17
Sep
21

Victoria Prentis MP (‘rewilding is an evil’) is new Westminster Environment Minister

Boris Johnson’s recent cabinet reshuffle has not affected George Eustice, who remains Secretary of State at DEFRA.

There have though, been a few changes at the junior ministerial level.

Rebecca Pow MP has been moved on, and I’m sorry to say is no great loss whatsoever given her recent ill-informed remarks on tackling raptor persecution (see here).

However, it’s no time to bring out the bunting because she’s been replaced by one Victoria Prentis MP, a politician with strong links to the Countryside Alliance and BASC and who is on record as stating that rewilding ‘is an evil’ (see here).

Good grief.

15
Sep
21

Multi-agency raid following suspected raptor persecution in Norfolk

Norfolk Police led a multi-agency raid in yesterday, executing a warrant in Breckland in relation to suspected raptor persecution crimes.

The police were joined by staff from Natural England, National Wildlife Crime Unit and RSPB Investigation’s team. Items were seized and dead birds of prey were found.

The investigation is ongoing.

[Photo by RSPB]

The Breckland district of Norfolk:

This is at least the 8th multi-agency search in England this year, all in response to raptor persecution crimes. On 18th January 2021 there was a raid in Suffolk (here), on 15th March there was a raid in Lincolnshire (see here), on 18th March a raid in Dorset (here), on 26th March a raid in Devon (see here), on 21st April a raid in Teesdale (here), on 2nd August a raid in Shropshire (here), on 12th August a raid in Herefordshire (here) and now this raid in Norfolk.

That’s a lot of raids in a relatively short space of time, in comparison to recent years. It’s testament to the agencies involved that they are being so proactive and working well together in a genuine multi-agency partnership, which is brilliant to see. It’s also testament to the fact that raptor persecution continues in many locations across the UK, despite what the game-shooting organisations would have us believe.

Whether these investigations result in prosecutions is another matter entirely, but personally I’m delighted that at least this early part of the criminal justice process appears to have been re-energised after a long period of stagnation. Well done to all those involved.

12
Sep
21

Blatant wilful blindness from Environment Minister Rebecca Pow on illegal killing of birds of prey on driven grouse moors

How about this for blatant wilful blindness from an Environment Minister.

This response to a Westminster parliamentary question on the continued illegal persecution of birds of prey in the uplands is about as disingenuous as it gets. I doubt very much if Rebecca Pow wrote it herself – this’ll be the work of a DEFRA civil servant – but Rebecca Pow has allowed her name to be put to it without even a hint of shame.

[Westminster Environment Minister Rebecca Pow]

Here’s the written question from Fleur Anderson MP (Labour Shadow Minister):

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what steps he is taking to prevent the killing of (a) hen harriers, (b) golden eagles, (c) peregrines, (d) goshawks and (e) other birds of prey in the uplands and support the recovery of each species’ populations’.

And here is the response from Environment Minister Pow, published in Hansard yesterday (10th September 2021), ironically on the same day that I’d blogged about there being no prosecution for the shooting of five buzzards found shot and buried on a grouse moor in the North York Moors National Park during the first lockdown in April 2020:

All wild birds including birds of prey are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which provides a powerful framework for the conservation of wild birds, their eggs, nests and habitats. The Government is committed to ensuring the protection afforded to birds of prey is effectively enforced. There are strong penalties for offenders, including imprisonment.

To address concerns about the illegal killing of birds of prey, senior government and enforcement officers have identified raptor persecution as a national wildlife crime priority. Defra sits on the police-led Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, which takes forward activities to raise awareness and facilitate intelligence and incident reporting, leading to increased prevention and enforcement activity. The group focuses on ‘hotspot’ areas of the country (which will include some upland areas) rather than specific species, although the golden eagle, goshawk, hen harrier, peregrine and white-tailed eagle have been identified as being of particular concern.

Additionally, the Hen Harrier Action Plan seeks to secure the long-term future of the hen harrier as a breeding bird in England. It includes measures to stop illegal persecution, and an action to reintroduce the hen harrier in the south of England. The long-term plan was published in January 2016 and we believe that it remains the best way to safeguard the hen harrier in England. This year has seen a further increase in the number of breeding hen harriers in England. 84 chicks fledged from nests across the uplands in County Durham, Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Yorkshire. These are the highest numbers for hen harrier breeding in England since the 1960s’.

It’s quite obvious that this answer has been designed to pull the wool over the eyes of your average member of the public, assuring the uninformed and the gullible that the Government has this under control and there’s no reason for anyone to be concerned because the Government is ‘committed’ to effective enforcement and the criminals are sent to jail. That would all be fine if there WAS effective enforcement, and that offenders DID get sent to jail for these heinous crimes, but it’s an utter fallacy.

Yes, it’s accurate to say there are strong penalties available for raptor persecution crimes, including imprisonment, but as Minister Pow will know, there’s a huge gulf between there being a provision for this in the legislation and it being applied in real life. For example, when was the last time that a criminal gamekeeper was sent to jail for killing a bird of prey? That’s an easy one to answer – never, in England & Wales. It has never happened. The only time a gamekeeper has received a custodial sentence for killing a bird of prey in the UK was in 2014 when a gamekeeper was filmed clubbing to death a goshawk on the Kildrummy Estate in Scotland two years earlier (see here). It was headline news at the time precisely BECAUSE it was the first ever custodial sentence, and it was the last, too.

It’s also complete deception to claim that the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) is delivering increased prevention or increased enforcement in the hotspot persecution areas. There isn’t ANY evidence to support such claims. The RPPDG is, in my opinion, a partnership sham, designed to look as though efforts are being made to effectively tackle illegal raptor persecution in England and Wales. It’s been in existence since 2011 and the ‘delivery’ results speak for themselves – so far it has achieved absolutely sod all in terms of contributing towards the conservation of raptors in the UK and instead has frustrated the efforts of those organisations who are genuinely trying to stamp out persecution (e.g. see here).

And as for the so-called Hen Harrier Action Plan – readers of this blog don’t need reminding what an absolute joke this is. It does seem, however, that the Minister needs to be reminded that the illegal persecution of hen harriers on grouse moors is systemic, as demonstrated by the Government’s own commissioned research published in 2019 (here) which showed that satellite-tagged hen harriers are ten times more likely to be killed on land managed for driven grouse shooting than any other type of land management.

Surely it’s not beyond the understanding of the Minister and her aides that the number of chicks fledged since the brood meddling trial began is irrelevant if the slaughter of those birds continues after the fledging period? We know that at least 56 hen harriers have been illegally killed and/or have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances in the last three years alone (see here for the grim catalogue of death) and this number is set to rise when the police get around to publicising more incidents that have happened this year. Oh, and there hasn’t been a successful prosecution for any of them.

Nothing has changed. Raptors continue to be poisoned, trapped and shot on driven grouse moors and the Westminster Environment Minister’s wilful blindness is responsible for enabling that to continue.

10
Sep
21

No prosecution for 5 shot buzzards found hidden on Bransdale Estate, North York Moors National Park

In April 2020, during the first lockdown, North Yorkshire Police conducted a search of Bransdale Estate in the North York Moors National Park where they discovered five dead buzzards that had been shoved in a hole under a large rock, presumably to conceal them.

X-rays confirmed that at least four of those buzzards had been shot. A later post-mortem suggested the 5th buzzard had also been shot.

Eight individuals were interviewed under caution.

North Yorkshire Police issued a press statement in May 2020, including an appeal for information (see here).

The following day, Channel 4 News featured the crime in a six minute film (here) which included shocking footage from the police officer’s body camera of when the dead buzzards were being pulled from the hole.

In early June 2020 I blogged about the game-shooting industry’s response to these abhorrent crimes – see here. Remember, this is the industry that has professed to supposedly having a ‘zero tolerance’ policy when it comes to raptor persecution. I’m not quite sure how a wall of silence from the main shooting organisations reflects this policy.

One group did comment (the North York Moors Moorland Association), some of whose members may well have been among those interviewed under caution by the police in the course of this investigation, but I’m not sure that the group’s decision to slag off the police was all that bright or did them any favours (see here).

Fast forward one year and four months to August 2021, and Inspector Matt Hagen of North Yorkshire Police revealed during an online interview about the difficulty of investigating raptor persecution incidents, that this particular criminal investigation is not going any further:

There was one estate on the North York Moors National Park, there were five dead buzzards that were found. Four of them had definitely been shot and from the post mortem it suggested that the 5th one had been shot as well.

We’ve analysed mobile phones and all this takes such a long time and costs a lot of money and ultimately at the end of it all we are not going to be able to progress this case because we have to be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt, to a court, who is responsible, and on this case we’re not able to do that, unfortunately“.

It’s been suggested to me from several locals that a number of gamekeepers have since ‘moved on’ from this estate (to work on game-shooting estates in other parts of the UK) and also that the shooting rights have changed hands since these crimes were uncovered. If true, all coincidental, I’m sure.

I don’t know whether the estate is still lauded as an accredited member of the British Game Alliance, the industry’s so-called official marketing board, which now appears to have changed its name to British Game Assurance. Ironic really because the BGA doesn’t seem to do transparency (e.g. here and here).

So there we have it. Yet another disgraceful raptor persecution crime uncovered on a UK driven grouse shooting estate, inside a National Park no less, where armed culprits have got away with committing wildlife crimes without suffering any consequence whatsoever. And in this case, not through lack of effort by North Yorkshire Police.

[X-ray of one of the five shot buzzards found concealed in a hole on the grouse shooting estate]

08
Sep
21

Here’s what Natural England hasn’t told you about this year’s hen harrier brood meddling scandal

The scandalous hen harrier brood meddling trial lurched onwards again this year, with reports that two nests were ‘meddled’ with (i.e. the chicks were removed under a licence issued by Natural England, they were raised in captivity, and were then released back in to the wild, to be illegally killed on a grouse moor somewhere in England, Wales or Scotland, e.g. see here and here).

Regular blog readers will know all about DEFRA’s hen harrier brood meddling trial but for new blog readers, hen harrier brood meddling is a conservation sham sanctioned by DEFRA as part of its ludicrous ‘Hen Harrier Action Plan‘ and carried out by Natural England (NE), in cahoots with the very industry responsible for the species’ catastrophic decline in England. For more background see here.

A blog reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent me this photograph of one of the HH release aviaries on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in July this year. Look at the state of it! It’s no wonder European countries won’t ‘donate’ hen harriers for a proposed southern reintroduction project if this is how we treat our own supposedly protected species!

The young hen harriers that were taken from their parents and shoved inside this structural monstrosity came from the Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire. I won’t publicise the name of the estate they were removed to in case the young birds are still hanging around there but this estate is within the Yorkshire Dales National Park and although it’s not an estate with a bad reputation for raptor persecution, some of it’s near neighbours are absolute shockers with a long, long, long history of poisoned and shot raptors being found on their grouse moors. God help the four young hen harriers released here.

As a side issue, a condition of the previous brood meddling licence (here) was that it was recommended that ‘Brood managed hen harriers should not be released in sight of burnt heather strips where possible‘. I don’t know if that condition still applies in the current licence (I haven’t seen the latest version) but if it does, it appears to have been ignored, judging by the photograph of the release aviary. Ignoring licence conditions seems to be a running theme when it comes to Hen Harrier meddling, doesn’t it?!

But that’s not the main focus of this particular blog. Something else happened this year during the brood meddling trial and seeing as Natural England aren’t being very forthcoming (surprise, surprise, when are they ever?), I’m going to write about it because I believe this information should be in the public domain, especially as this is supposedly a scientifically-rigorous trial (ha!) and at the end of the five-year trial period, there will need to be a public consultation on any decision Natural England / DEFRA makes about whether brood meddling is wheeled out as a standard (mis)management option. The public should have access to ALL the information, not just the bits that Natural England decides to share.

For example, on 13th August this year Natural England wrote the following about this year’s brood meddling trial:

In 2021, trial interventions were approved at two nests: one in North Yorkshire and one in Lancashire. All eight chicks from these nests have been successfully reared to become healthy fledglings and released‘.

That was it. The full extent of what Natural England thought we ought to know about the brood meddling trial this year. It’s pathetic. We’re not five. We don’t need the fairy story approach, (‘and they all lived happily ever after‘) we want details (albeit not any details that would compromise the safety of the released hen harriers).

We do know a little bit more – Dr Mark Avery and his legal team continue to try to hold Natural England to account on hen harrier brood meddling and Natural England released some more detail to them (see here), but I noted without surprise that Natural England had still not revealed the almighty cock-up that happened at one of this year’s two brood meddled nests.

So here’s what happened, according to numerous sources.

Two nests were brood meddled, one in North Yorkshire (Swinton) and one in Lancashire.

At the Lancashire site, the male was polygynous. In other words, he was providing food for two different females at two different nests. The fieldworkers should have known this because the male had been previously satellite-tagged. One nest was further ahead than the other in terms of breeding chronology and this would be considered the ‘primary’ nest, the other one the ‘secondary’ nest.

When it came to making the decision about which nest to brood meddle, ‘someone’ (and I don’t know who, see discussion below) decided to brood meddle the primary nest, where the chicks were at a more advanced age than the chicks in the secondary nest. So the chicks from the primary nest were removed and taken in to captivity, and the chicks in the secondary nest were left alone.

However, this brood meddling (removal of the chicks) at the primary nest caused such disruption to the male that he immediately took off and flew from the area, abandoning not just the brood meddled nest, but also the secondary nest where his second female was still present with chicks, all of whom were reliant upon that male to provision them with food. He didn’t return – apparently his satellite tag data confirmed he had abandoned all breeding attempts at these sites and had moved on.

A gamekeeper was instructed to provide additional supplementary food for the secondary nest and I understand that all the chicks managed to fledge successfully with this extra support. It would have taken an enormous effort and I suggest that Natural England and DEFRA officials owe that gamekeeper a massive drink because his/her efforts have saved their blushes, as well as those harriers. I can’t imagine the gamekeeper was thrilled about having to spend so much time provisioning these chicks (it’s a beautiful irony) and even if s/he had wanted to do them in, they wouldn’t have had the chance given the panic that a potential nest failure would have caused to everyone involved with the trial and the subsequent attention they’d have paid to that secondary nest. Nevertheless, full credit to the keeper for his/her efforts supporting the chicks to the fledging stage. That was a job well done.

So who decided to brood meddle the primary nest and not the secondary nest? According to the original brood meddling project plan, the decision on which nest to plunder is made collectively by the Project Board:

I’m pretty sure the make-up of the Board no longer looks like this. I understand that Rob Cooke and Adrian Jowitt have both been moved from hen harrier work and are doing something else. Steve Redpath took early retirement so presumably isn’t still involved as a representative from Aberdeen University. Jemima Parry Jones is still involved – she’s the licence holder so is central to all decisions made about brood meddling. Is Adam Smith still at GWCT? He may be, but if he is he’s flying low under the radar these days. Philip Merricks is no longer at Hawk & Owl Trust. Amanda Anderson is still a key player at the Moorland Association but Robert Benson is no longer Chair – that role is currently taken by Lord Masham of, wait for it, the Swinton Estate!

Here’s the flow chart of decision-making that the Project Board must follow, also from the project plan:

I doubt Natural England will offer any voluntary insight in to this year’s calamitous actions but it’ll have to include the details in the annual report the brood meddling team is required to provide, and also report the details to the scientific advisory panel.

It’ll be interesting to see what they make of this on-going fiasco.

07
Sep
21

Scotland’s Programme for Government announced: grouse moor licensing, SSPCA powers & General Licence review

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has today revealed the 2021 to 2022 Programme for Government, outlining the policies and actions that are expected to take place over the coming year as well as the expected legislative programme for the forthcoming parliamentary year.

This programme for Government is the first one since the historic power-sharing agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens and it’s apparent that there has been some influence from the Greens’ policy machine.

The 2021 to 2022 Programme for Government can be downloaded here:

Of obvious interest to this blog is when the Scottish Government is finally going to pull its finger out and deliver the grouse shooting licence it promised in response to the Werritty Review, back in November 2020. We’re fast approaching a year since that commitment was made, which came a full year after the Werritty Review’s recommendations were presented to the Government (Nov 2019), which came more than two years after the Werritty Review was commissioned (May 2017) on the back of a devastating report that showed the extent of ongoing golden eagle persecution and its link to the driven grouse shooting industry. That report had been commissioned by the Government in August 2016 on the back of an RSPB press release about eight young satellite-tagged golden eagles disappearing in highly suspicious circumstances on grouse moors in the Monadhliaths over a period of five years.

As you can see, and as many of you already know, the Government has been promising action on this for a very long time and now having committed to taking that action, it needs to bloody well get on with it.

Since the Government’s announcement in Nov 2020 that it would, finally, introduce a grouse-shooting licence without delay, more birds of prey have turned up illegally killed, including this young golden eagle, found ‘deliberately poisoned’ (according to Police Scotland) on an Invercauld estate grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park, in the heart of Royal Deeside.

We cannot afford to have any further procrastination, navel-gazing or can-kicking.

Here’s what the Programme for Government (p90) says about delivering the Werritty Review recommendations:

As the 2021 grouse-shooting season is already underway, I would want to see progress on this policy before the start of the 2022 season, in August next year. That means Scot Gov needs to get on with its stakeholder and public consultations as soon as possible.

Also featuring in the Programme for Government is a review of the use of General Licences, which are used to permit the widespread killing of millions of birds each year (typically various crow species, and others) without any real oversight or monitoring, ostensibly for quite sensible reasons such as the protection of crops, to protect public safety and to conserve some bird species. Campaign group Wild Justice has been busy challenging the lawfulness of these licences in England, Wales (and currently Northern Ireland), arguing that the current licences are not fit for purpose and that they allow too much ‘casual killing’. The group’s efforts have forced significant review and change by the statutory authorities. It is believed that this proposed review of the General Licence system in Scotland is designed to head off any potential legal challenge that Wild Justice may be considering. That’s smart.

Here’s what the Programme for Government (p90) says about its General Licence review:

Animal welfare issues feature quite strongly in the Programme for Government and many of my colleagues in other organisations will no doubt be pleased that these issues feature, but will probably be less pleased about the ongoing delay beyond this parliamentary year for tackling some of them.

Here’s what the Programme for Government (p89) says about animal welfare issues:

The issue of increased powers for the Scottish SPCA is of significant interest, not just for the benefit it’ll bring to animal welfare but specifically, for the boost these additional powers will provide to wildlife crime investigations in Scotland.

However, this is a subject that the Scottish Government has been procrastinating on for over ten years. Personally, I don’t believe that the new ‘independent taskforce’ (still to be appointed) will ‘report before the end of 2022’. Why don’t I believe it? Because the Scottish Government has failed, repeatedly, to stick to its promises on this subject:

For new blog readers, here’s the timeline of embarrassment:

February 2011: Increased powers for the SSPCA was first suggested by former MSP Peter Peacock as an amendment during the Wildlife & Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill debates. The then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham rejected it as an amendment but suggested a public consultation was in order.

September 2011: Seven months later Elaine Murray MSP (Scottish Labour) lodged a parliamentary motion that further powers for the SSPCA should be considered.

November 2011: Elaine Murray MSP (Scottish Labour) formalised the question in a P&Q session and the next Environment Minister, Stewart Stevenson MSP, then promised that the consultation would happen ‘in the first half of 2012’.

September 2012: Nine months later and nothing had happened so I asked Paul Wheelhouse MSP, as the new Environment Minister, when the consultation would take place. The response, in October 2012, was:

The consultation has been delayed by resource pressures but will be brought forward in the near future”.

July 2013: Ten months later and still no sign so I asked the Environment Minister (still Paul Wheelhouse) again. In August 2013, this was the response:

We regret that resource pressures did further delay the public consultation on the extension of SSPCA powers. However, I can confirm that the consultation document will be published later this year”.

September 2013: At a meeting of the PAW Executive Group, Minister Wheelhouse said this:

The consultation on new powers for the SSPCA will be published in October 2013“.

January 2014: In response to one of this blog’s readers who wrote to the Minister (still Paul Wheelhouse) to ask why the consultation had not yet been published:

We very much regret that resource pressures have caused further delays to the consultation to gain views on the extension of SSPCA powers. It will be published in the near future“.

31 March 2014: Public consultation launched.

1 September 2014: Consultation closed.

26 October 2014: I published my analysis of the consultation responses here.

22 January 2015: Analysis of consultation responses published by Scottish Government. 233 responses (although 7,256 responses if online petition included – see here).

I was told a decision would come from the new Environment Minister, Dr Aileen McLeod MSP, “in due course”.

1 September 2015: One year after the consultation closed and still nothing.

25 February 2016: In response to a question posed by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change & Environment Committee, Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod said: “I have some further matters to clarify with the SSPCA, however I do hope to be able to report on the Scottish Government’s position on this issue shortly“.

May 2016: Dr Aileen McLeod fails to get re-elected and loses her position as Environment Minister. Roseanna Cunningham is promoted to a newly-created position of Cabinet Secretary for the Environment.

12 May 2016: Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens) submits the following Parliamentary question:

Question S5W-00030 – To ask the Scottish Government when it will announce its decision regarding extending the powers of the Scottish SPCA to tackle wildlife crime.

26 May 2016: Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham responds with this:

A decision on whether to extend the investigatory powers of the Scottish SPCA will be announced in due course.

1 September 2016: Two years after the consultation closed and still nothing.

9 January 2017: Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens) submits the following Parliamentary question:

Question S5W-05982 – To ask the Scottish Government by what date it will publish its response to the consultation on the extension of wildlife crime investigative powers for inspectors in the Scottish SPCA.

17 January 2017: Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham responds:

A decision on whether to extend the investigatory powers of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will be announced in the first half of 2017.

31 May 2017: Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham rejects an extension of powers for the SSPCA ‘based on legal advice’ and instead announces, as an alternative, a pilot scheme of Special Constables for the Cairngorms National Park (here). It later emerged in 2018 that this pilot scheme was also an alternative to the Government’s 2016 manifesto pledge to establish a Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit as part of Police Scotland – a pledge on which it had now reneged (see here).

November 2019: The pilot scheme of Special Constables in the Cairngorms National Park was an absolute failure as a grand total of zero wildlife crimes were recorded by the Special Constables but plenty were reported by others (see here).

June 2020: Mark Ruskell (Scottish Greens) proposed further powers for the SSPCA at Stage 2 of the Animals and Wildlife Bill. The latest Environment Minister, Mairi Gougeon persuaded him to withdraw the proposed amendment on the basis that she’d consider establishing a taskforce to convene ‘this summer’ to consider increased powers (see here).

December 2020: Mark Ruskell (Scottish Greens) submits two Parliamentary questions asking about the status of the taskforce and who is serving on it (see here).

January 2021: New Environment Minister Ben Macpherson says the taskforce has not yet been appointed but that it is “expected to be established later this year“ (see here).

September 2021: In the 2021 to 2022 Programme for Government it was announced that the ‘independent taskforce [Ed: still to be appointed] will report before the end of 2022’ (see today’s blog, above).

Given the Government’s embarrassing track record on kicking this issue in to the long grass, I fully expect to be writing a blog in a year’s time about how zero progress has been made. I hope I’m proved wrong.

07
Sep
21

Is Natural England bending the rules for Swinton Estate on breach of hen harrier diversionary feeding licence?

Back in April and May this year, I blogged about this spring’s hen harrier diversionary feeding fiasco at Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire after footage was sent to me of two individuals apparently putting out food at an active nest site during a period when it was expressly forbidden to take place (see here and here).

[Grouse moors on the Swinton Estate, North Yorkshire. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

After a lot of digging, and a lot of obfuscation by Natural England (e.g. see here), it was revealed that the estate was not even in possession of a diversionary feeding licence at that time and so the matter has since been passed to North Yorkshire Police who are currently investigating whether an offence has been committed (see here).

I am still waiting to hear about North Yorkshire Police’s conclusions and will report back in due course.

Meanwhile, after further digging and a series of FoIs to Natural England, it became apparent that Swinton Estate had also allegedly breached it’s hen harrier diversionary feeding licence in 2019 (see here).

I learned through an FoI response from Natural England that in 2019 the Swinton Estate had again been providing diversionary feeding for breeding hen harriers at a period in the breeding cycle (the incubation period) when it was expressly forbidden by the terms of the licence. The estate seemed oblivious to this breach because it openly admitted it on its licence return to Natural England.

So in June I submitted a further FoI to Natural England to ask about this breach of the 2019 licence and whether it had taken any enforcement action against the estate. Bear in mind that Natural England warns all potential licence users that:

Anyone acting under the authority of this licence must follow the advice on diversionary feeding of hen harriers on grouse moors in northern England. If you do not follow this advice you may be in breach of this licence and are at risk of enforcement action‘.

In July, Natural England replied and told me that due to the ‘complexity’ of my request, it required a further 20 working days to respond. This wasn’t the first time NE has struggled with a very straightforward information request on this subject (e.g. see here) and I doubt it’ll be the last.

In August, after taking 40 working days to respond, here is how Natural England answered my questions about the apparent breach of the 2019 licence:

Me: Please can you look at the attached [2019] licence return from Swinton Estate relating to the diversionary feeding of hen harriers. According to the details written on this return, it would appear that Swinton Estate attempted diversionary feeding during the incubation period, which as you’ll be aware was contrary to the terms of the licence at the time.

Please can you advise (a) did anyone at NE notice this when the licence return was submitted?

Natural England response: No, this was not identified at the time the return was submitted.

Me: (b) was there any enforcement action as a result of this apparent breach?

Natural England response: No

Me: (c) If so, what was it, please?

Natural England response: N/A

Me: (d) If no enforcement action, please explain why not.

Natural England response: The breach was not identified. In any event, a breach of a licence condition is not of itself an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) (WCA) and no evidence or intelligence has been received as to the disturbance of Schedule 1 birds that might have given rise to an offence under section 1 of the WCA.

Me: (e) If there wasn’t any prior enforcement action will there now be any and if so, what will it be?

Natural England response: As above, the breach of a licence condition is not of itself an offence under the WCA and there remains no evidence or intelligence as to the disturbance of birds that might give rise to an offence under section 1 of WCA. Furthermore, young within the nest in question successfully fledged. The condition in question no longer applies to the Class Licence based on best available evidence demonstrating how diversionary feeding interventions can be used to benefit hen harriers. Natural England will however be writing to the Estate to remind them of the importance of adhering to the terms and conditions of any licence on which they propose to rely.

I don’t know why it took Natural England 40 working days to provide these basic answers. Perhaps it thought I’d lose the will the live whilst waiting?

Needless to say, I’m fascinated by NE’s claim that disturbing breeding hen harriers by feeding them during the incubation period, which was expressly forbidden by the terms of the licence, does not amount to an offence under section 1 of the WCA. Specifically, Section 1(5)(a) of the WCA states:

If any person intentionally or recklessly disturbs any wild bird in Schedule 1 while it is building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young, he shall be guilty of an offence.

I’ve written back to Natural England to ask it to explain why this particular licence breach does not constitute an offence.

I’ve also written to Natural England to ask what enforcement measures it CAN implement if somebody breaches the terms and conditions of the licence. It threatens licence users with ‘enforcement action’ for breaches, but it’s apparent from the FoI response that NE doesn’t even check for previous licence breaches when issuing replacement licences!

Natural England says that it would ‘be writing to the Estate to remind them of the importance of adhering to the terms and conditions of any licence on which they propose to rely‘, but what’s the point of issuing threats if (a) you’re not going to even check for licence breaches and (b) even when a breach is pointed out to you, you don’t bother taking any ‘enforcement action’ anyway?!

Natural England argues in its response that ‘The [licence] condition in question no longer applies to the Class Licence based on best available evidence demonstrating how diversionary feeding interventions can be used to benefit hen harriers‘. That’s totally irrelevant. The licence condition [no diversionary feeding during incubation period] WAS a condition in 2019 and the estate evidently breached it. Just because Natural England has since slyly changed the licence conditions (in response to awkward questions being asked about repeated breaches, apparently it is now acceptable to provide diversionary food during the incubation period!), it doesn’t mean that a breach didn’t take place under the 2019 licence terms and conditions!

To be clear, I’m not so much interested in the Swinton Estate’s actions here. Yes, it’s of concern that it apparently can’t read/comprehend the simple terms of a licence (what other terms & conditions might it be breaching?), and that this has happened in multiple years, not just as a one-off mistake, but the estate’s actions were probably not malicious towards the breeding harriers (although it could be argued that repeated disturbance of a breeding attempt could cause a breeding failure). In my view, Swinton Estate is keen for the hen harrier brood meddling trial to work (which is why it’s involved with diversionary feeding) because the grouse-shooting industry wants brood meddling to be rolled out in future years as a ‘legal’ method of removing harriers from their grouse moors, so the estate appears to be tolerating the harriers, for now at least, as part of the brood meddling trial.

So rather than focus on the estate, I’m much more interested in Natural England’s behaviour and its apparent tolerance of licence breaches and its penchant for rule-bending in pursuit of its shameful hen harrier brood meddling trial (oh, and its acceptance of a £10K bung from BASC with an attached gagging order preventing Natural England from saying anything derogatory about either BASC or the hen harrier project!!!).

This hen harrier brood meddling trial is supposedly underpinned by rigorous scientific parameters, although these have been challenged in the courts by Dr Mark Avery and the RSPB (appeal hearing was in January 2021 but eight months on and the court decision is still awaited!). If Natural England can’t be trusted to take action on apparent licence breaches, what faith can we have in its adherence to the scientific rules of the trial? Can we trust Natural England not to bend the rules?

I’ll report back when Natural England responds to my latest FoI request. On previous form, that will probably be in November!

07
Sep
21

Reports of wildlife crime doubled during lockdown, says Police Scotland Chief

Press release from Police Scotland:

Operation Wingspan, a year-long campaign to tackle wildlife crime, working with partners, including the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) Scotland, has seen considerable success and is now entering its final phase.

This involves officers working on the persecution of fresh water pearl mussels and tackling all aspects of poaching, including hare coursing. As with previous phases, it will involve a combination of enforcement action and education.

Overall, the campaign has involved officers engaging with a number of organisations, including the agricultural community, ranger services, land managers and game keepers with the aim of educating the wider public and encouraging them to report wildlife crime to the police.

Detective Sergeant Billy Telford, Police Scotland’s Wildlife Crime Co-ordinator, said: “We have many internationally renowned species that attract thousands of nature lovers and tourists every year to Scotland, but many crimes against wildlife are cruel and barbaric, often involving a painful death.

From hunting deer, hares or badgers with dogs, to using poisons or snares on protected birds, and protecting one of our lesser known species, the critically endangers freshwater pearl mussel, Operation Wingspan is raising awareness and hopefully encouraging people to come forward and report this kind of crime.”

[This young golden eagle was found ‘deliberately poisoned‘ with a banned toxin on an Invercauld Estate grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park in March this year. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

Operation Wingspan began in October 2020 and Phase One saw officers tackling the trade in endangered species and included visits to over 300 business premises, such as antique dealers, retro shops and pet shops across Scotland to advise owners and provide information about potential contraventions under The Control of Trade in Endangered Species (COTES) 2018 regulations. It resulted in the seizure and recovery of alligator heads from across the country.

Phase Two tackled badger persecution, working with the charity Scottish Badgers, to highlight that badgers and their setts are protected, that it is an offence to harm or interfere with them and that badger baiting is illegal. Where ongoing risks were identified, action was taken to protect the sett and the badgers.

Phase Three saw officers taking part in a construction conference to outline the responsibilities of developers, highlighting that it is an offence to destroy or damage roosts, as well as engaging with bat groups and visiting vulnerable roosts, ultimately leading to people being charged for undertaking development that threatened the welfare of bats.

In Phase Four concentrated on raptor persecution. Officers have carried out a number of activities, including patrols of vulnerable nesting sites, warrants executed in relation to wildlife crime and a social media campaign with an educational video that was produced in collaboration with the RSPB.

Detective Chief Superintendent Laura McLuckie said: “Reports of wildlife crime doubled during lockdown and Police Scotland is dedicated to working closely with a wide range of partner organisations to reduce the harm to species targeted by criminals and the communities who rely on them for employment and tourism across Scotland.

Tackling wildlife crime is not just about enforcement, it is also about working with partners and raising public awareness to prevent it happening. Indeed, the public has an important role in helping up to investigate reports of wildlife crime and I would urge anyone with concerns or who suspect a wildlife crime has been committed to contact us on 101, and if it is an emergency to call 999.”

More information can be found on our website: https://www.scotland.police.uk/wildlifecrime

ENDS

06
Sep
21

Investigation opens into suspected buzzard poisoning

Various media fora in the Irish Republic have reported on the suspected poisoning of two buzzards in Kerry.

A member of the public found the birds in August in the Currow/Scartaglen area, south of Castleisland, Co. Kerry. One buzzard was dead and the other one was taken for treatment and possible rehabilitation.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is investigating and toxicology results are awaited.

[Common buzzard. Photographer unknown]

A Government report published in October 2020 demonstrated that illegal raptor persecution continues to be a problem in Ireland, especially for the common buzzard. In 2020, 23 buzzards were poisoned in one single incident by the banned pesticide Carbofuran (see here) and in the same area in 2018, three buzzards were poisoned with Carbofuran, two were then decapitated and one had its leg pulled off (here).

06
Sep
21

Job vacancy: Creative Digital Media Manager (Langholm Moor Community Buyout)

The Langholm Initiative is recruiting again for the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve (formerly a knackered old grouse moor owned by Buccleuch Estates, sold in a huge community buyout earlier this year – here).

Job title: Creative Digital Media Manager: Communities & Conservation – a digital journey of landscape restoration

Location: Langholm, Dumfries and Galloway

Employer: The Langholm Initiative but answerable to the executive committee of the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve

Salary: £28,000 depending on skills/ experience

Length of project: 3 years fixed term

Pension: 3% employer’s contribution.

Closing Date: 16th September 2021

Job Description:
This is an amazing and unique opportunity for the right creative individual to make a contribution to community regeneration, large scale ecological restoration and climate change. We are looking for an individual experienced in creating and managing digital content to join our small team of staff and volunteers who are responsible for the development of the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve following a historic community buy out earlier this year.

​Your role is to help us engage with our supporters all around the world as we start on the journey to restoring the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve and help us communicate the power of a nature led approach to ecological restoration. Using the latest digital technology and innovations you will help us tell the story of restoring nature and a sense of hope, that communities can make a difference in the global climate and nature crisis response. 

​You don’t have to have a scientific background – although an interest in, and commitment to, climate change, restoring our natural world and community led action will be beneficial. We have a wealth of local knowledge and community expertise to support and provide detailed information on the ecology of the area.

​You don’t have to be a full blown ‘techie’ but we do need you to be at ease with creative multi-media content development and technology to help us tell our story. This project is about using the power of creative media to innovatively capture the changes that are happening to our reserve over time as we restore the land. 

​You will need to be a good communicator to build digital capacity and skills within the team and the wider community to make sure the project is sustainable when the 3 year contract comes to an end.

[Bog asphodel on Langholm Moor, July 2021. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

The project – a digital journey of landscape restoration:

The community has bought 5000 acres of rough moorland, forestry, ancient woodland and river valley along with 6 properties, some rented out to local residents. The area is an ex-grouse moor and much of it is a designated and protected landscape due to the rare and endangered species that live here. 

​We want our many supporters (both locally and further afield) to share our journey (especially those who can’t actually visit us) as we work to restore the ecological balance of the site and contribute to community regeneration. We want to be able to monitor progress and tell the story as our land changes and responds over time to capture all of the benefits that this restorative approach provides. 

The Role:

We have listed below the ideas we wish the successful candidate to take forward. However, we are also open to other suggestions that help us achieve the aims of this project:

Development of the new Tarras Valley Nature Reserve (TVNR) dedicated website: 

The Langholm Initiative has its own website which, to date, has hosted news and updates on the community buyout. However, you will be responsible for the development of a new dedicated TVNR website that is capable of live streams video sharing, archiving and mapping sat tag links etc. 

You will be responsible for creating the brief and seeing the website development through to completion (including tendering if necessary) and for managing it’s content for the duration of the project.

Time lapse Story: 

A strong element to our story are the changes we can bring about to the landscape over time – be that regenerating woodland, restoring peatlands or wetland creation. We want to show the process of nature’s recovery in innovative real time ways and engage global audiences. 

Nest Cameras and livestreams: 

We have many rare birds who nest here, including the iconic hen harrier; nest cams will bring the birth of new chicks into our supporters homes and for the many people who will never get to witness this in real life, this can be an amazing way to maintain and encourage ongoing support.

Tarras Valley – a Bird’s Eye Perspective: 

We want to show and tell the story of large scale ecological change throughout the Tarras Valley – drone footage showing change over time is an opportunity to do this, as well as using the footage to create short engaging videos.

Creating promotional/inspiration videos: 

A picture paints a 1000 words – giving our community and supporters access to short, quality videos that tell the story of change, community action as our reserve recovers and regenerates. 

Where the Wild Birds Roam – Bird of prey satellite tags: 

Working with the RSPB,tagging our chicks as they are about to fledge and journey will help build up our knowledge about how they behave and interact with a changing landscape. It will also give global audiences a unique insight into the wonders of the natural world. 

Community Activities: 

Working with other members of the team you will help to get the local community involved, this could include the following:

  • Community members submitting their own photos and video of the area to highlight change and archive the flora and fauna.
  • Working with schools to show how the technology is used.
  • Working with the local Raptor Study Group (Satellite tagging, nest camera placement etc.)
  • Engaging the community to be part of promotional videos exploring why the land is important to them.

Reporting
The post would report directly to the Development Manager and work closely with the Estate Manager. The postholder will be expected to submit reports to the Board of the TVNR and to funders as requested.

Purpose of the Role:      

This is a fixed term role. Salary will be determined according to experience with training provided to help develop skills further. The work of the postholder is crucial to the marketing of the TVNR and communicating it to our many supporters around the world. 

It is anticipated that at the end of project, the Langholm Initiative will be in a strong position to sustain the work into the future. It is important that the postholder ensures that any developments are future proofed so they can be continue to be managed by existing staff and volunteers into the future.  

Responsibilities:        

This fantastic opportunity is a fixed term 3-year position. The successful candidate will be required to work closely with other team members as well as work with partner organisations, volunteers and members of the community.

The postholder must be mindful of the community’s involvement in the work that has gone on to date to fully realise the community ownership of the land and of the cultural significance of the land to the people of our community.

The post will require you to build relationships with partners and be able to develop and deliver an annual workplan to ensure all project outputs can be delivered as agreed with the funder. 

You are likely to be working with volunteers that can assist with the project and you will support them in their role and build a team spirit within the group and enable them to take pride in the role that they play.

You should be willing to be adaptable and flexible in the way you deliver the project objectives and be open to new ideas from our partners, other team members, volunteers – and we will be open to new ideas from you!

Are you the Right Person for the Job?

This exciting role requires an experienced and dedicated individual that can provide evidence of successful delivery of projects such as this. 

We recognise that this is a unique project and whilst we believe that good project management skills are key, we are flexible as to other qualification’s – as much as anything is the right aptitude for the role. 

A good understanding of ecology, IT and experience in managing a website will all be beneficial. You should have good digital skills and experience of photography and creating videos and editing these. You may also have experience of commissioning pieces of work such as the creation of a website. You must be a team player who can co-ordinate the development of specifications for work, inviting and scoring tenders and commissioning that work.

People and communications skills will be vital to the delivery of the work and the person should enjoy building relationships with people of all ages and abilities. You will be confident in managing your own workload to achieve agreed objectives.

For information about the recruitment process and to download the job pack, please visit the Langholm Initiative website here




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