There has long been dissatisfaction with the penalties handed out to those convicted of wildlife crime. Yesterday’s sentencing of convicted mass raptor poisoner Allen Lambert of Stody Estate merely served to highlight the issue, again. But what we perceive to be unacceptably lenient penalties is certainly nothing new, and especially those sentences given to people (usually gamekeepers) associated with the game-shooting industry.
There’s a huge lack of public confidence in the way the judiciary deals with these criminals, with many people often talking about corruption, vested interests, biased judges/sheriffs etc. We’ve all come to expect unduly lenient measures – you only have to look at the comments on social media even before Lambert’s sentence was announced – people were predicting a metaphorical ‘slap on the wrist’, and in essence, that’s indeed what he got, even though the judge had stated that Lambert’s crimes “had crossed the custody threshold“.
Quite often (although apparently not in Lambert’s case), the accused’s employer (typically a wealthy landowner) will even fork out for a Queen’s Counsel (QC) to put forward the accused’s defence. A QC is considered to be an exceptional lawyer of outstanding ability – it’s hardly a level playing field to pit a QC against an ‘average’ public prosecutor, leading to even more public concern about the perceived ‘fairness’ of these trials and any subsequent punishment.
Sentencing for wildlife crimes has been hit or miss in both Scotland and England. For most wildlife crime offences (although not all), the maximum sentence available for each offence is a £5,000 fine and/or a six month custodial sentence. So for example, if someone had been convicted of poisoning two buzzards, they could potentially be hit with a £10,000 fine and a 12 month custodial sentence. As far as we’re aware, the maximum sentence has never been given. Instead, a large dollop of judicial discretion has been applied, resulting in weak and inconsistent penalties and a growing level of frustration amongst the general public who wish to see justice being done.
For example, in 2011, a gamekeeper in South Lanarkshire was convicted of poisoning four buzzards with the banned pesticide Alphachloralose. His sentence? An admonishment (basically a telling off). The maximum penalty available to the Sheriff was a £20,000 fine and/or a two-year custodial sentence. What was even more astonishing about this case was that the gamekeeper had been convicted of another wildlife crime three years earlier (illegal use of a crow cage trap in which he’d caught a buzzard), on the same land, for which he’d received a £300 fine. So the poisoning of four buzzards with a banned pesticide was his second conviction and yet he was given the most lenient penalty available.
A few months later, and just down the road in South Lanarkshire, a second gamekeeper was convicted of possessing the banned pesticide Carbofuran, which had been found in his vehicle. No charges were brought for the discovery of a dead buzzard and a pheasant bait (both tested positive for Carbofuran) found on land where this gamekeeper worked. His sentence? A £635 fine for possession (maximum sentence available was a £5,000 fine and/or a six month custodial sentence).
Things may be about to change in Scotland. Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse has, to his credit, instructed a review of wildlife crime penalties. The group’s remit is:
“To examine and report on how wildlife crime in Scotland is dealt with by the criminal courts, with particular reference to the range of penalties available and whether these are sufficient for the purposes of deterrence and whether they are commensurate with the damage to ecosystems that may be caused by wildlife crime”.
Now, while we don’t for one minute think that a potential increase in penalties will be the great panacea to stopping wildlife crime (for that to happen there also needs to be a significant change in investigation and enforcement procedures…..it’s pointless having a severe penalty in place if the criminal knows the chances of being caught are virtually nil…but more on that in due course), it is nevertheless an encouraging step, assuming of course that the review committee recommends an increase in penalties. They may not – see here for our previous comments on the membership of this review committee, which inexplicably includes the owner of a game-shooting estate.
This is where you come in. There is an opportunity for you to share your views with the review committee by answering a simple questionnaire that includes some carefully-thought out questions. The deadline for responding is two weeks today (21st November 2014) and the questionnaire can be filled in on-line and emailed to the committee. Please click here to download.
This is an excellent opportunity to have your say and perhaps have some influence on future wildlife crime sentencing options. Although the review is only applicable to sentencing options in Scotland, you do not have to live in Scotland to participate – it’s open to anyone from anywhere. And who knows, if improvements are made in the Scottish system then it provides more leverage for calls to do a similar review of wildlife crime penalties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The review committee is due to report its findings (and recommendations) early in the New Year.