Raptor persecution crime fighters win national awards

I attended the UK Wildlife Crime Conference over the weekend, where law enforcers, statutory agencies and NGOs gather to hear the latest views, approaches, successes and challenges of combating wildlife crime in the UK. 

A feature of this annual event is the WWF-sponsored awards given to those whose work deserves national recognition.

This year, I was delighted to see two of those awards being won by teams whose work has focused on tackling the illegal persecution of birds of prey.

First up was Dr Eimear Rooney and Dr Marc Ruddock from the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group, who won WWF Wildlife Crime Partner of the Year 2022:

To say their award was richly deserved is a massive understatement. I’ve watched them pour their hearts and souls into raptor conservation in Northern Ireland for many, many years and I can’t think of more deserving recipients.

Without their efforts, providing help, advice and training to an army of raptor monitoring volunteers, as well as doing their own fieldwork, as well as writing grant applications, as well as writing reports, as well as producing educational material, as well as fundraising, as well as hosting conferences, as well as political engagement, as well as engaging in multi-partner initiatives to tackle raptor persecution, often at the expense of spending time with their young families, and still managing to be the most upbeat and fun-loving people to be around, then raptors in Northern Ireland would be in a far more perilous state than they are currently.

I’m thrilled to see their efforts recognised at long last; well done Eimear & Marc!

The second team to win an award for its work tackling raptor persecution was a multi-agency team working on ‘Operation Tantallon’, which is a huge, ongoing investigation into the alleged theft and laundering of wild peregrines in Scotland and northern England.

This investigation team includes Police Scotland, Scottish SPCA, NWCU and SASA, with additional support from members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group. So far three people have been charged with offences, including a serving police officer (see here) and a part-time gamekeeper (here).

Members of Operation Tantallon received the Wildlife Crime Operation of the Year Award 2022 from Megan McCubbin (photo by Guy Shorrock):

The case is ongoing, the defendants are reportedly facing over 100 charges, and a wide range of investigative techniques have been deployed including surveillance, peregrine DNA analysis, searches under warrants, bankers warrants, cyber crime and the Proceeds of Crime Act.

The scale of this effort to bring a prosecution in a raptor persecution case is virtually unheard of in the UK and the ramifications, should the defendants be found guilty, will be huge. Further details of the case will be made available as the case progresses through the courts.

The dedication and determination of those involved in the multi-agency investigation has been outstanding and it’s good to see their hard work recognised. Well done, all!

Entries invited for art auction – proceeds to help support peregrine nest protection in Derbyshire

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is inviting entries for its annual art auction.

This year’s theme is Fight for Flight and the Trust is looking for contributions that celebrate UK bird species. Entries can be any type of artwork, from photography to drawing, as long as it fits on an A5 size card (i.e. postcard).

Entries close on 31st October 2022 and the auction site will be live online from 21st November – 21st December 2022.

[A contribution from last year’s auction – sorry, artist’s name not known]

In previous years the funds raised from the art auction have been used to support hen harrier protection in the region. This year, the funds raised will be used to support Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s peregrine protection scheme.

As regular blog readers will know, peregrines are at high risk of persecution in Derbyshire, particularly in the Dark Peak area of the Peak District National Park. Peregrines have been found shot (e.g. here), poisoned (e.g. here) and eggs have been robbed from nests (e.g. here).

This year a team of 22 volunteers from Derbyshire Wildlife Trust have kept daily watch on vulnerable, high-risk peregrine breeding sites throughout the breeding season, resulting in successful fledging at many sites. The art auction funding will help DWT repeat this effort again in 2023.

Further details about how to enter/contribute your art work can be found on the DWT website here and the actual auction will be available online in November here.

Public consultation on the issue of ‘wild take’ of English raptors for falconry

Natural England has launched an eight-week public consultation as it reviews its position on the licensing of falconers permitting them to remove [unspecified] raptors from the wild for falconry/captive breeding programmes.

The call for evidence was announced last week (see here) and although the online notice is illustrated with a peregrine falcon, I’m somewhat alarmed to note from the accompanying text that this review does NOT appear to be restricted to the licensed removal of just peregrines from the wild, but could apply to any other raptor species Natural England considers to have ‘recovered’.

This is a controversial issue, of course, not least because of the history (and in some cases, ongoing) illegal persecution of some raptor species in the UK, and the ‘sport’ of falconry in this country being largely unregulated. For example, anybody can buy a captive bird of prey in the UK, without having to demonstrate any prior level of knowledge, let alone proficiency, in the bird’s care and welfare.

This is very different from falconry in the US, where falconers are required to undertake several years of supervised training and examination before they are considered appropriately qualified and are permitted to take raptors from the wild, usually for a temporary period with the bird being released back to the wild after being flown for a few seasons. Inspections of the bird’s housing is even a requirement of the licence.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some very good falconers in the UK – there are, for sure, and their expert skills are often deployed to help rehabilitate wild-injured raptors and release them back to the wild. It’s also true to say that falconry techniques have been central to the conservation of some raptor species (e.g. Mauritius kestrel, the peregrine in the US after the DDT crash, vulture species in India after the Diclofenac crash) but these arguments are not relevant to what is currently being proposed for the wild-take of peregrines and other raptors in the UK for ‘sport’, even though several UK falconers point to these arguments as apparent justification.

The last time Natural England issued licenses for the removal of young peregrines from the wild, for a purported captive-breeding programme in 2020, the news generated heated arguments both for and against the licences, as reported on Mark Avery’s blog (e.g. see here, here and here).

The situation was even more confused when it became apparent that the falconers involved were based in Scotland, that SNH had refused to issue licences for the removal of Scottish peregrines, but that Natural England had issued licenses for the removal of peregrines in England, to be then held in captivity in Scotland.

However, according to the latest news from Natural England, although licences were issued in 2020, ‘the licenses expired earlier this year with no chicks having been taken‘. NE doesn’t explain why.

For me, the justification for permanently removing raptors from the wild to satisfy a human’s ‘sporting’ need is not a convincing argument. There are plenty of captive-bred raptors available for those who wish to pursue this sport without the need to plunder wild populations that in some cases are still recovering from decades of persecution.

In the case of peregrines, this is even more of a concern when you realise that on previous licences, NE authorised the removal of chicks from nests in ‘all counties’ [in England], despite the well-documented evidence that peregrine populations in the uplands have suffered massive declines as a direct result of illegal persecution, particularly on land managed for driven grouse shooting (e.g. see here, here, here and here). Just because the species is currently ‘green-listed’ nationally, this status does not take into account the regional difficulties for this particular species.

Natural England makes a further argument that peregrines ‘need to be taken from the wild’ as opposed to considering the alternative of placing wild-disabled birds into the care of falconers because:

Wild peregrine falcons which have arrived in captivity due to injury are also not likely to be suitable as breeding from a bird from the wild is much more difficult than one reared by humans – they are simply not used to humans and are not as likely to breed successfully as a chick taken from the wild and reared by a human‘.

This is a surprising statement from Natural England, given that NE intends to do exactly this for its planned controversial release of hen harriers in southern England – using wild-disabled hen harriers from the continent for a captive breeding programme whereby the injured birds’ progeny will be released into the wild. I’d argue that NE’s position on peregrines is thoroughly hypocritical.

The public call for evidence is open to anybody and is available for 8 weeks. You can participate here.

Suffolk police remove peregrine from falconer for return to the wild

On Friday, Suffolk Police’s wildlife crime team posted a photo on Twitter of a young tethered peregrine wearing falconry jesses. The photo was accompanied by a statement about how a multi-agency team had executed a search warrant at an unknown address and removed the peregrine with the intention of releasing it back to the wild.

No information was provided about the circumstances of how the falconer came to be in possession of a wild peregrine or whether the falconer would face charges for unlawful possession.

After a bit of digging it turns out that the young peregrine had hatched at a monitored site and had crash-landed in to a lake post-fledging. It had been rescued and sent to a wildlife hospital for assessment and rehabilitation.

Somehow (it’s not clear to me how) two falconers became involved and one of them took the peregrine, perhaps also with the intention of rehabilitation before release, but perhaps not. The falconer had removed the plastic colour ring from the peregrine’s leg (why would you do that if you intended to release the peregrine?) although the metal BTO leg ring was still in place on the other leg (as you can see from the photo).

Somebody obviously had concerns about the falconer’s intentions because a tip-off led to the multi-agency search led by Suffolk Police and assisted by Norfolk Constabulary, RSPB Investigations and the National Wildlife Crime Unit. Search warrants aren’t usually granted without the police being able to show reasonable grounds to suspect a crime has been committed. The peregrine was seized, presumably to ensure it was returned to the wild.

Apparently the police dealt with the falconer by way of a community resolution order, probably because it would have been too difficult (virtually impossible) to prove criminal intent in this case.

Well done to the police and agencies involved in retrieving this peregrine and getting it back where it belongs.

Derbyshire Police criticised as prosecution collapses against alleged peregrine egg thief in Peak District

The trial of a man accused of stealing peregrine eggs from a nest site in the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire has collapsed after elements of the police investigation were ruled unlawful.

This case relates to the alleged theft of peregrine eggs in 2020, where video footage filmed by the RSPB showed an individual climbing to a peregrine nest and removing the eggs (see here, here, here and here for previous blogs).

[A peregrine with eggs. Photo by Barb Baldinger]

The trial began at Chesterfield Magistrates this week but collapsed yesterday as the defence lawyer challenged certain procedural aspects of the police’s investigation, namely the arrest and the subsequent search of the man’s property.

The judge considered the evidence and ruled in the defendant’s favour, i.e. that certain aspects of the police investigation were indeed unlawful. The defendant left court with a not guilty verdict.

I am awaiting the full details of this judgement before commenting on Derbyshire Police’s failure to follow police procedural rules but this does seem pretty basic stuff. And surely the lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service should have picked up these errors before the case even reached court? Hopefully the court will publish the judgement so we can see the extent of the police’s apparent ineptitude in this case.

A BBC reporter, Simon Hare, tweeted this yesterday from the court:

This evening, the RSPB has published its video footage of a man stealing the eggs from the peregrine’s nest site.

It’s such a disappointing result. With excellent footage from the RSPB that will have taken a great deal of time and skill to procure, this is a case that should have been straightforward. It’s doubly frustrating because as you’ll all know, it’s so rare that good quality evidence is available in so many raptor persecution cases, so when it is available we all hope it will lead to justice being served.

Understanding what went wrong in this case will be important and lessons need to be learned, not least by Derbyshire Police’s Rural Crime Team.

Peregrine suffers appalling injuries after being being shot & trapped in Suffolk

This is grim.

Press statement from Suffolk Constabulary, 16th May 2022.

APPEAL FOLLOWS DEATH OF WILD PEREGRINE FALCON

A wild peregrine falcon found badly injured after being illegally trapped and shot has been put down.

The bird was discovered by a member of the public in a field in Cratfield on 15 March and taken to the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary at Stonham Barns. However, its injuries were too severe to save it. Both of its legs were badly broken and it was also found to have been shot. Police believe the bird was caught in an illegal trap and released alive but injured and officers would like to hear from anybody who could help find those responsible.

Sgt Brian Calver, head of Suffolk Police’s Rural Crime Unit, said:

These iconic birds are not a common site in Suffolk and are vulnerable to human interference. Populations are improving slowly but persecution by humans remains one of the biggest threats to them. These are schedule one birds and the fastest animal on the planet. To trap any bird in such a way is cruel but to release an illegally trapped bird with broken legs is horrible. This bird would not have been able to feed and if not found by a member of the public would have suffered a slow and painful death. The traps we suspect to have caused these injuries are indiscriminate when used unlawfully. I appeal to anybody who has any knowledge of this to get in touch with Suffolk Police, quoting crime reference 37/18491/22“.

ENDS

Police officer, gamekeeper & son in court for peregrine theft case

Three people appeared in court last week charged with a number of offences in relation to alleged peregrine theft in the Scottish Borders.

Serving police officer WPC Suzanne Hall, 43, part-time gamekeeper Timothy Hall, 46, and their 21-year-old son, Lewis Hall, are accused of breaching The Control of Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Enforcement Regulations and also face two charges under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 by being in possession of protected birds and eggs of wild bird, in this case, peregrines.

Timothy Hall also faces further charges of two firearms certificate offences and a culpable and reckless conduct offence.

[Photo by Getty]

This case relates to a joint Scottish SPCA and Police Scotland raid on the family home at Lamberton Holdings in Berwick-upon-Tweed in May 2021 as part of an on-going investigation into allegations of serious organised crime (see here).

It is understood a search warrant was executed and officers seized a number of peregrine falcon chicks and eggs from the property.

All three defendants made no plea at this latest court hearing and the case was continued for further examination. They were granted bail by Sheriff Peter Paterson.

PLEASE NOTE: As this is a live case and charges have been laid, I won’t be accepting any comments on this article until legal proceedings have concluded. Many thanks for your understanding.

Job vacancy: ‘Engagement Trainee’ (peregrine protection), Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (DWT) is pretty proactive when it comes to birds of prey, which is just as well given the appalling levels of raptor persecution in the county, not least those associated with the grouse moors of the Dark Peak area of the Peak District National Park (e.g. see here).

Enthusiastic supporters of, and contributors to, Hen Harrier Day, DWT also runs the Upland Skies Bird of Prey Project which is supported by funding from the National Lottery (here) and earlier this year DWT announced the recruitment of a member of staff dedicated to peregrine protection thanks to funding from the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund (here).

Now the Trust is advertising a position for a part-time Engagement Trainee (£19,047 per annum) to work within the Wilder Communities Team to help deliver a programme of work to inspire people to take action for wildlife.

In this role, you’ll:

• Support the Derby City Peregrine Project.

• Work on a Peregrine protection project in Derbyshire.

• Raise awareness and education of raptor persecution.

To be successful you will:

• Be passionate about inspiring people to care and act for nature.

• Have great communication and engagement skills.

• Be able to work with partners to deliver a project.

Responsibilities

In this role, you’ll receive training and support to:

• Assist in the planning and delivery of DWT’s Wilder Engagement work, specifically to develop and deliver an awareness raising programme of Derbyshire’s peregrines and other birds of prey.

• Recruit and coordinate volunteers for watch points and monitoring of sites.

• Develop an excellent understanding of bird of prey persecution in the UK for further educational awareness to the public.

About you

This role might be right for you if:

• You would like to deliver activities that are engaging and informative.

• You’ve had some experience working with volunteers.

• You have a good understanding of ecology and the wildlife of the British Isles.

• You have strong organisational skills and enjoy managing changing priorities.

This role will be based at DWT’s office in Middleton but candidates will be expected to work at various locations around the county. A balance of home and on site working will be allowed.

Interviews are planned for Monday 31st January 2022.

This is a part-time position of 25 hours per week and will involve working regular Saturdays.

The successful applicant will be required to undergo an enhanced DBS check as this role involves working with people under 18 year old.

Closing date is 16 January 2022. Interviews are planned for Monday 31st January 2022.

To apply please click here

Update on raptor persecution investigations in Scotland from National Wildlife Crime Unit

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club’s (SOC) virtual annual conference. One of the speakers I was keen to hear was PC Gavin Ross, an Investigative Support Officer at the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU).

Gavin is the ISO for Scotland and has been in post for a year (see here).

His presentation opened with an explanation of the differences between the NWCU and Police Scotland (essentially the NWCU is an intelligence gathering unit but it also has other functions, particularly supporting the police with wildlife crime investigations). He went on to describe the seven national wildlife crime priorities and the importance of partnership-working in tackling wildlife crime. In fact he mentioned the importance of partnership-working quite a few times and encouraged attendees to report anything suspicious as this information all helps to build an intelligence portfolio around certain areas and individuals.

The subject of raptor persecution was prominent in this presentation, as you might expect for an audience with the SOC.

We learned that this year alone there had been police enquiries into the death and /or disappearance of 14 eagles: 11 golden eagles and 3 white-tailed eagles. It was emphasised that as only a small proportion of eagles are tagged, this figure was likely the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Six of the 14 investigations related to satellite-tagged birds (whose tags had stopped suddenly without any indication of a technical malfunction, and are therefore considered suspicious).

Two of the 14 investigations are considered ‘historical’ in that they relate to the discovery of items (tags!) that had been cut off eagles and dumped in a river or a loch in previous years (e.g. see here and here for previous examples of this).

As these are ongoing investigations much of the detail was redacted from the presentation. That’s fair enough for a while, to protect the integrity of the investigations, but I hope Police Scotland will be publicising the circumstances of these incidents in due course.

Gavin also talked about what he called ‘Operation Stoop, aka Operation Tantallon’, which is the ongoing investigation into the theft and laundering of wild peregrines. This is a multi-agency operation involving the police, Scottish SPCA, NWCU and SASA, with additional support from members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group. So far three people have been charged, including a serving police officer (see here), but as it’s a live case many details are currently being withheld.

Gavin didn’t reveal any details but talked about the wide range of investigative techniques deployed so far, including surveillance, peregrine DNA analysis, searches under warrants, bankers warrants, cyber crime and the Proceeds of Crime Act.

I think the breadth of this investigation and the resources being thrown at it is testimony to the seriousness and extent of this particular crime, and from what I hear it’s certainly not just restricted to Scotland. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more in due course.

Overall this was an interesting and well-delivered presentation. I hope the NWCU will consider doing more of these and making them freely available on their website.

Rising levels of wildlife crime during pandemic, new report from nature experts warns

Press release Wildlife & Countryside Link (25th November 2021)

Rising reports of wildlife crimes during the pandemic spark fresh fears for beloved species

  • Reports of wildlife crimes against many species rose between 35-90% in 2020
  • At the same time convictions on key types of wildlife crime fell by 50%+
  • Nature experts are calling for improved recording and monitoring, better targeting of resources, and enhanced use of expert police and prosecutors to tackle wildlife crime

A new report published today (25 Nov) by nature experts has revealed a worrying increase in reporting of wildlife crimes against badgers, fish, birds of prey, and marine mammals during the pandemic. While a sharp decline in convictions for wildlife crimes including hunting, illegal wildlife trade, and fishing crime was also seen in 2020.

Reports of likely crimes against badgers rose by 36% in 2020, compared to 2019, with reports of potential fishing crimes up by more than a third (35%) and marine mammal incident reports (in Cornwall alone) rising 90%, according to data gathered by the NGOs. The number of confirmed raptor crimes in England & Wales in 2020 was almost double that in 2019, rising from 54 to 104 (the worst year for bird-crime ever as detailed by the RSPB in October).

At the same time fishing crime convictions fell by almost two-thirds from 2037 in 2019 to 679 in 2020, and illegal wildlife trade convictions halved to just 4 convictions. Hunting prosecutions also more than halved, from 49 in 2019 to 22 in 2020, with only 8 convictions. Hunting conviction rates have in fact steadily decreased for the last five years, falling from 54% of prosecutions being successful in 2016 to less than a third (32%) of prosecutions achieving conviction in 2020.

Martin Sims, Director of Investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports and Chair of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Wildlife Crime group, said: ‘‘Wildlife crime is something that should concern everyone –it inflicts pain, harm and loss for much-loved wildlife and fuels wider criminality against people and property. Despite this the police still don’t gather centralised data on these serious crimes, leaving an incomplete picture from charities, which could be just a drop in the ocean of wildlife crimes. It is high time the Government steps in to treat wildlife crime with the seriousness it deserves. Making key crimes notifiable would enable police forces to better target resources, and track repeat offenders. While better police and prosecutor training and resources would help raise the pitiful 32% conviction rate for hunting prosecutions alone. The system must change to crack down on offences against nature once and for all.”

Dawn Varley, Acting CEO of the Badger Trust, said: Badger crime has been a UK Wildlife Crime Priority for more than a decade, due to the scale of persecution – but sadly this persecution shows no sign of letting up. 2020 saw reports of badger crime rise, driven in large part by a shocking 220% increase in reports of developers interfering with badger setts. A small minority seem to see badger habitat protections as an inconvenience to be quietly bulldozed over, rather than a legal requirement to conserve an iconic British mammal. 2022 must see renewed work by police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service to bring offenders to justice. This must be supported by better monitoring, new training to enable officers and prosecutors to demonstrate criminal intent, and consistently tougher sentencing to deter these crimes.”

Mark Thomas, RSPB Head of Investigations UK, said: In the wake of an emergency climate conference and with all life on earth facing an uncertain future, there has never been a more important time for urgent action to end the illegal killing of wildlife. Wildlife declines are already being felt, and species can ill afford to face the additional pressure of being brutally shot, trapped or poisoned; nor should the public have to put up with these crimes taking place in the wild places they go to for refuge.

Bird of prey persecution reached unprecedented heights in 2020, particularly where land was managed for gamebird shooting. And it is certain that more crimes will have been committed and simply gone undetected and unreported. We urge the public to report dead or injured birds of prey in suspicious circumstances to the police and the RSPB, or pass on any information which may help lead to a conviction.” 

[One of two dead peregrines found illegally poisoned near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire in 2020. Photo RSPB]

The lockdowns and restrictions of 2020 appear to have contributed to rises in reporting of wildlife crimes and falls in convictions in several ways. Opportunistic offenders may have felt that with the police busy enforcing social restrictions that wildlife could be harmed with relative impunity. With increased use of the countryside in the pandemic more members of the public were also present to witness and report incidents of concern. COVID-19 pressures around social restrictions and staff absences appear also to have unfortunately reduced the capacity of police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service, and their ability to both bring hunting and fishing cases to trial and achieve convictions.

While today’s report reveals worrying figures, with impacts for treasured species like badgers, buzzards, kestrels, seals, dolphins and bluebells, it gives an incomplete picture. These organisations all collect data in different ways, with many only holding figures on reporting and convictions for incidents where members of the public have directly contacted them. There is a huge lack of information on wildlife crimes due to police not being required to officially record wildlife offences. Most wildlife crimes are recorded as ‘miscellaneous’ offences and are therefore invisible in police records, with no duty to be reported upon. The scale of wildlife crime is therefore likely to be far greater than the data collected by NGOs suggests. 

The 16 wildlife organisations behind today’s report are warning that the way wildlife crimes are handled by both the police and Crown Prosecution Service must be reviewed and improved, if offences against treasured British wildlife are to be tackled. In particular, the new report highlights that the continued absence of dedicated recording for wildlife crimes means that resources cannot be effectively assessed and targeted. A lack of expertise and resource for police and prosecutors, and deficiency of sentencing guidelines, is also leading to failures in convicting criminals and inadequate penalties for crimes.

Nature experts and conservationists are calling for several key actions to better tackle wildlife crimes:

  • Make wildlife crimes recordable – A shortlist of wildlife offences (compiled by the National Wildlife Crime Unit) is being considered by the Home Office for notifiable status. This must be approved in 2022 to bridge the crippling wildlife crime data gap and help target resources effectively.
  • Ensure effective police & prosecutor action – Staff with expert training on wildlife crimes are critical to effectively building and prosecuting a case against these criminals. Also key is early coordination between the CPS and police on cases, and ensuring prosecutors have adequate preparation time for cases. Ensuring police and CPS training and process reflects this is vital.
  • Produce sentencing guidelines – Unlike most other crimes, the Sentencing Council provides no sentencing guidelines for wildlife crimes. This must be rectified to ensure sentencing consistently reflects the seriousness of these crimes and acts as a deterrent to criminal activity. 

ENDS

The full report can be downloaded here:

Notes:

The new report has been written and published by Wildlife and Countryside Link, the biggest coalition of wildlife and environment charities in England, and Wales Environment Link, a network of environmental, countryside and heritage non-governmental organisations with an all-Wales remit. Both operate as part of a UK-wide coalition – Environment Links UK

Organisations supporting today’s report include: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Badger Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Four Paws, Humane Society International UK, IFAW, Institute of Fisheries Management, League Against Cruel Sports, National Trust, Naturewatch Foundation, Plantlife, RSPB, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Wild Justice and WWF UK.

UPDATE 12.45hrs: Coverage of this new report in The Guardian here

UPDATE 13.00hrs: Coverage on Farming Today (starts at 06.20min) interviewing Mark Thomas, Head of RSPB Investigations here

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