Gamekeeper trial collapses after court dismisses RSPB video evidence

The case against Head gamekeeper Ian Sleightholm of the Bolton Hall Estate in North Yorkshire collapsed yesterday after magistrates at Northallerton ruled the RSPB’s video evidence inadmissible.

Sleightholm had been accused of alleged mis-use of a cage trap – specifically that the trap he was operating did not have adequate shade and that the water provided was unsuitable, in contravention of the terms of the General Licence.

The court ruled that the RSPB’s video evidence amounted to ‘an abuse of process’ because RSPB investigations staff “were trespassing on another farmer’s land when they visited the site, saw the trap and set up covert surveillance cameras”. The court ruled that because Sleightholm was unaware of the cameras, ‘he didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the issues with the RSPB or prepare his defence’ and this denied the accused the opportunity of a fair trial.


The magistrates also ruled that the case should be dismissed because the only evidence put forward was photographic. It was argued that samples of the water should also have been collected to determine whether it was suitable or unsuitable drinking water.

This is fascinating. According to the terms of the English General Licence (under which Sleightholm was operating the trap), the following criteria apply:

Water must always be available to decoy birds and drinkable; it should be free from chemical additives and changed regularly to ensure that it is clean“.

As far as we’re aware, there is no legally-binding definition of what constitutes ‘drinkable’ water for birds. There’s plenty of legislation defining ‘drinkable’ water that is fit for human consumption (e.g. The European Drinking Water Directive) but these standards are unlikely to be applicable to water provided for decoy birds. So quite what test parameters the magistrates would be looking for to demonstrate that the water was suitable or unsuitable is a bit of a mystery.

We’d have thought that it’s pretty obvious when water is ‘clean’ or not, and photographic evidence should suffice. If the water container contains, say, green sludge, most people would consider that to be unclean. The terms of the General Licence do not define what constitutes “changed regularly” – does that mean daily, weekly, monthly, annually? Once again, the vagueness of the General Licence conditions do not stand up to legal scrutiny.

The collapse of this case is a bit of a surprise. Video evidence has long been considered admissible in English courts (as opposed to the difficulty of using it in the Scottish courts) and it’ll be interesting to see how the ruling in this case affects future cases where video evidence plays a central role in the prosecution’s case.

As you can imagine, there has been much crowing from the Dark Side about this result, and we were particularly interested in the following tweet from Duncan Thomas:

Duncan Thomas tweet RSPB covert video case

The name Duncan Thomas may sound familiar to some of you. He is a former Police Wildlife Liaison Officer with Lancashire Constabulary and now works as the North West Regional Officer for BASC. We recently blogged about him here. BASC is a member of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW). Do you think his published opinion (which, incidentally, was also re-tweeted by the National Gamekeepers Organisation) is conducive to ‘partnership’ working, or do you think it exposes the ‘partnership’ sham for what it actually is?

UPDATE 20:00hrs: Does the spokesman of the National Gamekeeper’s Organisation have a headmaster fetish?


22 Responses to “Gamekeeper trial collapses after court dismisses RSPB video evidence”

  1. 1 steve
    February 13, 2015 at 11:29 am


    [Ed: Sorry, can’t publish that. The case was dismissed so guilt not proven]

  2. 2 Dave Dick
    February 13, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Re “crowing from the dark side”..I wonder how many of them say “its a pity this case didn’t run so we could see how innocent the keeper was”?

  3. 3 Rob
    February 13, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    so on that logic, if I didn’t see the speed camera can I claim abuse of process if ever caught speeding?

    • February 13, 2015 at 1:34 pm

      Only if you were on privat eland.

      • 5 crypticmirror
        February 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm

        I suspect that might actually make it harder for those who want to try to apply this precedent in Scottish courts, England lacks a proper “Right to Roam” law. In Scotland land which considered to need landowner permission to access is a much more tightly constrained concept. It is still establishment pushback, but it is wide of the target.

  4. 6 Chris Roberts
    February 13, 2015 at 1:22 pm


    [Ed: Sorry, can’t publish that. He hasn’t been convicted]

  5. 9 crypticmirror
    February 13, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    I suppose this should have been expected. It is exactly the kind of pushback we’ve come to expect from the establishment whenever someone changes the game away from their favour. Remember when IDS lost those cases on benefits and retroactively changed the law so he didn’t? It is exactly the same principal at play. Can’t have the plebs getting uppity now.

  6. 10 Dave
    February 13, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    First thing to say is no precedent established, so this doesn’t affect any future case (Other than it will no doubt be used as an arguement by future defence lawyers). Second is that I’m not surprised a North Yorkshire Magistrate would say those things. The comments of the former Police WLO show beyond doubt that he was completely unsuitable for that post in the first place.

    I’m not as familiar with English rules of admissibility and process as I once was, but non-Police reporting agencies always had an issue with magistrates not distinguishing between what Police could do and what non-Police people could do (In terms of rights of access etc). Humar Rights legislation has also affected that. There is some interesting debate to be had around this decsion.

  7. 11 Les Wallace
    February 13, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Strange I was reading about Duncan Thomas yesterday and the dirty shenanigans going on in Forest of Bowland. The North West Raptor Raptor Group being blamed for the BOP losses – disturbing nests through monitoring etc! Blatant attempt to discredit the good guys and gals. This convenient myth that it’s genuine conservationists that have been responsible for depressed raptor numbers has been recycled on some scottish gamekeepers’ blogs. Watched a video with gamekeeper Peter Fraser yesterday – he made the straight faced claim that capercaillie were in danger due to establishment of goshawk and pine marten on Deeside – ‘they kill for the fun of it’ apparently. Increasingly being to think those on the other side are a separate species, don’t know how they are capable of this level of self deception. SO disappointing that the evidence was disallowed, difficult to avoid thinking that many in the ‘judicial’ system are keen shooters.

  8. February 13, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    This is how the defence are fighting now in cases such as these. Often the video/photographic evidence is damning and often clearly the defendant is as guilty as hell but this is disregarded by the lawyers for the accused and instead they fight their hardest to get the crucial evidence thrown out and so no case to answer. If this happens then the film/photographic evidence should be released to allow the public to make up their own mind on these people. If we can’t bang em up then let us shame them up. A big well done to the RSPB for bringing this case and keep on doing what your investigations team do best.

    In regards to Duncan Thomas’ tweet, it is he who should be disgraced to tweet such a statement. What a shameless person he is but there again, what do you expect from the British Association of Shooting and Devastation.

  9. 15 Een Historicus
    February 13, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    ´British Association of Shooting Criminals´ I thought it was.

  10. 16 Paul.Chandler
    February 13, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Another example of the elite laughing at the law most of us plebs have to obey

  11. February 13, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Well, the shooting lobby will be overjoyed. Remember how they wheenged about the admission of video evidence in the Mutch trial.

  12. 18 Circus maxima
    February 13, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Were there any shooting interests sitting on a bench in the court?

  13. 19 I C T
    February 13, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    There’s never going to be a significant change in judicial attitude to such cases in England so long as the Tory landowning toffs are in power.

  14. 20 keen birder
    February 13, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    There was no need to use the video as evidence if the rspb had nothing on the defendant except for the water and shelter charges, then normal digital paper photographs of the water as evidence should have been used, and the alleged unsuitable water or lack of it and the container should have been seized and become an exhibit in the case, and water should have been analised to add weight to the evidence,and same for lack of shelter paper photographic evidence again as exhibit number whatever, pretty basic really, we live and learn .

  15. 21 Paul Dunham
    February 14, 2015 at 12:05 am

    What utter rubbish… If the same video evidence in the same circumstances caught them murdering someone, it’s admissibility would not be questioned… It’s a sign of how truly corrupt our (or is that their?) court system really is.. The circumstances of filming an illegal activity is a minuscule consideration compared to the crime itself…
    I’ve been following this site for over a year now and all I see from the courts, the police and even the BBC is corruption, corruption, corruption, covering each others backs…

  16. 22 karen Bradbury
    February 14, 2015 at 12:14 am

    I do not believe the magistrates had the discretion to deny the video as evidence even if it had been obtained through trespass. There is plenty of case law on the subject. The overriding principal in english law is that everything is admissable except evidence obtained through phonetapping or the like or evidence obtained by torture, none of which are techniques currently employed by the rspb. The cps should appeal.

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