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.

Expert witness for the prosecution of gamekeeper Rhys Davies brands Millden Estate a “wildlife sink”

An expert witness whose evidence was used in the successful prosecution of gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies has branded Millden Estate a “wildlife sink“, according to an article in The Daily Record.

Mammal ecologist Andy Riches provided an expert report for the Scottish SPCA based on a number of surveys and visits to Millden Estate.

His report summary reads as follows:

The ecology of this area of land has been driven out of balance by its management. The direct effects of this have been outlined above but there is an indirect effect as well. By reducing the numbers of ‘prey’ species the management greatly increases the risk to the game birds from ‘predatory’ species. In the absence of adequate natural prey game birds are the principal available source of food. Because much of the neighbouring land (including the Cairngorms National Park) is wildlife rich this estate acts as a ‘wildlife sink’. Population pressure and natural inquisitiveness encourages wildlife to try to explore this area. Those that make it in will rarely leave alive. Land mammals are mostly either successfully excluded by fencing or killed by trapping or shooting. Birds are the only group that can regularly successfully cross the fencing. They find an area with extremely limited prey apart from the game birds.
I can best describe this estate as a zoo with three compounds. Each one is excellently managed for the species it was intended to contain but to the total exclusion of everything else‘.

This summary will come as no surprise to anyone who has read the report I co-authored with Andy Wightman for the REVIVE coalition in 2018 about the increased intensity of grouse moor management in Scotland, a report in which Millden Estate featured. This increase in management intensity has occurred in the last decade or so because the so-called ‘success’ of a grouse moor (and its economic value) is measured by the number of red grouse shot each season (known as the ‘bag size’).

This photograph was posted on social media in October 2017 and was labelled ‘Team Millden’. It shows Millden Estate gamekeepers, including someone bearing a strong resemblance to Rhys Owen Davies, posing with a lot of dead red grouse that presumably had been shot on the estate.

But as regular blog readers will know, in order to produce artificially-high densities of red grouse for shooting, other species on the moor are ruthlessly and systematically killed. Much of this killing is lawful.

The intensity of moorland management at Millden Estate was further exposed in another report by REVIVE, this one commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports and published in 2020.

Hanged By the Feet Until Dead‘ was a report analysing the extent of lawful traps and snares that had been recorded during a field survey of a number of Scottish moorland estates between June 2018 and September 2019, including Millden Estate.

The findings on Millden Estate were damning.

This image shows the extent of the legal traps and snares across the estate and the table below documents the data produced from the field surveys:

There’s a good quote at the end of the ‘wildlife sink’ article in the Daily Record, provided by Robbie Marsland, Director of the League Against Cruel Sports (Scotland) and a partner in the REVIVE coalition:

The case of [Millden Estate gamekeeper] Rhys Davies is utterly appalling but if any positives can be drawn from it, it’s the scrutiny this estate and others will now be under, making the Scottish Government’s proposed licensing of grouse moors even more timely and necessary.

There’s also a quote from an unnamed spokesman for Millden Estate:

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“.

I’ll be blogging about this statement shortly.

Two others involved in animal fighting ring with Millden gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies escaped jail

Further to the news that Rhys Owen Davies, 28, a gamekeeper employed by Millden Estate in the Angus Glens, has been jailed for sadistic animal cruelty crimes (see here and here), there has been quite a lot of comment about the perceived leniency of his sentence and questions about whether his dog-fighting associates are being prosecuted.

Although an eight-month custodial sentence, plus an £1800 fine for firearms offences and a 15-year ban on keeping or owning dogs does seem quite lenient given the depravity and cruelty of his crimes, Rhys Owen Davies has actually received the most severe punishment, so far, of those involved.

Two of his associates have already been convicted and sentenced:

Antony Holloway, 28, was given a 270-hour community payback order at Dumbarton Sheriff Court in June 2021 and banned from owning dogs for just four years – despite ­prosecutors and the Scottish SPCA seeking a lifetime ban. There’s an article about his conviction here (and no, I don’t know why his identify has been hidden).

Another criminal associate, Liam Taylor, was sentenced in November 2021 for his role in this particular gang with a pathetic 12-month supervision order and 240 hours of unpaid work. He was banned from keeping dogs for ten years.

Prosecutors are apparently considering cases against others identified in the appalling photographs found on Davies’ phone.

It seems that Davies received a custodial sentence principally because he was employed as a gamekeeper and Sheriff Reekie noted this as an “aggravating factor” because Davies would have known that what he was doing was illegal. Crown prosecutor Karon Rollo had made a point of emphasising this when Davies’ barrister tried to suggest that Davies was simply ‘naïve’.

So on balance, a custodial sentence in this case is a significant result, and full credit to the Scottish SPCA and Crown Office for securing it, although for many of us eight months is simply not enough.

The good news is that tougher penalties are now in place in Scotland for animal cruelty and wildlife crime. New legislation enacted in December 2020 (the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020), increased the maximum penalty for the most serious animal welfare and wildlife crimes (including badger baiting) to five years imprisonment and unlimited fines.

Depraved Millden Estate gamekeeper jailed – SSPCA statement

Further to the news that Rhys Owen Davies, 28, a gamekeeper employed by Millden Estate in the Angus Glens, has been jailed for sadistic animal cruelty crimes (see here and here), the Scottish SPCA who led this investigation has issued the following statement:

Former gamekeeper sentenced for animal fighting

A gamekeeper who indulged in sick animal fights has been sentenced to eight months in prison and a 15-year ban on owning or keeping animals.

Rhys Davies, 28, who now resides in Wales, was convicted at Forfar Sheriff Court today. Under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, Davies was found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to four dogs under his care and keeping or training dogs for the purposes of animal fights.

With support from Police Scotland, the Scottish SPCA executed a warrant at Turnabrae house on Millden Estate in Angus in October 2019, where Davies worked as a gamekeeper at the time.

The Scottish SPCA’s special investigations unit (SIU) had received intel that Davies’ was heavily involved in using his dogs to fight and bait wild animals. Davies sent over 50 pictures featuring severely injured dogs and individuals posing with dead animals to be printed in May 2019. A member of staff at the company flagged these to the Scottish SPCA.

The SIU visited Davies’ address in October 2019, where eleven dogs were being kept in kennels and an outbuilding. A vet in attendance confirmed some of the dogs had fresh and historic injuries and disfigurement likely caused by fighting wild animals such as badgers and foxes. A collar inside the property tested positive for badger DNA.

Patterdale terrier Lola had fresh injuries to her mouth and lower jaw. Pip, another Patterdale, had older scars across her muzzle, face and chest and a fresh wound still healing.

At the address, investigators found evidence to suggest Davies’ had attempted to treat injuries himself. This included syringes, staplers and prescription-only medication for animals. An analysis of Davies’ phone found messages where he discussed both the fights he was involved in and the attempts to treat the injuries his dogs had sustained from these.

Scottish SPCA chief superintendent Mike Flynn said: “All of the hallmarks of a person involved in animal fighting can be found in this case. This includes attempting to treat serious injuries without a vet, bragging to others about those injuries and trying to get ‘trophies’ such as photos as keepsakes of those fights.

“Our special investigations unit lead the way when it comes to taking on these organised, brutal groups involved in animal fights. This was an incredibly sophisticated investigation which made it plain as day the accused was guilty and helped to uncover a wider network of individuals involved in heinous animal fights.

“A custodial sentence sends a real message to anyone who wants to use dogs to bait and maim wildlife that they will be punished for it.

“Wildlife persecution is a scourge. No animal deserves to be subjected to any pain or suffering, let alone at the level Mr. Davies subjected his own dogs and wild animals to. Today, Mr. Davies has found that animal abuse is unacceptable and comes with major consequences.”

The Scottish SPCA investigates hundreds of reports of serious animal welfare issues such as animal fighting every year. Anyone with concerns or information on this issue can contact the charity’s free animal helpline in confidence on 03000 999 999.

ENDS

I’ll be blogging more about this case shortly…

Millden Estate gamekeeper jailed for sadistic animal cruelty – media coverage

Further to yesterday’s news that Rhys Owen Davies, 28, a gamekeeper employed by Millden Estate in the Angus Glens has been jailed for a series of sadistic animal cruelty offences (here), here is a statement issued by the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS):

Former gamekeeper jailed for animal fighting and gun offences

A 28-year-old man who kept and trained dogs for fighting has been sentenced to 210 days imprisonment, banned from keeping animals for 15 years and fined £1800 for firearms offences.

Rhys Davies, a former gamekeeper at Millden Estate near Glenesk, was sentenced at Forfar Sheriff Court today after pleading guilty to keeping five dogs for animal fighting from 24 April 2018 to 8 October 2019.  

Davies also pled guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to two dogs by failing to provide veterinary treatment and to breaching the conditions of his firearms licence by having unsecured firearms and ammunition in his home at Turnbrae House. 

The court heard that an employee of a photo print company contacted the Scottish SPCA with serious concerns about the welfare of several dogs pictured in an order for 58 images placed by Davies. 

Many of the dogs showed progressively more serious facial injuries over the period the images were taken and several males posing and digging into what looked like badger setts or fox dens. There were numerous images showing dead foxes.  

The Scottish SPCA identified them as ‘trophy’ photographs showing a group of males engaging in the organised fighting and killing of wild animals over an extended period.  

Davies was easily identifiable in many of the images. 

Inspectors from the Scottish SPCA and officers from Police Scotland went to Davies’ home in Brechin with a warrant on the morning of 8 October 2019.  

Police found a Benelli shotgun propped against a wall near the front door, two 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. 

An assortment of ammunition, 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 were seized by police. 

Eleven dogs were found within kennels on the property. Five Patterdale Terrier dogs had obvious signs of injury.   

Two of the terriers, Lola and Tuck, had fresh injuries. Lola’s were to her mouth and lower jaw and Tuck had part of his lower face missing and fresh injuries which produced an obvious smell when near the dog. There were also healing wounds to his forelegs. 

All the dogs were taken to Scottish SPCA facilities for examination and treatment. 

Inspectors found equipment on the property linked to illegal animal fighting including, locator collars, medication, needles and syringes and a staple gun used to staple up injuries.  

Badger DNA was found on a red locator collar following forensic examination. 

Photobooks were recovered from the property like the print order placed by Davies. 

Davies was interviewed under caution and admitted that the dogs had not received veterinary treatment in the time that he had owned them. He denied using the dogs to fight or kill foxes or badgers and claimed they had sustained injury from legal ratting and foxing. 

Davies agreed to sign all the terrier dogs over to the Scottish SPCA for rehoming. 

The injured dogs were examined by specialist vets. Their expert opinion was that the dogs had been kept for the purposes of animal fighting and their injuries were sustained from face-to-face combat with badgers or foxes. 

Davies’ phone was seized during the search and images of him engaged in digging activities and the dogs with fresh wounds were found. There were also numerous conversations with associates referencing digging activities and sharing photographs showing dogs pulling badgers out of setts.  

A number of voice messages with associates were also found where they discussed digging with the dogs. In one message, Davies’ asks an individual about the size of photographs to print to make a digging album. Davies states, “And if I do get the knock for it at least everything’s all in the one place for them to find”. 

GPS location data from Davies’ phone also placed him in two rural locations on 21 September 2019 where he was found to have had a conversation with the same associate about meeting to bait and later that night his associate sent an image of Davies standing in a large whole holding one of the terrier dogs. 

Speaking after the sentencing, Karon Rollo, Head of the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit of COPFS said: 

“Animal fighting is a cruel illegal activity which causes terrible and unnecessary suffering to animals. 

  “The evidence clearly shows the scope of the involvement Rhys Davies had with an organised group that took pleasure in killing wild animals in such a wicked and inhumane manner. 

“I welcome the sentence and the granting of the order preventing him from keeping animals for 15 years. I would like to thank Police Scotland and the Scottish SPCA for their part in investigating and gathering evidence of these offences. 

“Hopefully this prosecution and the sentence will serve as a message to others who would cause such suffering that there are consequences and that they will be held to account for their actions and could also lose their liberty. 

“COPFS will continue to work to ensure those who participate in these barbaric practices are prosecuted and would encourage anyone who may have information on animal fighting to contact Police Scotland or the Scottish SPCA.” 

ENDS

Other media coverage:

Scottish SPCA here

STV News here

The Herald here

Daily Record here

The Guardian here

The Courier here

BBC News here

The Times here

I’ll be blogging further about this case over the next few days.

Millden Estate gamekeeper jailed for badger baiting crimes

BREAKING NEWS….

Scottish gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies has been sentenced to eight months in prison for his depraved animal cruelty crimes committed whilst he was working on the Millden Estate in the Angus Glens.

He also received a £1800 fine for firearms offences and has been banned from owning or keeping animals for 15 years.

Davies, 28, was convicted in May this year for a series of animal cruelty offences related to badger and fox baiting between January 2018 and October 2019 (see here).

Unfortunately, Davies committed his disgusting crimes prior to the Scottish Government’s introduction of tougher penalties for animal cruelty and wildlife crime. That legislation, the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020, increased the maximum penalty for the most serious animal welfare and wildlife crimes (including badger baiting) to five years imprisonment and unlimited fines. However, it wasn’t enacted until November 2020. As Davies’ crimes were committed in 2019, the increased penalties cannot be applied retrospectively.

Nevertheless, a custodial sentence for Davies is still significant when so many other badger baiters have escaped with small fines or less, including Davies’ criminal mate Liam Taylor who was sentenced in November 2021 for his role in this particular gang with a pathetic 12-month supervision order and 240 hours of unpaid work. He was also banned from keeping dogs for ten years.

Some comments from Sheriff Derek Reekie today:

It is deeply disturbing, the horrific, cruel and senseless nature of the crime as well as the cruelty to your own dogs“,

and

Your text messages demonstrate your sickening enjoyment in what you were doing“,

and

Being a qualified gamekeeper is an aggravating factor which disputes claims of defence of naivety“,

and

You have not shown any real remorse“,

and

Your dogs were subjected to activities that were deliberate, cruel and horrific in nature“.

More on this tomorrow, including the implications for Millden Estate, but for now, a MASSIVE WELL DONE to the Scottish SPCA team who have more than demonstrated their commitment and ability to bring depraved wildlife crime criminals to court. Increased investigatory powers are a no-brainer.

Previous blogs on this case:

hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, here, here, here, here

UPDATE 2nd August 2022: Millden Estate gamekeeper jailed for sadistic animal cruelty – media coverage (here)

UPDATE 2nd August 2022: Depraved Millden Estate gamekeeper jailed – SSPCA statement (here)

UPDATE 2nd August 2022: Two others involved in animal fighting ring with Millden gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies escaped jail (here)

UPDATE 3rd August 2022: Expert witness for the prosecution of gamekeeper Rhys Davies brands Millden Estate a ‘wildlife sink’ (here)

UPDATE 8th August 2022: Millden Estate: plausible deniability or wilful blindness to gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies’ crimes? (here)

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.

Convicted Scottish gamekeeper Rhys Davies: delayed sentencing explained

In May this year, Scottish gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies, 28, pleaded guilty to a number of depraved animal cruelty offences relating to the keeping and training of dogs for animal fighting (badger baiting) and of failing to seek veterinary attention for dogs that had sustained serious injuries from those fights (see here).

He also pleaded guilty to a number of firearms offences after the Scottish SPCA raided his home in 2019 on Millden Estate in the Angus Glens and found three unsecure guns and ammunition left lying around inside the house.

His fellow gamekeepers, the sporting agent and the landowner at Millden Estate (a well known raptor persecution hotspot) all apparently failed to notice any of his crimes, or the injuries sustained by some of his eleven dogs housed in kennels on the estate. They also apparently failed to notice the bags of dead raptors scattered around the estate – more on those soon.

Davies was only caught because, being a top-notch criminal mastermind, he sent ‘trophy’ photos of himself and some of his mates posing with mutilated animals to a printing shop and used his address on Millden Estate as the return address. The shop assistant alerted the Scottish SPCA who immediately opened an investigation.

On conviction at Forfar Sheriff Court on 5th May 2022, Sheriff Derek Reekie ignored the mitigation plea from the defendant’s QC (who paid for this QC??) and instead concurred with Crown Office Fiscal, Karon Rollo, who made clear that Davies was a fully-trained gamekeeper (three-years college training) and had been employed as a gamekeeper for four years so knew exactly what he was doing. Sheriff Derek Reekie agreed and asked for social reports on Davies before sentencing was due on 28th June 2022.

[Photographic evidence of badger baiting from Millden Estate gamekeeper’s phone. Photo provided by SSPCA]

Sentencing day arrived but frustratingly, sentencing was deferred for a further five weeks (here) without any explanation appearing in the media. This led to all sorts of unhelpful conspiracy theories on social media, mostly referring to the Masons and a corrupt judiciary.

I’ve since been provided with some information by someone who was present in court at that deferred sentencing hearing and hopefully this explanation will put to bed the conspiracy theories.

In May, Sheriff Reekie had asked for a report on Davies’ domestic circumstances in Wales, where Davies had since moved to after leaving Millden Estate in the Angus Glens. The Sheriff had allowed seven weeks for that report to be compiled and expected it to be available at the sentencing hearing on 28th June.

However, it turns out the social services department in Wales had only managed to make one phone call to Davies’ parents during that seven-week period and had not made a home visit. That’s probably an indication of how stretched these services are but nevertheless, the background report on Davies wasn’t ready.

Rather than ignore the non-existent social report and just pass sentence anyway, Sheriff Reekie allowed a further five weeks for that report to be completed. Apparently he made clear that this was to avoid providing any grounds for an appeal (by Davies’ QC) later on.

Sentencing is now due on 1st August 2022.

On the separate issue of dead raptors being found on Millden Estate during the search, I’ll be blogging about that very soon.

Millden Estate (Angus Glens) gamekeeper convicted for animal cruelty in relation to badger baiting

The long-running criminal case against a gamekeeper from Millden Estate in the Angus Glens was partially completed yesterday.

Rhys Davies, 28, pleaded guilty at Forfar Sheriff Court to a number of offences relating to the keeping and training of dogs for animal fighting (badger baiting) and a failure to seek veterinary attention for dogs that had sustained serious injuries from those fights. He also admitted a number of firearms and shotgun offences relating to unsecured guns and ammunition.

[Convicted Millden Estate gamekeeper, Rhys Davies, at court yesterday. Photo by Ross Gardiner from The Courier]

This has been a long-running investigation that began back in May 2019. Unbelievably, Davies had submitted some photos to a printing company to be developed. Those photographs contained images of horrifically injured, disfigured and dead animals, along with a number of clearly identifiable individuals posing with spades at what looked to be fox dens and badger setts. Davies used his address at Millden Estate for the photo order to be returned.

Fortunately, the print developer recognised the serious nature of the images and reported the order to the Scottish SPCA.

In October 2019, the Scottish SPCA led a multi-agency raid on Millden Estate, and at another property in Aberdeenshire, where multiple pieces of evidence were uncovered during searches of gamekeepers’ houses and the wider estate.

Amongst other things, eleven dogs were seized from kennels at Davies’ cottage and from an outbuilding. Some dogs showed evidence of injuries, some fresh and others sustained previously. These injuries included a torn-off lower lip, extensive scarring and the lower face of one dog was missing. A collar tested positive for badger DNA.

Davies’ phone was seized and more images were found of harrowing animal injuries, GPS locations of where he’d been, and conversations with others in the gang discussing the fights, injuries sustained and comments about DIY veterinary attention.

One of these gang members, 32-year-old Liam Taylor of Deyhill, MacDuff, Aberdeenshire, was convicted last year for his role in this savagery (here).

Davies initially pleaded not guilty and his case was due to be heard in November 2020 but was adjourned, time after time (see here) until yesterday when he finally decided to plead guilty.

Davies’ defence agent, a QC, no less (I wonder who paid for that!) tried to plead for mitigation but the Crown Office Fiscal, Karon Rollo, made clear that Davies was a fully-trained gamekeeper (three-years college training) and had been employed as a gamekeeper for four years so knew exactly what he was doing. Sheriff Derek Reekie agreed and asked for social reports on Davies before sentencing in June 2022.

There’s a full court report by Ross Gardiner in The Courier here.

This case isn’t over yet. During the raid on Millden Estate in October 2019, a number of dead raptors were found stuffed in sacks at various locations. Police Scotland are dealing with this aspect of the case and I understand a separate court hearing will take place in relation to those birds.

Following yesterday’s conviction, I read a statement from an unnamed spokesperson at Millden Estate:

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“.

I don’t think that last sentence is true at all; it looks like a damage limitation exercise to me. Millden Estate was very much at the centre of this investigation, with the search extending from gamekeepers’ houses, to outbuildings, gardens and the wider ground including the land used for grouse, pheasant and partridge shooting.

I’d also argue that Millden Estate has a lot of questions to answer, not least how underkeeper Davies was able to keep 11 dogs, many of them seriously injured, without his Head Keeper, other under keepers, the sporting agent, or anyone else noticing.

Millden Estate has been at the centre of a number high profile wildlife crime investigations over the years, including the discovery of a poisoned golden eagle (here) and the discovery of a fatally-injured golden eagle whose legs had been virtually severed in what was believed to have been a spring trap. The eagle was found several days later dumped in a layby away from the estate, having travelled overnight according to its satellite tag data (here).

I’ll come back to the history of Millden Estate, and a number of other relevant issues relating to this case, over the coming days.

Meanwhile, we all owe the Scottish SPCA a huge debt of gratitude for uncovering the grotesque crimes of gamekeeper Rhys Davies and his depraved mates. This was an intricate, detailed investigation and without it this gamekeeper would likely still be employed by Millden Estate, inflicting vicious, unspeakable brutality on wildlife and dogs.

I look forward to the Scottish Government pulling their finger out and finally (after 11 years of procrastination) granting extended powers to the Scottish SPCA to allow them to investigate more wildlife crime.

Previous blogs on this case can be read hereherehereherehereherehere, here

Trial delayed again for Angus Glens gamekeeper charged with animal fighting & cruelty offences

Further to the the blog post on Friday (here), where a gamekeeper from Millden Estate in the Angus Glens was due in court to face charges of alleged animal fighting and animal suffering, the case has been continued yet again, apparently at the behest of the gamekeeper’s QC.

This case has been dragging on for over two years and is related to the execution of a search warrant at premises on Millden Estate in October 2019, when Police Scotland and the Scottish SPCA seized dogs as well as a number of dead birds of prey.

The new trial date has been set as 11th April 2022.

Unfortunately as this is a live case I am unable to publish further details and can’t accept comments until proceedings have concluded. Thanks for your patience.

Previous blogs on this case can be read here, here, here, here, here, here.

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