A few days ago, Charles Nodder, Political Advisor to the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO), wrote on this blog:
“You should regard us [the NGO] as a key part of the solution [to stamping out illegal raptor persecution], not part of the problem. An organisation to be supported, not attacked”.
The thing is, in order to support an organisation there first needs to be a level of trust. It’s very hard for us to trust the NGO, and here’s why…
Until recently, we were under the impression (mistakenly, as it turns out) that the NGO wouldn’t tolerate any illegal gamekeeping activity and if any of their members were convicted of such an offence, they would be expelled from the organisation. This is what the NGO wants us all to believe, as outlined in their own Disciplinary Code, as published on their website.
However, it would now appear that the NGO does, in our opinion, tolerate some illegal gamekeeping activity. This has only come to light because we discovered that the NGO member who has been applying for licences to kill buzzards (and now sparrowhawks too) was recently convicted for being in possession of several banned poisons, including Carbofuran, the most common poison used to illegally kill birds of prey. We have now discovered that the NGO member, who we have called Mr Buzzard Licence Applicant, was not booted out of the NGO following his conviction for a wildlife crime that is closely linked with the illegal poisoning of birds of prey. Not only was he not booted out, but the NGO then actively supported this member by helping him to apply for his buzzard and sparrowhawk-killing licences.
When challenged about this, Mr Nodder provided some fascinating responses on this blog (see here). Before we take a closer look at those responses, we would first like to acknowledge Mr Nodder’s willingness to engage in conversation on this blog. That’s to his credit; there are many others within the game-shooting industry who have repeatedly refused to engage with us, citing excuses such as, “We don’t communicate with anonymous individuals” but who then go on to complain that we publish articles without giving them the right to reply!! Quite an astonishing response given today’s world of multi-media and social networking communications. A missed opportunity for them, but not really that surprising when you consider that many of them are still hanging on to other 19th Century ideals.
Anyway, back to that NGO policy of supposedly not tolerating any illegal gamekeeping activity.
To begin with, Mr Nodder tried to claim that “The possession of a banned substance [and remember we’re talking here about banned poisons that are routinely used to illegally poison wildlife] is quite clearly a possession offence and not an offence against wildlife”. We were astounded by this comment. There are many, many examples of ‘possession’ offences that are inextricably linked to wildlife crime. Here are just a few examples:
- Possession of a dead red kite (see James Rolfe case).
- Possession of 10.5kg of the banned poison Carbofuran (see Dean Barr case).
- Possession of the banned poison Carbofuran (see Cyril McLachlan case).
- Possession of wild birds eggs (see Matthew Gonshaw cases).
- Possession of an illegal pole trap (see Ivan Crane case).
- Possession of a wild bird (see Craig Barrie case).
- Possession of live & dead birds for trade/taxidermy (see Gary McPhail case).
- Possession of the banned poison Alphachloralose (see David Whitefield case).
- Possession of the banned poison Carbofuran (see Tom McKellar case).
- Possession of wild birds (see Cogoo Sherman Bowen case).
- Possession of the banned poisons Carbofuran, Strychnine and Alphachloralose (see Peter Bell case).
- Possession of wild birds eggs (see Keith Liddell case).
- Possession of the banned poison Sodium Cyanide (see William Scobie case).
- Possession of dead wild birds (see Luke Byrne case).
- Possession of the banned poisons Carbofuran and Alphachloralose (see Graham Kerr case).
In many of these example cases, poisoned and/or other illegally killed raptors were also discovered. Indeed, in many cases it is the discovery of these poisoned animals that then leads on to a police investigation and search that then leads to the discovery of a stash of banned poisons. Quite often, as we all know, the subsequent charges that are brought do not often include charges for actually poisoning the wildlife, but instead the charges relate to the ‘lesser’ (in legal terms) offence of ‘possession’, either due to plea bargaining or due to lack of evidence needed to secure a conviction for the actual poisoning of a wild animal. It stands to reason that the actual poisoning of wildlife is inextricably linked to the possession of banned poisons; in order to poison wildlife, the criminal obviously first has to be in possession of the poison to carry out the act of poisoning.
The National Wildlife Crime Unit defines the possession of a banned poison as a wildlife crime – the Unit often publicises convictions for the possession of banned poisons in its reports. The Scottish Government also defines convictions for possession of banned poisons as wildlife crime – indeed, this is one of the offences that can trigger a prosecution under the new vicarious liability legislation, brought in specifically to address the continuing illegal persecution of raptors. The Crown Office considers possession of banned poisons as a wildlife crime because its specialist wildlife prosecutors take on these cases. The Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW, of which the NGO boasts membership) also considers possession of banned poisons a wildlife crime – they, too, publicise ‘possession’ convictions in their newsletters.
So why is it that the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation doesn’t accept possession of banned poisons as a wildlife crime? And if they don’t, why the hell are they allowed to participate in the Raptor Persecution Wildlife Crime Priority Group? Surely that group has been established to find ways of stamping out illegal raptor persecution, but how can it achieve that if one organisational member refuses to expel members who have been convicted of a serious wildlife crime? It makes a mockery of the whole group and does absolutely nothing to instill public confidence in the sincerity of the process.
Mr Nodder’s next explanation for why Mr Buzzard Licence Applicant wasn’t booted out of the NGO was to suggest that possession of a banned poison was not a ‘gamekeeping activity’. On the contrary, if Mr Nodder took the time to look at the conviction statistics (publicly available to those who want to look) he would notice that the significant majority of those convicted for possession of banned poisons are gamekeepers, and that trend has continued for many years. In the case of Mr Buzzard Licence Applicant, his stashes of banned poisons were found in his work vehicle and inside one of his pheasant pens. There’s simply no denying it, unless of course you happen to be the NGO, trying to justify why you haven’t stuck to your stated Disciplinary Code and expelled a member for his criminal conviction.
And what sort of message does this policy send to other NGO members? ‘Don’t worry if you get caught in possession of banned poisons, we won’t kick you out of the club’. It makes you wonder what the law-abiding members of the NGO feel about this policy. If you were a law-abiding member (and there must be some, surely), would you want to be a member of a group that welcomed those with a criminal conviction related to banned poisons? If the NGO doesn’t distinguish between criminal and law-abiding members, why should we?
The third argument Mr Nodder used to try and get us to drop what must be quite embarrassing questions was to pull out the old ‘It’s a spent conviction so we can’t discuss it’ routine. Nice try, but in this case, wholly inapplicable. The legislation that prevents publication of so-called ‘spent convictions’ is the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (see here for a good explanation). Its basic premise is that after a period of x years of rehabilitation (depending on the type of crime committed – in this case, five years), the conviction can be ignored and need not be divulged (with one or two exceptions). If somebody does then publish information about the conviction, they may be subject to libel damages, but only if the primary motive of publishing the information was malicious. In this case, seeing as though we haven’t named Mr Buzzard Licence Applicant, even though we’ve had lots of opportunity to do so (and indeed our own received legal advice was that we could name him), it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate that we are acting in malice (against him as an individual) by discussing his spent conviction because he hasn’t been identified as a named individual. Our primary motive for discussing this case has been to (a) examine the Natural England/DEFRA policy that allows convicted wildlife criminals to apply for licences to kill protected species (see earlier blogs on this), and (b) to examine the sincerity of the NGO’s claims that they won’t tolerate any illegal gamekeeping activity and will expel any member with such a conviction.
And while we’re on the subject of the Rehab of Offenders Act, we’ve made a very interesting observation. Certain professions are exempt from the Act, so that individuals are not allowed to withhold details of previous convictions in relation to job applications. These professions include teachers, social workers, doctors, dentists, vets, accountants etc. But interestingly, also included are “Employees of the RSPCA or SSPCA whose duties extend to the humane killing of animals”. Now then, it is beyond question that the duties of gamekeepers ‘extend to the humane killing of animals’. They probably kill (legitimately) more animals on a daily basis than all the RSPCA and SSPCA employees put together. So why are gamekeepers not included in this list of exemptions? Why should a gamekeeper be able to hide past wildlife crime convictions but an RSPCA/SSPCA employee cannot? That’s a question for the policy makers…
In summary then, in our opinion the NGO’s stated claim that they don’t tolerate any illegal gamekeeping activity is not convincing. They don’t view the possession of a banned poison as a wildlife crime and a conviction for possession of a banned poison is not enough to warrant expulsion from the NGO, even when that poison just happens to be the most commonly used substance to illegally kill birds of prey. It doesn’t matter to us how many wildlife crime groups the NGO has joined – in our view this is just a convenient shield for hiding true intentions – we don’t trust them and will continue to view them with suspicion until they start to back up their stated claims with convincing actions.