31
Oct
14

Ross-shire Massacre: more on that Police Scotland press release

Brian Etheridge statementA week ago, Police Scotland issued a ludicrous press statement concerning the illegal poisoning of 22 raptors in Ross-shire. They said that they could CONFIRM that the birds “were most likely not targeted deliberately but instead were the victims of pest control measures“.

We’ve blogged quite a bit on that press statement already (see here, here, here, here). Our main issue with it is that the police appear to have ruled out intent (i.e. inferring the birds were accidental victims) before they’ve even identified a suspect. How could they possibly know what the intent was without first having a confession from the poisoner? We also take issue with them citing ’16’ victims instead of 22 victims. It may well be that they only have confirmed poisoning results from 16 of the 22, but to completely ignore the other six birds merely diminishes the scale of this crime.

We are not alone in this view. An article in the North Star quotes the RSPB’s Brian Etheridge (he’s the guy who has worked with the Black Isle red kite population for 19 years and was heavily involved in the discovery of the poisoned birds) as folllows:

It’s a very stupid statement. That’s almost justifying the killing. It’s like saying that a drunk driver who kills somebody didn’t go out with the intention of killing anyone. He was just drunk and it was an accidental death“.

Last week, we invited blog readers to contact two of the partner agencies involved in this investigation (RSPB Scotland & SSPCA) to formally ask whether they agreed with the content of the Police Scotland statement. The SSPCA is yet to respond, but Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland has issued the following statement:

The use of poisoned bait, deliberately placed in the open countryside, is an indiscriminate and criminal act, whatever the intention of the perpetrator, and is aggravated in this case by the fact that an illegal chemical was used.

Whether these birds were killed deliberately or otherwise is irrelevant. Someone placed a fast-acting and very toxic poison out in the open, in an area well-known as being frequented by protected birds of prey, including a significant part of the north of Scotland red kite population. The resulting deaths were an entirely predictable result. It is very fortunate that the members of the local community who discovered poisoned birds did not become victims themselves.

The placing of poisoned bait, just a few miles from the popular Tollie red kite feeding station, was not only a reckless attack on local wildlife but also on the local tourist economy.

 I hope this provides clarification of our position”.

END.

Now, while Mr Thomson’s statement doesn’t really answer directly the question he was asked (and to be fair, we’d have been surprised if he had, given that the RSPB has to work in partnership with the police), it is nevertheless very revealing. He specifically mentions poisoned bait – something Police Scotland has so far failed to do, but more importantly, if you read between the lines, it’s pretty obvious that RSPB Scotland isn’t too happy about the Police Scotland statement: “Whether these birds were killed deliberately or otherwise is irrelevant” and “The resulting deaths were entirely predictable“. Indeed.

The Police Scotland statement came in for further scrutiny at the Scottish Government’s Rural Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday. The session was all about wildlife crime and two senior police officers, as well as a rep from COPFS, gave evidence to what turned out to be an impressively well-informed Committee. We’ll be blogging more on what was said at that hearing in due course, but suffice to say it was extremely illuminating. The official transcript apparently won’t be available until Monday, but in the meantime we thoroughly recommend you watch the video of the hearing (available here).

Malcolm GrahamSo, what was said about the Police Scotland press statement during that hearing? Quite a lot! The discussion on this specific item lasted for 18 minutes (see video 01.20-01.30 and then 01.34-01.42) and those well-informed Committee members clearly expressed their concern about the Police Scotland statement.

The police officers (ACC Malcom Graham, pictured left, and DCS Robbie Allan) tried to defend their position – notably, they didn’t apologise for any of the confusion their statement had caused – but their defence wasn’t very impressive. They did state, clearly, that they hadn’t intended to infer the poisonings were accidental, and they did confirm a criminal investigation was on-going. That was good, but they couldn’t justify why they thought the birds “were most likely not targeted deliberately” and quite surprisingly, they claimed that their partner agencies had been in support of the press release! Here’s part of what Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham had to say:

 “We put out information into the public domain that we thought was going to clarify what we thought our best assessment was, lay behind the intent of the acts that we’re investigating, and from everything that we have done, in combination with a number of other agencies who are active in this field AND WHO SUPPORTED THE PRESS RELEASE THAT WE PUT OUT [Emphasis by RPS], we wanted to say that it didn’t appear that the activity had sought to deliberately target the birds that had been killed“.

We find it very hard to believe, given the formal press statement issued by RSPB Scotland, that they were in any way supportive of the Police Scotland statement. So who were these “other agencies who are active in this field” who “supported the press release“? We’re very interested in this and perhaps Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham would like to be given the opportunity to explain. Perhaps he wouldn’t like to explain, but we’ll never know unless we ask. Emails to: ACC.CrimeMCPP@scotland.pnn.police.uk

30
Oct
14

Disingenuous SGA uses flawed analysis to misrepresent raptor crime data

Abacus Toys R UsThere’s a shockingly poorly-researched article in today’s Telegraph, penned by Scottish journalist, Auslan Cramb.

He claims that ‘Wind turbines have killed more birds of prey than persecution‘ this year. The basis of his flawed claim is his analysis of the latest SASA data, covering the period Jan-June 2014.

Cramb states that, “Four raptors were killed by turbines between January and June. Over the same period, two birds were confirmed to have been poisoned or shot“.

Dear God. Let’s just have a closer look at the SASA data, shall we?

March 2014: Dead peregrine found in Strathclyde – Carbofuran poisoning.

April 2014: Dead peregrine found nr Stirling – [shot on the nest].

April 2014: Dead buzzard found in Fife. Poisoned ["banned poison" not named by police].

June 2014: Dead hen harrier found in Muirkirk – [shot].

That’s four confirmed illegal killings in the report. Can’t Mr Cramb count? There’s also a further entry:

January 2014: Dead rook, rabbit bait & hare bait (Carbofuran) found in Strathclyde. Not a raptor, granted, but its misleading not to mention this incident especially as Carbofuran-laced baits are routinely used to kill raptors. This incident is no less serious than a poisoned raptor.

But what’s missing from the SASA report? According to our research, the following:

January 2014: 1 dead bird [species unidentified] & suspected poison bait, South Lanarkshire.

March 2014: 16 red kites poisoned in Ross-shire ["banned poison" not named by police].

March 2014: 6 buzzards poisoned in Ross-shire ["banned poison" not named by police].

April 2014: 1 dead buzzard, allegedly shot, bludgeoned and stamped on, Dumfries & Galloway. A criminal trial is underway.

That makes a total of 27 confirmed illegally-killed raptors between Jan-June 2014, plus one rook and one unidentified bird.

Now, it’s quite possible that Mr Cramb is unaware of some of those additional persecution incidents (although if he was a half-decent journalist he would have done some homework – information about all of those crimes can be found on this blog).

However, it is inconceivable that the 22 raptors poisoned in the Ross-shire Massacre in March this year escaped his attention. He’s a journalist – it’s his job to keep abreast of the news.

Sure, the 22 poisoned raptors are not listed in the SASA report because mysteriously, SASA has chosen to exclude them, probably at the request of Police Scotland – we blogged about this exclusion here and the ramifications of their secrecy just keep coming, as evidenced here), but it’s very poor journalism for him to have excluded them from his analysis on windfarm deaths vs persecution deaths.

disingenuousCramb’s poor research skills are one thing. However, his flawed analysis appears to have been readily accepted by the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, and used by them to misrepresent the truth about raptor persecution stats. In the article, Cramb says this of the SGA:

A spokesman for the SGA said the report revealed the truth behind the “prejudice” aimed at landowners and farmers which painted the shooting industry as “guilty until proven innocent“.

He added: “It is important the public can understand for themselves the true picture regarding wildlife crime.

“After the appalling finger-pointing at the shooting and farming industries following Conon Bridge this year by the highly politicised conservation movement, we will be interested to see if those groups now call for the same licensing measures against the government-backed wind farm industry”‘.

So, the SGA have accepted Cramb’s analysis even though they are fully aware that the 22 illegally-poisoned raptors at Conon Bridge are not included in his results. They can’t deny knowledge of the Ross-shire Massacre because the SGA spokesman even mentioned it in his quote!

We would argue that the SGA is being disingenuous, readily accepting Cramb’s flawed analysis because it suits their agenda to keep denying the extent of raptor persecution crimes in Scotland. That’s outrageous. Why is this organisation still allowed to sit on the PAW Scotland Raptor Group, whose objective is to raise awareness of raptor persecution, not to deny it? They’re a disgrace.

Telegraph article here

30
Oct
14

Ross-shire Massacre: Police Scotland, see what you’ve done?

idiot alertLast Friday, Police Scotland put out an idiotic press release stating that they could now CONFIRM that the 22 raptors illegally poisoned in the Ross-shire Massacre seven months ago “were most likely not deliberately targeted“. It was an astonishing statement, not least because they had ruled out criminal intent before they’d even got a suspect, and despite the fact that those birds are known to have been killed with a banned poison. We blogged about it here and we’ll be blogging further on this shortly, following the grilling that senior police officers received during yesterday’s Scot Gov RACCE Committee hearing (see here).

Following that Police Scotland press statement, Tim (Kim) Baynes of Scottish Land & Estates wrote a letter to the Herald complaining about media speculation and stating (falsely) that raptor persecution crimes had declined (see here).

In response to that letter, yesterday Duncan Orr-Ewing of RSPB Scotland set out the facts about the increase in raptor persecution crimes (see here).

Today, another letter has appeared in the Herald, in response to Duncan Orr-Ewing’s letter. This letter was tweeted by the SGA this morning, with the following statement: “Herald letter from Ayrshire reader on the legal concept of innocent until proven guilty”.

Here’s the letter:

Thursday 30 October 2014

RSPB has its own agenda

DUNCAN Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland, does not let the facts get in the way of his argument (Letters, October 29).

I would remind Mr Orr-Ewing that he stated in this very journal that a crime had been committed with the poisoning of raptors on the Black Isle and he then proceeded to promote his agenda against gamekeepers and shooting estates. Police Scotland has stated that no crime was committed, but that has not stopped RSPB advocating regulation which would allow it to attempt to criminalise legal businesses.

Rather than being a positive, the involvement of RSPB in police investigations creates a massive question about impartiality. This underlines the danger of allowing bodies with their own agendas to be involved in criminal investigations. They appear willing to ignore the fact that in this country we are all innocent until proven guilty.

David Stubley,

22 Templeton Crescent, Prestwick.

So Mr Stubley thinks that the Ross-shire Massacre was not a crime. This is precisely why Police Scotland should never have issued their press statement. Although their press statement did say: “The criminal investigation into their deaths is still ongoing”, those seeking to diminish this crime as something ‘accidental’ have been given the perfect fodder to perpetuate their ignorant claims which many average members of the public will likely believe.

As for the SGA re-tweeting this letter, with no mention that the Ross-shire Massacre was indeed a crime, well that speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

Mr Stubley is no stranger to muddying the water about the Ross-shire Massacre. In May he wrote another letter to the Herald about this crime:

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Falling prey to an accident?

I NOTE that immediately after the discovery of several dead raptors on the Black Isle many people jumped to the conclusion that they had been poisoned by a gamekeeper, even though there was not a shred of evidence to back up this assumption.

Several weeks later and despite a large reward being offered no-one has been charged. I have a suggestion for a possible cause of the poisoning.

Those responsible for the reintro­duction of red kites and other birds set up feeding sites where the birds know they will be fed and therefore congregate in large numbers. The birds are fed on agricultural beasts which have been killed, roadkill or, during the shooting season, gamebirds which cannot be sold. Could one of those food sources have been exposed to poison by accident? This would surely explain the concentration of dead birds and the lack of anyone to blame.

David Stubley,

22 Templeton Crescent, Prestwick.

We wonder if Mr Stubley is a member of the SGA? Just sayin’……

Police Scotland’s media strategy about this high profile crime has been appalling. They complained yesterday during the RACCE Committee hearing that media speculation hadn’t been helpful. They could easily have alleviated that speculation by publishing clear, timely and precise information about this crime, without jeopardising their criminal investigation.

More on this shortly.

30
Oct
14

Killing with impunity: Birdcrime 2013 published

Birdcrime 2013The RSPB has published its latest annual report on crimes against birds in the UK in 2013.

Their press release here.

The killing goes on, with impunity.

76 individual birds & other animals were confirmed illegally poisoned in 2013. This is more than double the figure from 2012 (29 confirmed victims).

Poisoning victims in 2013 included 30 buzzards, 20 red kites, 1 golden eagle and 1 white-tailed eagle.

68 confirmed incidents involved the shooting or destruction of birds of prey. Victims included two hen harriers, two marsh harriers and 5 peregrines.

These are just the confirmed incidents. A total of 338 incidents were reported to the RSPB in 2013, with North Yorkshire once again being the worst location. There’s also a worrying number of incidents from Powys in South Wales, seemingly relating to poisoned baits.

Birdcrime 2013 is a thoroughly depressing read. The RSPB calls on the shooting industry, again, to clean up its act. Judging by the contents of this report, that’s a seemingly futile request.

Well done and thanks to the RSPB for not only compiling these thorough statistics but importantly, for sharing them in the public domain.

Download Birdcrime 2013: Birdcrime 2013

Hen harrier Bowland Betty, found shot dead on a grouse moor in North Yorkshire. (Photo by Natural England).

Bowland Betty

30
Oct
14

RSPB spells out the facts to Tim Baynes

duncan-orr-ewingThree days ago Tim Baynes of the Scottish Land & Estates Moorland Group penned a letter to the Herald complaining about media speculation over the cause of the Ross-shire Massacre. He also (falsely) claimed that crimes against raptors had decreased.

Duncan Orr-Ewing of RSPB Scotland sets the record straight in his response letter:

The Herald 29 October 2014

Mr Tim Baynes of the Scottish Land and Estates Moorland Group accuses wildlife charities of speculating on the illegal poisoning case in spring 2014 involving the death of 16 red kites on the Black Isle, in his words “straining the relationship between land managers and conservationists” (“Landowners hit out at wildlife group claims on raptor killing”, The Herald, October 27 and Letters, October 27).

He also suggests that crimes against birds of prey are declining. Neither is correct.

We have long experience of supporting police wildlife crime investigations, and have a strong interest in ensuring that cases lead to successful prosecutions. We work within protocols agreed with the police. This appalling episode on the Black Isle has rightly caused public outrage, and there is intense frustration that justice is not being seen to be done.

The majority of the crime that is impacting on the status of bird of prey populations in Scotland occurs on land managed for driven grouse shooting. This is a fact supported by a substantial evidence base. Most land managers in Scotland act responsibly and have no involvement with wildlife crime. The Black Isle incident, which occurred on farmland, is by its location, very much the exception to the general rule. Due to the evidence of the systemic illegal killing of raptors and other unsustainable land management practices that occurs on some moors, we now consider that the voluntary approach has failed, and tighter regulation of driven grouse shooting is required.

As director of Scottish Land and Estates Moorland Group, Mr Baynes could perhaps do more with his own audience to help tackle the crimes that are impacting on the populations of golden eagles and hen harriers, and marginalise bad practice. The flouting of national laws designed to protect our most vulnerable wildlife is what under­mines the relationship between conservationists and grouse moor owners, and it also tarnishes the reputation of those land owners who observe best practice.

The latest Scottish Government statistics, issued only a fortnight ago, show an increase in the number of reported wildlife crimes against birds of prey in 2013 in comparison to 2012. In addition, the monitoring of bird of prey populations in Scotland still highlights that species such as hen harriers and golden eagles are absent or fail to breed successfully in large swathes of the central and eastern Highlands and Southern Uplands, where driven grouse shooting takes place. Golden eagles and other birds of prey fitted with GPS satellite tags, allowing accurate tracking by researchers, are also either being found illegally killed or poisoned or “disappearing” in these very same areas.

It is surely time for Mr Baynes to help his members take a responsible stance, thus resolving this serious problem soon.

Duncan Orr-Ewing,

Head of Species and Land Management,

RSPB Scotland,

2 Lochside View,

Edinburgh Park, Edinburgh.

29
Oct
14

Natural England release limited info about their sat-tagged hen harriers 2007-2014

Bowland HH Jude LaneYesterday, Natural England (NE) published some information about their hen harrier satellite tagging programme, which has been running since 2007. Their press release, entitled: “Initial findings of Natural England’s hen harrier tracking programme 2007 to 2014″ can be read here.

The key word here is “initial”. What they’ve released is extremely limited and to be frank, doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know.

It’s a difficult situation for them, because part of the funding for this project has come from us (tax payers) and so NE has an obligation to inform us how our money has been spent and the results of the research that we’ve helped fund. However, this research has been undertaken as part of a PhD study and so the doctoral candidate (Stephen Murphy) is entitled to retain his data until he’s ready to submit his thesis and, ideally, has produced some peer-reviewed papers. No researcher worth his/her salt would wish to release their data, prematurely, in to the public domain, in case someone nicks the data and takes intellectual credit for the work.

The problem in this case is exacerbated by the controversial topic (and thus the high level of public interest and clamour for information), the poor survival rate of the study species (which is bound to have impacted on the research design seeing as the research is specifically aimed at examining hen harrier dispersal ecology; quite hard to assess if your harriers are killed just a few months after fledging), and also the length of time it has taken for this PhD study to be completed. We understand Mr Murphy’s studies began in 2006 – that’s eight years ago. That’s a very long time. We do have some sympathy with Mr Murphy, for the first two reasons outline above – but, we do know that he has given numerous public presentations on his research over the years and so we should have seen at least SOME of his findings published by NE well before now.

So, what information did NE release yesterday? Or more to the point, what information didn’t they release?

We now know that NE has attached sat tags to 47 young hen harriers between 2007-2014. There are at least a further six tags that have been fitted and monitored by other organisations. Of NE’s 47 harriers, only four are known to be still alive. That’s a pathetic 8.7%.

Of the 47 harriers, six have been found dead.

Of the 47 harriers, a staggering 37 (78.7%) are listed as ‘missing’.

Of the 37 ‘missing’ harriers, 34 were under a year old when their sat tag stopped functioning. Two were between 1-2 years old, and only one was more than two years of age. The vast majority went ‘missing’ in the months of September and October, with a smaller peak in July and August.

NE has provided some technical information about the sat tags, stating that they are programmed to emit signals on a ten hour cycle with a subsequent 48-hour re-charging cycle. They point out that just because a harrier’s last signal came from a particular location, the harrier could have subsequently moved a considerable distance (within that 48-hour period).

Viewing the case of each ‘missing’ harrier in isolation, that’s quite a plausible possibility. However, when you combine ALL the cases of ALL the missing harriers, it’s not quite so plausible. NE states that tag failure is “uncommon”. Incidentally, so did the Dutch researchers who were commenting on the ‘missing’ sat tagged Montagu’s harrier earlier this year, whose last signal came from the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk (see here). Sure, you might expect the odd one to fail, but when you’ve got a 78.7% failure rate, and you’re told that tag failure is “uncommon”, it’s very hard to conclude anything other than foul play.

When you also add in the known fact that breeding hen harriers are missing from almost every driven grouse moor in England and Scotland, it becomes blindingly obvious what’s going on.

Unfortunately, the newly-released data provided by NE don’t include detail of where these hen harriers have gone ‘missing’. They’ve given 100km2 grid references, which are utterly meaningless. They say they don’t want to release any finer detail because there is concern from the raptor study groups that sensitive locations will be publicised. That’s a little ironic (clearly the harrier killers know where to find these birds) but it’s also understandable. However, NE could have easily provided a column showing the habitat type of where these birds went ‘missing’ without compromising site security. Those data would have been very interesting and, we think, pretty damning. Perhaps that’s why they were excluded?

As NE quite rightly points out, the circumstances that led to the loss of these harriers’ tag signals can only be ascertained if the bird’s corpse is recovered. That’s also a statement that has repeatedly been put out by the game-shooting lobby – “No dead bird, no evidence of persecution”. Now, we expect some natural mortality – not all the sat-tagged harriers are going to survive, that’s basic biology. But wouldn’t you think, if all these sat-tagged harriers had died a natural death, their corpses (or at least part of a corpse) would be found, as would the tags?

Of those 37 ‘missing’ harriers, only one tag has been recovered. Amazing, eh?

So what have we learned? Not much. 78.7% of sat tagged hen harriers are ‘missing’. ‘Somewhere’.

Here’s a reminder of what happens to some hen harriers on some driven grouse moors. Please sign the petition to ban driven grouse shooting here.

hh trap1

hh trap2

hh trap3

 

28
Oct
14

Senior police face wildlife crime grilling at Holyrood

RACCEThe Scottish Government’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change & Environment Committee (RACCE) will tomorrow hear evidence from two senior Police Scotland officers about the Government’s latest annual report on wildlife crime in Scotland.

The two officers are Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham (Major Crime and Public Protection), and Detective Chief Superintendent Robbie Allan (Wildlife Crime Portfolio Holder).

Following them will be Patrick Hughes, Head of Wildlife & Environmental Crime Unit, Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service.

This hearing is fairly routine – the RACCE took evidence last year from the Environment Minister following the publication of the Government’s first report on wildlife crime, and the Minister is set to give evidence again next week (Nov 5th) now that the second annual report has been published.

However, in light of recent events, we hope that the police will be asked to account for their actions on (a) their outrageous statement that the 22 raptors poisoned in the Ross-shire Massacre seven months ago were “not deliberately targeted”, and (b) their staggeringly hypocritical response to the consultation on whether the SSPCA should be given increased investigatory powers.

We’re still awaiting a formal response from the RSPB’s Head of Investigations, Ian Thomson and the SSPCA’s Head of Special Investigations Unit, Mark Rafferty as to whether they agreed with Police Scotland’s claim that the Ross-shire Massacre was ‘accidental’, although they have said that they’ve contacted Police Scotland for an explanation and will respond to blog readers in due course. We can assume then, that neither the RSPB or the SSPCA were party to that Police Scotland press release, even though they are supposedly ‘partners’ in this investigation.

In the meantime, we asked RSPB Scotland Director, Stuart Housden, what his thoughts were. Yesterday he tweeted the following response:

To use a poisoned bait(s), placed in the open is an indiscriminate and illegal act aggravated by the use of a banned chemical“.

It seems that Mr Housden is, quite rightly, not impressed with Police Scotland’s statement. Note also he mentioned ‘poisoned bait(s)’ and ‘a banned chemical’. These are carefully chosen words. If those 22 birds had been killed by the accidental use of rodenticide, as some members of the game-shooting lobby are claiming on social media, Housden would probably have said ‘a controlled substance’, because rodenticides are NOT a ‘banned chemical’. Interesting stuff.

You can watch the RACCE wildlife crime hearing live on Holyrood TV tomorrow. The session starts at 10am although the first item on the agenda is consideration of the South Arran Marine Conservation Order 2014. The wildlife crime session will follow that. You can watch by clicking this link to Committee Room 5.

For those who can’t watch it, we’ll post the minutes from the session on this blog as soon as they become available (usually within 24 hours of the hearing).

UPDATE 29/10/14: For those who missed the live tv broadcast, HERE is the archived video. A full transcript will follow (within 24 hours) plus our analysis of the evidence heard.




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