Archive for November, 2018

19
Nov
18

Trial begins for (now ex) Head Gamekeeper of Edradynate Estate

The long-awaited trial of Edradynate Estate’s now former Head Gamekeeper began today at Perth Sheriff Court.

David Campbell, 69, denies that between 14 and 16 April 2017 at Edradynate Estate he maliciously damaged game crops by spraying them with an unknown substance which caused them to rot and perish.

At the time of the alleged offences, Campbell was no longer an employee of the estate, having worked there since 1983 but after falling out with the landowner, millionaire city financier Michael Campbell (no relation), his employment was terminated in February 2017. Michael Campbell told the court today that he believed his former employee had caused the damage ‘in revenge’.

There’s an interesting write-up of today’s proceedings here, revealing an exceptionally close working relationship between David and Michael Campbell over the years.

[RPUK map showing location of Edradynate Estate in Highland Perthshire]

[RPUK photo of the entrance to the estate]

It might seem odd that we’re reporting on this case, and although we can’t explain that decision while this trial is on-going, all will become clear in due course.

We understand the current trial against David Campbell is due to continue on 22 January 2019.

PLEASE NOTE: We’re not accepting comments on this case until the trial concludes. Thanks.

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19
Nov
18

Raptor persecution highlighted at NERF annual conference

The Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) annual conference took place on Saturday with a record number of 170 attendees.

NERF comprises ten regional study groups (Bowland Raptor Study Group, Calderdale RSG, Cheshire RSG, Durham Upland Bird Study Group, Manchester Raptor Group, Northumbria Ringing Group, North York Moors Upland Bird (Merlin) Study Group, Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group, South Peak RSG and Yorkshire Dales & Nidderdale RSG). In addition to these experts, it was also great to see Andy Wilson, Chief Executive of the North York Moors National Park, the RSPB’s Investigations Team and the RSPB Skydancer Project, and several police wildlife crime officers from the North Yorkshire Police Rural Task Force in the audience.

[Photos: Guy Shorrock]

The annual conference rotates between the regional groups and this year it fell to the North York Moors group to organise and host, and what a fantastic job they did.

The programme included some exceptional talks by some of the most experienced raptor fieldworkers in the country, offering illuminating insights from long-term studies, some of whose hard-won data are now contributing to understanding population declines in some of these species.

Illegal persecution was high on the agenda, as you’d expect from a conference focusing on the conservation of birds of prey in the UK.

Andy Wilson’s presentation was particularly telling, laying out the frustration of the North York Moors National Park Authority in having insufficient enforcement powers to tackle wildlife crime, in contrast to its robust powers for dealing with breaches of planning law. This National Park was in the news just last week as satellite-tagged hen harrier Arthur joined the long list of those who have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances on or near grouse moors in the region. Andy suggested that people might like to comment on the current Landscapes Review consultation which is gathering evidence on how England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) should be ‘fit for the future’. If you think intensive grouse moor management and its associated wildlife crime should be ousted from our National Parks and AONBs, or that the National Park Authorities should be given increased enforcement powers, then this is your opportunity to comment.

The new NERF Chair Steve Downing used his slot in the Open Forum to deliver a strongly-worded opinion on the extent of illegal raptor persecution and the failure of the authorities to deal with it. Steve has been on the frontline of raptor protection for many many years and if anyone knows the scale of the problem, it’s him. He’s not a man to mince his words as anyone in the audience will attest.

However, there was a note of cautious optimism. Steve spoke positively about the enormous efforts of the recently-formed North Yorkshire Police Rural Task Force (who are in the middle of training up an additional 33 wildlife crime officers) and he also commented on the potential for some serious advances for the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) under the new leadership of Police Supt Nick Lyall. As Steve said, time will tell.

15
Nov
18

Parliamentary motion commends Revive – the coalition for grouse moor reform

Andy Wightman MSP (Scottish Green Party) has lodged the following parliamentary motion commending the Revive Coalition for grouse moor reform:

It’ll be interesting to see which MSPs sign up to support this, or perhaps more interesting to see which ones don’t. They can’t say they don’t know about it as earlier this week a great big pile of the Coalition’s new report was hand delivered to MSPs at Holyrood. The report was recently described by prominent journalist Lesley Riddoch as “the most thorough demolition of the case for “sporting estates” I’ve ever seen in print“.

The Revive Coalition launched last week in Edinburgh and already over 5,000 people have signed the Revive pledge in support of significant grouse moor reform. If you’d like to add your voice please SIGN HERE.

Find out more about the coalition and keep up to date with new developments HERE

14
Nov
18

Time for a new approach to tackling raptor persecution in England & Wales

We can expect significant changes in the way raptor persecution is tackled in England & Wales, if Police Supt Nick Lyall has his way.

Nick is the new Chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG), which is tasked with the ‘delivery’ of action against the raptor killers (in Scotland the ‘delivery’ group is the PAW Raptor Group).

The RPPDG was established in 2011, a so-called ‘partnership’ between the police, representatives from the game-shooting industry (e.g. National Gamekeepers Organisation, Moorland Association, BASC, Countryside Alliance etc), and representatives from the raptor conservation community (RSPB, Northern England Raptor Forum), along with some government agency reps from Natural England, DEFRA, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and the Welsh Government.

It would be fair to say we’ve been highly critical of the RPPDG over the years, and justifiably so. This is a partnership in name only, which has been useful for certain organisations and DEFRA Ministers to hide behind on the pretence of tackling illegal raptor persecution but the stark reality is that the RPPDG has contributed absolutely nothing of value towards the conservation of UK raptors in all the years it’s been operating.

It did manage to produce some raptor persecution maps last year but these were shockingly inadequate and two of the RPPDG members were quick to distance themselves from the results (NERF here; RSPB here).

The RPPDG has been secretive, unaccountable and has suffered from a chronic lack of leadership, as evidenced just two days ago when we blogged about how the group had deliberately produced apparently inaccurate and contested minutes relating to the Moorland Association’s interest in obtaining licences to kill Marsh harriers to stop these birds ‘disrupting’ shoot days where hundreds of thousands of red grouse are shot for entertainment.

The raptor conservation community has lost all faith in the ability of the RPPDG to deliver anything except platitudes and a heavy blanket of cover for the criminal raptor killers, but from what we heard today, we’re cautiously optimistic for change.

Not cautious about Nick and his drive, ambition and determination – these qualities have been clear to see since he took on this role in September – but understandably cautious because we’re all too familiar with the influence and power of the game-shooting industry and the lengths that industry will go to maintain the status quo.

Nick is keen to hit the ground running in advance of the first RPPDG meeting he’ll chair in January so today he hosted two workshops at DEFRA’s London offices to brainstorm ideas for his planned Tactical Delivery Plan, a horribly jargonistic name but an important document to frame the work of the RPPDG in the coming years.

[An unusually open door at DEFRA]

Sensibly, he split the workshops in to two groups – the conservationists and enforcers in the morning and the shooting industry reps in the afternoon. He did this to encourage open dialogue that wouldn’t get mired in the usual arguments. We attended the morning workshop along with a number of other organisations who haven’t previously had any formal dealings with the RPPDG and there was good representation from groups such as the North Pennines AONB, Birders Against Wildlife Crime, National Trust and a couple of Wildlife Trusts, as well as the usual representatives from NERF, RSPB, Yorkshire Dales National Park, North Yorkshire Police Rural Task Force, Welsh Government, DEFRA and the National Wildlife Crime Unit.

There was no shortage of ideas for Nick to consider for his Tactical Plan – some well rehearsed but plenty of innovation, too.  He told us he would be considering these ideas, coupled with any he received from the afternoon workshop, and intended to start drafting the plan on the train home!

We don’t intend to comment on the details until his plan is published (and he said it would be available in the public domain) but the word ‘accountability’ was heard a lot in reference to ALL members of the RPPDG having to contribute towards the RPPDG’s aims of tackling illegal raptor persecution as a non-negotiable requirement of retaining their place at the table. It was acknowledged and accepted that the RPPDG could not continue as it has.

We’re prepared to give Nick Lyall a chance. We think he ‘get’s it’, and he certainly doesn’t underestimate the difficulty of the challenge ahead, but he’s willing to give it his best shot. We also heard some pretty determined words today from Chief Inspector Lou Hubble, the new head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) who is working closely with Nick and is making her own mark in the world of wildlife crime, again in sharp contrast to some of her predecessors.  There is definitely cause for (cautious) optimism but time will tell.

As we left the DEFRA offices we were met with a squadron of police vans and officers. Nothing to do with the arrival of the game-shooting industry reps though – it seems campaigners from the Extinction Rebellion (@ExtinctionR) had targeted the DEFRA building with some (easy-to-wash-off) graffitti as part of their build up to a day of civil disobedience on Saturday.

12
Nov
18

Satellite-tagged hen harrier Arthur ‘disappears’ near grouse moor in North York Moors National Park

RSPB press release (12/11/18):

A rare Hen Harrier has suddenly disappeared in North Yorkshire, triggering an investigation by the police and the RSPB. This is the ninth bird to disappear in suspicious circumstances in the last 12 weeks.

The bird, named Arthur, hatched from a nest in the Peak District this summer. This was the first time Hen Harriers had successfully bred in the Peak District since 2015. Arthur, along with his sister Octavia, was fitted with a lightweight satellite tag by RSPB staff as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE project, which has enabled the RSPB to track his movements since leaving the nest in July.

[Hen harrier Arthur, photo by Steve Downing]

Transmissions from Arthur’s tag showed him fledging from his nest and remaining faithful to that area in the Peak District. He then moved to the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, in mid-October before flying back north to Nidderdale, North Yorkshire. On the morning of Friday 26 October he flew onto the North York Moors National Park. He registered his last position at 0955hrs when he was just north of Lowna Bridge, near Hutton-le-Hole.

[RPUK maps showing approximate last known location of Hen harrier Arthur in the North York Moors National Park, close to Spaunton Moor, owned by George Winn-Darley, the North York Moors representative for the Moorland Association. Red star denotes Lowna Bridge]

RSPB Investigations staff searched the area of the bird’s last known location but found no sign of either a tag or a body – prompting concerns that the bird may have been deliberately killed and the tag destroyed. In August, his sister Octavia’s tag also suddenly cut out, with her last location coming from a driven grouse moor in the Peak District. No trace was found of her either. The police and the RSPB are appealing for information.

RSPB Assistant Investigations Officer Jack Ashton-Booth said: “Arthur’s last location showed he was in an upland area close to several driven grouse moors. When tagged Hen Harriers have died of natural causes in the past, the tags and bodies of the bird are usually recovered. To find no trace of Arthur or Octavia is extremely concerning. Arthur is the ninth Hen Harrier to suddenly disappear in suspicious circumstances since August. This is gravely concerning given that the species is on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird in England.”

Hen Harriers are one of the UK’s rarest and most persecuted birds of prey. They nest on the ground, often on moorland, and are known for their spectacular courtship display, the ‘skydance’. Like all wild birds, they are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which makes it an offence to intentionally harm or disturb them. Anyone found to have done so faces an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail. But, despite full legal protection, studies show that the main factor limiting their population is illegal killing by humans.

Over 30 Hen Harriers were tagged during June and July 2018 in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project. Of those, eight birds (Hilma, Octavia, Heulwen, Thor, Athena, Stelmaria, Margot and Arthur) have since disappeared in suspicious circumstances, along with another bird, Heather, who was tagged in 2017.

Calculations based on habitat and prey availability indicate that England should be able to support around 300 Hen Harrier pairs. But this year only 34 chicks fledged from nine English nests, according to a report by Natural England. In 2017 there were only 10 chicks in the whole of England.

The RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report showed that North Yorkshire is consistently the worst county in the UK for recorded bird of prey persecution, accumulating significantly more confirmed incidents in the last five years than anywhere else. Data showed that 15 of the 55 confirmed incidents in England in 2017 took place in North Yorkshire. Since these only represent known, confirmed incidents, the RSPB believes this is just a glimpse of the true scale of the problem, and that many more crimes will have gone unreported and unrecorded.

ENDS

12
Nov
18

Licences to kill marsh harriers on grouse moors – an update

In November last year we blogged about some second-hand information we’d received that the Moorland Association (the grouse moor owners’ lobby group in England) was interested in obtaining licences from Natural England for the lethal control of Marsh harriers (see here).

The issue was alleged to have been raised by Amanda Anderson (Director, Moorland Association) at a meeting of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG – the English/Welsh version of the PAW Raptor Group) on 9 November 2017.

The news was shocking. It was utterly ludicrous that grouse moor owners might consider this species such a significant threat to their over-stocked grouse populations that they would seek licences to kill it.

Marsh harriers are Amber listed on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern and are recovering from a virtual population wipeout – down to one known breeding pair in 1971 thanks to a combination of illegal persecution, habitat loss and DDT and currently with an estimated breeding population of 400-450 pairs.

[Male Marsh harrier by Markus Varesvuo]

Marsh harriers are locally common in some areas such as East Anglia but still extremely rare or absent in many others. They most commonly breed in lowland wetland habitat, particularly reedbeds but increasingly on farmland too. This female was found shot next to a lowland partridge release pen in East Yorkshire in 2016. Very rarely do they breed on upland grouse moors although when they do, they are illegally targeted by men dressed as gamekeepers.

When we blogged about the news that the Moorland Association was interested in licences for this species, Amanda Anderson denied the allegation with a two word tweet: “Complete nonsense“, but ignored all requests to clarify the MA’s position.

Amanda wasn’t the only one wanting to keep a lid on this. Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust) weighed in, even though he wasn’t at the meeting, and Chief Inspector Martin Sims, then head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and who was at the meeting told us, “There was never any discussion about Marsh harriers” (see comments on this blog – scroll down towards the end).

It’s taken us a year, but we’ve finally got some pretty damning evidence that suggests this conversation did take place at the RPPDG meeting last November.

It’s taken us so long because DEFRA has given us the run around on a series of FoIs we submitted between Nov 2017 and July 2018. We asked for the minutes of the 9 Nov 2017 RPPDG meeting, and, suspecting that those minutes may be santised given the public furore over the alleged Marsh harrier licensing, we also asked for copies of all correspondence between RPPDG members relating to those minutes before they were finally approved.

DEFRA repeatedly failed to comply with the FoI regulations over a period of eight months and didn’t provide us with the information so eventually we resorted to threatening to report them to the Information Commissioner. Shortly afterwards, in August 2018, DEFRA finally released some (but not all!) the info we’d requested.

As expected, the minutes of the Nov meeting were heavily redacted: RPPDG-minutes_9-Nov-17_final_redacted

We looked for any discussion about licences for killing Marsh harriers but only found this:

There was an inference about licensing but nothing unequivocal, and the redactions meant we couldn’t be sure the subject had been raised by Amanda or another MA rep, nor with whom she/another rep was having the conservation.

The latter question was answered when we realised that whoever had done the redactions on those minutes hadn’t done a very good job and if the redacted version was pasted in to another programme the original, unredacted version appeared: Unredacted RPPDG minutes_9_Nov2017_final

The unredacted version was useful as it confirmed that Amanda was the only representative of the Moorland Association at that meeting and it also revealed that the above conversation had taken place between Amanda and ‘GS’ , who was identified in the minutes as Ginny Swaile from Natural England:

But still no mention of the word ‘licence’ or ‘lethal control’, just an inference.

So then we turned our attention to the correspondence between RPPDG members as they discussed the approval of the minutes. DEFRA released SOME of this correspondence (we know it wasn’t all of it) but did any of the members mention the inclusion/exclusion of a discussion on Marsh harrier licensing in the draft version of the minutes?

From what we can see, most of them didn’t mention Marsh harriers, although some of this email correspondence was redacted in parts and also the marked-up copy of the draft minutes was not made available to us, so it’s hard to be sure that most of them chose to ignore the subject, although that’s what it looks like, apart from Natural England and the Moorland Association who clearly commented on the issue but the redactions hide the details:

BASC comments (British Association for Shooting & Conservation)

CLA comments (Country Land & Business Association)

MA comments (Moorland Association)

NE comments1 (Natural England)

NE comments2 (Natural England)

NGO comments1 (National Gamekeepers Organisation)

NGO comments2 (National Gamekeepers Organisation)

Police comments (National Wildlife Crime Unit)

Welsh Gov comments (Welsh Government)

Yorkshire Dales NPA comments (Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority)

But there were two other RPPDG members whose correspondence we were particularly interested to see – the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF).

First up, the RSPB’s correspondence. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, DEFRA did not release the RSPB’s initial comments made to the RPPDG when the minutes were being discussed in early December 2017. Instead, they released two pieces of correspondence, one dated 18 January 2018 and the other dated 12 February 2018. Why do you think the early December correspondence was missing? Perhaps DEFRA ‘forgot’ to include it.

RSPB comments1 (dated 18 January 2018: Bob Elliot (then Head of RSPB Investigations) just asking DEFRA and RPPDG Chair Police Supt Chris Hankinson what was the status of the minutes)

RSPB comments2 (dated 12 February 2018: a heavily readacted email from Bob Elliot to the group saying he didn’t feel the minutes were an accurate reflection of the meeting but his reasons for this were all redacted):

Then we looked at the correspondence from NERF. Again, DEFRA had released two pieces of correspondence, one dated 7 December 2017 where Steve Downing (NERF Chairman) tells the RPPDG he is out of the country but will respond in detail the following week, and the other dated 17 April 2018 where Steve writes to Supt Hankinson telling him he objects to the sanitised final version of the minutes and that he intends to raise this issue at the next RPPDG meeting. Interestingly, and again perhaps tellingly, DEFRA did not release Steve’s email from December where he laid out his comments on the draft minutes. Hmmm.

NERF comments1 (dated 7 December 2017)

NERF comments2 (dated 17 April 2018, see copy below):

It was pretty clear to us by then that both the RSPB and NERF had objected to the way the minutes had been edited but we were still none the wiser about the specific details.

Having had a belly full of DEFRA’s ineptitude with our long-running FoI requests we decided to approach the RSPB and NERF directly to see if they would be prepared to share their unredacted RPPDG correspondence so we could see exactly what was going on.

Being gentlemen of principle, both Bob and Steve agreed but on the condition that they would only share with us their comments, and would redact the comments of any other RPPDG member. Fine by us, because the redacted names can be pieced together from the unredacted version of the minutes for those who want to look.

Here’s what they sent us:

The unredacted version of Bob’s RSPB email to the RPPDG dated 12 February 2018 (we have added the red box for clarity):

The unredacted ‘missing’ email from Steve to the RPPDG, dated 12 December 2017, outlining his recollections of the meeting on 9 Nov based on notes he’d taken during that meeting (we have added the red text box to highlight the bit about licences for the lethal control of Marsh harriers on grouse moors):

So there you have it. Two members of the RPPDG recall a discussion between the Moorland Association and Natural England about the potential for obtaining licences to kill Marsh harriers on grouse moors. None of the other RPPDG members seem to recall it, not even Amanda. Imagine that.

Here’s a reminder of Amanda’s response to our original blog in November last year:

For the record, we’ve checked with Natural England to see whether anyone has submitted an application for a licence to kill Marsh harriers but according to NE (if you believe them), nobody has. Yet.

This sordid episode of what looks like a massive cover-up /suppression exercise is no more than we would expect from the RPPDG. We’ve criticised this so-called ‘partnership’ for several years because, like many other ‘partnerships’, it has contributed absolutely nothing of any value towards the conservation of birds of prey since it was established in 2011. If Supt Chris Hankinson was still in charge of it we’d be calling for his resignation right about now.

Kudos to Bob Elliot (now Director of OneKind) and Steve Downing (NERF Chair) whose integrity speaks volumes. Bob must be delighted not to have to endure this cabal anymore.

However, as some of you may be aware, there’s a new Chair in town and he’s looking to shake things up at the RPPDG. Police Supt Nick Lyall took on the role in September 2018 and already we’ve seen more action from him in the last seven weeks than we have from Chairs over the previous seven years.

He’s bringing transparency to the group (we’ve already had a conversation about the need to provide un-redacted minutes from RPPDG meetings without having to chase them via FoI requests), he’s writing a blog to keep people informed of RRPDG activities, he’s active on Twitter (@SuptNickLyall), he’s inviting more conservation-focused groups to join the RPPDG to counter the current game shooting industry imbalance, and later this week we’ll be attending his national raptor persecution workshop where he intends to gather ideas to put together an action plan for the RPPDG, with measurable targets, instead of letting it fester from year to year with no direction and no accountability. If any blog readers have any ideas please leave a comment – we know Nick will be reading this post (to his credit, we gave him warning that this blog was coming and he didn’t try to dissuade us from writing it).

10
Nov
18

Buzzard found in North Yorkshire with horrific injuries from shotgun

This buzzard was found today at Skipwith in North Yorkshire, with horrific injuries caused by a shotgun.

[UPDATE 11/11/18: This bird was picked up just of King Rudding Lane on Thursday 8 Nov 2018]

According to Jean Thorpe (raptor rehabilitator extraordinaire) the buzzard was found alive but with a broken shoulder and humerus. She thinks its injuries were so severe it would not have been able to fly from the location where it was shot.

If anyone has any information please contact Police Wildlife Crime Officer Jez Walmsley at Malton Police Station (Tel: 101) or the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline (Tel: 0300-999-0101).




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