Archive for March, 2016

31
Mar
16

Confusion reigns on admissibility of covert video footage

5455-DCRSR72bThe admissibility (or, more to the point, the inadmissibility) of covert video footage as evidence in wildlife crime cases has long been a source of fascination and, for us at least, confusion.

We’ve blogged about it a lot over the years and we’ve received some interesting and useful responses from some legal commentators (e.g. see the comment from ‘Edinburgh Observer’ on this 2012 blog). Sometimes covert video footage has been accepted as admissible evidence (more so in English courts than Scottish courts, although it is being increasingly challenged in raptor persecution trials in the English courts) and other times, inexplicably to us lay observers, it has been ruled inadmissible. The decision to rule on inadmissibility in Scotland has, for a long time, been taken by the Crown Office rather than by a Sheriff, which has caused consternation among some observers, with a notable exception being the Mutch trial, where the Sheriff ruled the RSPB’s video evidence was indeed admissible, but only because the RSPB was able to show the footage was a by-product of a wider, legitimate research project (in this case the use of crow cage traps), rather than the camera being placed with the sole intention of filming someone committing a criminal act.

We were surprised, then, to read the news yesterday about the use of covert video footage obtained by the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland (LACS) that has led to the arrest of two people accused of alleged fox-hunting offences in the Borders. Not only that, but the video footage has already been placed in the public domain by the BBC, prior to any subsequent trial. The footage can be seen on the BBC news website here, included in a mini-documentary about fox-hunting in general. It’s well worth a look.

So what was it about this video footage that made it admissible, rather than inadmissible evidence? At this stage, we know the footage has been deemed admissible because two individuals have been charged on the basis of what was filmed. In the British justice system, you arrest on suspicion, charge on evidence, and convict on proof. If this case does reach trial, the footage may well be later challenged in court and ruled inadmissible by the Sheriff; we’ll have to wait and see. But for now, the Police (and presumably the Crown Office who would have advised on whether charges could be brought) have accepted the footage as admissible evidence, otherwise these two individuals would not have been charged.

There are several ways to look at admissibility in this case. If you watch the BBC’s mini-documentary, there’s an interview with Robbie Marsland, the Director of LACS Scotland. In that interview, Robbie seems to suggest that LACS Scotland hired wildlife crime investigators specifically to monitor the activities of Scottish hunts. He said he gave his investigators explicit instructions to remain covert while filming, because, justifiably, he didn’t want the overt presence of observers to alter the behaviour of the hunts they were monitoring. So in this case, you could argue that the LACS investigators were filming covertly and specifically to catch someone committing a criminal offence. On the other hand, it’s also quite clear from the interview with Robbie that this was part of a wider research project being undertaken by LACS. It wasn’t just the Jedforest Hunt that was being filmed – other Scottish hunts were also being filmed because LACS had received persistent intelligence reports that some hunts were breaking the law, even though the Police and Crown Office said they hadn’t received any reports.  LACS began a wider research project to investigate patterns of behaviour among Scottish hunts.

To our mind, this scenario is very similar to the way the RSPB investigations team operates. When they undertake covert video monitoring they’re not just filming on one estate, they’re actively monitoring many estates because, as with LACS, they receive persistent intelligence reports that some estates are illegally killing raptors. Surely this could be viewed as being a ‘wider research project’, in the same way that LACS has operated?

The public release of the LACS footage, prior to a subsequent trial, is also interesting. We’re not sure the RSPB has ever done this before a trial, although they certainly have released footage post trial. Perhaps the early release of the LACS footage can be explained because, as the footage was captured from some distance to the hunt, it is virtually impossible to identify any individuals in the released LACS video. That’s important, especially in Scotland, where identification can be an issue in a trial. Because of this, it can be considered contempt of court to publish an image of the accused prior to conviction (although apparently you can in England) because it might prejudice a fair trial by influencing the jury. RSPB video footage, on the other hand, tends to be have been filmed at much closer range where the suspect’s identity is often clear.

However, as the two suspects in the LACS case have been charged with alleged summary offences (case heard by a single Sheriff rather than by a jury), as is often the case with suspects charged with summary offences on the basis of RSPB footage, then there’s no jury to prejudice so why not release the footage early?

All in all then, an intriguing (and still confusing) situation and we’ll watch with interest to see how this develops.

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30
Mar
16

‘Sustainable’ mountain hare culls – where’s the evidence?

Hares_Lecht_25Feb2016 (2) - CopyTwo staff members from Scottish Land & Estates, the landowners’ lobby group, have been desperately trying to defend the indefensible mass slaughter of mountain hares on grouse moors.

Tim (Kim) Baynes of SLE’s Scottish Moorland Group wrote a lame article on the subject a couple of weeks ago (we blogged about it here) where he claimed mountain hare slaughtering was done “in accordance with best practice” and that these culls are “informed and balanced” and that they didn’t take place every year. He was also quoted extensively in an article in Scottish Farmer (here), where he stated that ‘voluntary restraint was exercised’ and claimed that mountain hares were culled because “hares can affect fragile habitats through grazing pressure, can spread sheep tick which also affects red grouse, and can cause the failure of tree-planting schemes“.

A similar article was published in the Sunday Herald last week (here), penned by SLE’s CEO Doug McAdam. (For those affected by the Herald’s paywall, the article is reproduced here and here). McAdam recites the exact same reasons for mountain hare culling: “hares can affect fragile habitats through grazing pressure, can spread sheep tick which also affects red grouse, and can cause the failure of tree-planting schemes“. He also states that mountain hare culls are “properly organised and humane” and also says culls don’t take place every year. He then tries to nonsensically suggest that mountain hare culling is no different to deer culling, but ‘forgets’ to mention that deer no longer have any natural predators to keep their populations in check, whereas mountain hares do, or at least they would do if some of those predators (notably golden eagles) weren’t illegally shot, trapped or poisoned on grouse moors.

Let’s just have a look at those excuses for the mass slaughtering of mountain hares.

Hares can affect fragile habitats through grazing pressure“. They probably can, although if their natural predators weren’t being exterminated this would lessen any pressure. And would those be the same fragile habitats that are routinely burned with increasing frequency and intensity as part of grouse moor ‘management’, causing industrial-scale environmental damage (e.g. see here and here)?

Mountain hares can cause the failure of tree-planting schemes“. They probably can, but how many tree-planting schemes are taking place on driven grouse moors? According to McAdam, hare culling takes place “to conserve the open heather habitat“. So which is it? It can’t be both.

Mountain hares can spread sheep tick which also affects red grouse“. Ah, and there it is! What this all comes down to – mountain hares are inconvenient to grouse moor managers whose sole interest is to produce an absurdly excessive population of red grouse so they can be shot for fun.

Both Baynes and McAdam claim that hare culling doesn’t take place every year and when it does that it’s proportionate, “typically reduce the population by 10-20% maximum“.

hares_AngusGlens_Feb2015_113 hares killed driven shootingCompare that claim with the opinion of leading upland ecologist Dr Adam Watson, who wrote in his 2013 book Mammals in north-east Highlands:

I know of no grouse-moor estate within the range of the mountain hare that has not practiced or does not practice heavy killing of hares, with the exceptions of Edinglassie, Invermark, Glen Muick and Balmoral (but most of Balmoral is deer land rather than grouse moor). The only other heather-moorland areas that I know which are free from heavy killing are those owned by non-sporting agencies or by individuals primarily interested in wildlife conservation, such as the RSPB at Abernethy, SNH at Inshriach, the National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge, and Miss Walker of the Aberlour shortbread company, who owns Conval hills near Dufftown“.

He goes on to name various estates who, he alleges, “have been reducing the numbers of mountain hares greatly“, some dating back to the 1980s. His named estates include Altyre, Castle Grant, Lochindorb, Farr, Millden, Glenogil, Glen Dye, Dinnet, Invercauld, Tillypronie, Glen Buchat, Candacraig, Allargue, Delnadamph, Crown Estate, Fasque, Cabrach, Glenfiddich, Glenlochy, Gannochy, Fettercairn, Cawdor, Corrybrough, Moy, Glen Lyon.

If Baynes and McAdam are to be believed, then their claims ought to be backed up by scientific evidence. Just taking their word for it doesn’t cut it. So, let’s take several grouse moor estates from within the Cairngorms National Park (named by Dr Watson as allegedly involved in unsustainable mass hare slaughtering, some since the 1980s) and ask Baynes & McAdam to provide supporting evidence that Dr Watson is mistaken.

For the following estates within the CNP (Glenlochy Moor, Glenlivet [Crown estate], North Glenbuchat, Allargue, Delnadamph, Invercauld, Candacraig), can Baynes and McAdam provide the following information from the past ten years:

  1. In what years did mountain hare culling take place?
  2. How many hares were present on each estate before the cull in each year?
  3. What methods were used to assess population size before each cull?
  4. How many hares were culled on each estate in each year?
  5. How many hares were present after the cull on each estate in each year?
  6. What methods were used to assess population size after each cull?
  7. What acreage of grouse moor on each estate was under a tree-planting scheme in each year?

According to the Cairngorms National Park Authority, hare slaughtering within the National Park is “part of a planned annual management cull” (see here), in which case the above data should be easily at hand to share with the concerned general public.

And Tim and Doug, no fogging the figures like you did with your unsupported claims that grouse moors in the Angus Glens support 81 species of ‘breeding or feeding’ birds (see here).

We await with interest.

Meanwhile, the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting can be signed HERE

30
Mar
16

More raptor persecution in North Yorkshire

Over the last few years North Yorkshire has emerged as one of the worst raptor persecution hot spots in the UK (see here). It’s a county where much of the landscape is dominated by grouse moors, particularly in the two National Parks: the North York Moors NP and the Yorkshire Dales NP, as well as a large number of pheasant and partridge shoots.

It’s only March and already this year there’s been an illegally shot red kite and a suspected illegally spring-trapped buzzard.

The critically-injured buzzard was found in February at Wykeham, North Yorkshire. It had a broken, crushed ankle and a broken thigh bone; injuries consistent with being caught in a spring trap, says local Police Wildlife Crime Officer Graham Bilton. Local expert raptor and wildlife rehabilitator Jean Thorpe was once again called to the scene to assist but the buzzard’s injuries were considered too serious and it was euthanised by a vet. Article in Yorkshire Post here. Anyone with information please call Police WCO Graham Bilton on 101.

Photographs of the buzzard by Jean Thorpe:

buzzard spring trapped Jean Thorpe Feb 2016

buzzard spring trapped Jean Thorpe Feb 2016 b

Yesterday, Jean posted the following photographs showing an injured red kite that had been found at Low Marishes, Malton. An x-ray revealed it had been shot. This kite is currently being cared for but whether it survives remains to be seen. Anyone with information please call Police WCO Jez Walmsley on 101.

Red kite shot March 2016 Jean Thorpe

Red kite shot March 2016 Jean Thorpe 2

Jean Thorpe (pictured above with the shot red kite) runs Ryedale Wildlife Rehabilitation. She works closely with the RSPB and local Police Wildlife Crime Officers and has her work cut out, living where she does. In 2014 she was awarded an MBE for her tireless voluntary work. If you’d like to make a donation towards her efforts, please click here.

The e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting can be found HERE.

29
Mar
16

Langholm Project winding down prematurely

Langholm moorFollowing the news last month that Langholm Project head gamekeeper Simon Lester was resigning (see here), the project directors have now issued a statement about what will happen for the duration of the Project’s final 18 months:

Undertaking a review of structure and activity over the final year and a half of the project, the LMDP Board Directors have confirmed the project will continue until October 2017, with important changes to the management of the moor.

Directors acknowledged significant project successes in recovering heather habitats, stimulating black grouse numbers and demonstrating the role of diversionary feeding in reducing hen harrier predation on red grouse broods. The many and varied visitors to the project have illustrated the contribution of LMDP to demonstrating good moorland practice. The hard work of the keepering team was central to these results, with valuable support from the project science and volunteers.

However Directors agreed that with no realistic chance of reaching the target grouse density necessary for driven shooting, game keepering should be wound down, ending fully by April 2016. As well as the cessation of traditional keepering activities, there will be no diversionary food provided at the harrier’s nests or further novel habitat restoration. SRDP funded habitat management measures will continue through Langholm Farms.

Importantly the project will carry out another full year and half of monitoring, tracking habitat quality, numbers of moorland birds and the breeding success of the hen harriers over the 2016 and 2017 breeding seasons. This gives the project time to gather further information on the beneficial effects of moorland management, while the project scientists finalise a variety of reports for the Directors to review before publication.

A detailed review of the project’s achievements is available in the 7-year review. A Question & Answer paper, covering the next steps in more detail, will be available on the website soon“.

So, as predicted (here), it looks very much like this project is being set up to be seen as a ‘failure’ by the grouse-shooting industry, based on the claim that red grouse density has not recovered sufficiently to enable driven grouse shooting to occur. That’s a highly contentious position, as the data have shown the red grouse population at Langholm has recovered sufficiently, without the need for raptor culling, to a density which previously supported driven grouse shooting activity (see here, here and here). For some (as yet unexplained) reason, the target density for red grouse in the current Langholm 2 project has been set absurdly high at 200 birds per kmsq, rather than the standard 60 birds per kmsq that has been touted for years by the grouse-shooting industry as being the suitable target density required for driven grouse shooting to take place.

We already know that one of the project directors, Mark Oddy (representing Buccleuch Estates), wants “lethal control” [of raptors] at Langholm (see here); can we expect to now see further calls for raptor culls on grouse moors, based on the ‘evidence’ (ahem) of Langholm 2? We’d put money on it.

The petition to ban driven grouse shooting is doing well – please sign HERE

24
Mar
16

RSPB clarifies position: No media black out on hen harrier persecution

Hen Harrier Holly 2015Further to this morning’s blog where we expressed concerns about what we thought was a new RSPB media policy NOT to release timely information about hen harrier persecution this year (see here), the RSPB has responded.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, has written a comment on this morning’s blog but for those who might have missed it we’re repeating it here:

Hi,

There is no ‘media black out’. Transparency is absolutely key. Our approach this season is aimed at avoiding the rather pointless and near unending slanging match which has unfortunately characterised recent breeding seasons and instead giving those on the ground the best possible opportunity to allow our hen harriers to succeed. As I said on my blog, we will, of course, still report something as serious as a persecution incident in the usual way.

Best wishes

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director.

END

Thank you, Martin, for your swift response and reassurance. It wasn’t clear from your blog that you would publicly report instances of 2016 hen harrier persecution (except to the police) so this clarification that you will inform the public is very welcome.

Meanwhile, the e-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting is fast-approaching the 10k signature mark, which will trigger a response from Westminster. If you want to help speed things along, please sign HERE

24
Mar
16

RSPB news black out on hen harrier persecution? This can’t be right

hh LAURIE CAMPBELLIf we’ve interpreted this correctly, there’s something very odd going on with the RSPB this year.

Two days ago, RSPB Conservation Director Martin Harper wrote a blog entitled ‘Thoughts on this year’s hen harrier breeding season‘ (see here).

Much of the content isn’t new – it’s just reiterating the RSPB’s supportive position of DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Inaction Plan and Martin’s desire to see an improvement in hen harrier breeding success this year. However, there are a few additional sentences in this article, relating to the RSPB’s planned media strategy, that really require close attention and, hopefully, some clarification:

To ensure focus remains on the conservation outcome we want, we won’t be providing day by day updates on the breeding season. Instead, we’ll provide a mid-season update on 6 June and then let everyone know how the season has gone in late August with a detailed update“.

Eh?

Does this mean that if hen harriers are persecuted during this year’s breeding season, we might hear about it on 6th June (although the news could easily be suppressed by the police if the persecution incidents happen just before 6th June – live investigation and all that) but if it happens after 6th June we won’t find out about it until ‘late August’?

If that’s the case, it’s an extraordinary move by the RSPB. It’s like telling the criminals, ‘Wait until after 6th June to bump off the harriers because there won’t be any publicity about it until late August’.

Nobody expects a ‘day by date update’ from the RSPB – we’ve never had that before and we wouldn’t expect it this year, but what we would expect is to be told, in a timely manner, if hen harriers have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances from active breeding sites, or if they’ve been found killed. That’s what the RSPB did last year, so why is this year so different?

Imagine this scenario. There are 20 breeding pairs of hen harriers across northern England this year (yes, hard to believe). What if one harrier got shot each week during the season. We might hear about the first three or four deaths on 6th June, but then nothing of the other 16 until late August?

How does a news black out “ensure focus remains on the conservation outcome we want“? It makes no sense at all, other than to give the grouse-shooting industry a PR-disaster-free ride in the run up to the Inglorious 12th. How is that in the interests of conservation?

And assuming the RSPB will again be involved in this year’s Hen Harrier Day (7th August 2016), are they really going to turn up with nothing to tell us?

Do they really want us to instead rely on the media propaganda that will inevitably be churned out by You Forgot the Birds throughout the season?

If our interpretation of Martin’s statement is correct, then it sounds very much to us like the RSPB has been knobbled.

What we should expect is a clarifying statement from Martin, something along the lines of ‘If you don’t hear from us during the breeding season, take that as no news is good news’.

It would be an absolute disgrace if hen harriers are persecuted this year and the RSPB stays quiet.

Please, Martin, tell us we’ve misunderstood.

Please sign this e-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting HERE

UPDATE 15.05hrs: Martin Harper replies & says no media black out – see here.

23
Mar
16

Cairngorms National Park Authority responds to death of hen harrier ‘Lad’

HH Lad July 2015 Dave PullanFollowing on from yesterday’s news about the discovery of a dead hen harrier (suspected shot) on a grouse moor within the Cairngorms National Park (see here), Grant Moir, CEO of the Cairngorms National Park Authority has issued a statement (see here).

We’ve reproduced it here:

It appears likely from the post-mortem carried out by SRUC that a tagged hen harrier has been shot in the National Park. It is a disgrace that there are still people who think shooting a hen harrier is acceptable in the 21st century.

Millions of people visit this incredible Park every year with 12 per cent of visitors coming here for wildlife watching earning millions for the local economy. 43 per cent of people in the Park are employed in tourism and every illegal raptor crime adversely affects this area and Scotland’s reputation. The National Park Authority will work with all our partners to try and ensure that raptor crime is a thing of the past and that populations and ranges recover in the Park.

END

Good on the CNPA for issuing a statement (that’s more than the Environment Minister seems to have done), and this statement is marginally better than the one it issued nine days ago in response to questions about mountain hare massacres taking place on grouse moors within the National Park (see here), but once again it mostly just reads as empty rhetoric.

Pay attention to that last line: “The National Park Authority will work with all our partners to try and ensure that raptor crime is a thing of the past and that populations and ranges recover in the Park“. It’s all very well saying they’ll ‘work with partners’, but how, exactly, will that translate in to action?

The CNPA has talked a lot about partnership working and action, especially to address the issue of illegal raptor persecution on grouse moors within the Park, which it recognises as “threatening to undermine the reputation of the National Park as a high quality wildlife tourism destination” (see here).

For example, in 2013, a new, five-year ‘action plan’ was launched which aimed to ‘restore the full community of raptor species’ and one of the action points was for the SGA and SLE ‘to trial innovative techniques to increase raptor populations’ (see here). How’s that going? Anyone seen an increase in raptor populations? No, of course not. What we’ve actually seen is a long-term decrease of some raptors on grouse moors within the Park: the local hen harrier population has crashed (see here) as has the local peregrine population (see here) and there is no indication that these declines are about to be reversed.

Last year the CNPA hosted a high-level meeting with the Environment Minister and landowners, in which it was stated in a post-meeting CNPA press statement, “Among the topics discussed was raptor persecution and conservation, with a recognition of the progress made in recent years…” (see here).

What progress is that, then?

The last line of the CNPA’s latest statement in response to the death of hen harrier ‘Lad’ could translate as follows: ‘We’re not happy about this, it casts us in a bad light, we wish it would stop but we’re hopeless and helpless to bring about change’.

We’re not. Please sign the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting HERE.

Photo of hen harrier ‘Lad’ by Dave Pullan




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