Archive for April, 2017

28
Apr
17

A poisoned sparrowhawk, a poisoned bait, and a Royal estate in Norfolk

A couple of months ago an article was published in the Mail on Sunday about the ‘mysterious’ death of a satellite-tagged goshawk on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk (see here).

We blogged about it (here) and mentioned a number of other raptor-related police investigations that had been undertaken on or near the estate. On the back of that blog, somebody contacted us and asked why we hadn’t included on our list ‘the confirmed illegal poisoning of a sparrowhawk a few years ago’? We hadn’t included it because we didn’t know anything about it, so we thought we’d do some digging.

First of all we did a general internet search. If there had been a confirmed raptor poisoning on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate then surely that would have made a few headlines, right? We didn’t find any record of it.

So then we started looking at the government’s database on pesticide misuse and abuse (the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme, often shortened to ‘the WIIS database’). In that database we found the following entry:

Although this entry showed that a poisoned sparrowhawk and a poisoned bait had been discovered in Norfolk in October 2009, as usual, no specific location was given. We were, however, intrigued by the ‘Notes’ column, that said even though a confirmed poisoning had occurred, the police were ‘not taking this forward’ and instead the CRD (Chemical Regulation Directorate, which is part of the Health & Safety Executive) had ‘sent a warning letter to the estate’.

So we thought we’d submit an FoI to the CRD to ask for a copy of that warning letter, because it might reveal the name of the estate where the poisoned sparrowhawk and poisoned bait had been found. We were also curious about the content of that warning letter – if there had been a confirmed poisoning, why was a warning letter considered to be a preferred option to a prosecution?

We’ve now received the FoI response and have been working our way through the various files.

The first file we looked at was a series of correspondence letters between the CRD and the estate. The estate’s name had been redacted throughout. Hmm. The letters are really worth reading though – there are some pretty hostile attitudes on display and there’s clearly no love lost between CRD and the estate manager! Download here: CRD correspondence with Estate_2010

There’s also a letter from a Natural England officer to the estate, asking for various documents relating to pesticide risk assessments, gamekeeper contracts, and gamekeeper training certificates: Natural England letter to Estate 19Oct2009

We gathered from the CRD/estate correspondence that no further evidence of Bendiocarb had been found during a Police/Natural England search of the estate which is presumably why Norfolk Police didn’t charge anybody for the poisoned sparrowhawk and poisoned bait, because there was no way of linking it to a named individual. Anybody could have placed the poisoned bait. But a series of alleged offences relating to pesticide storage had apparently been uncovered and it was these issues to which the CRD warning letter referred, although it’s clear from the estate’s letters to CRD that the estate disputed the alleged offences.

While that’s all very interesting, we were still in the dark about the name of the estate where all this had happened. That is, until we read another file that had been released as part of the FoI: CRD_lawyer discussion of FEPA exemption

This file contains correspondence between the CRD and a number of lawyers. They were discussing whether the estate had exemption under Section 20(5) of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 (FEPA). This exemption applies to land that is owned ‘in Crown interest’. There was a great deal of discussion about whether this estate (name redacted) was owned by the Crown or was privately owned by the Queen.

The lawyers decided that this estate (name redacted) was in fact privately owned by the Queen, and therefore exemption under Section 20(5) of FEPA did not apply. The lawyers had reached this conclusion after several internet searches on the status of this estate (name redacted) had been completed. What the FoI officer failed to do was redact the search phrases that had been used to reach their decision. Those search phrases included:

Now, if you Google the exact search phrase listed under (a) above (“the private home of four generations of British Monarchs“) you are directed to this website:

And if you go to the Crown Estates website and search for the exact search phrase listed in (b) above (“according to the Crown Estates website – one of Her Majesty the Queen’s private possessions handed down from previous generations“), you find this:

It’s all very interesting, isn’t it? This isn’t conclusive evidence that it was Sandringham Estate, of course, and there is no suggestion whatsoever that anyone associated with the Sandringham Estate was involved with placing a poisoned bait, although it is clear a poisoned sparrowhawk and a poisoned bait were found on a Royal estate in Norfolk (how many Royal estates are there in Norfolk?).

But what this does highlight, again, is the complete lack of transparency when the authorities investigate the discovery of highly toxic poisonous baits laid out on private estates with game-shooting interests, or the discovery of illegally killed raptors on privately owned estates with game-shooting interests.

Why has this case been kept secret since 2009?

27
Apr
17

SSPCA briefs MSPs on benefit of increased investigatory powers

As we await the long-overdue decision on whether the Scottish Government will approve an increase in investigatory powers for the SSPCA (see here), the SSPCA has today published a short briefing note which has been sent to all MSPs to encourage their support of this minor change in legislation.

It’s a fantastic briefing note, short, succinct and covering the main points of this issue. It addresses six key points:

  • What enforcement powers does the SSPCA currently have?
  • Why can’t the SSPCA currently fully investigate all wildlife crimes?
  • Why does the SSPCA require additional powers to bring investigations involving wild animals into line with crimes involving other animals?
  • How can the SSPCA help improve the rate of successful wildlife crime investigations?
  • Would collaboration work?
  • What would be required to authorise the SSPCA to seize evidence of a wildlife offence?

On this last point, the SSPCA has clarified that all that is needed is for the words ‘or inspector‘ to be inserted in appropriate places in Section 19 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act. That’s it. It’s not difficult, it’s not complex (as former Environment Minister Aileen McLeod claimed), it’s just two words that could make such a difference to the effectiveness of wildlife crime enforcement in Scotland, which, let’s face it, is currently appalling:

Also included in the briefing note are the results of a recent poll commissioned by the SSPCA about public attitudes to wildlife crime in Scotland. The results speak for themselves:

The SSPCA briefing note can be read here: SSPCA briefing on increased investigatory powers

The Scottish Government’s decision on whether to increase the SSPCA’s investigatory powers will be announced by Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham by the end of June 2017.

If you’re living in Scotland, we’d encourage you to please contact your local MSP and let them know that wildlife crime is of concern to you. Please ask your MSP to contact Roseanna Cunningham to offer cross-political support for this very simple change in the legislation, which could bring significant and much-needed improvement to how wildlife crime is investigated. If you’re not sure who your MSP is you can find out here

27
Apr
17

Raptor groups slam DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Plan

The Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) has published a damning criticism of DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Action Plan in what it describes as a Year 1 Assessment.

The Plan, as you know, was wheeled out by DEFRA in January 2016 and has been widely criticised by conservation organisations, not least for including the controversial element of brood meddling, i.e. removing hen harriers from driven grouse moors during the breeding season so there are more red grouse available to be shot by wealthy gunmen, and then releasing the harriers back on to the moors in the autumn to coincide with, er, the grouse shooting season. Genius.

NERF’s criticism of the Plan doesn’t include any surprises apart from the news that NERF was refused a seat at the table when the Plan was being formulated. NERF contends that the Plan in its current format is unworkable and that the estimated £1.39 million pounds being thrown at it from the public purse should be diverted to help monitoring and enforcement. They’ve got a point.

It’s good to see NERF utilise their undisputed expertise and experience and make clear their position on what is one of the most controversial issues in UK conservation. More of that, please!

The NERF statement can be read here

26
Apr
17

More hen harriers on English grouse moors than people attended Trump’s inauguration. Fact. Or something

More ‘facts’ (bollocks) about hen harrier conservation from the Moorland Association – here.

26
Apr
17

Raptor satellite tag review: the questions being addressed

As many of you will be aware, we are currently awaiting the publication of a review of raptor satellite tag data in Scotland.

This review was commissioned in August 2016 by Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, in response to the news that eight satellite-tagged golden eagles had all ‘disappeared’ in the Monadhliaths. She said she wanted to see whether the data demonstrated ‘a pattern of suspicious activity’.

Photo of a young golden eagle, satellite-tagged by members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group (Photo by Dan Kitwood).

The Cabinet Secretary later extended the review to not only look at golden eagle satellite tag data, but also data from tagged red kites and hen harriers. This was in response to the news of yet another satellite-tagged hen harrier (‘Elwood’) who also ‘disappeared‘ in the Monadhliaths just a few weeks after fledging.

We knew the review was being undertaken by two highly experienced and respected researchers (who each have a publication list as long as your arm) so there weren’t any concerns there, and we knew that the report was due to be submitted to SNH by the end of March 2017. Other than that, very little detail has emerged about what, exactly, the review would include.

Following a recent FoI to SNH about a related matter, we now have some information about the questions the review will address:

This information was revealed within some correspondence between Scottish Land & Estates and SNH in February this year. The name of the SLE correspondent has been redacted but it’s probably safe to assume it was (now recently departed) CEO Doug McAdam. It looks like SLE are a bit twitchy about what this review might reveal. Here’s a copy of the correspondence: Correspondence between SLE_SNH re sat tag review

So when can we expect the review to be published? We know a draft was submitted to SNH at the end of March 2017 and that it was sent to three experts for peer review. Almost a month has now passed so we would expect the peer-review process to have been completed and any proposed editorial suggestions to have been finalised. What we don’t know is whether the publication of this review will be delayed due to election purdah.

What we can be sure of is if the review has not been published by the time of the General Election on 8 June, SNH and the Scottish Government will be put under intense pressure to put it in the public domain. If they think the public will sit quietly for months, or years, awaiting publication, they are very much mistaken.

25
Apr
17

Crown Office drops third prosecution in two weeks

Two weeks ago, we blogged about how the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS – the public prosecutors in Scotland) had dropped a long-running vicarious liability prosecution against landowner Andrew Duncan, who was alleged to have been vicariously liable for the crimes of his gamekeeper, who had killed a buzzard on the Newlands Estate in 2014. When pressed for a reason behind the decision to drop the vicarious liability case, the Crown Office said it was “not in the public interest to continue” but did not provide any further detail of how, or why, that decision had been reached (see here).

Ten days later, we learned that the COPFS had dropped another long-running prosecution, this time against gamekeeper Stanley Gordon who was alleged to have shot a hen harrier on the Cabrach Estate in 2012. No explanation was given for this decision.

And now today, we have learned that the COPFS have dropped another long-running prosecution, this time against Angus Glens gamekeeper Craig Graham who was alleged to have set and re-set an illegal pole trap on the Brewlands Estate in 2015. Again, no explanation has been given for this decision.

That’s three high profile prosecutions for alleged raptor persecution crimes, dropped within a two week period, with no explanation why.

One long-running case being dropped would raise an eyebrow; a second long-running case dropped a few days later would cause concern, but three long-running cases, all dropped within a fortnight, all on the eve of an actual trial? That is highly suspicious, even for the most unassuming observer.

Was it incompetence on the part of the COPFS? That is surely a possibility, especially as each of these cases has been running for months, at huge cost to the public purse. Why did it take so long to decide to abandon each case? Was it an issue with video evidence? We’ve been there before, although we’ve also seen successful prosecutions based on video evidence. If it was an issue with video admissibility (and we don’t yet know if it was, so this is just speculation), why did it take so long to reach that decision and anyway, wouldn’t admissibility be an issue for the court to decide, not the prosecutor? Was there another reason for discontinuing these cases? We don’t know, because the Crown Office is saying nothing.

Whatever it was, the discontinuing of these three cases will cause huge damage to public confidence in the Scottish criminal justice system. What do you have to do to get someone to stand trial for alleged raptor persecution in Scotland? We know how difficult it is to identify a named suspect, and we know that the evidential threshold is set extraordinarily high for this sort of crime, so when you do manage to secure enough evidence to charge and then prosecute somebody, it is massively frustrating to (a) see the cases dropped and (b) not be told why.

What is clear amongst all this murkiness is that the current system is not fit for purpose. This series of discontinued prosecutions just adds more grist to the mill for the introduction of a licensing system, and for basing that system on the civil burden of proof.

Meanwhile, we’re looking forward to the release of the video footage……

25
Apr
17

CEO of landowners’ lobby group Scottish Land & Estates announces departure

Serial raptor persecution denier Doug McAdam is to stand down as CEO of Scottish Land & Estates, according to a statement on SLE website (here).

[Update 16.30hrs: apparently he’s already gone! That was a bit abrupt!]

We’ll miss his persistent and unsupported claims that raptor persecution is in decline, that grouse moor management is great for biodiversity, that raptors thrive on driven grouse moors, that grouse moor owners love golden eagles, that grouse moor owners love hen harriers, that grouse moor owners love all raptors, and that mountain hares are managed ‘sustainably’ on driven grouse moors.

We’ll miss the repeated calls for licences to ‘manage’ raptors, the letters of complaint about the RSPB, the letters of complaint about the BBC, and the letters of complaint that raptor persecution gets too much media attention.

Delusional to the end, we had to laugh at this quote in the SLE press statement:

I am very proud of the progress we have made under my watch. We are now seen as a progressive, evidence-led organisation“.

We’re guessing his leaving gift won’t be gold-framed prints of these two pie charts produced by RSPB Scotland in 2015:

 

24
Apr
17

Evidence session: petition to introduce gamebird hunting licensing

Last week the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee held an evidence session as part of their consideration of the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s petition calling for the introduction of state-regulated licensing for all game bird hunting in Scotland.

The archived video of the session can be viewed here

The official transcript can be read here: ECCLR transcript gamebird shooting licensing 18 April 2017

The evidence session was split in to two parts. The first part comprised evidence from the petitioners (Logan Steele & Andrea Hudspeth from the SRSG) and the second part comprised a panel of ‘stakeholders’ including Logan Steele, Duncan Orr-Ewing (RSPB Scotland), Robbie Kernahan (SNH), Andy Smith (Scottish Gamekeepers’ Assoc) and Lord David Johnstone (Scottish Land & Estates). (Photos from ECCLR webpage).

We’re not going to go through the transcript line by line because that would be tedious, but instead we wanted to comment on a few observations.

Unlike the evidence session held at Westminster last autumn, this was a civilised, unbiased hearing. That may be because, unlike the Westminster Environment Committee, none of the ECCLR Committee have a direct conflict of interest in the subject nor receive payment from any of the organisations represented by the witnesses. The Convenor of the ECCLR Committee (Graeme Dey MSP) was far more professional than his inexplicably rude Westminster counterpart, and although Mr Dey is known to support the propagandist Gift of Grouse campaign, his management of this evidence session was reasonably balanced and fair.

In the first part of the session, Logan and Andrea gave measured, thoughtful evidence about the continuing issue of illegal raptor persecution, supported by decades of scientific monitoring and peer-reviewed science. These two witnesses deserve much kudos. They are ‘ordinary’ members of the public, so exasperated by the failure of successive Governments to sort out this problem that they’ve been moved to exercise their right through the democratic process of petitioning the country’s decision-makers. As a result, they’ve been vilified on social media, exposed to a barrage of personal abuse from certain individuals within the game shooting sector, and yet here they were again, calmly and adeptly stating their case. We all owe them a massive vote of thanks.

The performance of the other witnesses was mixed. Andy Smith (SGA) is doubtless well intentioned but his ability to engage in the actual discussion is limited. He clearly had a list of points he wanted to get across, but blurting them out whenever he had an opportunity to speak, instead of listening to the question that was posed and reacting to that, didn’t help his cause.

Robbie Kernahan (SNH) didn’t say too much, and most of what he said was fairly standard SNH-speak (i.e. fence sitting), although he did make an important opening statement that should add some gravitas to the Committee’s future deliberations:

Generally, in Scotland, we have quite a positive message about the recovery of raptor populations from those all-time lows. It is certainly a national picture. However, that is not to say that there are not issues. Certainly, some of the concerns about the intensification of moorland management prompted our scientific advisory committee to have a review two years ago. Without wanting to go through that chapter and verse, I can say that there is no doubt that the on-going issue of raptor persecution is inhibiting the recovery of populations in some parts of the country“.

The evidence provided by Duncan Orr-Ewing (RSPB) and David Johnstone (SLE) was perhaps the most interesting. Duncan spoke with authority about the extent of illegal raptor persecution, saying the RSPB “thinks the situation is as bad as it has ever been“, while David flatly denied this, pointing to the annual ‘body count’ as his supporting evidence but completely ignoring the long-term population data, as published in peer-reviewed scientific papers. When asked by the Convener whether there was a possibility that culprits might now be better at hiding the evidence, in part pressured by measures such as the threat of vicarious liability, David’s response was “No“. No? Really? No possibility of that happening at all? Come on.

What made David’s response even more incredible (in the literal sense) was that SLE, as members of the PAW Scotland Raptor Group, have been made aware of the recent flow of scientific papers (e.g. on red kite, golden eagle, hen harrier, peregrine), all clearly showing population-level impacts of illegal raptor persecution, and as PAW partners, are supposed to have been advising their members accordingly. So how come the Chairman of SLE hasn’t been informed?

And on the subject of ‘possibilities’, much was made of the possibility of estates being ‘set up’ (i.e. someone planting evidence) if a licensing system was introduced. Both Logan and Duncan accepted that this was a possibility and they were right to do so. Of course it is a possibility, although on previous experience, the probability of it happening seems quite low.

In January 2012, just after the introduction of vicarious liability, David Johnstone was cited as saying there was a risk of estates being set up in response to the new vicarious liability measure. Five years on, there hasn’t, as far as we are aware, been a single case of an estate being ‘set up’.

Similarly, in November 2013, the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse was asked during a Parliamentary Committee whether estates being ‘set up’ was a legitimate concern for landowners and gamekeepers. Wheelhouse responded that yes, it was a possibility, but that there wasn’t currently any evidence to support such claims, although a new study on trap interference was due to assess the issue. The results of that study showed that the illegal tampering of traps was not as widespread as the gameshooting industry had claimed (see here) and when it had happened, the interference mostly related to trap ‘damage’ (rendering the trap inoperable) as opposed to setting an illegal trap to infer a guilty responsibility on the estate.

There was quite a lot of discussion about what a licensing system might look like, and it was argued by Logan and Duncan that it should be based on the civil burden of proof (much like the policy used for General Licence restrictions) and that this should be a tiered approach, so that a number of incidents would be required before a licensing penalty was applied. David Johnstone was totally opposed to this, saying that the use of the civil burden of proof would be too much of a business risk. There was quite an amusing discussion about this between him and Committee member Mark Ruskell MSP, who argued that if the business was already fully compliant with the law, as David claimed, then the risk should be very low.

All in all, it was a useful evidence session and the ECCLR Committee will be hard pressed to justify not taking things further. The Committee now has to consider the evidence presented and decide on its next move. We may well have to wait until after 8 June to find out what that move might be, because thanks to the forthcoming General Election, no political or sensitive announcements or decisions are permitted during election purdah.

21
Apr
17

Prosecution dropped against gamekeeper in alleged hen harrier shooting

Regular blog readers will know we’ve been tracking the prosecution of Scottish gamekeeper Stanley Gordon, who was alleged to have shot a hen harrier on Cabrach Estate in Morayshire in June 2013.

It took the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) almost three years to charge Mr Gordon, and they just beat the statutory time bar by a few weeks.

The first court hearing took place in May 2016 and there followed a total of nine court hearings in this case. Mr Gordon pleaded not guilty in September 2016 and so a trial date was set for 19 December 2016. This trial date was later dumped and another provisional trial date was set for 15 May 2017.

Today, there was supposed to be a final hearing (intermediate diet) to confirm the trial date. However, we have learned that the case was not called today because the COPFS have dropped all proceedings.

We do not yet know why the case has been abandoned.

There is no chance of anyone else being prosecuted in this case because the case is now time barred.

So in the space of ten days, yet again the COPFS have dropped a long-running prosecution for alleged raptor persecution; they recently dropped a vicarious liability prosecution because, they said, ‘it wasn’t in the public interest to continue‘ (see here).

And just as in the abandoned vicarious liability prosecution, this latest abandonment comes after a protracted period of court hearings, right up to almost the eve of the actual trial date.

Efforts will be made next week to try and find out why the COPFS dropped proceedings, but, as before, we don’t expect much detail to be revealed because public accountability appears to be limited.

It’s worth remembering at this point that hen harrier persecution is listed as a National Wildlife Crime Priority.

We will have more to say about this case in due course.

UPDATE 5 May 2017: Hen harrier shooting on Cabrach Estate – RSPB releases video footage (here)

UPDATE 5 May 2017: Hen harrier shooting – fury at decision to drop prosecution (here)

UPDATE 8 May 2017: Some more thoughts on the shot hen harrier video (here)

UPDATE 11 May 2017: Cabrach hen harrier shooting reaches First Minister’s question time (here)

19
Apr
17

Crowdfunder to help Andy Wightman fight defamation case

Andy Wightman has launched a crowdfunding appeal to help support his fight against a defamation case being brought against him by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. The pursuer is also seeking an astonishing £750,000 in damages and if successful, would render Andy bankrupt which would result in him being ineligible to continue to serve as an MSP.

We’ve known Andy for several years, before he was elected as an MSP for the Scottish Green Party. He’s been a long-time and vocal supporter of this blog and we’re proud to count him as both a professional colleague and as a friend. His earlier work such as this, this and this sets the framework within which illegal raptor persecution takes place in Scotland and goes some way to help us understand why it is still so prevalent.

We’ve blogged about Andy before, a year before he became an MSP, and our opinion of him has only strengthened since he became a politician. We don’t just admire him, we’re in awe of him.

Here’s what we wrote earlier:

Andy Wightman is a class act. He’s an agitator, a truth-seeker and a fearless revolutionist, but achieves this with a charm and courteousness not often associated with anarchists. Combine that with his capacity for meticulous research and analysis and the result is devastating‘.

This charge of alleged defamation came as a shock to many. Andy is not someone who routinely slurs or makes defamatory commentary like a certain tabloid columnist; he is an honourable, thoughtful, principled man who has integrity and decency in spades. It’s not overly melodramatic to argue that if he loses this case, and loses his position in the Scottish Parliament, it will be a travesty of justice and we’ll all be the ones who lose.

If you’d like to support Andy’s crowdfunding appeal, please click HERE where you’ll also find some background to this case and a few words from Andy about how the funds will be used.

Thanks.

UPDATE 21 April 2017: Just a day and a half after launching, the crowdfunder has raised over £25,000. Legal proceedings have begun in the Court of Session. See Andy’s blog update here

UPDATE 3 May 2017: Crowdunder target extended to help Andy Wightman fight defamation case: here




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