2013 wildlife crime conference: Paul Wheelhouse, Environment minister

Paul-Wheelhouse-MSP betternation.orgThe 2013 Scottish Police Wildlife Crime conference took place last Thursday (14th March). Many of this year’s presentations were once again directly relevant to raptor persecution and we’ll be commenting on these in due course.

To start off this year’s blog series, here are excerpts from the Environment Minister’s speech. He started by thanking the organisers etc before moving onto the meaty stuff:

“We’re now more than a year on since the passing of the Wildlife & Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 and my predecessor, Stewart Stevenson, stood here last year and, amongst other things, talked about the new vicarious liability provisions. Now, we’ve not seen any prosecutions under the vicarious liability yet; I think it remains very likely that circumstances will arise in the future when these provisions can be brought into play and we will all be very interested to see how they work out in court.

In the meantime though, I am certain that whilst persecution of wild birds does exist in parts of our countryside, this change in the law has already had a deterrent effect as responsible land managers take a close look at management practices and training for employees and contractors. As Stewart said last year, we’ve never been out to get prosecutions; we just want to see an end to these criminal acts. However, if a conviction is what it takes to make those breaking the law stop, take notice and address their behaviour, then so be it. I shall be keeping an eye on this particular area with interest. A true test of course may be when we see raptors in all areas that should be their natural habitat and a disappearance of these ‘not spots’.

So what’s coming up in 2013? Legislative changes my team of policy officials have been working on which are of relevance to the conference include provisions relating to snaring, and invasive non-native species, and you will be hearing more from Catherine Murdoch about non-native species later today, and Kenny Wilmott from BASC will be talking about the importance of keeping up to date in relation to the use of snares and traps.

2013 will also see the publication of the first government report into wildlife crime. Policy officials are currently working on this and I’m sure it will make for an interesting read and it will no doubt provide a focal point to drive forward the debate on what is a very important topic. What we are looking to achieve with this report is an idea of what wildlife crime in Scotland looks like overall, the big picture if you will. This will not be easy because it’s the first report, there’ll be nothing to compare it with. However, like poisoning maps, once we have a few reports published we will hopefully start to see trends and pictures emerge. It will also be a challenge to compare data from all of the different agencies such as the police, National Wildlife Crime Unit, the Crown Office and the Scottish Government Justice Department. However challenging that may be, it is an extremely worthwhile cause. And unfortunately crimes and any resulting prosecutions don’t fall neatly into calendar years. They also are not always recorded in a manner which allows for obvious interpretation of the charges. So for example, where there is more than one charge, which so often occurs in the lesser charges of wildlife crimes, then the main charge is usually what appears in the records. We’ll therefore be looking to present the data as simply as possible, but with a view to ensuring any comparisons are meaningful, if indeed that is possible. And I’m looking forward to the publication of this report to act as a standard we can use going forward. I will leave the experts to talk to you about the legislative changes across the rest of today, however should you fancy a chat with a policy official over a sausage roll at lunch, please feel free to collar any one of them.

I’d like now to turn to the annual raptor poisoning maps which were published this morning. These maps generate significant media interest and many of you will already have seen the figures. There has been a major drop in confirmed incident numbers recorded for 2012 and this must be welcomed in the warmest possible terms. Whilst any poisoning is unacceptable, the fact that just three birds were confirmed poisoned in 2012 – a golden eagle and two buzzards – must represent progress. This is the second significant drop in two years and we hope it is evidence of the beginning of the end of poisoning of birds of prey in Scotland. We are now, however, facing a critical moment with the maps. The purpose of the maps is to highlight problem areas with an agreed and confirmed set of data, and to build the partnership working within PAW. So, so far we’ve made good progress on those objectives but we cannot now afford to see things slipping back. So let me make it abundantly clear: poisoning cannot be replaced with other types of persecution, and whilst it’s not appropriate for me to elaborate, I was heartened to hear that the police investigation into the 2012 poisoning case for a buzzard has made progress. And it does sicken me that unfortunately, once again, a bird has died as a result of Carbofuran poisoning, but I very much hope to see a positive outcome in that particular case. If we do continue to see a downward trend with the poisoning maps, but there is evidence perhaps of other types of persecution taking its place, as I’ve already said on the record, I will have no hesitation nor indeed very little option but to consider what other measures might be necessary.

optableLast year we lost two golden eagles – one was poisoned, another was found dead in suspicious circumstances, whilst a third which was shot is thankfully in recovery with the SSPCA, and I must thank Chief Superintendant Mike Flynn and his colleagues for their excellent efforts in caring for the eagle so far and I look forward to one day seeing that particular victim of a crime return to good health. These golden eagle incidents generated a huge amount of media and public interest and rightly so, as our golden eagles are part of what makes up our national identity. As a partnership we share a duty of care to work hard to stop wildlife crime and as I stated earlier, we will know if we’ve achieved success when we see the raptors return to areas where they are currently absent. And we must also recognise that this will not happen overnight.

Keeping on the raptor theme, the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, which is a key PAW Scotland group, has been continuing to look at a number of initiatives, latest being a hen harrier action plan. The members of this group have come up with a strategy to look at the status of this species across Scotland and see what can be done to help it recover. Whilst the plan is still being finalised I wanted to draw your attention to it and highlight what work is being done in the background. This is an exciting piece of work and I hope it will build on the partnership working approach by involving all those on the ground in monitoring and reporting on nesting birds. If I’m standing here this time next year, I hope that I’ll be able to give you an update as to what’s been accomplished and that genuine progress is being observed”.

The Minister then went on to discuss other areas of wildlife crime, police reform in Scotland and the Year of Natural Scotland. He ended by thanking everyone for their work and particularly on behalf of “the innocent victims of wildlife crime who clearly cannot speak for themselves”.


It’s tempting to make comparisons between Scotland’s Environment Minister and his UK equivalent. In light of the UK government’s appalling recent attitude towards dealing with wildlife crime, Wheelhouse looks like an environmental god. He isn’t that, but he is certainly a good way further ahead than his contemporaries south of the border. But although comparisons are useful, it’s also important to assess his presentation just within the context of Scottish wildlife crime, and particularly within the field of raptor persecution.

In our opinion, this presentation drew the battle line. Wheelhouse is exceptionally well-informed on the persecution issue (especially for someone who has only been in post for six months), he understands the important details of how these crimes are reported (or not reported) and he seems genuinely determined that raptor persecution will not be allowed to continue on his watch.

Wheelhouse is clearly not fooled by the superficial short-term results of the poisoning maps. He understands that other persecution methods are being used to achieve the same effect. He understands that despite vicarious liability and other measures, persecution will undoubtedly continue. He understands that the only true measure of success will be the return of raptors into areas where currently they are conspicuously absent. He understands the shambolic state of raptor crime reporting and the limitations of the data in their current format. He understands the fury and frustration we all experience when we hear of yet another persecuted bird of prey and he seems to understand that our patience has run out – we simply will not tolerate this disgraceful practice any longer.

Of course, it’s easy to give a rousing speech and to say the things the audience wants to hear. It’s fair to say that most of us have become jaded by the empty rhetoric that’s been heaped on us decade after decade while the raptor killing continues right under our noses. However, to be fair to Wheelhouse, he personally is not responsible for all those previous platitudes and promises. Is he going to be different and stick by his commitment to stamp out persecution? More than with any other Environment Minister of recent years, there is a sense that something is going to happen this time. As always though, it will be the actions that follow the words that we’ll be taking the most interest in. The battle line has most definitely been drawn and now it’s a question of watching and waiting. The next persecution incident is just around the corner…

2 Responses to “2013 wildlife crime conference: Paul Wheelhouse, Environment minister”

  1. March 22, 2013 at 9:01 am

    This is at least positive and informed, so let’s hope that vicarious liability will deter some crime against raptors.

  2. 2 Circus maxima
    March 23, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I’m not sure where the mans intentions really lie. It is a tendancy of all modern career politicians to tell an audience what they want to hear. They love to be loved nad hear applause. What he says at a conference has to be judged against what he and his government colleagues actually do….

    At the momment the government has a very limited concern for the environment in fact it could be considered to be anti-envronment. Look at its record of positively supporting environmentally damaging developments…windfarms, trump, coal mines, power lines etc. Nothing that comes in the way of development is given any weight. Its independent advisors SEPA and SNH have been silenced so that only approved advice is issued. Environment is being written out of local plans which are no longer about the wise use of resources but a vehicle for promoting development at all costs. Conservation is a very rarely used word, Biodiversity is actively being replaced by the much more woolly and development friend concept of “ecosystem services”. They hate the concept of “designated sites”. The new single police force is headed by an officer with a very poor record on releasing resources to fight wildlife crime.

    In relation to raptor persecution he seems to be relying on the “we have made changes, so now we need time to see if they work” approach. Where are the resources to make sure that the changes are policed and implemented…he has hardly got a grip on the offenders goolies.

    I dont see grounds for much optimism.

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