senior officers pulled the plug and Claire left on long-term sick leave. They only need to employ a few like Claire (and Dorset Police does have some good officers in its rural crime team), and then support them in their investigations, and they’d get results.

And as for claiming ‘transparency’, good grief. Dorset Police continues to refuse to respond to Freedom of Information requests and has now been reported to the Information Commissioner for multiple breaches of the Freedom of Information Act.

If it wants to regain public trust and confidence, Dorset Police can start by explaining the real reason the poisoned eagle investigation was dropped (because this fundamental question still hasn’t been answered). And then it could highlight the ongoing investigation (running since 2021) into alleged raptor poisoning, on the very same estate where the poisoned white-tailed eagle was found(!!) and tell us whether anyone is being charged.

It can also provide an update on the toxicology results of the dead buzzard and red kite, picked up on another shooting estate in early March (see here), and the dead buzzard found on another estate in late April (here).

There is clearly a raptor persecution problem in Dorset, and Dorset Police needs the public onside to help detect these incidents, and we need Dorset Police to do its job properly and try and bring these criminals to the courts. Nobody is suggesting this is easy – we’re all well aware of the difficulties involved, but the least we should expect is that the police will take every opportunity to undertake a robust and thorough investigation, and not to drop it when a local MP kicks off on social media with ridiculous and outdated anti-eagle hysteria.

Well done to local Dorset Echo reporter Ben Williets for tracking this case and keeping it in the news.

Another gamekeeper convicted for poison offences on a pheasant shoot, but not charged for poisoned kite & shot buzzard

David Matthews, a gamekeeper with 50 years experience, has been convicted at Wrexham Magistrates Court for poison offences uncovered on the McAlpine Estate in Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, North Wales, where he has worked for 25 years.

In February 2021 a dead red kite was found on the estate by a member of the public and a later toxicology analysis revealed it had been poisoned with Bendiocarb.

[The poisoned red kite. Photo by RSPB]

When RSPB Investigations Officers subsequently visited the McAlpine Estate they found a dead buzzard inside a pheasant release pen. When the body was x-rayed, a piece of shot could be seen lodged in the bird’s skull.

[The shot buzzard found inside the pheasant release pen. Photo by RSPB]

A multi-agency search in October 2021 by North Wales Police, the Welsh Government, RSPB and the National Wildlife Crime Unit uncovered an unlocked barn containing 18 highly toxic products, including Cymag which has been banned since 2004. They also found the remains of a pheasant, inside a game bag on a bonfire site inside a pheasant release pen. The pheasant tested positive for Bendiocarb. Another dead buzzard was too badly decomposed to be tested.

Gamekeeper Matthews pleaded guilty to one charge relating to the possession of unauthorised pesticides. He received a total fine of £219.

You can read the full details of this case on the RSPB’s blog here.

In that blog, the RSPB state, ‘It remains unknown who killed the buzzard and the kite‘.

I’m pretty sure that the RSPB investigators, just like the rest of us, have a pretty good idea who might have been responsible but presumably there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone. Such is the nature of this game that it would be libellous to suggest a suspect.

It seems odd to me, though, that a gamekeeper who had worked on the estate for 25 years wouldn’t have noticed someone laying poisoned baits, placing the bait inside a game bag and leaving it on a bonfire site inside a pheasant release pen, and shooting dead a buzzard and leaving its corpse inside a pheasant release pen.

His £219 fine makes a total mockery of the system. Had this case been in Scotland, the fine for possessing an unauthorised poison would now be £40,000. That’s a serious deterrent.

£219 is not.

This is the reality and I’ll be reminding DEFRA Minister Lord Benyon of this the next time he repeats the Westminister Government’s tediously predictable claim that raptor-killing criminals face ‘significant sanctions…including an unlimited fine and/or a six month custodial sentence‘ (e.g. see this from Environment Minister Rebecca Pow in September 2021, and this from Richard Benyon in February 2022, and this from Rebecca Pow in February 2022, and this from Richard Benyon in April 2022).

Matthews is the 7th gamekeeper to be convicted in seven months across England, Scotland and Wales. There are still multiple cases pending court in the coming months. Clear evidence then that the game-shooting industry’s supposed ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards raptor persecution is simply just rhetoric and that the Government’s so-called ‘significant sanctions’ are complete bollocks.

The other convicted gamekeepers in recent months are:

Gamekeeper Shane Leech who was convicted in November 2021 for firearms and pesticides offences after the discovery of a poisoned buzzard found close to pheasant-rearing pens in Lakenheath, Suffolk (here);

Gamekeeper Peter Givens who was convicted in November 2021 for causing the death of a goshawk and a barn owl which starved to death in an illegally-operated trap on the Cathpair Estate in the Scottish Borders (here);

Gamekeeper Hilton Prest who was convicted in December 2021 for causing a sparrowhawk to starve to death in an illegally-operated trap in Cheshire (here);

Gamekeeper John Orrey who was convicted in January 2022 for battering to death two buzzards he’d caught in a cage trap on a pheasant shoot in Nottinghamshire (here);

Gamekeeper Rhys Davies from the Millden Estate in the Angus Glens, Scotland, who was convicted in May 2022 for animal cruelty relating to badger baiting (he’ll be sentenced at the end of June – here);

Gamekeeper Archie Watson who was convicted in June 2022 for raptor persecution and firearms offences after he was filmed throwing 8 dead raptors down a well on a pheasant-shoot in Wiltshire (here).

Well done to the multi-agency search team involved in bringing David Matthews to court.

Gamekeeper Archie Watson convicted of raptor persecution & firearms offences on Wiltshire pheasant shoot

On 1 June 2022 at Swindon Magistrates Court gamekeeper Archie Watson (21) of Dragon Lane, Manningford Bruce, Pewsey received a 12-month community order to carry out 180 hours unpaid work and was ordered to pay £393 costs and £95 surcharge for pleading guilty to raptor persecution offences relating to the discovery in 2020 of at least 11 buzzards, four red kites and one gull species that had been dumped down a well on Galteemore Farm, a pheasant-shooting venue in Wiltshire.

[Gamekeeper Watson caught on camera dumping a buzzard in the well. Photo by Guy Shorrock/RSPB]

Watson was caught on camera 13 times after the RSPB installed a covert video recorder following a tip off by a member of the public. He denied killing the birds but pleaded guilty to possession of dead birds – three red kites, five buzzards and a herring or black-backed gull – contrary to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. He claimed in court that he had ‘found’ the dead birds on the estate.

He also pleaded guilty to firearms offences after a loaded shotgun was discovered on the seat of his unlocked vehicle. Following a search at Watson’s home, several firearms were discovered that had been left unlocked and next to unsecured ammunition.

There has been significant media coverage of this latest conviction and I’d encourage you to read the following articles and watch the Channel 4 video, which reveals the extent of the multi-agency investigation that brought Watson to court:

RSPB Investigations blog here

Wiltshire Police statement here

Crown Prosecution Service statement here

Channel 4 News video here

ITV News coverage here

One of this blog’s readers attended court yesterday and has provided this excellent commentary on what went on:

[Court documents showing the charges faced by gamekeeper Archie Watson]

Charges 1 to 3 were dropped by the CPS as they couldn’t present sufficient evidence that Watson was the person who actually did the killing. It appears that he did not admit to killing them under questioning prior to the case and continued to maintain that in court that he had merely ‘found’ the carcasses as part of his duties out and about on the estate. He then disposed of them in a well estimated to be 8m deep with no water apparent and covered by a manhole cover. 

Having been alerted to the suspected disappearance of raptors (I couldn’t hear who by) the RSPB and possibly others (Wildlife Crime Unit?) set up camera surveillance at the site of the well. After an initial inspection of the contents of the well (by lowering a GoPro camera into it) it was found to contain remains of various birds including Common Buzzards, Red Kites and a Herring or Lesser Black Backed Gull). Following this the number of surveillance cameras was increased.

Watson was identified in the recordings on more than one occasion depositing bird carcasses into the well and on one occasion was recorded on audio in conversation with another person (not named) indicating that he knew ‘gulls were protected’. The evidence was passed to the police (Wiltshire Constabulary) who obtained warrants to search two addresses linked to Watson who was then arrested while staying at the address of a relative in Beckhampton (Nr Avebury, Wiltshire).

Searches of Watson’s home address in Dragons Lane, Manningford Bruce Nr Pewsey, Wilts turned up no evidence relating to raptor persecution however a glass jar containing white powder (later identified as Bendiocarb) was found in his vehicle. Watson claimed this was used as an insecticide against wasps and ants while the prosecution stated that it was also known to have been used in other recorded raptor poisoning incidents.

However at this site there was found evidence of multiple firearms offences concerning the safe storage of weapons and ammunition. In particular a Benelli M2 automatic (pump action) shotgun was found to be left unattended and unsecured in his Toyota pickup vehicle, still loaded with 11 shotgun cartridges. Watson was also found to be in possession of two BTO leg rings [from a buzzard and a red kite] which were attached to a keyring. Prosecution stated that to remove these rings from any bird it would have been necessary to break its legs. Watson claimed he had found these rings whilst metal detecting at his Uncle’s farm near Pewsey.

A search of Galteemore Farm in Beckhampton where the well was located found no further evidence of raptor persecution other than the contents of the well. A detailed inspection of the well was conducted under the supervision of the Fire Brigade and in conjunction with the Hampshire Confined Spaces team. It was found to contain the remains of a sheep, 9 bird skulls, multiple bird carcasses and an unidentified mammal skull’. 

[Examination of the carcasses as they were exhumed from the well. Photo by Guy Shorrock/RSPB]

Watson maintained at interview that he had not killed the birds but had simply used the well to dispose of carcasses he had ‘found’ whilst conducting his duties as gamekeeper. One of those function was to “keep the site clear” of such remains. He claimed to have found one of the buzzards on the A4 main road but had for some unspecified reason seen fit to dispose of it in the well. 

The prosecution provided witness testimony from a local wildlife expert that suggested it was highly unlikely to find such a high number of dead raptors over a relatively small area of open farmland where the birds had died of natural causes. Starvation was cited as one reason such birds may die and possibly only two such cases could be expected per annum. An impact statement was read out from a Mr Shorrock from the RSPB who said that there had been a serious problem with raptor persecution in the area. Forensic analysis of several of the bird carcasses found evidence of metal fragments.

As the charges for killing the birds had already been dropped due to lack of direct evidence Watson was the person responsible, it was also agreed that there was no case to answer on animal cruelty by Watson, which could have incurred an 18 week custodial sentence.

The defence argued for leniency on the grounds of it being Watson’s first (indicted) offence, previous ‘good character’ and that the length of time between the offences (2 years) had given him time to reflect on his actions and that he had “learnt his lesson”. It was stated that Watson had left school at 16 and been apprenticed as a gamekeeper sometime thereafter. He was 19 at the time of the offences and accepts that he had become ‘complacent’ around the proper use and care of the firearms. His firearms certificates had been revoked and whilst the court could apply for the destruction of the weapons it had not done so.

It was stated that clearly others had been using the well to dispose of carcasses and had been caught on video but were not identified in this case. The defence suggested that the custodial threshold had not been met because of these factors. The defence suggested that the risk of reoffending was “low” and that there was no evidence of further offending.

The Magistrates asked for clarifications on whether there was public access to the farmland? Watson suggested it was accessible only by a private driveway and was fenced but it was clear he was referring only to the immediate environs of the farm buildings and later stated that the entire holding was c.1000 acres. On a further supplementary question from the magistrates it was revealed that there is public access to the land and that it is adjacent to the historic monument of Avebury which attracts up to a quarter of a million visitors a year. These questions related specifically to the issue of firearms safety.

It was also asked why Watson had not reported finding the BTO leg rings to the appropriate authorities or even the BTO themselves to which the defence only replied that there was “no statutory obligation to report” this. It was also made clear that the number of birds Watson was being charged with being in possession of was reduced to 5 buzzards, 3 Red Kites and the Gull. No explanation was given for this.

At sentencing the Magistrates gave Watson credit for pleading guilty at the earliest opportunity and had therefore spared the public the time and cost of a trial. They regarded the firearms offences as being particularly serious and a combined sentence for all the offences combined was given as 180 hour unpaid community service plus costs of £393 plus a £95 surcharge for the forensic analysis of the bird carcasses. Watson was then referred to the Probation officer within the court before being allowed to leave the premises’.

ENDS

There’s so much to say about this case. First of all, full credit is due to the multi-agency investigation team who had to go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve the evidence. Their level of commitment was exemplary.

Second, this case illustrates in grim detail the lengths that those who kill birds of prey will go to hide the evidence of their crimes. Had it not been for a tip off by a member of the public, raptor-killing on this pheasant shoot would no doubt still be continuing, at huge cost to local raptor populations.

The defendant’s explanation for what was uncovered was so implausible that it’s laughable, but it’s no laughing matter and again, goes to highlight how difficult it is to secure a conviction, even with the level of evidence amassed in this case.

Watson’s sentence was derisory. It’s what we’ve come to expect, even though the number of corpses involved in this case make it the biggest raptor persecution investigation in England to date.

It’s not known whether Archie Watson was a member of the National Gamekeepers Organisation or BASC, as other recently-convicted gamekeepers have been, but to date neither organisation has bothered to issue a statement to condemn Watson’s crimes. How telling.

The blog reader who attended court also said this:

Also, I think he pleaded guilty on advice because they knew he’d have to answer difficult questions under oath on the stand that may have led to identifying who else was involved. And who was paying for his defence costs and the fine?

I asked him some of these questions outside the court with my GoPro on but the b@stard SD card wasn’t in properly and no recordings came through. He didn’t answer anyway but he was smirking and laughing with his mates as they went to their pickup’.

Some of the forensics work in this case, undertaken by the Natural History Museum at Tring, was funded by Wild Justice’s Raptor Forensics Fund, established in 2020 to help support police investigations into alleged raptor persecution crime. Thank you to all those who have contributed to this fund. The court ordered Watson to pay back the costs (£288).

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.

Buzzard shot & injured in south Derbyshire – police appeal for information

Derbyshire Constabulary’s Rural Crime Team has appealed for information following the discovery of a shot & injured buzzard and a magpie.

[Photo of the shot buzzard via Derbyshire Constabulary]

Both birds were found by a member of the public on 24th March 2022 at the cemetery, Newhall, Swadlincote. Both birds were alive and were taken for veterinary attention, where they were confirmed to have been shot.

Derbyshire Police published an appeal for information on 30th March 2022 which said, ‘Local enquiries are being made however should anybody have knowledge or information regarding who is responsible for shooting the birds please contact us quoting crime reference 22000171170‘.

%d bloggers like this: