Glen Orchy: a hollow victory

Last Friday, Tom McKellar, an employee of Auch Estate, an Argyll sporting estate in Bridge of Orchy, was convicted of possessing the illegal poison Carbofuran and was fined £1,200 (see here). This conviction should be a cause for celebration, and in some respects it is, but there is also an overwhelming sense of disappointment and frustration. We had all thought this was a pretty clear-cut case, with lots of investigative resources thrown at it, a strong evidential trail and a known suspect. We were further encouraged by a statement given by the then Scottish Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, who said:

I am truly appalled that yet another golden eagle has been illegally killed in Scotland – the second this summer. Illegal poisoning is simply inexcusable and while the perpetrators are certainly beneath contempt they are in no way above the law“.

Given the nature of the alleged offences (wildlife & firearms), we were certain that a custodial sentence was inevitable. How stupid were we?

It all started to unravel in December 2010, 18 months after the poisoned eagle was found dead in Glen Orchy. We learned that Tom McKellar had been convicted of possessing two illegal handguns, but instead of receiving the mandatory five-year prison sentence, he was given just 300 hours community service and a commendation from the judge who reportedly told him: “There is no doubt you are an outstanding individual” (see here). There was little mention in the media about the poisoned golden eagle or the stash of illegal poison that had been found at McKellar’s house during the original police search. We were suspicious that the wildlife crimes were being ignored and that COPFS had decided to just take on the firearms offences because, in the eyes of the law, these are greater crimes than the poisoning offences and would normally result in a custodial sentence.

Based on these suspicions, we blogged about the case in January 2011, and suggested that no charges were being brought against anyone for poisoning that eagle. We also encouraged readers to contact the Scottish Government to complain. Many did, and all hell let loose. The Scottish Government responded by saying that the firearms offences were being dealt with separately, at a court with a higher authority than a Sheriff Court, and that the wildlife offences were still ‘being dealt with’. A well-known prosecutor threatened us, indirectly, with legal action. For what? Expressing an opinion? As it turns out, we were right all along, nobody has been prosecuted for poisoning that golden eagle, although we’ve had to wait for over three years to have this confirmed.

It then all went quiet for a while, at least publicly. It’s not known whether COPFS bowed to pressure to take forward the wildlife crime prosecution or whether they had actually been pursuing the charge all along, but that it took over three years for the case to conclude is probably quite telling.  Not that it really matters now anyway; what matters is the outcome.

So, a conviction was eventually secured, although this was just for ‘possession’ of a banned substance; in our opinion this is the least significant charge of any that could have been brought. McKellar admitted during interviews that he had laid out poisoned baits ‘in the past’, and yet he wasn’t charged for that. Were the words ‘in the past’ significant in the decision not to press charges for that offence? What does ‘in the past’ mean, anyway? Two years ago? Two weeks ago? Two days ago? Two hours ago? In addition to the poisoned golden eagle, a Carbofuran-poisoned fox was found and also a dead sheep laced with Carbofuran. Someone was clearly still putting out poisoned baits, but COPFS accepted McKellar’s claim that he wasn’t responsible. It’s unfortunate that these types of offences are only dealt with as summary cases in a Sheriff Court. It would have been interesting to hear what a jury might have thought had the charges been heard in a higher court. Again, we’ll never know and we have to accept that McKellar is guilty of nothing more than possessing the banned poison Carbofuran (oh, and possessing two illegal handguns).

It’s hard not to think that McKellar has come out of all this relatively lightly. It’s also hard to believe that his punishments will act as any sort of deterrent to other would-be criminals. He avoided a mandatory five-year prison term for the firearms offences, and he was fined just a fraction of the amount that he could have been fined for possessing the illegal poison Carbofuran. It appears that he has also kept his job. Auch Estate is currently up for sale (for a mere £8.4 million) and a look at the sales particulars (Auch Estate sales brochure 2012), dated August 2012, indicates that the new owner has to take on the current Estate employees under the TUPE regulations, including Farm Manager Tom McKellar. These sales particulars also show that almost £700,000 was paid in grants and subsidies during 2011; it would be interesting to know whether there will be any forfeiture of these payments following McKellar’s conviction, although based on previous experience, this information is exceptionally difficult to access, even though it’s public money! It would also be interesting to hear whether McKellar’s employer is being investigated, after McKellar reportedly claimed it was his employer who had provided him with the Carbofuran (see here). Wouldn’t it also be interesting to find out whether Auch Estate is a member of Scottish Land & Estates? And whether McKellar, as an employee of a sporting estate, is a member of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association? Needless to say, neither of these organisations has made any public statements about McKellar’s conviction last Friday.

Other question marks include a strange bit of (non)-reporting by SASA. The poisoned golden eagle found at Glen Orchy was listed in SASA’s 2009 annual report. However, the dead fox found nearby that was reported to have been poisoned by Carbofuran did not appear in the SASA report. Neither did the dead sheep also found nearby that was reportedly laced with Carbofuran and used as poisoned bait. Why weren’t these two animals included in SASA’s list of confirmed poison cases for 2009? Perhaps SASA didn’t do the toxicology tests. If they didn’t, then who did? If SASA did do the tests, but failed to include the animals in their report, what confidence does this give us when SASA release their annual poisoning statistics? Are other cases missing? We only knew about the fox and the sheep because the RSPB had listed them in their annual report.

A further question mark hangs over a related issue. The media has reported that the poisoned golden eagle found dead in Glen Orchy had been killed with the banned pesticide Carbofuran. However, if you look at the 2009 SASA report, the following chemicals are listed as being detected in this bird’s body: Carbofuran, Methiocarb, Sodium Cyanide and Strychnine. Now, we have it on good authority, although this has not been formally verified, that a second individual was searched during the police raid back in June 2009. This individual, XXXXX XXXXX is believed to be a gamekeeper in Perthshire but is not an employee of Auch Estate; he was just there on the day the police arrived to conduct their search. We understand that the police found Mr XXXXX to be in possession of a bottle of Strychnine and a container of decanted Cyanide. Now look again at the chemicals detected in the body of the dead golden eagle. As far as we are aware, no charges have been brought against Mr XXXXX, not even for possession. If this turns out to be an accurate report, then something has gone seriously wrong with this investigation. A lack of resources can’t be blamed on this one, given the array of organisations involved with the investigation, including multiple police forces with specialist wildlife crime officers as well as the National Wildlife Crime Unit. So what happened? Did Mr XXXXX slip through the net and if so, how? Do you think we’ll hear anything about this or do you think it’ll be quietly pushed under the carpet?

In summary then, yes, a conviction was secured (McKellar) and we should be pleased about that. McKellar’s illegal stash of Carbofuran and his illegal cache of handguns have been taken out of circulation and so we should also be pleased about that, too. But this is not what could be called a successful outcome; far from it. It’s deeply unsatisfactory and shares striking similarities with other recent, high-profile cases which also concluded unsatisfactorily, such as Moy Estate and Skibo Estate. In all three cases, and in countless other lower-profile cases, sporting estate employees have only been charged with the lesser offence of possession. Charges have not been brought against anyone for the illegally-killed raptors found in each location, nor for laying the illegal poisoned baits or for putting out the illegal traps. On a superficial level then, the convictions for possession look good and the authorities can claim they are successfully addressing the issue of wildlife crime. Scratch below the publicity gloss though and you find that very little progress has been made; charges, if they’re brought at all, are not reflecting the full extent of the crimes uncovered, and on conviction the sentences are not reflecting the seriousness of these crimes.

Glen Orchy case concludes: call this justice?

So, three years and three months later, the infamous Glen Orchy case has concluded. Tom McKellar, previously described as a gamekeeper but curiously now described as a farmer, has been fined £1,200 for possessing the banned pesticide, Carbofuran.

The Crown Office press release (here) doesn’t mention anything of the poisoned golden eagle that was found in Glen Orchy and prompted the search of McKellar’s house, which led to the discovery of the Carbofuran. Although it does mention how he was previously given a 300-hour community service order for the possession of illegal handguns (instead of the mandatory five-year prison sentence), also found during the search of his house.

Of course, McKellar wasn’t charged with laying poisoned baits (even though he reportedly admitted to doing so during an interview), and nor was he charged with poisoning that golden eagle, because even though he had this rare, banned poison in his house, and lived just down the road from where the dead eagle had been found, and he’d previously admitted to laying out poisoned baits, there apparently wasn’t enough evidence to link him to the poisoned eagle.

But this story doesn’t end there. There are other things that went on (or more to the point, didn’t go on) in this investigation and we’ll be discussing those in due course, including the failure to charge a second person….

Meanwhile, we’ll add this poisoned golden eagle to the growing list of illegally-killed eagles for which nobody has ever been (nor will be) prosecuted. Justice?

RSPB press statement here

UPDATE 11 Sept 2012: Glen Orchy, a hollow victory (here)

Previous blogs on this case here, here, here, here, here,here here, here

Glen Orchy farce continues

The Glen Orchy case against Tom McKellar continued at Oban Sheriff Court last Friday (27 July) with yet more legal argument.

You won’t be surprised to learn that sentencing has once again been deferred. Next court date is in early September.

Glen Orchy gamekeeper tries to change his plea

Here’s some insight into what is causing the delay in the sentencing of Tom McKellar in the Glen Orchy poison case. From yesterday’s Press & Journal:

An Argyll farmer is attempting to take back his plea of guilty to having a deadly poison which has been banned after being linked to the killing of birds of prey.

Tom McKellar, 50, of Fir Park Cottage, Auch Estate, Bridge of Orchy, originally pleaded guilty at Oban Sheriff Court to possessing the pesticide Carbofuran, a pesticide outlawed for more than 10 years, at his home in June 2009.

At a hearing in May his defence solicitor David McKie, in his plea in mitigation, said that his client did not realise the poison was Carbofuran.

Sheriff Douglas Small then queried if McKellar should be pleading guilty, and he continued the case for legal debate until yesterday [Wednesday 25 July 2012].

But when the case called yesterday McKellar had new legal representation in the form of solicitor Cameron Tait who sought permission from Sheriff Small to withdraw the guilty plea and replace it with a not guilty one.

This motion was “strenuously opposed” by fiscal Kate Fleming and a day-long legal debate took place.

Mr Tait said: “He advised police that he thought the poison was Wetex. He said he didn’t know what Carbofuran was. He had been supplied with it by the estate”.

Miss Fleming argued that this was not a defence. She said there was an absence of language such as “knowingly” possessing Carbofuran in the charge.

Sheriff Small adjourned the case until tomorrow [today, Friday 27 July 2012] to hear more legal arguments from the Crown and the defence.

It emerged at previous court hearings that police were investigating the death of a golden eagle in Glen Orchy in June 2009 when they obtained a search warrant for McKellar’s house. They found granules of Carbofuran in a game bag in his porch. Police also found the carcases of a sheep and a fox laced with Carbofuran.

Miss Fleming previously told the court that since 1988, there have been 240 fatal poisonings of wildlife by Carbofuran, mostly birds of prey.

The case resumes today. If the Sheriff accepts McKellar’s not guilty plea then presumably this case could go to trial at a later date.

For background information on this case, click on the ‘Glen Orchy’ tag at the top of this post.

Thank you to the contributor who sent us the Press & Journal clipping.

Glen Orchy poison case: sentence due today

It’s been a long time coming. A very long time. Over three years. But today is the day Tom McKellar is sentenced for possession of Carbofuran, found at his house in June 2009 during a police investigation into the poisoning of a golden eagle (see here, here, here and here).

McKellar wasn’t charged in relation to the dead eagle, just for possession of a banned pesticide, to which he pleaded guilty. There’s a lot more to this case than has previously been reported, and once sentencing has finished we’ll have a few things to say.

So what do you think his punishment will be? Six hours on the naughty step?

Glen Orchy poisoner: sentence deferred ’til July

Tom McKellar, a gamekeeper/farmer at Auch Estate in Argyll who was convicted last month of possession of the banned pesticide Carbofuran (see here and here) was due to be sentenced today. Sentencing has now been deferred until 23 July (we don’t yet know the reason for this further delay).

The Carbofuran was discovered at McKellar’s place nearly three years ago in June 2009 during a police raid in connection with the discovery of a poisoned golden eagle at Glen Orchy on 7 June 2009 (see here). Toxicology results showed the dead eagle had been poisoned with Carbofuran. McKellar reportedly admitted during a police interview that he had previously laid out poison baits to kill foxes (see here) but he wasn’t charged with poisoning that golden eagle.

Also discovered during that police raid was a stash of illegal handguns in McKellar’s loft. On conviction at the High Court in Glasgow in December 2010, instead of receiving the mandatory five-year prison term he was given a sentence of 300 hours’ community service (see here).

There is a lot more to the Glen Orchy eagle-poisoning incident than meets the eye but we’re unable to disclose further information until McKellar has been sentenced. Rest assured, we’ll be writing more about this in due course.

Buzz off Benyon, & other news from the murky underworld of raptor persecution

There are no signs of the public’s outrage subsiding over #Buzzardgate. You only have to type in the words ‘buzzard’ and ‘DEFRA’ into a search engine and the strength of feeling against DEFRA’s outlandish plan is almost palpable.

The best article we’ve read, so far, is that written by George Monbiot in the Guardian (here). There’s also a good article by Michael McCarthy in the Independent today, entitled ‘Richard Benyon: The bird-brained minister (see here). Although McCarthy seems to think that the buzzard-nest destroyers will start their shotgun antics as of this Friday (1st June), presumably because that was the proposed start date in DEFRA’s research tender document (see here). However, the buzzard breeding season is well underway and many nests now contain small chicks and the DEFRA ‘study’ suggests that nests will be destroyed during ‘construction’; it doesn’t say anything about destroying active nests containing breeding adults, eggs and/or young (not that that would stop the trigger-happy nest destroyers, of course).

But perhaps the destructive parts of this study won’t start this Friday (if they ever start at all, depending on how loudly we all shout our objections). According to the June edition of ‘Modern Gamekeeping’ (which could just as easily have been called ‘Victorian Gamekeeping’ because nothing seems to have changed except for new bits of kit designed to help the ‘keeper kill more wildlife), the trial’s start date is not that clear:

Though DEFRA insists it is too early to comment on the finer details of the study, it is expected to launch some time this year. A spokesperson said: “The tender for the research project on management techniques to reduce the predation of pheasant poults by buzzards closed yesterday. We will announce the successful bid later in the summer“”.

Modern Gamekeeping isn’t available online (another example of its misnomer) but a photograph of its buzzard trial cover story can be found on Alan Tilmouth’s blog (here). Incidentally, Alan Tilmouth has been one of the most prolific tweeters on this issue and we know he was directly responsible for directing some ‘important’ people to this blog when we led on this story last week, so many thanks Alan, and good luck with your DEFRA FoI request to find out which Northumberland estates are involved; we’re all VERY interested in those results.

Another DEFRA FoI request has been lodged by ‘SWBirdWatch’ which can be followed on the public website ‘What Do They Know?’ (see here).

Since the buzzard trial story hit the news last week, several commentators on various blogs and websites have mentioned that the game-shooting lobby may have shot themselves in the foot over their latest attempt to get rid of raptors, because now the full glare of the spotlight has been turned onto their industry, with mainstream media taking a real interest. Mark Avery’s blog this morning (see here) focuses on some of the questions now being asked by a wider audience where previously they were just being asked by a smaller minority of special-interest groups. All good stuff.

For those who haven’t already done so, there are two main petitions to sign to show your disapproval of the buzzard trial – please, take a minute to sign both of them and let Mr Benyon feel the full force of our discontent:

In other news, Tom McKellar is due to be sentenced today (he’s the gamekeeper from Glen Orchy who was convicted in April of possessing the banned pesticide Carbofuran, although he didn’t face any charges over the dead golden eagle found at Glen Orchy which had been poisoned by er… Carbofuran – see here). We’ve received some further information about that poisoned eagle and we’ll discuss it once McKellar’s case has ended.

Another hearing opening today concerns the head keeper at Edradynate Estate in Perthshire. More on that case in due course…

21 eagles, 6 years, 0 prosecutions

Ever since that poisoned golden eagle was found in Glen Orchy in June 2009, we’ve been assured by the authorities (including in an email from a spokeswoman of the former Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham) that, despite our concerns to the contrary, the alleged wildlife crime uncovered that day was being ‘dealt with’.

We’ve had to wait for almost three years to find out that, according to a statement in The Herald attributed to RSPB investigator Ian Thomson, nobody has been charged with poisoning that golden eagle (see Herald article here).

It’s just the latest in a long line (21 eagles in six years!) of both confirmed and suspected eagle deaths for which nobody has ever been prosecuted.

In fairness, some of the 21 examples shown below may not be a result of criminal behaviour (i.e. the bodies of seven of the eagles listed have never been recovered so foul play, whilst suspected, cannot be verified, but neither can it be ruled out). However, there have been 14 confirmed eagle deaths (13 poisoned and one shot), that we know about, for which nobody has been charged. There are probably more confirmed deaths that we don’t know about because for some reason, some confirmed deaths are not being publicly reported. And without a shadow of a doubt, there are other deaths that are attributable to criminal behaviour that never see the light of day.

Here’s the list of the ones we do know about:

MAY 2006: A dead adult golden eagle was found on the Dinnet & Kinord Estate, near Ballater, Aberdeenshire. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Grampian Police launched an investigation. Five years and 11 months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


JUNE 2006: A dead golden eagle was found on Glen Feshie Estate in the Cairngorms. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Northern Constabulary launched an investigation. Five years and ten months later, nobody has been prosecuted.




AUGUST 2007: A dead adult female golden eagle was found on an estate near Peebles in the Borders. She was half of the last known breeding pair of golden eagles in the region. Tests revealed she had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Lothian & Borders Police launched an investigation. Four years and eight months later, nobody has been prosecuted.




AUTUMN 2007: Tayside Police received a detailed tip-off that a young male white-tailed eagle (known as ‘Bird N’) had allegedly been shot on an estate in Angus. The timing and location included in the tip-off coincided with the timing and location of the last-known radio signal of this bird. Four and a half years later, the bird has not been seen again. With no body, an investigation isn’t possible.


MAY 2008: A one year old male white-tailed eagle hatched on Mull in 2007 and known as ‘White G’ was found dead on the Glenquoich Estate, Angus. Tests revealed he had been poisoned by an unusual concoction of pesticides that included Carbofuran, Bendiocarb and Isofenphos. A police search in the area also revealed a poisoned buzzard, a baited mountain hare and 32 pieces of poisoned venison baits placed on top of fenceposts on the neighbouring Glenogil Estate. Laboratory tests revealed the baited mountain hare and the 32 poisoned venison baits contained the same unusual concoction of highly toxic chemicals that had killed the white-tailed eagle, ‘White G’. Three years and 11 months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


JUNE 2009: An adult golden eagle was found dead at Glen Orchy, Argyll, close to the West Highland Way. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Strathclyde Police launched a multi-agency investigation. Two years and ten months later (April 2012), Tom McKellar pled guilty to possession of Carbofuran stored in premises at Auch Estate, Bridge of Orchy. Nobody has been prosecuted for poisoning the golden eagle.


JULY 2009: A two year old female golden eagle known as ‘Alma’ was found dead on the Millden Estate, Angus. Tests revealed she had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Alma was a well-known eagle  – born on the Glen Feshie Estate in 2007, she was being satellite-tracked and her movements followed by the general public on the internet. Tayside Police launched an investigation. Two years and nine months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


AUGUST 2009: A young white-tailed eagle was found dead on Glenogil Estate, Angus. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Tayside Police were criticized in the national press for not releasing a press statement about this incident until January 2010. Two years and 8 months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


MAY 2010: Three dead golden eagles were found on or close to Skibo Estate, Sutherland. Tests revealed they had been poisoned; two with Carbofuran and one with Aldicarb. Northern Constabulary launched a multi-agency investigation. One year later (May 2011), Sporting Manager Dean Barr pled guilty to possession of 10.5 kg of Carbofuran stored in premises at Skibo Estate. One year and 11 months later, nobody has been prosecuted for poisoning the three golden eagles.


JUNE 2010: Leg rings with unique identification numbers that had previously been fitted to the legs of four young golden eagles in nests across Scotland were found in the possession of gamekeeper James Rolfe, during a multi-agency investigation into alleged raptor persecution at Moy Estate, near Inverness. It is not clear how he came to be in possession of the rings. The bodies of the eagles from which the rings had been removed were not found. No further action was taken in relation to the discovery.

JUNE 2010: A golden eagle and a white-tailed eagle were found dead on an estate near Farr, Inverness-shire. Tests revealed they had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Northern Constabulary apparently did not search the property until July 2011. One year and ten months later, nobody has been prosecuted.


DECEMBER 2010: A decomposing carcass of a white-tailed eagle was found and photographed on Logie (Lochindorb) Estate, Morayshire. It was reported to Northern Constabulary. By the time the police arrived to collect it, the carcass had disappeared. The police said they couldn’t investigate further without the body.


MARCH 2011: The body of a young golden eagle was discovered on North Glenbuchat Estate, Aberdeenshire. Tests revealed it had been poisoned by the illegal pesticide, Carbofuran. Grampian Police launched an investigation and raided the property in May 2011. One year and one month later, we are not aware of any pending prosecutions.


APRIL 2011: The body of a white-tailed eagle was found at the base of cliffs on Skye. The person who discovered it (a professional medic) considered it to have been freshly shot with a rifle, decapitated with a sharp implement and thrown from the cliff top. He took photographs and alerted Northern Constabulary and RSPB. There was a delay of two weeks before the now probably decomposed carcass was collected. A post-mortem was inconclusive. This incident was not made public until one year later after a tip off to this blog. We are not aware of any pending prosecutions.


NOVEMBER 2011: The signal from a satellite-tracked young golden eagle (hatched in 2010) stopped functioning when she was at a location in the Monadhliaths, a well-known raptor persecution black spot in the Highlands. Her last known location was checked by researchers but there was no sign of the bird. Another ‘disappearance’ in suspicious circumstances or a technical malfunction of the satellite transmitter?