15
Nov
18

Parliamentary motion commends Revive – the coalition for grouse moor reform

Andy Wightman MSP (Scottish Green Party) has lodged the following parliamentary motion commending the Revive Coalition for grouse moor reform:

It’ll be interesting to see which MSPs sign up to support this, or perhaps more interesting to see which ones don’t. They can’t say they don’t know about it as earlier this week a great big pile of the Coalition’s new report was hand delivered to MSPs at Holyrood. The report was recently described by prominent journalist Lesley Riddoch as “the most thorough demolition of the case for “sporting estates” I’ve ever seen in print“.

The Revive Coalition launched last week in Edinburgh and already over 5,000 people have signed the Revive pledge in support of significant grouse moor reform. If you’d like to add your voice please SIGN HERE.

Find out more about the coalition and keep up to date with new developments HERE

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14
Nov
18

Time for a new approach to tackling raptor persecution in England & Wales

We can expect significant changes in the way raptor persecution is tackled in England & Wales, if Police Supt Nick Lyall has his way.

Nick is the new Chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG), which is tasked with the ‘delivery’ of action against the raptor killers (in Scotland the ‘delivery’ group is the PAW Raptor Group).

The RPPDG was established in 2011, a so-called ‘partnership’ between the police, representatives from the game-shooting industry (e.g. National Gamekeepers Organisation, Moorland Association, BASC, Countryside Alliance etc), and representatives from the raptor conservation community (RSPB, Northern England Raptor Forum), along with some government agency reps from Natural England, DEFRA, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and the Welsh Government.

It would be fair to say we’ve been highly critical of the RPPDG over the years, and justifiably so. This is a partnership in name only, which has been useful for certain organisations and DEFRA Ministers to hide behind on the pretence of tackling illegal raptor persecution but the stark reality is that the RPPDG has contributed absolutely nothing of value towards the conservation of UK raptors in all the years it’s been operating.

It did manage to produce some raptor persecution maps last year but these were shockingly inadequate and two of the RPPDG members were quick to distance themselves from the results (NERF here; RSPB here).

The RPPDG has been secretive, unaccountable and has suffered from a chronic lack of leadership, as evidenced just two days ago when we blogged about how the group had deliberately produced apparently inaccurate and contested minutes relating to the Moorland Association’s interest in obtaining licences to kill Marsh harriers to stop these birds ‘disrupting’ shoot days where hundreds of thousands of red grouse are shot for entertainment.

The raptor conservation community has lost all faith in the ability of the RPPDG to deliver anything except platitudes and a heavy blanket of cover for the criminal raptor killers, but from what we heard today, we’re cautiously optimistic for change.

Not cautious about Nick and his drive, ambition and determination – these qualities have been clear to see since he took on this role in September – but understandably cautious because we’re all too familiar with the influence and power of the game-shooting industry and the lengths that industry will go to maintain the status quo.

Nick is keen to hit the ground running in advance of the first RPPDG meeting he’ll chair in January so today he hosted two workshops at DEFRA’s London offices to brainstorm ideas for his planned Tactical Delivery Plan, a horribly jargonistic name but an important document to frame the work of the RPPDG in the coming years.

[An unusually open door at DEFRA]

Sensibly, he split the workshops in to two groups – the conservationists and enforcers in the morning and the shooting industry reps in the afternoon. He did this to encourage open dialogue that wouldn’t get mired in the usual arguments. We attended the morning workshop along with a number of other organisations who haven’t previously had any formal dealings with the RPPDG and there was good representation from groups such as the North Pennines AONB, Birders Against Wildlife Crime, National Trust and a couple of Wildlife Trusts, as well as the usual representatives from NERF, RSPB, Yorkshire Dales National Park, North Yorkshire Police Rural Task Force, Welsh Government, DEFRA and the National Wildlife Crime Unit.

There was no shortage of ideas for Nick to consider for his Tactical Plan – some well rehearsed but plenty of innovation, too.  He told us he would be considering these ideas, coupled with any he received from the afternoon workshop, and intended to start drafting the plan on the train home!

We don’t intend to comment on the details until his plan is published (and he said it would be available in the public domain) but the word ‘accountability’ was heard a lot in reference to ALL members of the RPPDG having to contribute towards the RPPDG’s aims of tackling illegal raptor persecution as a non-negotiable requirement of retaining their place at the table. It was acknowledged and accepted that the RPPDG could not continue as it has.

We’re prepared to give Nick Lyall a chance. We think he ‘get’s it’, and he certainly doesn’t underestimate the difficulty of the challenge ahead, but he’s willing to give it his best shot. We also heard some pretty determined words today from Chief Inspector Lou Hubble, the new head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) who is working closely with Nick and is making her own mark in the world of wildlife crime, again in sharp contrast to some of her predecessors.  There is definitely cause for (cautious) optimism but time will tell.

As we left the DEFRA offices we were met with a squadron of police vans and officers. Nothing to do with the arrival of the game-shooting industry reps though – it seems campaigners from the Extinction Rebellion (@ExtinctionR) had targeted the DEFRA building with some (easy-to-wash-off) graffitti as part of their build up to a day of civil disobedience on Saturday.

12
Nov
18

Satellite-tagged hen harrier Arthur ‘disappears’ near grouse moor in North York Moors National Park

RSPB press release (12/11/18):

A rare Hen Harrier has suddenly disappeared in North Yorkshire, triggering an investigation by the police and the RSPB. This is the ninth bird to disappear in suspicious circumstances in the last 12 weeks.

The bird, named Arthur, hatched from a nest in the Peak District this summer. This was the first time Hen Harriers had successfully bred in the Peak District since 2015. Arthur, along with his sister Octavia, was fitted with a lightweight satellite tag by RSPB staff as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE project, which has enabled the RSPB to track his movements since leaving the nest in July.

[Hen harrier Arthur, photo by Steve Downing]

Transmissions from Arthur’s tag showed him fledging from his nest and remaining faithful to that area in the Peak District. He then moved to the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, in mid-October before flying back north to Nidderdale, North Yorkshire. On the morning of Friday 26 October he flew onto the North York Moors National Park. He registered his last position at 0955hrs when he was just north of Lowna Bridge, near Hutton-le-Hole.

[RPUK maps showing approximate last known location of Hen harrier Arthur in the North York Moors National Park, close to Spaunton Moor, owned by George Winn-Darley, the North York Moors representative for the Moorland Association. Red star denotes Lowna Bridge]

RSPB Investigations staff searched the area of the bird’s last known location but found no sign of either a tag or a body – prompting concerns that the bird may have been deliberately killed and the tag destroyed. In August, his sister Octavia’s tag also suddenly cut out, with her last location coming from a driven grouse moor in the Peak District. No trace was found of her either. The police and the RSPB are appealing for information.

RSPB Assistant Investigations Officer Jack Ashton-Booth said: “Arthur’s last location showed he was in an upland area close to several driven grouse moors. When tagged Hen Harriers have died of natural causes in the past, the tags and bodies of the bird are usually recovered. To find no trace of Arthur or Octavia is extremely concerning. Arthur is the ninth Hen Harrier to suddenly disappear in suspicious circumstances since August. This is gravely concerning given that the species is on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird in England.”

Hen Harriers are one of the UK’s rarest and most persecuted birds of prey. They nest on the ground, often on moorland, and are known for their spectacular courtship display, the ‘skydance’. Like all wild birds, they are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which makes it an offence to intentionally harm or disturb them. Anyone found to have done so faces an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail. But, despite full legal protection, studies show that the main factor limiting their population is illegal killing by humans.

Over 30 Hen Harriers were tagged during June and July 2018 in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project. Of those, eight birds (Hilma, Octavia, Heulwen, Thor, Athena, Stelmaria, Margot and Arthur) have since disappeared in suspicious circumstances, along with another bird, Heather, who was tagged in 2017.

Calculations based on habitat and prey availability indicate that England should be able to support around 300 Hen Harrier pairs. But this year only 34 chicks fledged from nine English nests, according to a report by Natural England. In 2017 there were only 10 chicks in the whole of England.

The RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report showed that North Yorkshire is consistently the worst county in the UK for recorded bird of prey persecution, accumulating significantly more confirmed incidents in the last five years than anywhere else. Data showed that 15 of the 55 confirmed incidents in England in 2017 took place in North Yorkshire. Since these only represent known, confirmed incidents, the RSPB believes this is just a glimpse of the true scale of the problem, and that many more crimes will have gone unreported and unrecorded.

ENDS

12
Nov
18

Licences to kill marsh harriers on grouse moors – an update

In November last year we blogged about some second-hand information we’d received that the Moorland Association (the grouse moor owners’ lobby group in England) was interested in obtaining licences from Natural England for the lethal control of Marsh harriers (see here).

The issue was alleged to have been raised by Amanda Anderson (Director, Moorland Association) at a meeting of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG – the English/Welsh version of the PAW Raptor Group) on 9 November 2017.

The news was shocking. It was utterly ludicrous that grouse moor owners might consider this species such a significant threat to their over-stocked grouse populations that they would seek licences to kill it.

Marsh harriers are Amber listed on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern and are recovering from a virtual population wipeout – down to one known breeding pair in 1971 thanks to a combination of illegal persecution, habitat loss and DDT and currently with an estimated breeding population of 400-450 pairs.

[Male Marsh harrier by Markus Varesvuo]

Marsh harriers are locally common in some areas such as East Anglia but still extremely rare or absent in many others. They most commonly breed in lowland wetland habitat, particularly reedbeds but increasingly on farmland too. This female was found shot next to a lowland partridge release pen in East Yorkshire in 2016. Very rarely do they breed on upland grouse moors although when they do, they are illegally targeted by men dressed as gamekeepers.

When we blogged about the news that the Moorland Association was interested in licences for this species, Amanda Anderson denied the allegation with a two word tweet: “Complete nonsense“, but ignored all requests to clarify the MA’s position.

Amanda wasn’t the only one wanting to keep a lid on this. Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust) weighed in, even though he wasn’t at the meeting, and Chief Inspector Martin Sims, then head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and who was at the meeting told us, “There was never any discussion about Marsh harriers” (see comments on this blog – scroll down towards the end).

It’s taken us a year, but we’ve finally got some pretty damning evidence that suggests this conversation did take place at the RPPDG meeting last November.

It’s taken us so long because DEFRA has given us the run around on a series of FoIs we submitted between Nov 2017 and July 2018. We asked for the minutes of the 9 Nov 2017 RPPDG meeting, and, suspecting that those minutes may be santised given the public furore over the alleged Marsh harrier licensing, we also asked for copies of all correspondence between RPPDG members relating to those minutes before they were finally approved.

DEFRA repeatedly failed to comply with the FoI regulations over a period of eight months and didn’t provide us with the information so eventually we resorted to threatening to report them to the Information Commissioner. Shortly afterwards, in August 2018, DEFRA finally released some (but not all!) the info we’d requested.

As expected, the minutes of the Nov meeting were heavily redacted: RPPDG-minutes_9-Nov-17_final_redacted

We looked for any discussion about licences for killing Marsh harriers but only found this:

There was an inference about licensing but nothing unequivocal, and the redactions meant we couldn’t be sure the subject had been raised by Amanda or another MA rep, nor with whom she/another rep was having the conservation.

The latter question was answered when we realised that whoever had done the redactions on those minutes hadn’t done a very good job and if the redacted version was pasted in to another programme the original, unredacted version appeared: Unredacted RPPDG minutes_9_Nov2017_final

The unredacted version was useful as it confirmed that Amanda was the only representative of the Moorland Association at that meeting and it also revealed that the above conversation had taken place between Amanda and ‘GS’ , who was identified in the minutes as Ginny Swaile from Natural England:

But still no mention of the word ‘licence’ or ‘lethal control’, just an inference.

So then we turned our attention to the correspondence between RPPDG members as they discussed the approval of the minutes. DEFRA released SOME of this correspondence (we know it wasn’t all of it) but did any of the members mention the inclusion/exclusion of a discussion on Marsh harrier licensing in the draft version of the minutes?

From what we can see, most of them didn’t mention Marsh harriers, although some of this email correspondence was redacted in parts and also the marked-up copy of the draft minutes was not made available to us, so it’s hard to be sure that most of them chose to ignore the subject, although that’s what it looks like, apart from Natural England and the Moorland Association who clearly commented on the issue but the redactions hide the details:

BASC comments (British Association for Shooting & Conservation)

CLA comments (Country Land & Business Association)

MA comments (Moorland Association)

NE comments1 (Natural England)

NE comments2 (Natural England)

NGO comments1 (National Gamekeepers Organisation)

NGO comments2 (National Gamekeepers Organisation)

Police comments (National Wildlife Crime Unit)

Welsh Gov comments (Welsh Government)

Yorkshire Dales NPA comments (Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority)

But there were two other RPPDG members whose correspondence we were particularly interested to see – the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF).

First up, the RSPB’s correspondence. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, DEFRA did not release the RSPB’s initial comments made to the RPPDG when the minutes were being discussed in early December 2017. Instead, they released two pieces of correspondence, one dated 18 January 2018 and the other dated 12 February 2018. Why do you think the early December correspondence was missing? Perhaps DEFRA ‘forgot’ to include it.

RSPB comments1 (dated 18 January 2018: Bob Elliot (then Head of RSPB Investigations) just asking DEFRA and RPPDG Chair Police Supt Chris Hankinson what was the status of the minutes)

RSPB comments2 (dated 12 February 2018: a heavily readacted email from Bob Elliot to the group saying he didn’t feel the minutes were an accurate reflection of the meeting but his reasons for this were all redacted):

Then we looked at the correspondence from NERF. Again, DEFRA had released two pieces of correspondence, one dated 7 December 2017 where Steve Downing (NERF Chairman) tells the RPPDG he is out of the country but will respond in detail the following week, and the other dated 17 April 2018 where Steve writes to Supt Hankinson telling him he objects to the sanitised final version of the minutes and that he intends to raise this issue at the next RPPDG meeting. Interestingly, and again perhaps tellingly, DEFRA did not release Steve’s email from December where he laid out his comments on the draft minutes. Hmmm.

NERF comments1 (dated 7 December 2017)

NERF comments2 (dated 17 April 2018, see copy below):

It was pretty clear to us by then that both the RSPB and NERF had objected to the way the minutes had been edited but we were still none the wiser about the specific details.

Having had a belly full of DEFRA’s ineptitude with our long-running FoI requests we decided to approach the RSPB and NERF directly to see if they would be prepared to share their unredacted RPPDG correspondence so we could see exactly what was going on.

Being gentlemen of principle, both Bob and Steve agreed but on the condition that they would only share with us their comments, and would redact the comments of any other RPPDG member. Fine by us, because the redacted names can be pieced together from the unredacted version of the minutes for those who want to look.

Here’s what they sent us:

The unredacted version of Bob’s RSPB email to the RPPDG dated 12 February 2018 (we have added the red box for clarity):

The unredacted ‘missing’ email from Steve to the RPPDG, dated 12 December 2017, outlining his recollections of the meeting on 9 Nov based on notes he’d taken during that meeting (we have added the red text box to highlight the bit about licences for the lethal control of Marsh harriers on grouse moors):

So there you have it. Two members of the RPPDG recall a discussion between the Moorland Association and Natural England about the potential for obtaining licences to kill Marsh harriers on grouse moors. None of the other RPPDG members seem to recall it, not even Amanda. Imagine that.

Here’s a reminder of Amanda’s response to our original blog in November last year:

For the record, we’ve checked with Natural England to see whether anyone has submitted an application for a licence to kill Marsh harriers but according to NE (if you believe them), nobody has. Yet.

This sordid episode of what looks like a massive cover-up /suppression exercise is no more than we would expect from the RPPDG. We’ve criticised this so-called ‘partnership’ for several years because, like many other ‘partnerships’, it has contributed absolutely nothing of any value towards the conservation of birds of prey since it was established in 2011. If Supt Chris Hankinson was still in charge of it we’d be calling for his resignation right about now.

Kudos to Bob Elliot (now Director of OneKind) and Steve Downing (NERF Chair) whose integrity speaks volumes. Bob must be delighted not to have to endure this cabal anymore.

However, as some of you may be aware, there’s a new Chair in town and he’s looking to shake things up at the RPPDG. Police Supt Nick Lyall took on the role in September 2018 and already we’ve seen more action from him in the last seven weeks than we have from Chairs over the previous seven years.

He’s bringing transparency to the group (we’ve already had a conversation about the need to provide un-redacted minutes from RPPDG meetings without having to chase them via FoI requests), he’s writing a blog to keep people informed of RRPDG activities, he’s active on Twitter (@SuptNickLyall), he’s inviting more conservation-focused groups to join the RPPDG to counter the current game shooting industry imbalance, and later this week we’ll be attending his national raptor persecution workshop where he intends to gather ideas to put together an action plan for the RPPDG, with measurable targets, instead of letting it fester from year to year with no direction and no accountability. If any blog readers have any ideas please leave a comment – we know Nick will be reading this post (to his credit, we gave him warning that this blog was coming and he didn’t try to dissuade us from writing it).

10
Nov
18

Buzzard found in North Yorkshire with horrific injuries from shotgun

This buzzard was found today at Skipwith in North Yorkshire, with horrific injuries caused by a shotgun.

[UPDATE 11/11/18: This bird was picked up just of King Rudding Lane on Thursday 8 Nov 2018]

According to Jean Thorpe (raptor rehabilitator extraordinaire) the buzzard was found alive but with a broken shoulder and humerus. She thinks its injuries were so severe it would not have been able to fly from the location where it was shot.

If anyone has any information please contact Police Wildlife Crime Officer Jez Walmsley at Malton Police Station (Tel: 101) or the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline (Tel: 0300-999-0101).

10
Nov
18

Has this convicted gamekeeper had his shotgun/firearms certs revoked yet?

You’ll remember Timothy Cowin. He’s the gamekeeper who was convicted this summer for the illegal killing of two short-eared owls on the Whernside Estate in the Yorkshire Dales National Park (see here).

Cowin’s criminal activities were captured on camera by the RSPB Investigations Team, whose extraordinary footage also included a chase across the moor, his dramatic arrest, and then the meticulous police search to find the corpses of the owls (they’d been shot and stamped on before one was hidden in a drystone wall and the other stamped in to the peat).

One of our blog readers sent us this screengrab from Facebook earlier this week, showing Cowin’s Bonfire Night effigies, including one that appears to represent an RSPB Investigator and another one revealing some racist xenophobic tendencies judging by the text on the guy’s t-shirt. Note the comment made by Mr Cowin to the right of the photo:

We’re wondering whether Cumbria Constabulary has revoked Mr Cowin’s shotgun and firearms certificates yet? And if not, why not? Somebody already convicted of a sadistic violent crime against two defenceless owls, showing no sign of remorse, is hardly someone of ‘sound mind and temperate habits’.

If you read the Home Office guidelines on how the police should assess the suitability of a person to be entrusted with a firearm, it seems pretty clear: Guide-on-Firearms-Licensing-Law-2012-13-Suitability

It’s even clearer when you look at this infographic produced by Firearms UK, an organisation dedicated to promoting and protecting firearms ownership:

We haven’t heard whether Cumbria Constabulary has made a decision on Mr Cowin’s suitability to own shotgun and firearms certificates but we’ll certainly be asking them about it….

09
Nov
18

Scottish Government dismisses SGA’s attempt to discredit Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review

Last week we blogged about the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s (SGA) feeble attempt to undermine and discredit the findings of the damning Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review by commissioning an opinion from a lawyer who, as far as we can tell, has no scientific expertise or qualifications (see here).

This is the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review that demonstrated, with “exemplary and thorough” scientific rigour according to actual scientists, that almost one third of satellite-tagged golden eagles had ‘disappeared’ (almost certainly illegally killed) on a number of Scottish grouse moors over a number of years, in the same areas that had contemporaneous records of illegal raptor persecution (i.e. known wildlife crime hotspots).

[Satellite-tagged golden eagle ‘Alma’ who was found poisoned on a grouse moor in the Angus Glens. Photo by Scottish Raptor Study Group]

In response to the SGA’s attempt to erode confidence in the Sat Tag Review, Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Green Party) lodged the following parliamentary question:

S5W-19641 (date lodged 26/10/18)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response [is] to the legal opinion that has been published by the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, which disputes some of the conclusions of the Scottish Natural Heritage-commissioned report, Analyses of the Fates of Satellite Tracked Golden Eagles in Scotland, and, in light of this, whether it plans to review the report’s conclusion that the disappearances of some satellite-tracked golden eagles and other birds of prey were “suspicious”.

This question was answered by Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham on 7/11/18 as follows:

The Scottish Government is satisfied that the Scottish Natural Heritage report, “Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland”, was produced and peer-reviewed in line with accepted scientific standards. The Scottish Government has no plans to review any aspects of the report.

That’s a parliamentary equivalent of sticking up two metaphorical fingers.

Nice try, SGA, but no cigar.

Well done and thanks, Mark Ruskell MSP.

They can hide the tags. They can hide the bodies. But they can’t hide the pattern“ (Dr Hugh Webster).




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