01
Jul
13

Environment Minister announces ‘further measures’ to tackle raptor persecution

WheelhouseThe Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse has today announced what he calls ‘further measures’ to tackle the on-going problem of illegal raptor persecution in Scotland. Here is his statement in full:

Since I took on responsibility for this portfolio, I have been clear that one of my priorities is to bear down on the illegal persecution of raptors that continues to blight the Scottish countryside and tarnish Scotland’s reputation.  These outdated, barbaric and criminal practices put at risk the conservation status of some of our most magnificent wildlife.  They also harm our reputation as a country which values its environment and wildlife and undermine the growing tourism sector that is built on that reputation.

We have achieved much since 2007. We have a robust legal framework that protects birds of prey and their nests, including the new vicarious liability provisions.  We have dedicated resources in Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).  We are leading the way in the UK in the development of wildlife crime forensics work, and we continue to work at building a broad-based alliance through the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW Scotland).  

In 2012 we saw a very welcome reduction in poisoning cases.  However a number of recent reports, some of which are in the public domain and some of which are still subject to police enquiries, suggest that there is still a problem with the use of poison as well as cases involving illegal trapping and shooting.  I have decided therefore that the time is right to bring forward some further measures which I hope will deter those involved in illegal activities. 

Wildlife crime, and raptor persecution in particular, often takes place in remote locations or in the dark of night.  By its very surreptitious nature, the likelihood of being seen by a member of the public who can report the matter to the authorities is small.

I have spoken with the Lord Advocate, who maintains a close personal interest in all wildlife crime.  We are both keen to maximise the opportunity for offences to be detected and offenders to be tracked down.

The Lord Advocate has instructed the specialist prosecutors in the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit to work with Police Scotland to ensure that law enforcement utilises all investigative tools at their disposal in the fight against wildlife crime.

This work will take place within the National Wildlife Crime Co-Ordinating Forum – a group attended by police Wildlife Crime Liaison Officers from across Scotland and the police’s full-time Scottish Wildlife Crime Co-Ordinator, as well as senior police officers, the National Wildlife Crime Unit, Scottish Government officials and the specialist prosecutors from the Wildlife and Environment Crime Unit within COPFS.

Secondly, in my capacity as Chair of PAW Scotland, I intend to establish a group to carry out a review and report to me on how wildlife crime is treated within the criminal justice system, including examining whether the penalties available for wildlife crime properly reflect the seriousness of the damage caused to vulnerable wildlife and fragile habitats and ecosystems.  

Thirdly, I will be asking Scottish Natural Heritage in their capacity as the authority for licensing decisions under section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act to examine how and in what circumstances they can restrict the use of General Licences to trap and shoot wild birds on land where they have good reason to believe that crimes against wild birds have taken place.  These General Licences allow the holders to carry out actions that would otherwise be unlawful if undertaken, without any reference to SNH.  We regard the use of General Licences as a privilege that should not be extended in circumstances where there is evidence that their use may be facilitating illegal activities. 

In putting together these measures I have sought to focus only on those individuals and businesses where there are very good reasons to believe they are involved in illegal practices.  I am very keen to avoid anything that places an unfair burden on the majority of shooting businesses that are law-abiding and responsible members of the rural community.  I should also say that I think it is important that wildlife crime is treated in exactly the same way as other types of crime. This means information about cases should be handled in the same way as in other types of crime and that the police and prosecutors are allowed the time and space to carry out whatever investigations they believe to be necessary according to their own professional judgement. We should not descend into allowing trial by leak and accusation. There is a responsibility on us all to avoid that. 

In conclusion I wish to reiterate that eradicating raptor persecution in Scotland remains a high priority for the Scottish Government.  It is not however the sole responsibility of the Scottish Government.  Law enforcement clearly has a key role to play and I am confident that we are ratcheting up the pressure on those committing acts of illegal persecution. However,  everyone involved in the Scottish countryside, and in particular those involved with shooting, should make abundantly clear their disapproval to the minority whose actions are tarnishing the reputation of Scotland’s country sports”.

So, this is the much anticipated ‘action’ against illegal raptor persecution that’s been promised since last autumn when Paul Wheelhouse was appointed. Whilst we welcome his willingness to engage with the issue (in stark comparison to his English counterpart who won’t even admit there’s a problem), we see these latest measures as tiny baby steps in the right direction, and not the decisive hefty stamp that could have been delivered.

The first four paragraphs of his statement are just introductory comments with the usual rhetoric, such as, “We have achieved much since 2007”. Actually, we haven’t. Raptors are still being illegally killed on land managed for game-shooting and more often than not the criminal(s) involved are not being prosecuted. In the few instances where they are prosecuted, there is evidence of extensive plea-bargaining resulting in convictions only for the minor offences, not for the major crimes.

In 2012 we saw a very welcome reduction in poisoning cases. No, we didn’t. What we saw was a reduction in the number of reported poisoning cases; that’s a very important distinction. Members of the game-shooting industry (and government, it seems) have made much of this claim, using it as an example of how the industry is cleaning up its act. They won’t be able to make the claim for much longer – we understand that there have been several poisoning incidents already in 2013 and we’re only half-way through the year. Naturally, once again the public haven’t (yet) been informed about these poisonings even though they took place several months ago. We’ll come back to this issue.

CameraThe first ‘new’ measure that Wheelhouse is introducing is this:“The Lord Advocate has instructed the specialist prosecutors in the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit to work with Police Scotland to ensure that law enforcement utilises all investigative tools at their disposal in the fight against wildlife crime.

This is interesting, particularly because it immediately follows this paragraph:

 “Wildlife crime, and raptor persecution in particular, often takes place in remote locations or in the dark of night.  By its very surreptitious nature, the likelihood of being seen by a member of the public who can report the matter to the authorities is small.

Does this mean that prosecutors in Scotland are being told by the Lord Advocate that they should now accept covert video surveillance as admissible evidence? If this is the case then it would be a very welcome step indeed. Covert film footage is routinely accepted as admissible evidence in England, but in Scotland it continues to be blocked by the Crown Office prosecutors. Why? We don’t know – we’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation. If our assumption is correct (and of course it may not be) and covert footage is to be accepted, then Wheelhouse deserves a good deal of credit for this single measure. We’ll be watching this potential development with great interest.

His second measure is to establish (yet another) group within the framework of PAW Scotland, “to carry out a review and report to me on how wildlife crime is treated within the criminal justice system, including examining whether the penalties available for wildlife crime properly reflect the seriousness of the damage caused to vulnerable wildlife and fragile habitats and ecosystemsWe’re not so impressed with this plan; it seems to be reinventing the wheel. A similar review was carried out in 2008 (Natural Justice 2008) following the poisoning of the last remaining breeding female golden eagle in the Scottish Borders in 2007. That review made many recommendations to improve the efficiency of detecting and prosecuting wildlife crime in Scotland, some of which have since been implemented but many have not. It would perhaps have been a good opportunity for Wheelhouse to critically evaluate the implementation of those recommendations made five years ago, rather than start off the process again from scratch, which just leads to further delays in addressing the actual problem.

figThe third and final new measure is what we would call a fig-leaf approach to tackling illegal raptor persecution. Wheelhouse says: “I will be asking Scottish Natural Heritage in their capacity as the authority for licensing decisions under section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act to examine how and in what circumstances they can restrict the use of General Licences to trap and shoot wild birds on land where they have good reason to believe that crimes against wild birds have taken place.  These General Licences allow the holders to carry out actions that would otherwise be unlawful if undertaken, without any reference to SNH.  We regard the use of General Licences as a privilege that should not be extended in circumstances where there is evidence that their use may be facilitating illegal activities

At a superficial level, a restriction on the use of the General Licence sounds like a positive action. But let’s just think about the practicalities. First of all, Wheelhouse suggests that the General Licence may be restricted where SNH have “good reason to believe that crimes against wild birds have taken place”. That sounds like SNH would require a lower burden of proof to show that crimes against wild birds have taken place than say, for example, a criminal conviction. In real terms, how would that work? What would constitute ‘good reason’? The discovery of a poisoned or shot bird on a particular piece of land? In legal terms that’s not enough evidence for a conviction because the estate in question could legitimately argue (no matter how implausible) that the dead bird had been planted by someone with a grudge against them, or that the bird had been poisoned/shot elsewhere and just happened to fly on to their estate where it finally succumbed to its injuries. We can be certain that if SNH tried to use such evidence as giving them ‘good reason to believe that crimes against wild birds have taken place’ they would face a strong legal challenge by the estate’s lawyers. So then we’re back to the current situation whereby a conviction in a court of law is the only acceptable proof that the crime was committed by someone associated with the estate where the dead bird was found and those convictions are, as we all know, almost as rare as rocking horse shit.

But even if SNH could use a lower burden of proof as reason to believe a crime had been committed, there would still be difficulties. The use of General Licences is barely monitored or enforced due to the high volume of people operating under their terms. By their very nature, a General Licence is not actually issued to an individual – you don’t have to apply to use one and there isn’t even a competency test that you must first pass – it’s an open ‘licence’ that anyone can use to carry out what would otherwise be unlawful activities, such as the killing of so-called ‘pest species’ such as crows. We occasionally see a prosecution for an offence relating to a General Licence, e.g. when the operator of a crow cage trap has failed to meet the licence’s terms and conditions, but these prosecutions are rare and incidental. No statutory authority is regularly monitoring the use of General Licences (e.g. SNH don’t do it, the police don’t do it)  – we don’t even know how many people are operating under the General Licences because the operators are not required to submit annual returns. So, if SNH did ‘restrict the use’ of a General Licence on a particular piece of land, who would be enforcing that restriction? How would we know whether a restriction was in place? Would the location and name of the estate be published? For how long would the restriction be in place? What would be the penalty if an estate was found to be flouting the restriction?

All in all, this proposed new measure has glaring loopholes that in practical terms would be very difficult to close. It’s hugely disappointing that the Minister has taken this route instead of another option that is already available to him in the provisions of the Wildlife & Countryside Act – that is, the ability to enforce a (temporary) ‘closed season’ on the hunting of a particular game bird species in a particular area (or in this case, a specific estate). For example, in exceptional circumstances a Minister can impose a temporary moratorium on shooting specific species during periods of prolonged severe weather. The authority to impose such restrictions is already there in the legislation – it wouldn’t require the lengthy drafting of new legislation – if he wanted to enforce a temporary ban on, say, driven grouse shooting on a particular moor, he could do so. This measure would fit with his approach of only targeting the criminals, not the ‘law-abiding majority’ (his words, not ours) so why isn’t he pursuing it? Just another missed opportunity.

One final point about the Minister’s statement – the bit in his penultimate paragraph where he says this:

I should also say that I think it is important that wildlife crime is treated in exactly the same way as other types of crime. This means information about cases should be handled in the same way as in other types of crime and that the police and prosecutors are allowed the time and space to carry out whatever investigations they believe to be necessary according to their own professional judgement. We should not descend into allowing trial by leak and accusation. There is a responsibility on us all to avoid that

We whole-heartedly agree that wildlife crime should be treated in exactly the same way as other types of crime. This means that these crimes should be properly publicised in the media, just as other crimes are, and especially when they involve the discovery of potentially-fatal poisons that put the general public at significant risk. We hold very strong opinions on this and are adamant that it is not in the public interest for the police to keep these crimes hidden from view for months on end. Until we see an end to this ridiculous culture of silence we’ll continue to blog about these crimes with a measured, accurate and responsible approach.

We’ll be blogging later this week with some specific questions for Paul Wheelhouse….

Scottish Land & Estate’s response to the announcement here.

RSPB Scotland’s response here.

Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association response here.

BASC Scotland’s response here.

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9 Responses to “Environment Minister announces ‘further measures’ to tackle raptor persecution”


  1. 1 Andy Myles
    July 1, 2013 at 10:58 am

    The main question you should ask Paul Wheelhouse is whether ALL members of PAW are, in fact, against wildlife crime. xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx. Does the Minister realise that gamekeepers are, on all the evidence, the principal posioners of raptors? Only when he kicks the poisoners out of the “big tent” will we make any progress. Is there any determination inside the Scottish Government that this will happen? Not a bloody chance, seems to be the answer. The politics of keeping everybody all together and pretend friendly is still more important than actually fighting wildlife crime.

    And are SLE and their membership seriously against wildlife crime? When did they last expel an estate with a proven poisoning case?

    The facts are there for all to see – from scientific research and the evidence from the courts. Does Paul Wheelhosue have the guts to look those facts in the face for once? Or are we doomed to more years of pretending that everyone is REALLY against indiscriminately killing any threat to “sporting” interests?

    [Ed: Thanks for your comment Andy. We’ve made one important edit. It is factual that several members of the SGA have been convicted of raptor poisoning, and they have apparently since been removed from the organisation. However, some other convicted gamekeepers were not, apparently, members of the SGA, although we only have the SGA’s word on this – there’s no independent evidence. Your question about SLE is very timely – we’ve been asking the same thing for some time and will be blogging about it again in the near future – there needs to be a much greater level of accountability and transparency amongst the PAW Scotland members for us to have any confidence in it].

  2. 2 Dave Dick
    July 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    When you realise that..1.Grouse moor owners claim that you cant run one without killing protected predators..2.Crow traps [of all types and currently licensed by SNH] are merely raptor traps that sometimes catch corvids – and are banned over most of europe…3.Snaring is considered barbaric over most of europe and by the public here..but is still legal in the UK..4. People on grouse moors still deliberately shoot golden eagles..and lastly 5.the legal system from beat police officers through to sheriffs contains those who dont believe or care about wildlife protection……then Wheelhouse has his work cut out..he will have to fight the “scottish countryside mafia” to get any real change…good luck to him…seriously, good luck to him.

  3. 3 Circus maximus
    July 1, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    Seriously? Is there anything new in this? I think all of these things are supposed to be in place already…maybe all he is doing is threatening to enforce them?

    To me it just hints that they may be getting fed up with the way the landowners and keepers continually betray his trust. Or maybe he is just starting to twig that they are all “NO” voters! What makes a politician think?

  4. 4 jack black
    July 1, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Very interesting that none of the measures seem to include RSPB or SSPCA. Yet another example of the The PARTNERSHIP for Action Against Wildlife Crime in Scotland attitude towards partnership !

    Another interesting fact : In Scotland there is currently less wildlife searches or prosecutions that there was prior to the existence of police wildlife crime officers, NWCU, specialist fiscals or PAW Scotland.

    Either wildlife crimes have reduced or less is being done by the authorities.

  5. 5 Stewart Love
    July 1, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    I think it’s just the usual crap you get from MPs all talk and no action. They talk up the problem as if they are going to solve it, make up more committees talk more and more, have numerous meetings. Meanwhile the killing of Raptors by so called Sporting Estates goes on and on. We get the usual excuses and platitudes and the end result is, nothing changes. All they are doing is keeping themselves in a very well paid job. That is until the next election, then they will regurgitate all the crap they spouted ad nauseam till the elections over. This is just more of the same. again and again and again.

  6. 7 Dougie
    July 2, 2013 at 9:43 am

    Without demonstrable action and hard results in the form prosecution and punishment what Wheelhouse has to say is just worthless talk. I have no confidence in him to achieve much that is worthwhile.

  7. July 2, 2013 at 11:49 am

    The Scottish Wildlife Trust welcomes the new measures introduced by the Environment and Climate Change Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, to tackle raptor persecution.
    http://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/news/raptor-persecution-measures-welcomed-by-the-trust/
    Am i missing something here. What measures. All i saw was a little paper shuffling and a promise of possible measures.
    Maybe i just don’t understand mandarin.


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