Archive for May, 2016

31
May
16

Gas gun in use on grouse moor in Peak District National Park

As regular blog readers will know, we have an interest in the use of propane gas guns on grouse moors in the English and Scottish 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!

The grouse-shooting industry has claimed these are used for scaring ravens, but we argue they are more likely to be used (illegally) to disturb hen harrier breeding attempts. We are interested in the deployment of these bird scarers in relation to (a) their proximity to Schedule 1 (and in Scotland, Schedule 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, and others, have previously blogged about specific instances of gas gun use on grouse moors (e.g. see here and here) and we’ve been pressing the statutory nature conservation organisations (Natural England & Scottish Natural Heritage) to issue urgent guidelines on their use, so far without much success (see here, here, herehere and here).

Meanwhile, grouse moor managers are still using these gas guns. The following photographs were taken on Sunday 22 May 2016 in the Peak District National Park:

Gas gun 1 Broomhead - Copy

Gas gun 2 Broomhead - Copy

Gas gun 3 Broomhead - Copy

Gas gun 4 Broomhead - Copy

This gas gun is on the Barnside Moor, which is part of the Broomhead Estate, owned by Ben Rimington Wilson, a spokesman (see here) for the grouse-shooting industry’s lobby group the Moorland Association. The grouse moors of the Broomhead Estate are part of a regional Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Area (SPA), designated as a site of importance for short-eared owl, merlin, and golden plover.

Now, what’s interesting about the placement of this particular gas gun is that it lies a few metres outside of the SPA boundary, although the gas gun is pointing towards the SPA:

SPA OS - Copy

SPA close up - google map - Copy

What’s interesting is whether this gas gun was deliberately placed outside of the SPA boundary, to avoid having to ask Natural England for deployment consent? Although we would argue that even though the gas gun isn’t placed directly within the SPA, it is placed directly adjacent to it and the noise from that gas gun will definitely resonate across the SPA boundary line, potentially disturbing ground-nesting species such as short-eared owl, merlin and golden plover, for which the site was designated. (Hen harrier is not on the site’s designation list, presumably because when the site was designated, there weren’t any hen harriers nesting there, even though this is prime hen harrier habitat!).

But even though the gun isn’t directly placed within the SPA, it does sit (just) within the SSSI boundary:

SSSI close up - google map - Copy

This leads us to believe that the deployment of this gas gun will require consent from Natural England as it falls under the list of ‘operations likely to damage the special interest of the site’, namely, ‘change in game management and hunting practice’.

Has Natural England given consent for the deployment of this gas gun at this site? If so, how has it justified that deployment? If Natural England hasn’t given consent, is the deployment of this gas gun contrary to section 28 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act?

We don’t know the answers to these questions because we’re still waiting for Natural England to publish its policy on gas gun use, even though this guidance document was promised before the start of the 2016 breeding season!

Natural England needs to pull its finger out, pronto, and publish clear guidelines for use. If you’d like to email Alan Law, Natural England’s Chief Strategy & Reform Officer (he’s the guy who last September told us the guidelines would be available by early 2016) and ask him where that guidance document is, here’s his email address: alan.law@naturalengland.org.uk

You may also remember that a couple of weeks ago, SNH gave their opinion of what we should do if we found a gas gun being deployed on a grouse moor (see here). It was a very confused statement, but part of their advice was that intentional or reckless disturbance of a Schedule 1 species (such as hen harrier or merlin) is an offence and any suspected incidents of this through gas gun use should be reported to the police.

In our view, this would be a big waste of time – we can’t see the police having any interest in investigating gas gun use, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t know where to start. But, just as a test case, why don’t we report this gas gun to South Yorkshire Police as a suspected wildlife crime (potential reckless or intentional disturbance of a Schedule 1 species) and let’s see what they do with it.

Here is the information you need:

Gas gun grid reference: SK233978, Barnside Moor, Peak District National Park

Date observed in use: 22 May 2016

Please report this to Chief Superintendent David Hartley, South Yorkshire Police’s lead on wildlife crime: david.hartley@southyorks.pnn.police.uk

We’d be very interested in any responses you receive!

And if you’re in email-sending mode, you might also want to sent one to Sarah Fowler, Chief Executive of the Peak District National Park Authority and ask her whether there is a policy for the deployment of bird scaring devices on sensitive moorlands within the National Park. Email: sarah.fowler@peakdistrict.gov.uk

30
May
16

Police Scotland investigate suspicious disappearance of two breeding peregrines

Peregrine Steve WaterhousePolice Scotland is investigating the suspicious disappearance of two female peregrines from active nests in Dumfries & Galloway.

Both nest sites, at Dalveen on the Queensberry Estate (part of the Buccleuch Estates), were being monitored by experts from the Dumfries & Galloway Raptor Study Group. Eggs had been laid at both sites and the breeding females ‘disappeared’ between 21 April and 20 May 2016.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Police Scotland at Sanquhar on 101.

Good to see Police Scotland issue an early appeal for information. Well done!

News article on ITV website here

Peregrine photo by Steve Waterhouse

30
May
16

National Trust: bold or bottling it?

It’s been over a month since the National Trust said they were launching an investigation in to what they described as a “suspicious incident” where an armed man was filmed sitting next to a decoy hen harrier on a National Trust-owned grouse moor in the Peak District National Park.

Fake Hen Harrier (1) - Copy

How’s that investigation going? Given that the National Trust knew about this incident when it was first reported to them in February 2016, they’ve had plenty of time to ask questions of their grouse moor tenant and decide on what action, if any, they will take.

As a result of their investigation, we’re expecting them to do one of two things:

  1. Nothing.
  2. Withdraw the tenancy agreement that allows driven grouse shooting on that moor.

The National Trust has previously been bold about withdrawing shooting leases on land it owns. In 2011 it decided not to renew two of three shooting leases on its Wallington Estate in Northumberland (see here), and in 2012 it terminated the lease on a pheasant shoot on the Polesden Lacey Estate in Surrey (see here).

Will the National Trust be bold in the Peak District National Park? We think they’ve got very strong grounds for pulling the grouse-shooting lease in this instance because the grouse moor in question is part of the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative – an initiative that has utterly failed in its objective of increasing the populations of breeding raptors in the Dark Peak area of the National Park. Presumably the National Trust’s grouse shooting lease includes a clause that demands cooperation from the tenant to reach that objective and if cooperation isn’t forthcoming, the contract can be considered to have been breached?

Let’s ask the General Manager of the National Trust in the Peak District, Jon Stewart, when we might expect to hear the findings of the National Trust’s investigation. Emails to: jon.stewart@nationaltrust.org.uk

We’re also intrigued as to why no official statement about this incident has been offered by the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative. We’ve heard from individual member organisations such as the Peak District National Park Authority (see here) and the Moorland Association (see here), but there’s been total silence from the collective  BOP Initiative. Isn’t that strange?

The BOP Initiative is chaired by the Peak District National Park Authority and its ecologist, Rhodri Thomas, is the PDNPA’s representative on the BOP Initiative. We’d like to know how the BOP Initiative intends to respond to the video footage and how this incident will affect the progress of this so-called ‘partnership’? Let’s ask him. Emails to: rhodri.thomas@peakdistrict.gov.uk

28
May
16

Mountain hare slaughter set to continue in breach of EU regulations

A couple of weeks ago, Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell lodged the following parliamentary question:

Question S5W-00044, Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife, Scottish Green Party); Lodged: 09/05/2016:

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the culling of mountain hares on estates practising driven grouse shooting.

mountain-hare-cull-angus-glens-large - Copy

Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham has now answered with this:

The Scottish Government does not support large, indiscriminate culls of mountain hares in Scotland and recognises the concerns that have been expressed about the status of mountain hare populations in Scotland. The Scottish Government acknowledges that mountain hares are a legitimate quarry species and that there may be local requirements to control mountain hares to protect gamebirds and young trees. Any control of mountain hares should be undertaken in accordance with obligations under the EU Habitats Directive.

Given the concerns about possible over-exploitation, information on the management of hares has been reviewed by independent experts from the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Scientific Advisory Committee. This review was published in October 2015 and is available at: http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/A1765931.pdf. The review identified the need for improved monitoring and data to assess national trends of mountain hare populations.

This work is underway in the form of a collaborative four year study (2014-17) involving SNH and scientists in the James Hutton Institute and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, on trialling various methods of counting hares. The study has the aim of developing a reliable and cost-effective means of assessing mountain hare population density.

SNH is also working with Scottish Land & Estates to encourage greater transparency in the reasons why estates cull hares and to encourage estates to collaborate and develop a more measured and coordinated approach to sustanable hare management.

END

Oh, where to begin!

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment says the culls should be done in accordance with obligations under the EU Habitats Directive. Yes, they should be, but they’re not, are they? They can’t possibly be because one of the obligations is a legal requirement to ensure the management of this species “is compatible with the species being maintained at a favourable conservation status“. To assess whether the species’ conservation status is favourable or unfavourable requires decent population-level data to establish the impact of these unregulated mass culls. Those data are not yet available (although Dr Adam Watson has provided long-term mountain hare counts, see below).

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment says work is underway to get these data, but that work doesn’t finish until 2017. In the meantime, SNH should have applied the precautionary principle and placed a temporary moratorium on mountain hare culling, as they were asked to do in 2015 by ten conservation organisations (see here). SNH has chosen instead to call on sporting estates to undertake ‘voluntary restraint‘, a doomed policy already proven not to be working (e.g. see here and here). Of course this approach isn’t going to work when the estates’ representative organisation, SLE, insists, without supportive evidence, “there is no issue over population reduction” (see here).

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment refers to an independent review of sustainable moorland management, which included information about mountain hare culling. She mentions that the review identified the need for improved monitoring and data. What she forgot to mention was that this review also included the following statement (see page 20):

Given that culling can reduce mountain hare densities to extremely low levels locally (Laurenson et al., 2003), and population trends are poorly known despite the species being listed under the Habitats Directive, the case for widespread and intensive culling of mountain hares in the interests of louping-ill control has not been made.

She also forgot to mention something else reported in this review, the availability of long-term time series data of mountain hare counts by Dr Adam Watson (see page 21):

These latter data derive from 63 moorland sites, mainly in upland Aberdeenshire, with data in some cases extending back to the 1940s. Initial examination of this remarkable data set provides a strong prima facie case for long term population declines across moorland but not arctic-alpine habitats.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment also says that SNH is working with SLE to encourage ‘greater transparency’ about why mountain hares are culled. That’s an interesting one. Earlier this year, SLE provided explanations for why these culls take place. Apparently it’s 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”. They also said, contradictorily, that mountain hares are culled “to conserve the open heather habitat” (see here). At the time, we took these reasons apart as follows:

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 Doug McAdam (CEO of SLE), 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.

Given that the independent review, referenced above by the Cabinet Secretary, states that “the case for widespread and intensive culling of  mountain hares in the interests of louping-ill control has not been made”, how come SLE and their member estates are still permitted to carry on with this slaughter?

In summary then, the Scottish Government doesn’t support large, indiscriminate culls of mountain hares, and neither do ten conservation organisations, and neither does a large proportion of the general public who responded angrily to images of this year’s massacre. The culls are in clear breach of the EU Habitats Directive because the impact of culling on the species’ conservation status is unknown, although long-term counts, dating back to the 1940s, provide a strong prima facie case showing long-term population declines of mountain hares on grouse moors.

And yet the culls are set to continue again later this year when the closed season ends on 31 July.

Massive failure by the Scottish Government and its statutory conservation agency SNH.

But watch this space – the charity OneKind is planning to launch a campaign against mountain hare culling – more details to follow later this year.

27
May
16

Scottish gamekeeper fined for leaving loaded gun ‘on hillside’

A Scottish gamekeeper has been fined for abandoning a loaded gun that was found by two hill walkers.

Shaun Wilson, 29, had left his weapon ‘on the hillside above the village of Kippen’ , Stirlingshire, on 6 August 2015. He was fined £675 under the Firearms Act (see BBC news article here).

That description, ‘on a hillside above the village of Kippen’ is interesting. The main ‘hills’ around there are the grouse moors of Burnfoot Estate. That name might ring a bell with some of you. Burnfoot Estate is currently subject to a three-year General Licence Restriction Order, applied by SNH due to “some issues associated with poisoning birds of prey, birds of prey being found poisoned in that location, and illegal use of traps” (see here).

Kippen map

The name Shaun Wilson might also ring a bell. There was a gamekeeper of that name who, two years ago (then aged 27) was investigated for posting a video of himself on Facebook slitting a deer’s throat and drinking its blood (see here). Obviously just another of those strange coincidences.

26
May
16

More procrastination on extending SSPCA powers

sspca logoLast month we blogged about a series of Parliamentary questions relating to wildlife crime that had been lodged by recently elected Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell (see here).

One of those questions was about giving extended powers to the SSPCA:

Question S5W-00030 (Lodged 12/5/2016)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will announce its decision regarding extending the powers of the Scottish SPCA to tackle wildlife crime.

Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has now responded with this:

A decision on whether to extend the investigatory powers of the Scottish SPCA will be announced in due course.

That’s it. No explanation for the protracted delay (it’s been over five years since the public consultation was first suggested, and twenty months since that public consultation closed) and no time estimate of when this decision might be announced. Just, “in due course“. Marvellous.

A couple of weeks ago we blogged about how Dumfries & Galloway Council had recently given extended powers to the SSPCA to allow them to tackle the illegal puppy farm trade (see here). We argued that if the SSPCA was entrusted with extended powers to tackle serious organised crime, there should be no good reason why they shouldn’t be given extended powers to tackle wildlife crime.

Something else the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment might want to consider is the result of an SSPCA investigation which ended in Edinburgh Sheriff Court yesterday (see here). As a result of a covert surveillance operation, Craig Aitken, 43, pleaded guilty to setting 47 illegal snares, without authorisation, on Seggarsdean Farm in Haddington, East Lothian in January 2015. He was also convicted of stealing some of the SSPCA’s covert cameras, which, unbeknownst to him, had GPS trackers attached which enabled the SSPCA to trace them to Aitken’s home (see here). The evidence against him was so strong that he didn’t contest the charges. Yesterday he was sentenced with a 180 hour Community Payback Order and a six-month Restriction of Liberty Order which requires him to remain at home between the hours of 9pm and 8am. As an aside, someone else with the name Craig Aitken, of the same age, in the same town of Haddington, was convicted in September 2015 for exactly the same offence (setting illegal snares on another farm, caught by an SSPCA covert surveillance operation!) and received a 200-hour Community Service Order (see here). What a coincidence, eh? Those penalties for wildlife crime are really working as a deterrent.

its-not-fair1The reason we’ve mentioned this recent wildlife crime conviction is because this case demonstrates a number of things about the ability and competence of the SSPCA to conduct wildlife crime investigations; things that those opposing extended powers for the SSPCA (Police Scotland, gamekeepers, estate owners etc) said the SSPCA couldn’t do.

One of the main objections they gave to the SSPCA receiving extended powers was the SSPCA’s supposed lack of impartiality. It was claimed that because the SSPCA campaigns for a ban on snares, the charity couldn’t possibly remain impartial when investigating wildlife crimes involving snaring offences. Oops! This recent conviction for snaring offences suggests otherwise.

Another objection was that SSPCA Inspectors don’t undergo “the same rigorous training, selection and vetting” as police officers so they shouldn’t be allowed to undertake criminal investigations. Oops! This recent wildlife crime conviction suggests otherwise.

Another objection was that there may be resistance from the public who view these powers as a traditional remit of the police. Oops! We don’t see the public objecting to this latest wildlife crime conviction on the grounds that the SSPCA investigated and Police Scotland didn’t.

Another objection was that the SSPCA is “unequipped” to deal with RIP(S)A regulations (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 which puts strict controls on when surveillance operations are permitted and how they are to be conducted. These regulations only apply to public bodies, e.g. police, customs). Oops! This recent wildlife crime conviction, based on the use of covert surveillance (albeit with the landowner’s permission) suggests otherwise.

Isn’t it about time the Scottish Government stops procrastinating over this issue and gives extended powers to the SSPCA to allow them to bring their expertise and proven skills to bear against those who continue to illegally kill birds of prey? This is supposed to be a National Wildlife Crime Priority. Let’s see Scot Gov treat it as such.

26
May
16

Judicial review underway re: general licence restriction on Raeshaw Estate

Last month we blogged about a pending judicial review of SNH’s decision to apply a three-year General Licence restriction order on Raeshaw Estate in the Scottish Borders for alleged raptor persecution crimes (see here).

We noted that SNH had temporarily suspended the GL restriction order until the judicial review hearing on 20th May.

Last week, the judicial review began at the Court of Session:

Raeshaw Farms Ltd Judicial Review called 20 May 2016b - Copy

It was a starred motion (indicating that the motion was opposed and would require a a court appearance) that was only scheduled for 30 minutes. We’re not entirely sure about the judicial review process but we would guess, for an opposed motion, that a more substantive hearing will be required at a later date.

Meanwhile, SNH has updated its website with the following notice:

Raeshaw SNH temp restriction again 20 May 2016

Whereas the temporary GL restriction on Raeshaw Estate was previously applied until 20th May, SNH has now applied a temporary restriction ‘until further notice’, which means that the Raeshaw Estate is free to carry out trapping activities under the General Licence.

In other words, the three-year GL restriction order that was applied to Raeshaw in November 2015 as a penalty for alleged raptor persecution offences is no longer in place. It’ll be interesting to see, if Raeshaw ‘loses’ the judicial review, whether all these lost months of trapping restrictions will be added to the GL restriction to ensure the estate serves a full three-year penalty.




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