Archive for September, 2015



09
Sep
15

Countryside Alliance wants BBC to sack Chris Packham

NEVER-MIND-T-SHIRT-DESIGNThe Countryside Alliance has launched an attack on Chris Packham and is urging the BBC to sack him. The basis of their argument is that Chris, in their opinion, is ‘abusing his position’ as a BBC presenter to ‘promote an extreme agenda’ (see here).

Let’s just be clear. This is less to do with the Countryside Alliance’s concerns about BBC impartiality but more to do with them wanting to silence an articulate, thoughtful, well-informed and popular ‘celebrity’ to prevent him expressing views on wildlife crime (particularly hen harrier persecution) and animal welfare issues that just happen to be the polar opposite views of the CA, and thus are labelled by them as ‘extreme’.

It’s not the first time the Countryside Alliance has tried to silence those with opposing opinions. Last year they complained to the Charities Commission about the RSPB’s 2013 BirdCrime Report, claiming it was ‘deliberately misleading’ and ‘promoting an anti-shooting agenda’. Their complaint backfired spectacularly when the Charities Commission told the CA where to get off (see here).

This time, it’s the public telling the CA where to get off. A petition was launched last night in support of Chris Packham and has already attracted over 11,000 signatures from members of the public who admire and appreciate Chris’s principles. You can sign it HERE

And if you’re in the mood for petition-signing, here’s another one that’s deserving of your support: Ban Driven Grouse Shooting – sign it HERE

There’s a good piece in the Guardian today about why the BBC should treasure Chris Packham, not sack him (see here).

It’s easy to see why the Countryside Alliance is really going after Chris. His latest t-shirt design is the perfect response and can be downloaded here.

08
Sep
15

Kildrummy Estate: vicarious liability prosecution?

scales-of-justiceOn 11th December 2014, Scottish gamekeeper (and SGA member) George Mutch was convicted of four wildlife crime offences that he’d committed on the Kildrummy Estate, Aberdeenshire in 2012 (see here).

On 12th January 2015, Mutch was given a four month custodial sentence for his crimes; the first gamekeeper to be jailed in the UK for killing raptors (see here).

Both his conviction and sentence were widely welcomed across the conservation community, not least because video evidence had been deemed admissible in this case and because the agencies involved in the investigation and prosecution had worked exceptionally hard to achieve these results.

Hopes were high that a subsequent vicarious liability prosecution would follow, especially when a journalist friend told us that Fiscal Tom Dysart had made a point of asking Mutch in court whether he’d received any training for the use of his traps, to which Mutch had replied, “No”. That response would indicate that a defence of ‘due diligence‘ wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny for anyone charged with being vicariously liable for Mutch’s crimes. All good so far, although Andy Wightman cast doubt over the feasibility of charging someone from Kildrummy Estate given the difficulty of establishing ownership there (read his blog here).

So seven months on, what’s happening now?

Well, it all gets a bit interesting around about now.  As we understand it, for offences committed under the Wildlife & Countryside Act, criminal proceedings MUST begin within three years from the date of the commission of the offence (two years in England & Wales). After three years, the case becomes ‘time-barred’ and it is no longer possible to prosecute.

Mutch was convicted of four offences, and the dates those offences were commissioned are as follows (info from COPFS press release, January 2015) –

  1. On 14 August 2012 & 15 August 2012, Mutch did intentionally or recklessly kill or take a wild bird, namely a goshawk.
  2. On 23 August 2012 and 24 August 2012, Mutch did intentionally or recklessly take a wild bird, namely a buzzard.
  3. On 28 August 2012, Mutch did intentionally or recklessly kill, injure or take a wild bird, namely a goshawk.
  4. Between 6 August 2012 – 13 September 2012, Mutch did use a trap to catch two goshawks and a buzzard.

Pay close attention to those dates. The first three offences are now time-barred (unless someone has already been charged) because it is over three years since they took place. The final offence is not quite time-barred, but will be by this Sunday (13 Sept 2015).

So, two big questions:

  1.  Has somebody from Kildrummy Estate been charged for a vicarious liability prosecution for the first three offences, and if not, why not?
  2. Is the Crown Office intending to charge someone (before Sunday) from Kildrummy Estate for a vicarious liability prosecution for the fourth offence, and if not, why not?

This case is of huge public interest and we don’t think it unreasonable to be asking questions, especially when successive Environment Ministers keep telling us that the effectiveness of Government policy against the raptor killers will be measured by the success of approaches such as vicarious liability.

If, like us, you’re curious about what’s happening with this case, you can email the Crown Office and ask them. The usual response when we ask about criminal cases is ‘As this case is on-going it would be inappropriate to comment’. It’s a handy ‘get out’ option when the authorities want to keep the public in the dark. The Crown Office could legitimately respond like this in this case, if they’ve already charged somebody. However, if they haven’t charged anybody, then the case is now time-barred and therefore cannot be said to be ‘on-going’.

Let’s see how transparent and accountable they wish to be. Emails to Helen Nisbet, Head of Wildlife & Environmental Crime Unit, Crown Office & Procurators Fiscal Office: Helen.Nisbet@copfs.gsi.gov.uk

07
Sep
15

The intellectual capacity of a cabbage

CabbageThere was an article in Country Life magazine recently (26th Aug edition) on the proposed plan (see here) to bolster the golden eagle population in southern Scotland. (Thanks to the contributor who sent us a copy).

The short piece included commentary from Dr Cat Barlow (the new project officer) and also a bit from everybody’s favourite ecological expert, Alex Hogg of the SGA:

Alex Hogg, Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, believes that the large raptors [golden eagles] could threaten not only grouse, but, ironically, the endangered hen harrier. “Grouse cover a huge area and can stand the pressure of hunting, but hen harriers nest en masse and are thus particularly vulnerable. And white hares, one of the eagle’s favourite prey, only breed well in areas where foxes are controlled”, he points out. He adds: “I’m delighted about the idea of the golden-eagle release, but I’m worried there won’t be enough food supply. My overriding feeling is that if the golden eagle had wanted to settle in southern Scotland, it would have done so“‘.

My ‘overriding feeling’ is that Alex Hogg has the intellectual capacity of a cabbage.

How many “en masse nesting” hen harriers are there in southern Scotland? According to the most recent data available from the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme, in 2013 one hundred hen harrier home ranges were checked across southern Scotland for occupancy. Of those 100, there were only 23 breeding attempts and of those, only 18 nests produced fledglings. Here are the data:

Dumfries & Galloway: 24 home ranges checked, 10 breeding attempts, 8 nests producing fledglings.

Lothian & Borders: 5 home ranges checked, 3 breeding attempts, 2 nests producing fledglings.

South Strathclyde: 71 home ranges checked, 10 breeding attempts, 8 nests producing fledglings.

As for a shortage of food, perhaps if the grouse moor gamekeepers in southern Scotland (and elsewhere) weren’t slaughtering mountain hares in their thousands (e.g. see here), in addition to the mass killing of other eagle prey items such as crows, stoats, weasels, fox cubs etc, Alex’s touching concern could be put to rest.

07
Sep
15

SGA attacks RSPB on false premise

Annie Langholm harrier shot April 2015Never ones to miss an opportunity to stick the boot in on the RSPB, those wildlife crime-fighting heroes at the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association have mis-kicked, again.

They’ve been whining in the media (Scottish Farmer, see here) about the timing of the RSPB’s press release relating to the discovery of a shot hen harrier called ‘Annie’ (see here).

As you’ll recall, Annie was a young satellite-tagged hen harrier from the Langholm project whose tag indicated she’d stopped moving in March this year (see here). Her corpse was discovered on a grouse moor in late April after several weeks of intensive moorland searches (by the RSPB) and the news of her death was published on 11th August, the day before the start of the grouse-shooting season, when everyone associated with driven grouse shooting is doing their level best to promote it as a sustainable, conservation-friendly tradition (ahem).

How inconsiderate of the RSPB to break this news on the day before the Inglorious 12th. How dare they inconvenience the grouse-shooting lobby like that. Shame on the RSPB for telling the world about another illegally killed raptor found on a grouse moor.

The thing is, the RSPB wasn’t in control of when the news was released.

When Annie’s body had been found (late April), it was submitted the very next day to the SAC Veterinary lab for post mortem. The post mortem results were not released to the RSPB until early August. The RSPB passed on the results to Police Scotland on 5th August. It was then Police Scotland’s call as to when the news was released. According to the article in Scottish Farmer (see here), the police asked the RSPB to sit on the news so that they (Police Scotland) could “crime” the incident, whatever that means. It was then decided, apparently after discussion with the Scottish Government (since when do they get involved with when crime details are released?!) that the news would be published on 11th August.

Instead of trying to smear and discredit the RSPB for publicising this crime, surely the SGA, as a co- member of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, should be (a) praising the RSPB for putting in the time and effort, at their own expense, in extreme weather conditions, to retrieve Annie’s corpse; (b) asking the SAC vet lab why it took over three months for the post mortem results to be made available; (c) praising the RSPB for preparing and publishing the press release; (d) focusing their condemnation on the criminal(s) responsible for killing this bird, who, with all probability, are members of the game-shooting industry; and (e) asking the RSPB and other members of PAW Scotland how they (SGA) can usefully contribute to help stop these killings?

Is that really too much to ask?

04
Sep
15

Gas guns on grouse moors: urgent guidance required

You may remember back in May this year we blogged about the deployment of propane gas gun bird scarers on the Leadhills (Hopetoun) Estate in South Lanarkshire (see here).

Bird scarer 1 - Copy

A month later, Mark Avery blogged about the deployment of propane gas guns on an unnamed grouse moor in the Scottish Borders and on another unnamed site in the Peak District National Park (see here).

It seemed they were being used with regularity across the uplands.

For those who don’t know, propane gas guns are routinely used for scaring birds (e.g. pigeons, geese) from agricultural crops – they are set up to deliver an intermittent booming noise and the audible bangs can apparently reach volumes in excess of 150 decibels. According to the Purdue University website, 150 decibels is the equivalent noise produced by a jet taking off from 25 metres away and can result in eardrum rupture. That’s quite loud!

We were interested in the deployment of these bird scarers in relation to (a) their proximity to Schedule 1 and 1A bird species [and thus any potential disturbance to these specially protected species] and (b) their use in designated Special Protection Areas [and thus any potential disturbance caused].

We assumed that the deployment of these gas guns would be subject to guidance and rigorous licensing controls by SNH (as they are the licensing authority for the Wildlife & Countryside Act (as amended)), particularly in relation to the hen harrier, which, as a Schedule 1A species, is “protected from harassment [including disturbance] at any time“, not just when it’s trying to breed (see here).

So an FoI was sent to SNH in June to ask for copies of all correspondence (during the last two years) between SNH and Scottish Land & Estates, and/or GWCT, and/or BASC, and/or Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association regarding the deployment of propane gas guns on grouse moors. As gas guns were clearly being deployed this year, we expected to receive a considerable amount of paperwork relating to SNH guidance on gas gun use.

How wrong were we!

In July, SNH responded by saying there had been “no direct correspondence” with any of the listed organisations in relation to the deployment of propane gas guns on grouse moors.

Hmm.

So it seems that SNH hasn’t issued any guidance on the deployment of these gas guns in sensitive areas where they may directly disturb breeding birds. Isn’t that a bit odd? Isn’t it obvious that the deployment of a gas gun bird scarer in proximity to specially protected birds is likely to, er, scare those specially protected birds? Surely this should be subject to a strict licensing regime?

To be fair to SNH, perhaps they had been unaware that these gas guns were being routinely deployed on grouse moors, and so they wouldn’t have thought that there was a necessity to provide guidance? However, that excuse can’t be used any longer because SNH are now well aware that these gas guns are being deployed. As part of their response to the FoI, they sent a copy of an email chain from members of the PAW Scotland Raptor Group (of which SNH is a member) discussing the deployment of these gas guns in Scotland. It really is worth a read – according to SLE CEO Doug McAdam, these guns ‘have been used for a number of years’ and are used to scare away juvenile ravens. Apparently (according to McAdam) this ‘isn’t a raptor issue’ and gas guns are ‘targeted and proportional’ and they ‘seem to have relatively little impact on other species’, although he fails to provide any shred of evidence to support these claims. He then goes on to say there should be an experimental removal of ravens – a suggestion ably slammed by Ian Thomson, Head of RSPB Scotland Investigations.

Read the correspondence here: FoI July 2015 SNH correspondence gas guns on grouse moors last two years

We would argue that SNH, as a matter of urgency, needs to provide official guidance on the deployment of propane gas guns in proximity to Schedule 1 and Schedule 1A birds, as well as their use in SPAs. Without official guidance, it would probably be difficult to secure a successful prosecution [for gas gun related disturbance offences]. This guidance should be relatively easy for SNH to produce – they recently published similar guidance on the use of helicopters and aircraft in relation to disturbance risks to Schedule 1 and Schedule 1A raptors and wider Schedule 1 species (see here). This guidance (which is very informative – well worth a read) indicates that a licence is required for any aerial work in the vicinity of a protected species. When you look at the noise comparison table produced by Purdue University (here), a Bell J-2A helicopter at 100ft is said to emit 100dB of noise; this is considerably less than the 150dB noise of a propane gas gun and so it follows that a licence would also be required for the deployment of a gas gun in the vicinity of a protected species and/or in a protected area.

We’d also argue that Natural England should also produce guidance on the deployment of gas guns, again as a matter of urgency. As evidenced in Mark Avery’s blog, these devices are also being used on the uplands of northern England.

Here are the contact details for SNH and NE, if anyone feels like writing to them to ask when we might expect the publication of such guidance:

Andrew Bachell, Director of Policy & Advice, SNH: Andrew.Bachell@snh.gov.uk

Alan Law, Chief Strategy & Reform Officer, Natural England: alan.law@naturalengland.org.uk

UPDATE 13th September 2015: SNH commits to investigating the deployment of gas guns on grouse moors (see here)

UPDATE 23rd September 2015: Natural England to issue guidance on deployment of gas guns on grouse moors (see here).

02
Sep
15

Newlands Estate, where buzzard bludgeoned & stamped to death, is member of SLE & WES

2nd June 2015 CopyWell, well, well.

Following the sentencing today of Newlands Estate gamekeeper William (Billy) Dick for bludgeoning a buzzard with rocks and then repeatedly stamping on it (see here), we wondered whether the Newlands Estate was a member of Scottish Land & Estates (SLE).

Actually, we wondered this back in early August when Dick was convicted (see here), but SLE refused to answer at that time. It’s now clear why.

It turns out that the Newlands Estate is indeed a member of SLE. And not only that, it’s also an accredited member of SLE’s ‘Wildlife Estates Scotland’ (WES) initiative. You know the one, the much-lauded (by the game-shooting lobby) initiative ‘that aims to promote the best game and wildlife management practices, build recognition and raise standards through the introduction of an objective accreditation system’ (see here).

Oops.

SLE has issued a short statement this evening, as follows:

A spokesman for Scottish Land and Estates said: “Scottish Land & Estates has a clear and long -established policy of condemning all forms of wildlife crime. Those who engage in such activity should feel the full force of the law. Newlands Estate is a member of Scottish Land & Estates but that membership has been suspended voluntarily pending further inquiries and ongoing legal proceedings“.

It’s interesting that the estate’s membership has been suspended ‘voluntarily’ and only after the Estate’s gamekeeper had been sentenced. Why was the suspension ‘voluntary’? And why wasn’t suspension invoked in June 2014 when gamekeeper Dick made his first court appearance to answer the charges? And if not then, why wasn’t it invoked last month when Dick was convicted? Why wait until now? Nothing to do with pressure from blogs like this, surely?

WILDLIFE ESTATES SCOTLAND LOGOIt’s also interesting that SLE don’t mention the Newlands Estate’s membership of the Wildlife Estates Scotland initiative in their press statement. Not a word. That news has been gleaned from ITV (see here) and reads as follows:

Conditions of membership of Wildlife Estates Scotland include the requirements to maintain best practice standards of animal welfare and comply with all legal requirements and relevant Scottish codes of practice.

Wildlife Estates Scotland’s position is that it will suspend membership if it is notified of a prosecution or of a breach of relevant legislation.

The case of William Dick has been discussed with Newlands Estate, whose membership and accreditation under WES has been voluntarily suspended and will remain so until after further enquiries and any other legal proceedings have concluded.”

– WILDLIFE ESTATES SCOTLAND SPOKESPERSON

02
Sep
15

Scottish gamekeeper fined £2000 for killing buzzard

Billy Dick gamekeeper Newlands Estate - CopyA Scottish gamekeeper who was recently convicted of killing a buzzard has been sentenced this morning.

William (Billy) Dick, 25, was convicted on 4th August 2015 of illegally killing the buzzard on the Newlands Estate in Dumfriesshire (see here). Two witnesses, alerted to the scene by the sound of gunshot, had observed him throwing rocks at a buzzard which was flailing on the ground, and then they observed him repeatedly stamping on the bird. They observed Dick wrapping something inside a coat and placing it inside his vehicle and then driving away. The carcass was never recovered but a dead hare, feathers and a blood-stained rock were found at the scene. DNA evidence from the feathers confirmed they came from a buzzard.

At Dumfries Sheriff Court this morning the sheriff told Dick that he believed Dick had killed the buzzard “to further the interests of your employer“.

Dick was fined £1,500 for killing the buzzard and a further £500 for possession of the dead buzzard.

Dick’s firearms certificate had been revoked but we understand this is being appealed tomorrow.

So, a £2,000 fine for offences that merit a maximum £5,000 fine and/or a six month custodial sentence. Had Dick pleaded not guilty this fine would have been even smaller (a reward for an early plea). It’s about time the Scottish Government published its commissioned report on wildlife crime penalties, which is already nine months overdue.

Well done to the SSPCA and Police Scotland for an effective investigation and congratulations to Procurator Fiscal Kate Fleming for a successful prosecution. Particularly well done to the two witnesses who reported their observations and were prepared to testify in court.

There is an on-going vicarious liability case relating to this crime (see here) and it’ll be interesting to see what happens in light of the sheriff’s comments in court this morning.

When we blogged about Dick’s conviction in August we asked the SGA whether Dick was one of their members. They refused to answer at the time, saying it would be inappropriate to comment until the case had concluded. Well, now it has concluded so let’s ask them again.

Emails to SGA: info@scottishgamekeepers.co.uk

Dear SGA, Is/was convicted gamekeeper William (Billy) Dick one of your members?

We also asked Scottish Land & Estates whether the Newlands Estate was one of their members. They didn’t respond. Let’s ask them again: info@scottishlandandestates.co.uk

Dear SLE, Is/was the Newlands Estate one of your members?

UPDATE 12.30hrs: COPFS press release here, with disturbing details of Dick’s actions.

UPDATE 13.30hrs: RSPB statement here

UPDATE 13.35hrs: BBC news article here, which indicates Dick may appeal his conviction. There’s also a quote from the SGA, once again refusing to comment on the membership status of Dick “until the legal process has concluded”. Why so coy?

UPDATE 18.50hrs: Turns out the Newlands Estate is a member of Scottish Land & Estates and the Wildlife Estates Scotland initiative – see here for blog post

01
Sep
15

SSPCA consultation: get your act together, Scottish Government

sspca logoOne year ago today saw the closure of the Scottish Government’s public consultation on increasing the SSPCA’s investigatory powers in relation to wildlife crime investigations, and particularly in relation to raptor persecution.

We’ve been told, repeatedly, by successive Environment Ministers that tackling raptor persecution is a Scottish Government “key priority”. It’s now been four and a half years since the notion of a public consultation on increasing the SSPCA’s powers was first mooted. Four and a half years of dragging the Government kicking and screaming towards what should be an obvious and easy next step in the fight against the raptor killers. And yet, four and a half years on, still we wait for a decision.

Here’s how the Scottish Government has handled this particular ‘key priority’ –

February 2011: Increased powers for the SSPCA was first suggested by former MSP Peter Peacock as an amendment during the WANE Bill debates. The then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham rejected it as an amendment but suggested a public consultation was in order.

September 2011: Seven months later MSP Elaine Murray lodged a parliamentary motion that further powers for the SSPCA should be considered.

November 2011: Elaine Murray MSP formalised the question in a P&Q session and the next Environment Minister, Stewart Stevenson MSP, then promised that the consultation would happen ‘in the first half of 2012’.

September 2012: Nine months later and nothing had happened so we asked Paul Wheelhouse MSP, as the new Environment Minister, when the consultation would take place. The response, in October 2012, was:

The consultation has been delayed by resource pressures but will be brought forward in the near future”.

July 2013: Ten months later and still no sign so we asked the Environment Minister (still Wheelhouse) again. In August 2013, this was the response:

We regret that resource pressures did further delay the public consultation on the extension of SSPCA powers. However, I can confirm that the consultation document will be published later this year”.

September 2013: At a meeting of the PAW Executive Group, Wheelhouse said this:

The consultation on new powers for the SSPCA will be published in October 2013“.

January 2014: In response to one of our blog readers who wrote to the Minister (still Wheelhouse) to ask why the consultation had not yet been published:

We very much regret that resource pressures have caused further delays to the consultation to gain views on the extension of SSPCA powers. It will be published in the near future“.

31 March 2014: Public consultation launched.

1 September 2014: Consultation closed.

22 January 2015: Analysis of consultation responses published by Scottish Government. 233 responses (although 7,256 responses if online petition included – see here).

We were told a decision would come from the new Environment Minister, Dr Aileen Mcleod MSP, “in due course”.

1 September 2015: One year after the consultation closed  and we’re still waiting…

END

It’s interesting to compare the way the Government has handled the SSPCA consultation with their public consultation on Land Reform. Here’s the timeline for that one:

November 2014: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announces her intention to introduce a Land Reform Bill to the Scottish Parliament in 2015.

2 December 2014: Public consultation on Land Reform launched.

10 February 2015: Consultation closed.

15 May 2015: Analysis of consultation responses published by Scottish Government. Over 1269 responses.

22 June 2015: Publication of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill.

So in a little over six months the Government was able to launch a public consultation, analyse the results and produce draft legislation in the form of the Land Reform Bill. That’s quite impressive, isn’t it?

Who still thinks that tackling raptor persecution is a ‘key priority’ for the Scottish Government?

Who would like to know when we might expect a decision on whether the SSPCA will receive increased investigatory powers? Emails to Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod: ministerforenvironment@scotland.gsi.gov.uk




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