Fergus Ewing MSP & his shooting industry pals disregard sanctions imposed on Moy Estate for wildlife crime

Look at the state of this.

A tweet by Fergus Ewing MSP, former Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, posted yesterday at the Scottish Gamekeeper Association’s stand at the Moy Game Fair. I wonder who he’s referring to when he says ‘We’? Is he speaking on behalf of the Scottish Government?

The Moy Game Fair is hosted by the Moy Estate. That’ll be the disgraced Moy Estate that had a three-year General Licence restriction imposed on it in June this year (see here) after Police Scotland provided evidence to demonstrate wildlife crime had taken place on the estate, notably the discovery of a poisoned red kite and incidents related to alleged trapping offences, although the estate has long been recognised as a raptor persecution hotspot (e.g. see here, scroll down to below the press release).

An estate gamekeeper has recently been charged with the alleged shooting of a sparrowhawk and is due in court in September.

Here is a map we created way back in 2016 to highlight the extent of raptor persecution crimes in Fergus Ewing’s constituency and this shows the concentration of incidents on and close to Moy Estate. There have been further incidents since this map was created, hence the General Licence restriction imposed this year:

Also ignoring the sanction for wildlife crime on Moy Estate is Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), the lobby group for game-shooting estates across Scotland, as demonstrated by this tweet yesterday from SLE’s North of Scotland Regional Coordinator, Fiona Van Aardt:

So here’s a senior politician from the SNP Government, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Scottish Land & Estates, all effectively sticking up two fingers to the Government’s policy of sanctioning estates for raptor persecution.

When the policy of imposing General Licence restrictions as a tool for tackling rampant bird of prey persecution was first introduced in 2014, the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse described the restrictions as being a ‘reputational driver‘. In other words, a sanctioned estate would not enjoy the benefits of being part of the shooting industry because the industry, with its claimed ‘zero tolerance’ approach to raptor persecution, would not wish to be associated with wildlife crime and this (hoped for) ostracization would stimulate a clamp-down on raptor-killing estates.

So much for that idea. It appears that the shooting industry, along with its political supporters, couldn’t give a monkeys. There’s been previous evidence of this on other so-called sanctioned estates (e.g. see here for examples).

Technically speaking, Mr Ewing and his shooting industry pals could argue that Moy Estate is not currently serving a General Licence restriction. How come? Well, because under the rules, if an estate appeals the GL restriction decision, the restriction is temporarily lifted whilst NatureScot considers the estate’s appeal. This is completely bonkers, of course, because a sanctioned estate has already had a chance to appeal the decision, when NatureScot first issues the notification for a restriction. But they’re then given another opportunity to appeal once the restriction has been imposed, and during that appeal process (typically four weeks) NatureScot removes the restriction so the estate can carry on as if the restriction never existed. I’m pretty sure that that’s what’s going on at Moy because the GL restriction decision notice for Moy Estate has been removed from the section of NatureScot’s website where currently-restricted estates are listed (here).

Although if Mr Ewing, the SGA and SLE were to rely upon this technicality, I don’t think that many people would view it as the shooting industry working in the spirit of wishing to stamp out raptor persecution, do you?

Investigative journalists discover more evidence of alleged raptor persecution on Queen’s Sandringham Estate

Investigative journalists from The Guardian newspaper have uncovered more evidence of alleged raptor persecution crimes, not previously reported, at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.

They’ve also uncovered documents which reveal that the police have to seek the Queen’s permission before they are allowed to enter the estate and search for evidence if alleged wildlife crimes are suspected / have been reported.

Long-term blog readers will know that this royal estate has been at the centre of a number of police investigations into alleged raptor persecution, (e.g. see herehereherehere, here), including the most notorious incident back in 2007 where witnesses observed two hen harriers being shot over Dersingham Bog at the same time that Prince Harry, his mate William van Cutsem (whose Hilborough Estate is currently under police investigation for alleged raptor persecution), and an estate gamekeeper were out duck-shooting. No-one was charged, as with all the other reported incidents except one in 2005, where an estate gamekeeper was convicted for pole-trapping a tawny owl next to a pheasant pen (see here, page 3).

However, it now appears that at least two other raptor persecution incidents on the estate have been kept under wraps for years – a poisoned red kite found in 2006 and a dead Marsh harrier (cause of death not given) found on the estate border in 2007 – according to documents published on Friday by The Guardian – the article is well worth a read, here.

Why has it taken 16 years for these raptor persecution incidents to become public knowledge? And given the timings, wouldn’t it have been pertinent for them to have been in the public domain at the time that Prince Harry, his ‘high society’ mate van Cutsem, along with an estate gamekeeper, were all under police investigation into the alleged shooting of two hen harriers in 2007?

It’s no wonder ‘nothing was found’ during the police investigation into those alleged shootings, given that the police weren’t allowed on site until the following morning.

And surprise, surprise, none of the investigating authorities want to comment on any of these latest revelations. Too scared and too obsequious.

There is a follow-up article in today’s Guardian (here), including quotes from me about these very shady processes that amount to what I would call a massive cover-up.

Well done to journalists Sev Carrell, Rob Evans and David Pegg for having the balls to challenge this nonsense.

Scottish Gamekeepers Association plan awards ceremony at disgraced Moy Estate

Remember all those recent headlines from the game shooting industry, declaring a ‘zero tolerance’ stance against raptor persecution?

Well quelle surprise, it seems their interpretation of ‘zero tolerance’ isn’t quite the same as everyone else’s.

Last month Moy Estate, a shooting estate in the Monadhliaths was given a three-year General Licence restriction, imposed by NatureScot on the basis of evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds, specifically the discovery of a poisoned red kite in 2020 (here).

It was just the latest in a long line of raptor persecution incidents reported on or next to Moy Estate for over a decade, and another court case is due to be heard this autumn.

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

The General Licence restriction is a bit like putting a school into ‘special measures’ – a status applied by regulators to indicate the school has fallen short of acceptable standards, although the main serious difference here of course is that a General Licence restriction is imposed on the basis of wildlife crimes being committed on the estate, rather than merely a shortfall in standards.

The main idea behind the introduction of General Licence restrictions back in 2014 was that they would act as a “reputational driver” for those sanctioned estates, according to the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse (see here).

However, there has been no evidence that the game-shooting industry takes any notice whatsoever of such sanctions. For example, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust hosted a guided tour and BBQ on ‘the renowned Corsehope Shoot‘ in June 2017, at the same time that this estate was serving a three year General Licence restriction for wildlife crime; Edradynate Estate bragged about “a belter season“ at the same time it was serving a three-year General Licence restriction for wildlife crime; and this estate was also endorsed by the British Game Alliance, the game shooting industry’s own ‘assurance’ scheme, membership of which is supposed to indicate ‘rigorous and ethical standards’, whilst the estate was under a General Licence restriction for wildlife crime (see here).

So it comes as no surprise to see that the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) is not only intending to have a stand at the forthcoming Highland Field Sport Fair hosted by Moy Estate (now rebranded as the Moy Country Fair, presumably in an attempt to make it more palatable), but the SGA is also planning an awards ceremony at the event to announce the winner of the SGA Young Gamekeeper of the Year Award as well as presenting various Long Service Medals!

You couldn’t make this up!

The Moy game fair has previously attracted the likes of former Cabinet Minister Fergus Ewing who used his attendance to give a rallying speech to the game-shooting sector (here) and Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) also usually has a stand. I can’t remember if Moy Estate is a member of SLE, but it’ll be interesting to see if SLE puts in an appearance this year.

UK donating Red kites to Spain to boost dwindling population

Press release from RSPB (24th June 2022)

Flying kites: the UK’s most successful bird conservation project returns the favour – and chicks – to Spain

The UK’s most successful bird conservation project – for red kites – has come full circle and is now donating kite chicks to a similar project in Spain, the country that provided chicks for our red kite reintroduction project to England almost 35 years ago. 

In 1989, an ambitious project began to restore red kite populations in England and Scotland after they had become extinct around the 1870s, having suffered relentless human persecution by gamekeepers, skin and egg collectors. Now, conservationists are delighted that the project has been so successful that red kite chicks can be supplied in return from England back to Spain to help with important efforts to conserve the species in that country. This amazing turn-around also involves some of the key people involved in the original England and Scotland red kite reintroduction projects.

From the 1700s onwards red kites were killed alongside other birds of prey across the UK by game preservers and farmers, regarded as “vermin”, and 200 years of relentless human persecution followed. The red kite due to its close association with humans was one of the easiest raptor species to exterminate. At the turn of the 20th century, there were just a handful of red kites in the UK, and those birds that remained were confined to remote Welsh valleys.

With legal protection, reduced human persecution, and thanks in particular to the dedicated efforts of enlightened conservationists and farmers, the Welsh population of red kites began to expand slowly. By the 1980s though, they were still confined to the Welsh uplands and their population was considered fragile and vulnerable to extinction. A trial reintroduction of red kites to both England and Scotland was proposed as it was felt highly unlikely that these birds would return naturally and within a reasonable timescale.   

A jigsaw of red kite reintroductions at 9 sites across the UK began from 1989 to help bring the kite back to its former range. The rest is history, and this initiative then developed into one of the greatest UK conservation success stories. From being extinct in England and Scotland, 15-17% of the world’s red kite population is now estimated to be present in the UK.

Most of the birds that were reintroduced to England by Natural England (and its predecessors the Joint Nature Conservation Committee) came from the Navarra area in the north of Spain. About two hundred chicks were donated to the Chilterns and Forestry England woodlands in the East Midlands reintroduction during the 1990s. The RSPB led on the Scottish reintroduction and at a UK level the overall red kite reintroduction programme was overseen jointly with Natural England.  

These reintroduced birds first bred in 1992, just three years after the start of reintroduction, and their population has subsequently expanded rapidly, already recovering much of their former range. Red kites are now thriving again in England and Scotland with the UK population estimated at 6,000 breeding pairs with 4,500-5,000 breeding pairs in England. An amazing conservation success in just 33 years – and still with substantial scope for further population expansion and increase in range. During this time the red kite has become very visible to large parts of the UK population and hugely popular with the public.   

This year, all the chicks going to Spain – working with Accion por el Mundo Salvaje (AMUS) in Extremadura region (www.amus.org.es) – have been collected by Forestry England from nests in the nation’s forests they care for, as well as from the Boughton Estate in Northamptonshire, who have both supported red kite conservation efforts for many years. The project has been advised by RSPB and former Natural England staff involved with the original reintroduction and with huge background experience, One of the Forestry England wildlife rangers collecting the donor birds for the translocation was involved in the original reintroduction collecting chicks from Spain to be released in Northamptonshire woodlands. Local licensed raptor workers, Simon Dudhill and Steve Thornton who have been monitoring red kites for many decades in the East Midlands have provided essential support by locating nests and liaising with local landowners.   

The RSPB’s Duncan Orr-Ewing, who organised the first red kite reintroduction programme in Scotland, and is now advising the latest project, said “the red kite population is confined to Europe. Compared to most of our other native birds of prey it has a relatively small global population. Following concerted conservation action in the UK in recent decades this species’ population has greatly recovered. It is amazing that we are now able to support conservation action for red kites in Spain and to reciprocate their previous generosity in supplying donor stock for our original reintroduction project in England”.       

Tim Mackrill of Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation said “The success of the red kite reintroductions in the UK demonstrates the importance of this conservation technique for species which are naturally slow to expand their range. Restoring the red kite to areas of highly suitable habitat in the UK has enabled the population to recover from the impacts of persecution far more quickly than through natural recolonisation, and now means we are in a position to assist with the conservation of the species in Spain. It shows the clear benefits of a proactive approach to species recovery.”  

Karl Ivens, Forestry England Wildlife Ranger Manager involved in the original and current translocations, explained “I first spotted one of these magnificent birds in May 1994 after the Chilterns reintroduction. It was eating carrion near Wadenhoe Great Wood, ironically where the last nest site was recorded before they became extinct locally in the 1840s. Before I knew it, the following year I was in Spain collecting chicks to bring back to the nation’s forests!

“I’m delighted to see this conservation success during my career, and it is an honour to be collecting chicks again, this time from woodlands I work in, to return to Spain. Red kites are now so easily seen and enjoyed by everyone locally and further afield thanks to a great partnership and Forestry England’s commitment to reintroducing wildlife in the nation’s forests.”

Natural England Chair Tony Juniper said “The reintroduction of red kites to England is the most successful raptor conservation story in Europe. It’s a clear blueprint for the future of species reintroductions, particularly for some of our most endangered birds.”

“Through partnership working, new legally binding government targets for species abundance and the new environmental land management scheme, we increasingly have the means to turn the tide on Nature’s decline in England, bringing fresh promise for other native birds, including our beloved Hen Harrier and Curlew.

“I’m hopeful the red kite chicks bound for Spain will flourish in the same way the chicks that arrived to this country a generation ago did, as we support those helping to rebuild the population and the prospects of this magnificent bird in southern Europe.”

Sophie Common, ZSL (Zoological Society of London) said “It was important to assess the health of the red kites before they travelled back to Spain and the ZSL wildlife veterinarians were pleased to be able to give them the all clear.”

ENDS

There’s not much detail in this press release about the problems facing red kites in some areas of Spain but this BBC news article provides a bit more information, as does this article in The Guardian. Illegal poisoning is still an issue in some areas, just as it still is in parts of the UK, notably in areas managed for gamebird shooting e.g. see here and here.

However, according to Alfonso Godino, one of the reintroduction partners in Spain, tough measures including prison sentences for poisoning ‘have now reduced kite mortality’.

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

Press release from NatureScot, 21st June 2022:

General Licence restricted on Highland estate

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

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

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

[Red kite. Photographer unknown]

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

The restriction notice reads as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

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

But anyway, the ‘review’ undertaken by the senior officer from Dorset Police has already been done according to comments made by Dorset Police Chief Scott Chilton in a Facebook live chat almost three weeks ago, and that officer had determined that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ and ‘no outstanding lines of enquiry’ to progress the case. Well of course, if you fail to conduct a search you’re not going to find any evidence, are you? It’s simply bonkers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red kite shot in Wiltshire: Police appeal for information

A public appeal for information from Wiltshire Police Rural Crime Team (14th June 2022):

Information appeal

A dead kite was recovered from a public footpath close to Hens wood, Axford, Wiltshire on the 20/04/2022 following a report from the public. Further forensic work into the cause of death has found that the bird had been shot.

We are appealing for any information around the shooting of the Red kite or any person who may have been in the area on the 16/04/2022 who saw anything suspicious to contact the Wiltshire Rural crime team via 101 – quote crime report 54220038890

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

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

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

[The poisoned red kite. Photo by RSPB]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

£219 is not.

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

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

The other convicted gamekeepers in recent months are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RSPB Investigations blog here

Wiltshire Police statement here

Crown Prosecution Service statement here

Channel 4 News video here

ITV News coverage here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS

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

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

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

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

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

The blog reader who attended court also said this:

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

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

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

Court case delayed against Wiltshire gamekeeper Archie Watson

Criminal proceedings against a 21-year-old gamekeeper for multiple alleged raptor persecution and firearms offences have been delayed.

Archie Watson, of Dragon Lane in Manningford Bruce near Pewsey, Wiltshire, was due to appear at Swindon Magistrates next Wednesday (25th May 2022) to face six charges under the Wildlife & Countryside Act and three charges under firearms legislation, for offences alleged to have been committed on an unnamed game-shooting estate in 2019.

However, this case has now been adjourned to 1st June 2022 where Watson will be invited to submit his plea. If he pleads guilty sentencing will follow shortly afterwards; if he pleads not guilty this case will proceed to trial at a later date.

This case relates to a multi-agency raid in Wiltshire in September 2020 when two warrants were executed at locations in the Pewsey and Beckhampton areas. Firearms were seized as part of ongoing enquiries, and the carcasses of a number of birds of prey, including red kites and buzzards, were located at the site in Beckhampton (see here).

Earlier this month a Wiltshire Police spokesperson said: ‘The case has been brought after almost two years of detailed investigation and forensic analysis in conjunction with the CPS, RSPB and other partners. It is potentially the largest English raptor persecution case in terms of the number of alleged victims‘.

For context, and to provide an indication of how many raptor deaths may be involved, prior to this case the largest one in England was at the Stody Estate in Norfolk in 2014 (here) when gamekeeper Allen Lambert was found guilty of poisoning 11 birds of prey – 10 buzzards and one sparrowhawk.

PLEASE NOTE: As Archie Watson has been charged and court proceedings are live, I won’t be accepting blog comments on this case until criminal proceedings have concluded. Thanks for your understanding.

For previous blogs on this case please see here, here and here.

%d bloggers like this: