‘Eyes in the Field': wildlife crime conference

BAWC conf logoA national wildlife crime conference with a difference will take place in spring 2015. Entitled ‘Eyes in the Field’, it’s being organised by the campaign group Birders Against Wildlife Crime, the team who instigated this year’s highly successful Hen Harrier Day.

What’s different about this conference is that it’s open to the general public. Most wildlife crime conferences have restricted access and are aimed predominantly at police wildlife crime enforcers, with a limited number of places made available to members of certain wildlife NGOs. This particular conference, however, has been designed specifically for the general public and aims to provide a broad range of information to enable us all to effectively tackle wildlife crime.

There’s an interesting line-up of speakers, including prominent wildlife campaigners (Mark Avery, Chris Packham, Dominic Dyer), wildlife crime investigators (Bob Elliot from the RSPB and Paul Tillesley from the League Against Cruel Sports), a wildlife crime training consultant (Craig Fellowes), a Police Crime Commissioner (Alan Charles), a wildlife researcher (Ruth Tingay) and a politician (Chris Williamson MP).

As well as a series of presentations, there’ll also be an open panel debate with audience participation.

The conference will take place in Buxton, Derbyshire on Saturday 21st March 2015. Tickets are now on sale (£40) and are probably going to sell quite quickly.

For full details & booking etc see the conference webpage here.


Buzzard licence applicant gets High Court approval for judicial review

BZThe following statement has been issued by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation:

High Court Grants Gamekeeper Go-Ahead To Challenge Natural England

Tuesday 25th Nov 2014

A gamekeeper has been given permission by the High Court to proceed with a claim for Judicial Review against the Government’s wildlife licensing authority, Natural England (NE). The self-employed gamekeeper had applied for a licence to control buzzards attacking young pheasants on a small game shooting enterprise he runs for local farmers in Northumberland. NE acknowledged that the birds of prey were causing serious damage but refused to issue a licence under the well-established licensing process approved by Parliament for use in such circumstances.

The Honourable Mrs Justice Thirlwall DBE gave permission to proceed with the claim for Judicial Review on the basis that it was arguable NE had been inconsistent and unreasonable in refusing the licence. The case will now proceed to a full hearing which is likely to take place in the first half of next year.

Ricky McMorn, the self-employed gamekeeper seeking the buzzard control licence, may go out of business and lose his livelihood if a licence is not forthcoming. He said:

“This is a real David and Goliath situation. I am having to battle the might of the state in the form of Natural England to protect my birds and my job. They admit I’ve got a problem and agree that I have done everything I can but still they won’t give me a licence. It’s unfair and it’s wrong. Hundreds of other people get licences to kill protected birds every year.”

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects all wild birds but it also allows for control licences to be granted for certain purposes. One of these is the prevention of serious damage to livestock including, specifically, gamebirds kept for the provision of shooting. Before any such licence can be granted by NE strict tests must be met – including demonstrating that the damage being caused is indeed serious and that there is no other satisfactory solution. Where these tests are met, however, a licence cannot be unreasonably withheld.

Whilst refusing this licence, in earlier considerations of the case NE has accepted that:

  • the damage being experienced is serious;
  • buzzards are the main cause of the pheasant deaths;
  • Mr McMorn has done all that can reasonably be expected of him in scaring off the buzzards and otherwise protecting his pheasants;
  • removing a small number of buzzards from the site would not compromise the species’ conservation status.

There are now over 300,000 buzzards in the UK and numbers are booming. The population has undergone a four-fold increase during the last forty years according to The State of UK Birds 2014, published on behalf of Natural England by the RSPB.

To prevent damage to fisheries, NE regularly issues licences under the same system to kill many thousands of cormorants each year – up to 20% of the UK population. Cormorant numbers peak at around 41,000 birds in the UK, compared to 300,000 buzzards.

NE also allows buzzards to be killed at UK airports and it has, in the recent past, allowed a free-range poultry farmer to trap and remove buzzards causing serious damage to his chickens. This is in sharp contrast to applications made by gamekeepers, where no licence to kill or remove buzzards has ever been granted.

Mr McMorn’s case is being supported by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO), which believes strongly that the law and due process should always be followed. The NGO’s spokesman said:

“This case is about a gamekeeper who is trying to do the right thing within the law to address a real and serious threat to his livelihood. NE has a duty to administer licensing fairly, yet the facts speak for themselves. Extensive discussions with NE about solving our member’s problem and saving his job have got nowhere. It is time to let the High Court decide whether NE has been acting in accordance with the law.

“Fair and proper implementation of the longstanding licensing system is essential, not only to the wellbeing of the countryside and those who work there but also ultimately to its wildlife. If expanding predatory species become problematic but people are denied access to the existing legitimate solution, the risk of mavericks undertaking indiscriminate, illegal activity will never go away. We utterly condemn illegal persecution of birds of prey and it must stop.”


Previous blogs on this issue:

21 May 2012: Buzzard ‘management trial’ gets govt approval and £375K funding.

23 May 2012: RSPB response to DEFRA’s (illegal) buzzard trial.

24 May 2012: DEFRA responds to public outcry over Buzzard management trial.

30 May 2012: DEFRA backs down on Buzzard ‘management’ trial.

13 June 2012: #Buzzardgate aftermath.

10 January 2013: The buzzard blame game.

23 May 2013: Natural England issues licence to destroy buzzard eggs & nests to protect pheasants.

25 May 2013: New petition: SNH, do not licence buzzard culling in Scotland.

30 May 2013: Two important questions to ask about the buzzard licence applicant.

3 June 2013: Buzzard licencing: turning up the heat.

5 June 2013: Surely the buzzard licence applicant doesn’t have prior convictions for poison offences?

5 June 2013: Natural England says no to buzzard-killing licence.

20 June 2013: Hand in of buzzard petition today at Holyrood.

13 August 2013: Natural England claims release of buzzard licence info ‘not in public interest’.

26 September 2013: Buzzard licence applicant tries for four more licences.

1 October 2013: Why we don’t trust the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation.


Buzzard shot and left for dead

The ISPCA has been forced to euthanise a buzzard that had been found shot and badly injured in County Westmeath, Ireland.

They are appealing for information after a member of the public found the wounded buzzard in Castletown Geoghegan and took it to the ISPCA National Animal Centre in Longford. It was given immediate pain relief and was then transferred to the Kildare Animal Foundation for specialist treatment by a wildlife vet.

Unfortunately the bird’s wing had become gangrenous and had no chance of survival.

Buzzards are protected in Ireland under the Wildlife Act 1976 and it is illegal to take them from the wild, injure or kill them.

Dr Andrew Kelly of the ISPCA said: “Why such a beautiful bird would be targeted in this manner remains a mystery. This poor bird must have been in agony until it was found and given pain relief. Buzzards are magnificent birds and are an integral part of Ireland’s natural fauna. They feed on carrion and rodents such as rats so they pose no threat to farm animals or pets. 

Although they are found mostly in the north and east of Ireland, they have been recolonizing other parts of the country over the last few years. They are scarce in the midlands where this one was shot“.

Anyone with information is urged to contact either the ISPCA or the National Parks & Wildlife Service.

BZ Westneath 2014

BZ Westneath 2014 x ray


Last night’s Countryfile

Last night’s Countryfile featured a section on raptor persecution and was actually fairly well balanced, in terms of the amount of air time given to both ‘sides’ of the debate.

First up was Bob Elliot, the RSPB’s Head of Investigations. He talked about the effect of persecution on certain raptor populations and the need for better legislation, vicarious liability, estate licensing and greater penalties for those convicted of illegally killing raptors. It was a well-delivered performance.

The presenter, Tom Heap, claimed that there is “some evidence that vicarious liability has reduced the illegal killings of birds of prey” in Scotland. Rubbish. That’s what the landowners would like everyone to believe because then it makes it more difficult for the Government to introduce even further measures against them. As the (now former) Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse said recently, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that vicarious liability  has reduced raptor persecution. Indeed, the latest Government statistics show that raptor killing is actually back on the increase in Scotland, which demonstrates that so far, vicarious liability is not having the deterrent effect that we’d all like.

Next we heard from a poor guy whose dog had died after it had minimal contact with a poisoned bait whilst out on a walk on a Yorkshire moor. This was followed by North Yorkshire Police Wildlife Crime Officer Gareth Jones, who discussed another poisoning incident he’d investigated that involved a poisoned fox, crow and two red kites.  This was a bit strange because he mentioned that a local gamekeeper had put out a poisoned rabbit bait to target a fox that had been eating his pheasant poults and that the keeeper hadn’t intended to kill the kites, only the fox. But then we heard that there wasn’t enough evidence to make a ‘definitive link’ to the culprit and so there wasn’t a prosecution. Eh? If the keeper had admitted putting out the bait to target a fox, surely that’s the link? If the keeper hadn’t admitted targeting the fox, how did the Police know the kites hadn’t been deliberately targeted? Very odd.

Duncan Thomas BASCNext up was Duncan Thomas from BASC. What he had to say was quite interesting, but not as interesting as what he didn’t say (or maybe he did say and it was just edited out). For context, it’s worth bearing in mind that before joining the BASC payroll, Mr Thomas was a Police Wildlife Crime Liaison Officer with Lancashire Constabulary, and his patch included the Forest of Bowland, a well-known raptor persecution hotspot.

We were told that he’d been involved with game-bird shooting at Bowland for 20 years and he was filmed waxing lyrical about one of this year’s successful hen harrier nests in Bowland. But no mention of the ‘disappearance’ of two of the nest’s sat-tagged fledglings, Sky and Hope, both vanishing without trace on the Bowland moors just a few weeks after fledging (see here and here).

When asked about the RSPB’s call for game-shooting leaders to acknowledge the role of gamekeepers in raptor persecution, Mr Thomas said:

I think that some of the press releases are quite unfair and they don’t represent a true and accurate picture of what goes on here. If you show me direct evidence that leads to the conviction of a gamekeeper for doing that then those people are not welcome within our community. All the shooting organisations, their stance is very clear, we would expel them from any of our organisations“.

So here we have a former police officer claiming that the only convincing measure of criminal activity is a conviction! On this basis, the UK should be considered as a virtually crime-free zone. All those murders, rapes, assaults, burglaries etc for which nobody has been convicted simply didn’t happen because, er, there weren’t any convictions.

Oh, and all that guff about convicted gamekeepers not being welcome….that’s simply untrue. A classic example is the gamekeeper who was convicted for having a banned poison in his vehicle, home and pheasant pen, and yet went on to enjoy the support of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation who helped him to apply successfully for licenses to destroy buzzard nests and eggs to protect his pheasants!

Mr Thomas was then asked how he felt “when the RSPB seems to be tarring the whole shooting industry“. He said:

Frustrated. And angry. The RSPB appears to be using some EXTREMELY isolated cases to colour us all bad“.

Hmm. Those ‘extremely isolated’ cases actually amount to over 100 gamekeepers convicted of raptor persecution between 1990 – 2010. Not what we’d call ‘extremely isolated’. Our definition of ‘extremely isolated’ would be if, say, a District Nurse had been convicted. There she was, trundling over the uplands on her way to see another patient when she decided to pull over, whip out a shotgun from her medical bag and take a pop at a passing hen harrier. If that had ever happened, then it would clearly be seen as an ‘extremely isolated’ incident and not at all indicative as being representative of her entire profession. But over 100 gamekeepers? Well, those facts speak for themselves. In fact, in the last four years alone, a further 27 gamekeepers have been convicted of wildlife crimes, and at least a further five cases are currently pending. Knowing how difficult it is to actually secure a conviction for wildlife crime, these can only be considered the tip of the iceberg. Here are the latest 27:

Feb 2011: Gamekeeper Connor Patterson convicted of causing animal fights between dogs, foxes and badgers.

May 2011: Gamekeeper Ivan Mark Crane convicted of using an illegal trap.

May 2011: Gamekeeper Ivan Peter Crane convicted of using an illegal trap.

May 2011: Gamekeeper Dean Barr convicted of being in possession of a banned poison.

May 2011: Gamekeeper James Rolfe convicted of being in possession of a dead red kite.

June 2011: Gamekeeper Glenn Brown convicted of using an illegal trap.

October 2011: Gamekeeper Craig Barrie convicted of illegal possession & control of a wild bird

Dec 2011: Gamekeeper Christopher John Carter convicted of causing a fight between two dogs and a fox.

Dec 2011: Gamekeeper Luke James Byrne convicted of causing three animal fights and possession of three dead wild birds (heron, cormorant, buzzard).

Jan 2012: Gamekeeper David Whitefield convicted of poisoning 4 buzzards.

Jan 2012: Gamekeeper Cyril McLachlan convicted of possessing a banned poison.

April 2012: Gamekeeper Robert Christie convicted of illegal use of a trap.

June 2012: Gamekeeper Jonathan Smith Graham convicted of illegal use of a trap.

Sept 2012: Gamekeeper Tom McKellar convicted of possessing a banned poison.

Nov 2012: Gamekeeper Bill Scobie convicted of possessing and using a banned poison.

Jan 2013: Gamekeeper Robert Hebblewhite convicted of poisoning buzzards.

Feb 2013: Gamekeeper Shaun Allanson convicted of illegal use of a trap.

Feb 2013: Gamekeeper (un-named) cautioned for illegal use of a trap.

May 2013: Gamekeeper Brian Petrie convicted for trapping offences.

June 2013: Gamekeeper Peter Bell convicted for poisoning a buzzard.

July 2013: Gamekeeper Colin Burne convicted for trapping then battering to death 2 buzzards.

Sept 2013: Gamekeeper Andrew Knights convicted for storing banned poisons.

Dec 2013: Gamekeeper Wayne Priday convicted for setting an illegal trap.

Feb 2014 Gamekeeper Ryan Waite convicted for setting an illegal trap.

May 2014 Gamekeeper Derek Sanderson convicted for storing five banned poisons.

July 2014 Gamekeeper Mark Stevens convicted for setting illegal traps.

October 2014 Gamekeeper Allen Lambert convicted for poisoning 11 raptors, illegal storage and use of pesticides & possession of a poisoner’s kit.

The final contributor to the Countryfile piece was Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association, discussing DEFRA’s proposed Hen Harrier Recovery Plan and the ridiculous ‘brood management’ scheme, which we believe is nothing more than legalised persecution. We are supposed to believe that the Moorland Association loves hen harriers (ahem) and that the recovery plan would help prevent hen harriers “eating themselves out of house and home“. Good god. Somebody send her on a basic ecology course, please.

This episode of Countryfile is available on BBCiPlayer for 29 days here.

The petition to ban driven grouse shooting is here.


On the telly

tellyCountryfile (tonight, BBC1, 6.15pm) will feature raptor persecution:

“The RSPB say it’s time to get tough in the fight against the persecutors of British birds of prey. But is the wider shooting industry being unfairly blamed for the actions of a criminal few? Tom Heap finds out”.

We can probably guess where this is heading, but we’ll see.

Raptor persecution will also feature on next week’s Landward (Friday 28th Nov, 7.30pm):

“Grouse shooting brings millions of pounds into the Scottish rural economy, yet it is controversial. Dougie Vipond and Sarah Mack go on a shoot to see the sport first-hand, while Euan McIlwriath investigates the impact of grouse moors on the environment. Nick Nairn prepares a traditional roast grouse for dinner”.



Cabinet reshuffle: new Environment Minister in post

Wheelhouse RACCEWell this is disappointing.

We’ve been waiting on tenterhooks all day to find out who the new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would bring in to her Cabinet. We saw that she’d kept on Richard Lochhead as Cabinet Secretary (Rural Affairs & Environment) and so we’d had high hopes that Paul Wheelhouse would be retained in his junior ministerial position as Environment Minister. It wasn’t to be.

It’s just been announced that Wheelhouse has been shuffled off to Community Safety and Legal Affairs and there’s a new Environment Minister in town: Aileen McLeod MSP.

This is a great shame. Yes, we’ve criticised Wheelhouse during his two-year tenure for not doing as much as we would like, and for not doing it quickly enough. However, of all the Environment Ministers we’ve had, he has done far more than any of them to push raptor persecution up the political agenda and he’s recently gained considerable momentum in this regard. Ironically, that’s perhaps why he’s been moved along. The raptor-killing criminals are being squeezed like never before, and they’re definitely feeling the pressure. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that certain organisations have been doing some background lobbying to get rid of him.

It’s to be hoped that Wheelhouse will continue his personal interest and commitment to this issue, in his capacity as an MSP. And who knows, perhaps his latest ministerial post will also link in – community safety (banned poisons being put out in the countryside at great risk to local communities).

Thanks for your efforts, Paul – it may not have seemed like it at times but your purpose and commitment has been appreciated.

So, who’s Aileen McLeod and how long will it take her to get up to speed? We don’t know much about her environmental interests/credentials- read her bio here – but we do know she’ll be advised by the same wildlife crime policy team at Holyrood, and they are a pretty well-informed bunch. No doubt we’ll find out soon enough just how committed she is. Hope she’s been warned about the heavy influx of emails she’s likely to receive from RPS blog readers!


North York Moors really good for waders but really bad for raptors

North York Moors NPTwo weeks ago the Yorkshire Post published an article about how well waders were doing on the North York Moors, according to the results of a survey conducted by the North York Moors National Park Authority (NYMNPA) and Natural England.

According to the North York Moors biodiversity action plan, the North York Moors National Park ‘contains the largest patch of continuous heather moorland in England and holds over 10% of the country’s resource. Most of the moors are privately owned and are managed for sheep grazing and grouse shooting’ [with the Hawk & Owl Trust’s Fylingdales Moor a notable and welcome exception].

The survey suggested that golden plover had reached an 18-year high on these moors, there had been no decline in breeding lapwing and populations of curlew were ‘holding steady, bucking a national declining trend’.

The article included a quote from David Renwick, the Director of Conservation at the NYMNPA:

Thanks must go to landowners and gamekeepers who have not only supported our survey work but are keen to create favourable habitats and conditions for these birds“.

That’s an interesting statement from the National Park’s Director of Conservation, who apparently “is an ecologist by training“. Presumably, his ecology training would have led him to question why these waders are doing so well on these moors. Could it be, perhaps, that all the waders’ natural predators have been eradicated from these moors? Is that what he means when he congratulates landowners and gamekeepers for creating ‘favourable habitats and conditions’?

North Yorkshire has the well-deserved status of being the worst place for reported raptor persecution incidents in the whole of the UK. We’ve blogged about it previously (here and here). It has held this status for six of the last seven years (being pipped to the post in 2011 when it came a close second to Lancashire). Here are the data, sourced from the RSPB’s excellent annual Birdcrime reports:

2013: 23 known incidents of raptor persecution. Status: #1 worst in UK

2012: 34 known incidents of raptor persecution. Status: #1 worst in UK

2011: 33 known incidents of raptor persecution. Status: #2 (Lanacashire #1 with 36 incidents)

2010: 54 known incidents of raptor persecution. Status: #1 worst in UK

2009: 27 known incidents of raptor persecution. Status: joint #1 worst in UK (with Cumbria)

2008: 24 known incidents of raptor persecution. Status: #1 worst in UK

2007: 78 known incidents of raptor persecution. Status: #1 worst in UK

We looked in the biodiversity action plan and on the NYMNPA website for any information about how they specifically planned to address these appalling statistics but couldn’t find very much. We did, though, find an invitation to an open day to ‘meet the countryside protectors’. Marvellous.

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