Archive for February, 2017

17
Feb
17

Police Scotland intend to withhold raptor persecution info for 3 years

police-scotland-logoA couple of weeks ago we blogged about Police Scotland withholding information about raptor persecution crimes from the RSPB’s 2015 Birdcrime report (here). Their approach was in sharp contrast to every other UK police force that had provided data for this report.

This wasn’t the first time we’d noticed a distinct lack of transparency from Police Scotland, and indeed we remarked that it was becoming something of a speciality of theirs, as they’d also withheld raptor persecution data from the ‘official’ PAW Scotland 2015 raptor persecution report (see here) and also from the Scottish Government’s 2015 annual wildlife crime report (see here, here and here).

One of our blog readers contacted Police Scotland to ask why information about raptor persecution crimes (a national UK police priority) was being withheld from the public.

Here’s Police Scotland’s response:

Primarily, the Police Scotland concern is about specialist knowledge becoming public knowledge in these cases. Police Scotland actually withholds the data from publication in relatively few cases and only after consideration against the agreed investigative strategy for a particular case. If Police Scotland is to make an appeal for information about a bird of prey killing and has chosen not to identify the substance as part of the strategy (or even identify that poisoning was the cause of death) this would be undermined by the identification of the chemical used in a public document. It would not take too much initiative to put the two together and that specialist knowledge tool is lost. A similar argument is equally as legitimate where other modus operandi (MO) are used in this form of raptor persecution.

On occasions, the decision is made not to make an investigation public at all for a variety of reasons (time of year, other ongoing investigations etc.). Publication of pesticide data or MO by HSE, RSPB or whoever else would ensure that Police Scotland loses control over this tool.

Differences in the legal system in Scotland is also another issue. The time bar for bringing wildlife crimes to court in Scotland is (in most cases) three years from the date of the offence. Police Scotland therefore expect to be able to legitimately withhold information relating to cases for that time period. This argument was supported by a specialist prosecutor from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s Wildlife & Environmental Crime Unit who also thought that this was particularly relevant in Scotland because we still have a requirement for corroboration.

Police Scotland cannot speak for the approach taken by forces in England and Wales but our commitment to wildlife crime ensures that we must ensure that we use every tool available and therefore on occasions this will include withholding information about a crime.

ENDS

Police Scotland’s justification for withholding information about raptor persecution crimes is technically legitimate. They have the right to withhold information when they think it is the most appropriate and/or effective approach to take.

However, just because we accept that this is a technically legitimate course of action for Police Scotland to take, it doesn’t mean that we agree with it. On the contrary, their approach raises some very serious concerns.

The first, and most important, concern is the issue of public safety. Public safety is the underlying objective of any police force, and Police Scotland even have it incorporated in to their logo. How on earth is withholding information about the use of a dangerous (potentially fatal) poison in a given area ‘keeping people safe’?

What happens if a member of the public visits that area with a child or a pet dog, ignorant to the fact that poisoned baits have been discovered there, and they stumble across the poisoned bait and, god forbid, the child (or adult) touches it, or the dog eats it, and dies as a result? These poisons have been banned for a reason – they are so highly toxic that even absorption through the skin (via touch) can be enough to cause death. Many pet dogs have succumbed in this way and it is only a matter of time before it happens to a human.

north-york-police-poisoning-poster-may-2015At the very least, the very, very least, Police Scotland should be screaming about the use of illegal poison, every single time they encounter it. It should be in the papers, on the radio, on the TV, all over social media, and warning posters should be prominently displayed in the local area (just as North Yorkshire Police are doing – see here). What Police Scotland absolutely should NOT be doing is hiding this information from the public for three years. What on earth are they thinking?

What’s more important to Police Scotland – protecting the public from a devastating consequence or clinging to a false hope that somebody might come forward with corroborating information that might lead to an arrest? It’s a bit of a no brainer, isn’t it?

And ‘clinging to a false hope’ is a deliberately chosen expression. How many times, in the last, say, 10 years, following a raptor poisoning crime, has anyone ever come forward with corroborating evidence that has enabled a prosecution? If you read RSPB Scotland’s recent written evidence to the ECCLR Committee (here), you’ll find this statement:

We note that a number of cases of confirmed raptor persecution have not been included in the Wildlife Crime Report. RSPB Scotland is concerned that increasingly, such data are being withheld from public scrutiny on the basis that cases remain under investigation and/or there is an anticipation that an individual will come forward, as a result of an appeal, with some specialist information that will identify a potential suspect. As far as we are aware, this has never happened, almost certainly due to the culture of silence outlined above‘.

Other concerns about the withholding of persecution crime data have been covered on this blog many times before. This lack of transparency not only undermines the public’s confidence in officially-cited (by Government) raptor persecution trends, but it also creates the false impression that raptor persecution is no longer an issue of concern. If the public isn’t reading about it, they’ll assume it’s not happening. Naturally, those with a vested interest in hiding the extent of raptor persecution crime will be all over this, using it in propaganda campaigns to indicate that the game shooting industry has finally cleaned up its act.

And of course, if raptor persecution crimes are not in the public domain, it makes it virtually impossible for people like us to track and assess the performance of Police Scotland and also that of the Crown Office in dealing with these offences. No public awareness = no public scrutiny.

How very convenient.

Police Scotland should be hung out to dry about this. Not only are they putting public safety at risk, but they are also demolishing public confidence in their ability to effectively tackle wildlife crime. We’ll be contacting several MSPs to follow up on this issue and we encourage you to contact your own MSP to make your concerns clear.

14
Feb
17

Leaked email reveals Natural England’s views on Hen Harrier Action Plan

The following internal email was written by Rob Cooke (Natural England Director) on 6 February 2017:

Hen Harriers

Hen harriers (HHs) are having a rough time in England. Although juvenile birds have a high natural mortality there is plenty to suggest that illegal persecution is ongoing, either through shooting or disturbance. The level of persecution is such that it is undoubtedly having an impact on the conservation status of the species in England.  Amongst a diet usually dominated by meadow pipits and voles can be red grouse, which is where the problem arises.  As a semi-colonial nester HHs can predate high numbers of grouse which can bring them into conflict with grouse shooting.

In early 2016 Defra published the Joint Action Plan to increase the English hen harrier population. The two new elements proposed a southern reintroduction and trialling a brood management scheme; Natural England chairs sub-groups on both.  Brood management is the most controversial element. Notwithstanding that, establishing a separate southern population has attracted criticism, even from some of those who purport to want to see more HHs, presumably as they fear that it will divert attention from persecution in the uplands. The notion that anyone wanting to see more HHs can argue against a reintroduction is I’m afraid beyond me (and as I type this I can see a red kite gliding by overhead).

Put simply brood management (BM) is removing eggs/chicks from vulnerable nests, rearing them in captivity and releasing them back into the uplands.  Of course if there was no persecution threat the nests wouldn’t be vulnerable (to human persecution at any rate) and therein lies the rub.  Those opposed to BM say it effectively condones persecution, and actually more effort should be put into stopping that.  I agree with that, but in practice despite the collective efforts of us, the police, RSPB and others it has not proved possible to stop persecution.  Radio tagged birds disappear, and even when recovered proving who fired the shot is very difficult in large remote upland areas.  There is an argument being made that driven grouse shooting should be banned (rejected recently by parliament), and the RSPB’s approach is that there should be greater regulation of shooting.  Effective regulation requires effective enforcement, and in Scotland where there is a stronger regulatory framework (incl vicarious liability and SNH’s power to remove General Licences) they still have a significant ongoing HH and raptor persecution issues.

The rationale behind BM is that if upland managers have a way of managing the density HHs (so that any impact on grouse is sustainable) then there will not be a ‘need’ to persecute the birds.  Whether this is the case or not time will tell (it is a trial after all), but we need to give it a go, since there is no Plan B on the table. Undertaking BM does not mean that anyone will put any less effort into enforcement, and there will continue to be tagging and rigorous protection of nest sites, where Stephen Murphy and his network of dedicated volunteers do wonders.  Since all the birds will be returned to the uplands there should be no impact on the population (and possibly even, more chicks will survive to adulthood than would otherwise have been the case as nests do suffer natural predation). It goes without saying that the trial will be subject to full veterinary, statutory assessment and licensing processes. BM would not require the removal of all birds from grouse moors, but would kick in when a published density threshold was reached.

rowan-x-rayRecent events have resulted in a large number of FoI requests and fair bit of resultant commentary on raptor blogs.  Much of this is commentators adding up 2 and 2 and coming to 5.  In particular the huge amount of space devoted to whether NE ‘watered down’ a media release concerning Rowan’s post-mortem to say ‘likely to have been shot’, as opposed to ‘shot’.  The simple truth is that the post-mortem did not say definitively that the bird was shot so nor did we (or the RSPB either – ‘injuries consistent with being shot’).  That prosaic point aside what is really disappointing is that this focus detracts from the spotlight which needs to be shone on the continuing plight of HHs and work underway to change that.  The lurid accusation that NE is in some way colluding with those responsible for hen harrier persecution is simply absurd.

Natural England leads much of this work and criticism is par for the course; constructive criticism is good and keeps us on our toes, but it is disappointing that much destructive criticism comes from the ‘wildlife sector’; rather darkly I wonder whether those who are responsible for persecution are sitting back smugly watching this internecine bickering.  The bottom line is that there are a number of people working extremely hard to improve the status of HHs in England.  We are all working to our strengths and membership organisations need to be able to take their members with them, to persuade them and win their support; hard line approaches can lead to alienation.  I believe in the sincerity of those involved in the plan, even if we might have differing motivations, but no one is blind to the challenges; persecution still happens and it needs to stop. If this plan does not deliver then we will need to look at other approaches.

But ‘How’ is the question? Simple enforcement is not enough so we need to adopt other approaches as well. After all, our experience over the last 15 years or so is that even reducing persecution is much easier said than done. There has been progress of sorts to date; the issue is very much in the public eye, we have the Moorland Association and other representative bodies openly condemning raptor persecution, we have tackling wildlife crime as a Govt priority and we have a Govt published plan. The proof of course will be in the eating; it won’t be easy but we do need to give it a try.

We need to be robust in our objective of restoring HHs to favourable conservation status in England, and not be distracted by those who, from whatever perspective, would derail us.

ENDS

There’s so much that could be discussed /debated /argued about the content of this email that we’d be here all day, so for brevity we just wanted to focus on two aspects.

First, the statement: “I believe in the sincerity of those involved in the plan“.

pole trapOn what basis does he believe in this supposed sincerity? The plan was launched over a year ago in January 2016, with the ‘partners’ supposedly all signed up. Since then we’ve seen an armed man sitting next to a decoy hen harrier on a grouse moor in the Peak District National Park; a gamekeeper caught on film setting three illegal pole traps on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park; an endless number of raptor shootings, trappings and poisonings across England, many on or next to a grouse moor; an increase in the number of reported gas guns and banger ropes being deployed on grouse moors to deter breeding hen harriers; only three hen harrier nests in England (where there could be 330) and not one of them was on a grouse moor; and eight satellite tagged hen harrier fledglings from the 2016 season have already either ‘disappeared’ in the uplands or have been confirmed shot.

We haven’t seen any evidence whatsoever that the grouse shooting industry is sincere about stopping raptor persecution.

Secondly, we wanted to highlight Rob’s penultimate paragraph, because it really beggars belief. According to Rob, ‘there has been progress of sorts to date’ and he defines this ‘progress’ as follows:

  1. The issue is very much in the public eye. Well yes, it is, but that is no thanks to Natural England or their friends in the grouse shooting industry. Public awareness of hen harrier persecution has been increased thanks to (a) the RSPB’s Hen Harrier Life Project and (b) a hell of a lot of effort by grassroots campaigners, notably Mark Avery with his book Inglorious and his three petitions to ban driven grouse shooting, Chris Packham, LUSH, hundreds of people getting involved in BAWC’s Hen Harrier Day events across the UK for the last three years, and thousands of ordinary people using social media to great effect, day in, day out.
  2. We have the Moorland Association and other representative bodies openly condemning raptor persecution. What we actually have is the Moorland Association and other representative bodies consistently denying that raptor persecution is a big problem; consistent attacks on the RSPB, particularly from the You Forgot the Birds propaganda machine, which is funded by the grouse shooting industry; consistent personal attacks on high profile campaigners; consistent attempts to discredit RSPB persecution data, and a consistent refusal to condemn confirmed raptor persecution crimes unless pushed hard by campaigners, and even then a response is rarely forthcoming (see yesterday’s blog about the poisons cache on East Arkengarthdale Estate as a classic example).
  3. We have tackling wildlife crime as a Govt priority. Do we? Is there any evidence of this?
  4. We have a Govt published plan. We do indeed, and it has been repeatedly and deservedly criticised by conservationists. As Mark Avery often says, it is not an action plan for hen harriers, it is an action plan for grouse moor owners.

Sorry Rob, but if you think the grouse shooting industry is going to stop killing hen harriers (or any other raptors) any time soon, based on the ‘evidence’ you’ve provided, then you’re delusional.

 

13
Feb
17

Poisons cache on East Arkengarthdale Estate: no prosecution, no subsidy penalty

In December 2016 we blogged (here) about the discovery of an illegal poisons cache, buried in a small forestry plantation on Hurst grouse moor, part of the East Arkengarthdale Estate in North Yorkshire.

east-arkengarthdale

The discovery had been made (and filmed) by the RSPB’s Investigations team in December 2014 and March 2015. RSPB Investigator Guy Shorrock wrote a blog about it (here).

We learned that an unnamed gamekeeper had been responsible for the poisons cache but the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to prosecute due to ‘procedural concerns’. Nevertheless, North Yorkshire Police revoked this gamekeeper’s shotgun and firearms certificates. The gamekeeper appealed this decision (and was represented by the BASC Chairman, no less) and the court decided his certificates should be returned.

So we asked the Rural Payments Agency (as did many of you, thank you) whether the illegal poisons cache was a breach of the conditions under which the Estate had received almost £200,000 of agricultural subsidies (public money) and if so, whether any part of those subsidies would be withdrawn as a penalty, in the same way a penalty had been applied to the Stody Estate in Norfolk for poisoning offences that took place in 2013 (see here).

Here’s the Rural Payments Agency’s response:

You have asked the following questions about the discovery of a hidden pesticide cache on Hurst Moor, North Yorkshire in 2014:

1. Did the CAP subsidies received by the specified business in 2014 cover the land where the poisons cache was discovered?
2. If so, does having a poisons cache, administered by a gamekeeper, qualify as a cross-compliance breach?
3. If so, will the Rural Payments Agency be applying a subsidy penalty?

The RPA has determined that a subsidy penalty was not appropriate, for the reason set out below. It therefore did not need to establish the precise location of land where the poisons cache was discovered.

We considered this case under the cross compliance rules that applied in 2014 and we hope the following will explain why RPA does not have the scope to apply cross compliance penalties for breaches of this nature.

Within cross compliance, all breaches relating to storage of pesticides were provided for by a set of rules known as the sustainable use rules.  These were part of the wider set of rules covered by the plant protection product Statutory Management Requirement (SMR) which, in 2014 was SMR 9. Please refer to page 63 of the Guide to Cross Compliance in England 2014, for further information.

From 1 January 2014 a change to European legislation meant the sustainable use rules were removed from the scope of SMR 9 as far as cross compliance rules applicable to SPS payments were concerned. This meant there was no scope to apply cross compliance penalties to SPS payments for pesticide storage and unapproved product breaches that occurred from 1 January 2014 onwards.

The sustainable use rules continued to apply to rural development schemes covered by cross compliance rules, for example the full range of Environmental Stewardship schemes. This was the case until the end of 2014, after which further changes to European legislation fully removed the sustainable use rules from the scope of cross compliance.

In the rural development legislation that applied in 2014, the obligation to comply with the statutory management requirements did not apply to non-agricultural activities on a holding. In this case the evidence is that the breach was committed in connection with the non-agricultural activity of game shooting. In addition, the evidence is that the cache was not found on agricultural land, but within a small plantation of trees. Therefore it is not possible to apply cross compliance penalties to rural development payments for a breach of this nature.

END

So, no prosecution, no revocation of firearms, and no subsidy penalty.

arken

But what about a positive reaction from the grouse shooting industry itself? Surely, as members of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) and the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG), organisations like the Moorland Association and the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation would want to move swiftly to distance themselves from this Estate and this gamekeeper?

Well, we asked them about this (as did many of you, thank you) two months ago (here) and guess what? We haven’t heard a word of condemnation or any hint of expulsion. Just the standard wall of silence we’ve come to expect.

What we did find, though, was East Arkengarthdale grouse moor being listed as among ‘the best shoots in the UK 2015/2016‘, as recommended by ‘prominent figures and agents’ from the industry. It’s really worth having a look at this list – there are a few other ‘interesting’ names that many of you will recognise.

If ever you wanted evidence of a criminally-riddled industry protecting its own, or evidence of sham partnership working, you’ll be hard pressed to beat this case as an example.

12
Feb
17

Goshawk dies in ‘mysterious circumstances’ on Queen’s Sandringham Estate

Not for the first time, the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk has been at the centre of a police investigation in relation to a raptor incident.

According to an article in today’s Mail on Sunday (here) a police investigation was launched after Sandringham Estate staff mailed a young goshawk’s tracking tag back to the BTO on 11 August last year, but without the corpse. When the BTO contacted Sandringham Estate to ask what had happened to the bird, they were told the bird had been ‘disposed of’ because ‘it had been dead for a long time’ and was ‘decomposing’. However, the GPS tag data revealed the bird had still been alive on the evening of 8th August, in some trees close to Sandringham House.

During the Police investigation, Sandringham Estate staff changed their story and said the goshawk had been found alive by a gardener beside a perimeter fence but that ‘it was in a poor condition and quickly died’. They told Police the bird had been incinerated.

Hmm.

Estate staff justified these contrasting stories about what had happened by saying there had been ‘a breakdown in communication’ amongst Estate staff.

Hmm.

Norfolk Police issued a statement: “A thorough investigation was carried out and no wrong doing was identified“.

Norfolk Police also told the BTO: ‘There were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the bird’s death‘.

Hmm. Perhaps they’d turned up with a white stick and a dog.

Without having this goshawk’s corpse available for post-mortem it is impossible to determine how it died, so it’s no surprise that Norfolk Police said ‘no wrong doing was identified’. Of course no wrong doing was identified because any potential evidence had been conveniently incinerated!

Sandringham Estate was at the centre of a police investigation in 2005 when a tawny owl was caught in an illegally-set trap. A Sandringham Estate gamekeeper was convicted and fined, but wasn’t sacked (see here, pages 3-4).

In 2007 Sandringham Estate was at the centre of another police investigation after the alleged shooting of two hen harriers. Prince Harry, his friend William van Cutsem (whose family own the now infamous Mossdale Estate), and an unnamed gamekeeper were questioned but denied all knowledge of the incident. The hen harrier corpses were never found.

In 2014, a satellite-tagged Montagu’s harrier called Mo ‘disappeared’ on land next door to Sandringham Estate and police launched an investigation. Mo’s corpse has never been found.

Photo of a young Norfolk goshawk with its GPS tag, part of the Heritage Lottery funded BTO goshawk tracking study (photographer unknown).

12
Feb
17

Buzzard shot in Essex

The following images and text have been posted on the South Essex Wildlife Hospital facebook page:

‘A very weak buzzard found at the side of a road was assumed to have been a road traffic casualty. Having x-rayed the bird, the reason it wasn’t flying was obvious. Several shot gun pellets were lodged in its body, wing and leg. Vet Tom removed as many as he could once the bird was strong enough for surgery. It is recovering and does seem much stronger now. We hope to release it soon but must be sure it is able to survive in the wild’.

This case has been reported to the police.

11
Feb
17

Mystery hen harrier ‘John’ from the class of 2016

Yesterday Mark Avery wrote a blog about DEFRA’s ridiculous hen harrier brood meddling plan, due to start this year.

In his blog, Mark reminded us that in 2016 there were four young hen harriers that were satellite-tagged at two nests on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland, as mentioned in this local newspaper article last summer.

Since the summer of 2016, we’ve been able to follow the movements of two of those birds because their sat tags were fitted by the RSPB, who have posted fortnightly updates on the RSPB Hen Harrier Life Project website. One of those birds (Finn) is still alive, and the other one (Carroll) is dead.

So what of the other two birds, tagged in Northumberland by Natural England?

Well, one of them was called Mick, and we were told nothing about this bird until a few days ago when we learned he’d ‘disappeared’ in the Yorkshire Dales National Park just before Xmas 2016.

The other one, we’ve learned on the grapevine, is/was called ‘John’. Again, we’ve been told nothing of this bird’s movements since he fledged last summer – we don’t even know if he’s still alive.

Nothing like a bit of public engagement, eh Natural England?

We’ll need to update our record on the fate of the class of 2016, now we know about Mick & John. So here it is:

Hen harrier Elwood – ‘disappeared’ in the Monadhliaths just a few weeks after fledging (Aug ’16).

Hen harrier Brian – ‘disappeared’ in the Cairngorms National Park just a few weeks after fledging (Aug ’16).

Hen harrier Donald – missing in northern France, presumed dead (Autumn ’16).

Hen harrier Hermione – found dead on Mull, believed to have died from natural causes (Sep ’16).

Hen harrier Rowan – found dead in Yorkshire Dales National Park. He’d been shot (Oct ’16).

Hen harrier Tarras – ‘disappeared’ in the Peak District National Park (Oct ’16).

Hen harrier Beater – missing in Scottish Borders, presumed dead (Nov ’16).

Hen harrier Bonny – ‘disappeared’ in the North Pennines, presumed dead (Dec ’16)

Hen harrier Mick – ‘disappeared’ in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, presumed dead (Dec ’16).

Hen harrier Carroll – found dead in Northumberland, PM revealed a parasitic disease & two shotgun pellets (Jan ’17).

Ten down, seven to go (Aalin, DeeCee, Finn, Harriet, Wendy, Sorrel, John).

10
Feb
17

Case against gamekeeper Stanley Gordon re: shot hen harrier, part 8

scales-of-justiceCriminal proceedings continued at Elgin Sheriff Court today against Scottish gamekeeper Stanley Gordon.

Mr Gordon, 60, of Cabrach, Moray, is facing a charge in connection with the alleged shooting of a hen harrier in June 2013. He has denied the charge.

Here’s a summary of what’s happened so far in this case:

Hearing #1 (19 May 2016): Case continued without plea until 16 June 2016.

Hearing #2 (16 June 2016): Case continued without plea until 14 July 2016.

Hearing #3 (14 July 2016): Case continued without plea until 11 August 2016.

Hearing #4 (11 August 2016): Case continued without plea until 1 September 2016.

Hearing #5 (1 September 2016): Mr Gordon enters a not guilty plea. A provisional trial date is set for 19 December 2016, with an intermediate diet set for 18 November 2016.

Hearing #6 (18 November 2016): Case adjourned for another intermediate diet on 2 December 2016.

Hearing #7 (2 December 2016). Provisional trial date of 19 December is dumped. Case adjourned for another intermediate diet on 10 February 2017.

Hearing #8 (10 February 2017). A new trial date has been set for 21 March 2017.




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