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.