Archive for November, 2012

30
Nov
12

Lochindorb Estate hare snare trial: verdict expected today

Mountain hare (photo: Alamy)

The long-running hare snare trial is expected to end today if Sheriff Abercrombie has reached a verdict.

We’ve blogged a lot about this case as the verdict could have far-reaching consequences on the way our uplands are managed, with a particular impact on grouse moor management practices.

Earlier posts can be read here (and see links within).

Two weeks ago the court heard the final pieces of evidence from the defence team, which consisted of a string of gamekeepers insisting that the type of snare used in this case is ‘selective’ (i.e. it doesn’t trap any species other than the target species). It must be a magic snare.

Many thanks to the contributor who send us a copy of the Badenoch & Strathspey Herald, dated 22 November 2012, with a summary of the evidence heard in court:

Gamekeepers tell trial of ‘selective’ snares

THREE gamekeepers have given evidence at the trial of a colleague facing allegations of illegal snaring of mountain hares on Lochindorb Estate more than three years ago.

The keepers told Sheriff Ian Abercrombie they had used the type of snare set by David Taylor and caught nothing other than mountain hares.

Former Lochindorb keeper Alexander McConnachie (66), Stuart Kennedy (45), from Tomatin, and Alan Hodgson (54), head keeper at Dalmagarry and a committee member of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association with special responsibility for snaring issues, told the trial they had all used the “W”  shaped snare, also known as a bow snare, as a means of controlling mountain hares on high ground on their estates.

David Taylor (65), who recently retired from his role as head keeper at Lochindorb, was charged with setting snares on April 14, 2009 on land at Lochan-t-Sidhie which were indiscriminate in which animals they could catch, contrary to the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations which became law in 1994.

The trial, which started in March, reached its sixth day on Friday [16 Nov 2012] when the evidence was concluded.

Sheriff Abercrombie has agreed to written submissions being provided by both the Crown depute fiscal Iain Smith and the defence agent David McKie.

In evidence, Mr McConnachie said he was head keeper on Lochindorb between 1972 and 1993 before the new legislation came into place. He told the trial that where the snares were set, 1,500 feet above sea level, there were very few other species to be found.

Expert witness Hugo Straker demonstrating a fox snare in 2011 (photo: The Courier)

Wildlife expert Hugo Straker (57), a senior adviser with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and an expert on snaring law in Scotland, had earlier told the trial that the snares could be selective depending on how and where they were set. He also differentiated between a trap and a snare. In his opinion he said a trap was a spring-loaded device which can kill or trap an animal live while the snare was a “restraining device” which can kill.

Mr McConnachie told the court snares are never referred to as traps. ‘A trap is a mechanical device’, he said. Often they were concealed in a box to trap the targeted species and for the protection of other mammals. Wire cage traps, known as Larsen traps, were also used to control crows.

He said he used the “bow” snare used by Taylor extensively between 1990 and 1993 on Lochindorb because of the increase in tick of the moor.

Asked if he had ever found other animals caught in the snares he replied: “No, never. They are very selective, very humane and highly visible. I never caught anything else in them”.

He said you would get the occasional fox or roe dear [sic] at that level but it was quite rare to see a golden eagle.

Asked by depute fiscal lain Smith if an animal broke a snare how he would know it was a hare that did this. He said there was always evidence of hare fur nearby if a snare broke.

Mr Hodgson said the snares were perfectly legal at the time but gamekeepers had stopped using them because of this court case. He commented: “I would use them again in a minute. They were a brilliant tool. Easy to carry, easy to set and highly visible”.

Mr Hodgson said foxes and deer avoid them because they have forward vision. However, he said: “Hares have blind spots because their eyes are on the side of their heads, unlike predators”. He said he used them for nine years and never once found another species in them.

The trial was told by Mr Straker that since the alleged offence there had been major changes in law governing the use of snares going through parliament and all snares must have stops so mammals caught are not throttled and can be put down humanely. Everyone using them will require to be trained and certificated by a Scottish Government approved body and, from April next year, every snare will carry the operators certification number.

Police Constable Eric Sharkey (45), a wildlife officer with Northern Constabulary, inspected the site after a tip-off from a member of the public.

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30
Nov
12

3 keepers face trial for alleged wildlife crimes on Morvich Estate, Sutherland

sheriff courtThanks to the contributor who sent us a recent copy of the following article published in the Press & Journal (dated 28 Nov 2012) -:

Three North men [all gamekeepers] will go on trial next year on charges of allegedly committing a string of wildlife offences on a Sutherland country estate.

None of the three accused appeared when their case was called at Dornoch Sheriff Court yesterday [Tues 27 Nov 2012] but their pleas were entered by their solicitors.

Mathew Johnston, 20 of Morvich House, Morvich Estate, Rogart, pleaded not guilty to the four charges against him, allegedly committed on the estate on February 16. The charges include that he set in place a snare which could have caused an animal coming into contact with it unnecessary suffering. He is also accused of having a dead wild bird, a barnacle goose, in his possession.

Jamie Neal, 37, of The Bothy, Morvich Estates, denied the five charges against him, which included failing to provide a suitable environment for nine crows for which he was responsible.

And the third accused, William Docharty, 57, of 10, Elizabeth Court, Dornoch, pleaded not guilty to the charge he faces that he set a snare which could have caused an animal coming into contact with it unnecessary suffering.

An intermediate court hearing was set for 18 February 2013 and a trial date for 19 March 2013.

29
Nov
12

Hen harrier shot in Ireland

The Kerry Birding blog in Ireland (see here) is reporting that a hen harrier has been shot at a winter roost site. There’s no further information about whether the bird survived.

The author emphasises the importance of confidentiality in relation to known raptor sites and especially hen harrier winter roosts. It’s not just at their nest sites where this species is vulnerable; winter roosts are known to be targeted by armed criminals  intent on wiping out hen harriers, and this happens in England and Scotland too, not just in Ireland.

Press release from BirdWatch Ireland here

29
Nov
12

RSPB Scotland: 2011 persecution report published

RSPB Scotland has just published its latest report, The Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey in Scotland in 2011. You probably won’t be surprised or shocked by the content, especially if you’ve read the previous 17 annual reviews. In fact, when you read this 18th review, you might get a strong sense of déjà vu.

It opens with a Foreword by Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland. Apart from the new photo, this foreword looks like a cut and paste job from the 2010 report, with a few words or sentences added or adjusted. To be fair, not much has changed since the 2010 report was published so perhaps he felt justified in repeating what he’d written the previous year.

Then there are RSPB Scotland’s strategic recommendations for addressing raptor persecution. Again, these show a remarkable similarity to the recommendations made in the 2010 report, and also in the 2009 report. The recommendations were / are still good and to see them repeated again is a useful indicator of how little progress has been made by those with the power to push them forward.

Next come the tables showing the confirmed and probable persecution incidents recorded by the RSPB during 2011. It’s these tables that the game-shooting lobby usually object too – they’re especially reluctant to accept the ‘probable’ incidents although to date, they’ve failed to provide a convincing argument to account for any of them.

The data in the 2011 tables demonstrate once again that illegal raptor persecution is widespread, with incidents reported in Perthshire, Angus, South Lanarkshire, Aberdeenshire, Dumfries-shire, East Ayrshire, Borders and Inverness-shire. We counted 15 very familiar-sounding locations within these regions, although there are a few notable absentees this time. Have they stopped their criminal activities or have they just got better at covering up? Time will tell.

Just focusing on the confirmed incidents, in total 17 incidents of deliberate poison abuse were confirmed during 2011, involving 20 victims: 7 buzzards, 4 red kites, 1 golden eagle, 2 peregrines, 2 ravens and 4 other bird species. Sixteen other illegal incidents relating to shooting, nest destruction, and the use of uncovered spring traps or cage traps were confirmed. The victims included 8 buzzards, 2 peregrines, 1 goshawk, 1 sparrowhawk, 2 kestrels and 1 short-eared owl. As in previous years, not all of these incidents were publicised at the time they occurred. It’s a continual disappointment that several years have to pass before the public learns of these appalling crimes.

Once again the occupations and interests of those convicted for illegal raptor persecution crime have been analysed (data from 2003-2011 inclusive). 87% of them were gamekeepers (7% pigeon racers, 3% pest controllers, 3% farmers).

The report includes an interesting case study of poisoned raptors that have been found in recent years on the Glen Kyllachy and Farr Estate near Inverness. Very little of this information has been previously published and certainly this is the first time these photographs have been published. It’s a shame it’s taken several years for the info and images to reach the public domain but nevertheless it’s very encouraging to see RSPB Scotland highlight these cases, especially as Northern Constabulary hasn’t bothered.

All in all the report makes for grim reading, but nobody should be surprised by that. We all owe a large debt of gratitude to the RSPB’s Investigations Team for meticulously collecting these data and especially for making them publically available.

TO DOWNLOAD A COPY OF THE REPORT CLICK HERE

Here’s some media coverage:

RSPB Scotland press release here

BBC news article here

STV news article here

Herald Scotland article here

Scottish Gamekeepers Association: statement here

Scottish Land and Estates: nothing yet

@SNHMedia: “SNH report finds vast majority of gamekeepers highly qualified”. Link to this.

PAW Scotland: nothing yet

28
Nov
12

Hen harrier found shot dead on Aberdeenshire estate

According to the Scotsman, Grampian Police are appealing for information after a protected hen harrier was found shot dead on the Fettercairn Estate, Aberdeenshire, last month.

The owner of Fettercairn Estate is quoted as saying this:

Since its inception in 2006 Fettercairn Estate has been a long term participant in the North East Scotland Raptor Watch project. As such it was particularly distressing to hear that a dead hen harrier was found on the edge of the hill land  and I join in the appeal for witnesses to come forward“.

A Grampian Police spokesman is quoted as saying this:

Investigations have established that the bird had been shot and officers are appealing to members of the public who may have been in the area and may have seen something suspicious. Gamekeeping staff at Fettercairn Estate have already provided significant assistance to police in their enquiries and continue to work closely in the hope that the offender can be identified and brought to justice“.

It must have been another one of those armed hill-walkers.

At least Grampian Police have made a public appeal in a (relatively) timely manner – that’s definitely progress so well done to them.

After hearing the news, Scottish Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse issued another warning about his intention to crack down on the continuing illegal persecution of raptors:

We will not tolerate the illegal persecution of protected species such as the hen harrier and, as I have said recently in relation to another shooting [the golden eagle that was found shot on a grouse moor on Buccleuch Estate, see here], I am prepared to look at further measures to strengthen and assist enforcement if we continue to see this flouting of the law in respect of protected species“.

That’s great Paul, but how many more incidents are required before you consider this a ‘continuing’ problem? One? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?

Article in the Scotsman here

27
Nov
12

Langholm hen harrier ‘Blae’: starvation was likely cause of death

Regular blog readers will know we’ve been following the story of the two Langholm hen harrier chicks since the summer: the female chick, ‘Blae’ was reported dead in early September and her sibling, ‘Barry’ was reported ‘missing’ just a couple of weeks later. Since then we’ve been critical of the lack of information that’s been made available to the public (previous blog entries here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here).

Blae’s probable cause of death has now finally been reported on the Making the Most of Moorlands Project website (see here: a blog written by Cat Barlow, the education project officer at MMMP). Before we discuss the probable cause of death, it’s worth recognising that Cat Barlow deserves a good deal of credit for reporting anything at all to do with these two tagged hen harriers. We understand that some of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project partners were not, how shall we say, enthusiastic about the prospect of tagging more harrier chicks this year. Why not? Well probably because they know very well what happens to the majority of the dispersing birds and this doesn’t exactly cover the grouse shooting industry in glory.  We believe that Cat Barlow, representing MMMP and so not directly answerable to the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, has stuck her neck out by reporting on this year’s birds. It’s noticeable that the official Langholm Moor Demonstration Project website has made no mention of them.

So, here’s Cat’s explanation for what happened to Blae:

Back in September we posted the news that the young female Hen Harrier from this year’s nest at Langholm had died. The satellite tag data allowed the carcass to be located and recovered. A post-mortem showed no evidence of shot and no visible injuries. The bird was very thin, suggesting starvation as the most likely cause of death. As a precautionary measure the carcass was sent for further tests. We have heard today that the toxicology results were negative for the commonly-abused pesticides. The body was not found on grouse moor and there was no evidence of human persecution. It is very rare to recover a Hen Harrier carcass, the last post regarding Barry’s demise October 10th 2012, describes a more common scenario, no carcass, no tag, no evidence of his cause of death“.

This result is not at all surprising. The fact that the carcass had been recovered was an early indication that persecution was not a factor; usually, as the above statement indicates, illegally persecuted hen harriers simply ‘disappear’ (e.g. they are buried or burned in order to hide any evidence of the crime). And they don’t just ‘disappear’ on any old random bit of land – they ‘disappear’ on land that’s managed for grouse-shooting. Without direct evidence though (e.g. a carcass), it’s all too easy for the harrier-killers to deny that systematic persecution is taking place, even though endless scientific studies have shown that persecution is so widespread that it’s having population-level impacts.

The persecution-deniers will probably make a big song and dance about Blae’s post-mortem and toxicology results. They’ll probably claim that they are vindicated and the reports of widespread hen harrier persecution are simply propaganda aimed at discrediting the grouse shooting industry. However, if Blae’s premature demise is representative of the majority of young hen harrier deaths, then where are all the other corpses? If they’ve been sat-tagged, surely their carcasses would be retrievable? Sure, young hen harriers, like the young of many species, suffer high natural mortality rates in their first year. That’s what makes the illegal persecution of these birds so damaging – the population loses extra birds in addition to the natural high losses and the population cannot be sustained with these additional losses (read the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework [here] for a more detailed explanation). 

We understand that Barry’s last satellite signal came from a grouse moor in the north of England. Predictably, his body has not been recovered and the grouse moor has not been named.

Well done Cat Barlow for making Blae’s results available. Perhaps the Langholm Project partners will feel inspired and reveal information about all the other lost hen harriers, and not just the ones who’ve died of natural causes.

SNH held their Species Framework conference in Edinburgh last week and this included a presentation on the Langholm hen harriers. During the conference, @SNHMedia put out the following tweet:

Hen harriers faring alot better in Scotland than in England – 550 pairs in the latest national survey“.

What an astonishing piece of spin! Of course hen harriers are faring better in Scotland than in England – with only one breeding pair of hen harriers in England this year, it’s not that difficult! What @SNHMedia failed to mention was that the Scottish hen harrier population is also in continuing decline and the reason for that, according to the Hen Harrier Conservation Framework report that they commissioned, is illegal persecution!

In other satellite tag news….did anyone see the news yesterday where an appeal went out to the public to help find a lost basking shark tag? Guess who put out the appeal? Northern Constabulary! Not only did the appeal feature on the BBC news website (here), but also on Northern Constabulary’s own website (here). This seems a bit strange, given that the loss of the basking shark tag was not related to a criminal offence, whereas all those ‘missing’ satellite-tagged golden eagles, whose disappearance is more than likely related to a criminal offence, don’t get so much as a mention…..

23
Nov
12

Update on the curious incident of the eagle in the night-time

Following on from yesterday’s blog entry, The curious incident of the eagle in the night-time (see here), we have an update…

First of all, a big thank vote of thanks to all of you who tweeted and shared the story on Facebook to help raise awareness about this situation. Special thanks to five Twitter users in particular: @TripleSter; @RareBirdAlertUK; @benjaminbittern; @Cekaelta; @ChrisGPackham.

Secondly, another big vote of thanks to everyone who made an effort and sent an email to Tayside Police’s Chief Constable to ask whether the death of this golden eagle was the subject of a criminal investigation. Your efforts have had an impact – a Tayside Police spokesman has responded by writing a comment on the blog. We’re reproducing it here so it doesn’t get buried:

We are concerned regarding this matter and, along with our partners in Grampian Police and the RSPB Investigations Unit, as well as our own Wildlife and Environment Officer, are continuing to undertake enquiries. Please be assured that Tayside Police will continue to investigate all circumstances surrounding this incident with a view to identifying those responsible and holding them to account for what is a terrible deed. Anyone who has information that can assist us should call 0300 111 2222, or speak to any officer“.

Before we discuss their comment, we’d like to acknowledge Tayside Police for engaging in the discussion. Although they have a duty to respond to emails sent to them by members of the public, they aren’t obliged to post comments on blogs or a similar forum and they deserve some credit for doing so in this instance.

Now, let’s get down to what they said:

They are concerned. That’s good.

They are continuing to make enquiries. That’s very good, but can we clarify that “this matter” / “incident” / “terrible deed” is in fact a CRIME? There seems to be a reluctance to use this term. This is an important distinction to make as it will affect the official wildlife crime stats that the police now have to provide to the Scottish Government each year (this requirement was brought in with the WANE Act) and also the ‘stats’ that the persecution-deniers trot out each year to ‘prove’ that illegal raptor persecution is ‘in decline’.

They are conducting their enquiries in partnership with Grampian Police and the RSPB Investigations Unit. That’s also very good.

They will “continue to investigate all circumstances surrounding this incident with a view to identifying those responsible and holding them to account for what is a terrible deed”. That sounds very good but is it anything more than just a media sound bite designed to placate an increasingly frustrated general public? It’s been six months, nearly seven months, since that eagle was found dead in early May 2012. What chances of finding any evidence now or in the future, so long after the event?

In the interests of transparency, we’d like to ask some further questions about the investigation to date. Obviously we don’t wish to jeopardise an on-going criminal investigation and so Tayside Police may not wish to answer these questions, although it is common practice for police forces to release some information during criminal inquiries so let’s see if they’re able to help this time. The questions that we’re asking should not have any negative effect on their continuing enquiries because it’s probably fair to say this investigation is now dead in the water; nobody is going to be brought to justice for the death of this eagle. We also know that the Scottish Gamekeepers Association is conducting its own ‘inquiry’ and that information about this investigation may have been passed to them by Tayside Police. If so, we hope the police will not treat us any differently.

We’d be interested to learn whether, during the early stages of the investigation, attempts were made to recover evidence from a wider search area of the land where the eagle was motionless for 15 hours before it was moved north to the lay-by where it was left to die? Also, were attempts made to recover evidence (e.g. eagle feathers or blood) from any vehicles or buildings that may have been used in this crime?

We’d also be interested to learn why Tayside Police haven’t publicised this incident, either at the time the dead eagle was discovered, or in the following months (e.g. with an appeal for information)? Tayside Police regularly post news items, appeals for information and investigation updates in the news section of their website; we wonder why this case was treated differently?

We also understand that there might have been some sort of approach by a defence agent wishing to access the dead eagle and/or the post-mortem results and we suspect this might have been an attempt to discredit the findings of the official post-mortem. i.e. to challenge the conclusions drawn by experts at the Scottish Agricultural College lab that the eagle’s severe leg injuries could have been caused by a spring-type trap. Did Tayside Police provide the findings of the official post-mortem to any defence agent? 

And finally, we go back to the Environment Minister’s statement about this incident. In whose interest was it to suggest that this was not a criminal offence? Who advised the Minister that the eagle’s injuries could have been the result of anything other than a criminal offence? It probably wasn’t the RSPB Investigations Unit given they put out a press release stating that they believed the eagle had been caught in an illegally-set trap (see press release here). That only leaves the police, unless of course the Minister’s office is taking advice from a defence agent, and that would certainly seem absurd. If it was Tayside Police, and we’re not saying it was, doing so would appear to undermine a criminal investigation before it even got off the ground (no pun intended).

Surely a government minister would not release a statement unless he was sure the advice he had being given was accurate? So, did Tayside Police advise the Minister’s office that the eagle’s injuries could have been caused by something other than a spring-type trap? If they did, it’d be interesting to know what the Minister’s office was told could have caused the eagle’s injuries other than a spring-type trap.

We’re calling on our blog readers to help find answers to these questions by asking Tayside Police, en-masse, to provide clarification on the above points. Just writing about the issues on a blog can help raise awareness but it’s unlikely to produce tangible results – the police aren’t obliged to respond (although, as mentioned above, Tayside Police, to their credit, did so yesterday and for that we applaud them). However, they are obliged to respond to individual emails from the general public.

This is an opportunity to shine a light on the investigation of raptor persecution crimes in the Tayside region. Regular blog readers will be well aware that the death of this golden eagle is not an isolated incident;  this region has seen more than its fair share of illegal raptor persecution in recent years, including the discovery of poisoned golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, buzzards, red kites, sparrowhawks, tawny owls, crows, as well as a series of poisoned baits. Very few of these crimes have resulted in prosecutions.

Here’s a summary of the questions to be asked:

  • Is the death of this golden eagle being treated as a CRIME?
  • Were attempts made to recover evidence from a wide search area?
  • Were attempts made to recover evidence from vehicles and buildings?
  • Why hasn’t Tayside Police publicised the death of this eagle?
  • Did Tayside Police provide details of the post-mortem to any defence agent?
  • Did Tayside Police advise the Minister’s office that the eagle’s injuries could have been caused by anything other than a spring-type trap? If so, what did they say could have been the cause of the injuries?

Please send questions to Tayside Police Chief Constable Justine Curran: justine.curran@tayside.pnn.police.uk




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