Archive for September, 2021

30
Sep
21

Extension of General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate confirmed as pitiful 8 months

Yesterday I blogged (here) about the extended General Licence restriction that has been imposed on Leadhills Estate after further evidence of wildlife crime had come to light since an original three-year restriction was imposed (to run 26 Nov 2019 – 26 Nov 2022).

[The grouse moors of Leadhills Estate. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

However, there was some confusion from the licencing agency, NatureScot, as to just how long this extension was applicable.

Robbie Kernahan, NatureScot’s s Director of Sustainable Growth was quoted in a NatureScot announcement saying ‘…there is enough evidence to suspend the general licences on this property for a further three years‘, which should have taken the restriction to November 2025 but when I looked at the actual detail of the extension on another part of the NatureScot website, the expiry date of the extension was given as 8th July 2023.

I contacted NatureScot’s licensing team this morning and asked them to clarify the apparent discrepancy. I am grateful to Licensing Manager Liz McLachlan for a prompt and clear explanation, as follows:

We have amended the statement on our web-pages as we accept there was some ambiguity in the original wording which you have picked up on. To clarify, the 3 year extension to the restriction is from the date of the most recent (additional) offence, as recorded by Police Scotland, which takes the restriction to July 2023.

For completeness the restriction is from 8 July 2020 to 8 July 2023‘.

I have looked at the amended statement from Robbie Kernahan which now reads:

In this case we have concluded that there is enough evidence to suspend the general licences on this property until 2023‘.

So effectively, this ‘three year extension’ isn’t actually a three-year extension at all. Technically it might be, but in effect it’s actually only an eight month extension because the estate is already serving the original General Licence restriction up until 26 November 2022, so imposing another restriction for the period 8 July 2020 to 26 November 2022, on top of the one already being served, is utterly pointless.

The 8-month extension from 27 November 2022 to 8 July 2023 is the only part of this ‘extended’ restriction that will have any real effect.

And apparently the estate has already served 14 months of the extension, given that it began in July 2020! Why has it taken 14 months for NatureScot to publicise this extended restriction? When was the estate notified of this further restriction? And has it made any difference whatsoever to the estate’s activities, given that the original restriction was already underway (since November 2019)?

And if this extension was in place since July 2020, then why the hell did NatureScot give Leadhills Estate special privileges last year when it granted an out-of-season muirburn licence in September 2020??

What sort of idiotic ‘sanction’ is this? An eight month General Licence restriction for the shooting of a short-eared owl, which is the alleged offence that this extension is based upon. Well that’s really going to put the fear of God up other would-be raptor killers, isn’t it?

It’s a pitiful response.

I don’t know if it’s a result of legal limitations (e.g. can this legal sanction be lawfully applied several years after the original offence?) or if it’s a result of professional incompetence by NatureScot.

I have submitted an FoI to NatureScot to ask for details of the decision-making process in this case and will blog when I receive a response.

[Short-eared owl by Amy Lewis]

29
Sep
21

Leadhills Estate – General Licence restriction extended after police report more evidence of wildlife crime

Regular blog readers will be well aware that the notorious Leadhills Estate, a grouse-shooting estate in South Lanarkshire that has been at the centre of police wildlife crime investigations at least 70 times since the early 2000s, is currently serving a three-year General Licence restriction based on ‘clear evidence’ of raptor persecution offences, including the illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (see here) and the discovery of banned poisons on the estate in May 2019 (see here).

That original General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate by NatureScot in November 2019 and is valid until November 2022.

[Chris Packham holds a dead hen harrier. This bird was caught by the leg in an illegally-set trap on the Leadhills Estate grouse moor in May 2019. The trap had been set next to the harrier’s nest and was hidden by moss. The harrier’s leg was almost severed. Unfortunately, extensive surgery could not save this bird. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

However, since that original restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate in November 2019, further alleged offences have been reported and are the subject of ongoing police investigations (see here) including the alleged shooting of a(nother) short-eared owl by a masked gunman on a quad bike as witnessed by a local resident and his eight year old son in July 2020 (see here) and the discovery of yet another batch of banned poisons, also in July 2020 (here). A satellite-tagged hen harrier (Silver) also vanished in suspicious circumstances on the estate in May 2020 (here), and although NatureScot don’t count missing satellite-tagged raptors as sufficient evidence for a General Licence restriction, the disappearance can be used as supportive evidence if further alleged offences are also being considered.

It’s been over a year since those further alleged offences were reported and we’ve all been waiting to see whether NatureScot would impose a further General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate. Instead, the licensing team appears to have been focusing on helping out the estate by issuing it with an out-of-season muirburn licence last year (see here) and considering another application from the estate this year (see here). It really beggars belief.

Anyway, NatureScot has finally got its act together and has indeed imposed a further General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate. Here is the statement on the NatureScot website:

29 September 2021

NatureScot has extended the restriction of the use of general licences on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire until 2023. The decision was made on the basis of additional evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds.

General licences allow landowners or land managers to carry out actions which would otherwise be illegal, including controlling common species of wild birds to protect crops or livestock.

A restriction of the use of general licences was implemented on Leadhills estate in November 2019, in response to police evidence of crimes against wild birds occurring on the land. This decision extends the period of the existing restriction.

Robbie Kernahan, NatureScot’s s Director of Sustainable Growth, said: “It is hugely disappointing to have to be considering further issues of wildlife crime against wild birds and we are committed to using the tools we have available to us in tackling this. In this case we have concluded that there is enough evidence to suspend the general licences on this property for a further three years. They may still apply for individual licences, but -if granted – these will be closely monitored.

We work closely with Police Scotland and will continue to consider information they provide us on cases which may warrant restriction of general licences. The detection of wildlife crime can be difficult but new and emerging technologies along with a commitment from a range of partners to take a collective approach to these issues will help us stop this from occurring in the future.”

ENDS

NatureScot’s Robbie Kernahan is quoted here as saying the General Licence restriction will apply “for a further three years“, which should take the restriction up to November 2025.

However, when you look at the actual restriction notice on NatureScot’s website, it says the restriction will extend to July 2023.

Eh? That’s not a three-year extension. That’s only an eight-month extension. I sincerely hope this is just a typo and the date should read November 2025.

It’s good to see NatureScot finally get on with this but I have to say that given there’s a need for an extension of the original General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate, due to further evidence from Police Scotland about ongoing alleged wildlife crime there, doesn’t that demonstrate just how ineffective the General Licence restriction is as a tool for tackling wildlife crime??

I’ve written many times about the futility of this scheme, and have even presented evidence about it to a Parliamentary committee, not least because even when a General Licence restriction has been imposed, estate employees can simply apply to NatureScot for an individual licence to continue doing exactly what they were doing under the (now restricted) General Licence (e.g. see here)!

And although former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, who was responsible for first introducing General Licence restrictions in 2014, considered that it would work as a ‘reputational driver’ (here), I’ve previously shown with several examples how this is simply not the case (e.g. see here) and that a General Licence restriction remains an ineffective sanction.

Nevertheless, it’s all we’ve got available at the moment and on that basis I would like to see NatureScot now get on with making decisions about restrictions on a number of other estates, such as Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park where a poisoned golden eagle was found dead next to a poisoned bait earlier this year (here).

And Invercauld isn’t the only estate that should be sanctioned, is it, NatureScot?

UPDATE 30th September 2021: Extension of General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate confirmed as pitiful 8 months (here).

UPDATE 6th October 2021: Leadhills Estate’s reaction to extended General Licence restriction (here).

27
Sep
21

Cairngorms National Park Authority targets intensive gamebird management in draft Park Plan

The Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) is targeting intensive gamebird management in its latest draft National Park Plan (2022-2027), much to the outrage of some of the CNPA Board members.

This focus isn’t just restricted to intensive driven grouse moor management either; this time the CNPA also has its eyes on the release of non-native gamebirds (pheasants and red-legged partridges) and what ecological impacts that might cause.

As far as I’m aware, this is the first time the CNPA has made any attempt to get this issue into the five-yearly National Park Plan. Questions about driven grouse shooting were inevitable after the Scottish Government’s decision to introduce a licencing scheme in an attempt to regulate the criminals still operating in plain sight (here) but the release of non-native gamebirds inside the National Park has, until now, largely been ignored.

Nick Kempe, author of the excellent ParkWatchScotland blog, has raised the issue a few times over the last few years (well worth a read, e.g. see here and here) and he’s pointed out that the CNPA has failed to even monitor how many birds are released inside the National Park, let alone how many are subsequently shot.

A quick look around on some of the shooting websites shows that these birds are not in short supply in the National Park. Ralia Estate, located on the western side of the Park, is apparently offering clients the opportunity to shoot between 200-500 red-legged partridge/pheasants per day during the season – that’s an obscene amount of killing. And not all their clients are even able to distinguish between a pheasant and a buzzard (here).

[Photo of a pheasant shoot on Ralia Estate in the Cairngorms National Park, via Guns on Pegs website]

In addition to pressure on the CNPA from Nick Kempe, the issue of the impact of gamebird releases on biodiversity has also been gaining traction in England, with DEFRA being forced to review the potential impacts of releasing these alien species on protected areas and to develop a licensing scheme for gamebird release after a legal challenge last year from conservation campaign group Wild Justice (see here).

Whatever has led the CNPA to start looking at this issue inside the Cairngorms National Park, it’s a long overdue but nevertheless very welcome move, although not all the CNPA Board members agree if their responses to the draft Plan are anything to go by.

These responses can be watched in a fascinating video of the CNPA Board meeting held earlier this month which has now been put online. The point of the meeting was for CNPA staff, led by CEO Grant Moir, to present the draft National Park Plan for 2022-2027 to the Board for their ‘approval’ to put it out for a three-month public consultation.

This process for the Park Plan has been in motion for quite some time, but if you listen to some of the Board members’ comments you’d think it had been foisted on them out of nowhere.

To summarise the process, the Park Plan has been put together after an initial public consultation asking people to help shape the plan’s objectives, now it’s gone to public consultation (23rd Sept – 17th Dec), then the CNPA staff and Board will consider all the consultation responses and put together a final Plan in the spring, to put to Scottish Ministers next June.

This video of the Board meeting is well worth your time. It’s just over an hour and a half long, so it will take some commitment on your part, but honestly, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve watched in ages.

(CLICK HERE to watch).

It starts off with someone calling a register and you feel like you’re watching a classroom parody, and actually this theme is quite appropriate later on in the video as some of the participants have to be schooled repeatedly, not just about the consultation process but also about how to behave during the Board meeting.

Then for the first 25 minutes there’s a clear explanation about the process and about the draft consultation document from three CNPA staff, before the floor is opened to the Board members to ask questions / make comments etc, and for CEO Grant Moir to respond.

I won’t spoil the surprise but look out for some familiar names making fools of themselves as they question why gamebird management is part of the draft Plan (Doug McAdam, serial raptor persecution denier and former CEO of grouse moor lobby group Scottish Land & Estates; Geva Blackett, former parliamentary officer for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association & married to the now retired Factor of Invercauld Estate) and especially watch out for Deirdre Falconer and John Kirk – the latter for his views on peatland restoration (and while he’s talking, watch CNPA staff member Gavin Miles’s eyes – they say it all!).

I’ve got to say, CEO Grant Moir and Xander McDade (CNPA Convenor) gave a masterclass on how to provide a calm, measured and well-evidenced response to what at times were contributions verging on hysteria. You’ll be pleased to know that there are also some eminently sensible Board members, and at least two of them restored some faith in the ability of the Board (Fiona McLean and Peter Argyle).

On the Park Plan consultation itself, as mentioned above, it is now open until 17th December and anyone can contribute to it – whether you’re a Park resident or visitor – you can find the consultation online HERE.

I may come back to the Plan’s objectives in a later blog – I did notice that tackling raptor persecution, which has featured quite prominently in previous Plans, doesn’t seem to be included this time [NB: see update at foot of blog], probably because the CNPA has failed to get to grips with it, as evidenced by the latest poisoned eagle found earlier this year on a Cairngorms grouse moor (here) and the news last week that a Police Scotland dive team is searching a Cairngorms loch after the discovery of a dumped golden eagle satellite tag (here).

On gamebirds, the first step is to gather evidence on how many are released and how many are shot in the Park, before any assessment can be made on the impact of these alien species on biodiversity. It’ll be fascinating to see how the CNPA is going to define ‘sustainable pheasant and partridge shooting / releases’ inside a National Park. Surely that’d be zero releases of non-native species?

There’s also an objective to curtail muirburn, and there will be long arguments during the consultation period about what will constitute a legitimate reason to set fire to peatland vegetation during a climate emergency. Manipulating the habitat to support artificially-high numbers of red grouse for shooting is not a good enough reason, in my view.

UPDATE 08.20hrs: Tackling raptor persecution IS included in this latest draft Park Plan – see A14 in ‘Actions’ and A6 in ‘Policy’. Thanks to a blog reader for pointing this out.

24
Sep
21

Police divers search loch after discovery of golden eagle satellite tag in Cairngorms National Park

Well, well, well.

Divers from Police Scotland have been searching a loch in the Cairngorms National Park after the recent discovery of a golden eagle’s satellite tag.

The tag was found at the edge of Loch an t-Seillich in a period of low water, in what I’m led to believe were circumstances not too dissimilar to those of another golden eagle’s satellite tag, found in a Strathbraan river last year. That tag had been fitted to a young golden eagle that had later ‘mysteriously disappeared’ on a grouse moor in Strathbraan, where so many tagged eagles have vanished without trace. When the tag was pulled from the river, it was shown that the tag’s harness had been cut, the aerial snapped off and the tag wrapped in lead sheeting to block a transmission signal (see here, here and here). It was compelling evidence of the lengths the eagle killers will go to cover their crimes.

[Police divers at Loch an t-Seillich yesterday]

And now it seems we have another one.

The tag that has recently been recovered from Loch an t-Seillich was fitted to a young golden eagle in 2010 but suddenly stopped transmitting in 2012. This is known as a ‘sudden stop no malfunction’, where a tag has been working perfectly well and then it suddenly and inexplicably stops transmitting, without any indication of any impending problem from the tag’s engineering data.

A recent Government-commissioned report demonstrated that tags fitted to golden eagles in Scotland are 25 times more likely to have a ‘sudden stop no malfunction’ than in any other country where the tags are routinely deployed. In fact almost a third of all satellite-tagged eagles in Scotland had disappeared under these suspicious circumstances, and in geographic clusters around some areas of intensive driven grouse moor management. Funny that. You can read the report here.

The tag recently recovered from Loch an t-Seillich is in one of those geographic clusters, although many of the old grouse moors have since been bought by Anders Povlsen and are now part of his Wildland Ltd portfolio, where golden eagles are now protected instead of persecuted.

[Map showing the geographic clusters of golden eagle satellite tags that have suffered a ‘sudden stop no malfunction’ (i.e. the eagle has likely been killed & the tag destroyed). Data from the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review. The orange circle denotes a former persecution hotspot where the current search is taking place but many of the estates have since been bought as part of a credible conservation initiative and are no longer managed for driven grouse shooting]

Confirmation about the circumstances of this latest tag discovery is still awaited but it is quite clear that there is sufficient evidence to cause Police Scotland to deploy divers to search for further evidence of wildlife crime.

Was this loch a regular dumping ground for golden eagle satellite tags? Might they even find some dumped golden eagles, wrapped in sacks and weighted down with rocks? Given the highly suspicious circumstances of golden eagle Fred’s disappearance a few years ago, with his tag’s last transmission a few miles offshore in the North Sea, I wouldn’t put anything past the people still intent on killing golden eagles and the measures they take to conceal their crimes.

Given the scale of the problem of golden eagle persecution in Scotland, which has been identified by the deployment of satellite tags over many years, I’m delighted to see Police Scotland’s proactive investigative work. Well done to whoever made the decision to follow up with this search.

24
Sep
21

Huge rewilding project launches in Scottish Highlands

Press release from Trees for Life (24th September 2021)

Affric Highlands launched to rewild half a million acres of Scottish Highlands

30-year project joins prestigious European group of awe-inspiring rewilding areas

An ambitious 30-year landscape-scale rewilding initiative to link up a majestic sweep of the Scottish Highlands as one vast nature recovery area connecting Loch Ness to Scotland’s west coast has been launched by charity Trees for Life, and joins a select group of prestigious European rewilding areas. 

The Affric Highlands initiative follows three years of consultation between Rewilding Europe, Trees for Life, and other local partners and stakeholders.

[Glen Affric. Photo by Grant Willoughby]

It will restore nature across a network of landholdings potentially covering an area of over 500,000 acres stretching from Loch Ness across the central Highlands to Kintail in the west, and encompassing Glens Cannich, Affric, Moriston and Shiel. 

Trees for Life has brought together a broad coalition of landowners, communities and others to boost habitat connectivity, species diversity, and social and economic opportunities in the region, while tackling climate breakdown.

With community involvement and partnership working central to the project, a diverse group of 20 landowners covering at least 25% of the total area and six organisations are already on board, with hopes that more will join. Work is underway to further involve local people, with practical action to connect areas of rewilding land due to begin in 2023.

During a ceremony attended by partners and stakeholders at Glenurquhart Public Hall in Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness on 23 September, Affric Highlands was officially welcomed by Rewilding Europe as the ninth member of its network of large pioneering rewilding areas – taking the organisation one step closer to its ultimate goal of 10 such areas in Europe.

Rewilding Europe’s eight other awe-inspiring rewilding areas are Portugal’s Greater Côa Valley; the Danube Delta in Ukraine, Romania and Moldova; Romania’s Southern Carpathians; Croatia’s Velebit Mountains; Italy’s Central Apennines; Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains; the Oder Delta in Germany and Poland; and Swedish Lapland.

With Scotland’s rewilding movement growing rapidly – and the Scottish Rewilding Alliance calling for Scotland to become the world’s first Rewilding Nation, with the rewilding of 30% of the country’s land and sea by 2030 – Affric Highlands will take large-scale nature recovery to a new level, providing a catalyst for the local economy at the same time,” said Steve Micklewright, Chief Executive of Trees for Life.

The Highlands have huge potential to help nature to come back and so help people to thrive, and to make a leading contribution to tackling the global climate and nature emergencies. We are delighted Affric Highlands is now one of Rewilding Europe’s large rewilding areas that are inspiring hundreds of other rewilding projects across the continent.”

Because engaging and involving stakeholders from the beginning is crucial to the success of any rewilding initiative, Rewilding Europe has been working with Trees for Life to lay the foundations for this over the past three years – including through meetings with over 50 local stakeholders, drawing on experience from other major rewilding sites across Europe, and a scoping study.

As well as connecting habitats, Affric Highlands will bring people together to help nature recover, and strengthen connections between communities and the wildlife on their doorsteps.

Forest rewilding has been at the root of Trees for Life’s work for three decades. The charity has so far established nearly two million native trees to restore the unique and globally important Caledonian Forest at its own 10,000 acre estate at Dundreggan in Glenmoriston, and at dozens of other sites in the Highlands, including Glen Affric.

In 2023, Dundreggan will become home to the world’s first Rewilding Centre – showcasing how large-scale nature recovery can give people amazing experiences, create jobs and benefit local communities.

Rewilding Europe says this work in the Highlands has been a beacon of hope for reversing declines in habitat and wildlife that have left vast swathes of Scotland overgrazed, treeless, denuded, drained and over-managed, to the point that little remains unmodified by humans.

Affric Highlands is a bold, exciting and inspiring venture for nature’s recovery as Scotland moves up the biodiversity league table. Our decision to accept the project as our ninth rewilding area reflects the hard work and achievements of Trees for Life, its volunteers and its partners,” said Frans Schepers, Managing Director of Rewilding Europe.

Including Affric Highlands in our portfolio of major European rewilding areas will help magnify rewilding’s impact in the Highlands, and put it firmly on the global map.”  

The project will take a grassroots, community-driven approach that grows organically – harnessing an interdependence of nature, people and businesses to create a more resilient area for the future.

Rewilding Europe’s rewilding principles, best practices and wealth of Europe-wide practical experience will help to shape and guide Affric Highlands on its rewilding journey. 

Affric Highlands has been made possible thanks to funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Find out more about Affric Highlands at treesforlife.org.uk/affric-highlands. For details of Rewilding Europe’s rewilding areas, see rewildingeurope.com/areas.

ENDS

There’s also a fascinating article about this project in today’s Guardian, including an important discussion about the definition of rewilding and how project leader Alan McDonnell has been working with a psychologist to help communicate with 50+ local stakeholders, some of whom may be fearful of what rewilding entails. Well worth a read here.

23
Sep
21

Derbyshire Police refuse to publicise report of two shot buzzards on pheasant estate

The blog I wrote a couple of days ago (here) about Police Scotland’s refusal to publicise the discovery of a shot peregrine found on a grouse moor in the notorious raptor persecution area of Strathbraan drew a lot of criticism of wildlife crime policing.

Some of that criticism was fair, in my opinion, but some of it wasn’t. The main point to be made, as has been discussed many times on this blog, is that not all police forces are the same. There are some brilliant, pro-active and creative police forces in the UK, spearheaded by diligent, hard-working officers who feel the same frustration as we all do when cases cannot proceed to court, and not for lack of trying. We’ve seen evidence of these officers’ work in recent months, including at least eight search warrants executed across the country in relation to suspected raptor persecution offences:

On 18th January 2021 there was a raid in Suffolk (here), on 15th March there was a raid in Lincolnshire (see here), on 18th March a raid in Dorset (here), on 26th March a raid in Devon (see here), on 21st April a raid in Teesdale (here), on 2nd August a raid in Shropshire (here), on 12th August a raid in Herefordshire (here) and on 14th September a raid in Norfolk (here).

Yesterday evening we saw another example (here), this time from Police Scotland, resulting in an individual being charged for an alleged offence that took place last week! Whatever the outcome of this case, Police Scotland’s response cannot be faulted and those officers involved should be commended.

It’s my view that slagging off the police in general, accusing them all of being inept, corrupt, members of the Masons etc, is a lazy and inaccurate response to wider failures within the criminal justice system. I get why people do it – the criminal justice system is hopelessly underfunded and some of the legislation is in dire need of updating to close some gaping loopholes – and the public rightly feels frustrated every time another raptor persecution crime goes unpunished, again and again and again, but that still doesn’t justify some of the criticism aimed at the police in general.

However, I think it’s also fair to criticise police forces and officers when it is obvious that investigative procedures are not up to standard. That was the point of the blog post about Police Scotland’s response to the shot peregrine in Strathbraan and it’s also the focus of today’s blog, which looks at Derbyshire Constabulary’s appalling response to a report of the shooting of two buzzards, witnessed by a member of the public on a pheasant-shooting estate in Derbyshire during last year’s first lockdown (April 2020).

To set the scene, this is a large, private estate in the lowlands, heavily wooded and with some lakes and open parkland. Approximately 20,000 pheasants are released for commercial shooting each year. Some of the estate is closed off to the public but other parts are criss-crossed by public footpaths and bridleways, making this a popular location for visitors.

On 1st April 2020, a visiting member of the public was watching two buzzards circling above a wood when he heard a shot and witnessed the buzzards falling. The incident was reported to Derbyshire Police as a suspected raptor persecution crime. The police quickly attended the scene but, I’m told, did not conduct a search of the wood but did speak to the gamekeeper and a number of other estate residents.

With no corpses found and no other witnesses, the next most obvious move would be for the police to issue an appeal for information. But Derbyshire Constabulary had other ideas.

The following is an email sent by a member of the police wildlife crime team to somebody who was asking whether an appeal for information might be forthcoming, given that raptor persecution is a national wildlife crime priority. The police response is astonishing:

This is such a jaw-dropping response I don’t really know where to begin!

The police officer seems to think that if the estate residents didn’t see anything then there was ‘zero chance‘ of further evidence coming to light. Er….what about other visitors? The country was in lock-down at the time but the estate is located in a village where local residents may well have been taking their daily allowance of exercise and who may have witnessed something of relevance.

The police officer also seems to think that issuing an appeal for information would mean accusing the gamekeeper of shooting the buzzards. That’s not the case at all! Just a statement of the facts was all that was needed – without accusing anybody. Police forces do this all the time. And surely, the gamekeeper and the estate owner would welcome an appeal for information if it was possible that someone without authority was wandering around the estate discharging a firearm?! Fear of upsetting the gamekeeper/estate owner ‘when we may need the cooperation of the estate for future things‘ is not a valid reason for not progressing this investigation.

I think the most worrying aspect of the police response is this:

I think we all know that it would inevitably lead to repeated discussions which we’d have to become part of if it was our publication about gamekeeping practices in general. We’ve found that, for our team’s purposes, propaganda is of no value to us and is something we try to avoid‘.

Again, an appeal for information would not need to include any mention of gamekeeping practices. It would just be a statement of facts – that a member of the public reported what he believed to be the shooting of two buzzards at this location, at xx:xx hours on 1st April 2020, if anyone has any information that might help please contact the police on Tel 101 and quote incident ref number xxxxxxx.

How does Derbyshire Constabulary expect to maintain the public’s confidence to report suspected wildlife crime when reports are likely to be viewed as ‘propaganda’ by the police?

This isn’t the first time that Derbyshire Constabulary has faced criticism for the way it deals with reported raptor persecution crimes.

In January 2020, the RSPB issued a press statement about an illegally poisoned buzzard, found next to a poisoned bait, in the Peak District National Park. This crime had been uncovered the year before, in April 2019, but Derbyshire Constabulary had chosen not to say anything about it, nor to warn the public about the danger of poisoned baits being laid out in the countryside, let alone in a National Park (see here).

In response to that press release and the subsequent criticism of the police, Derbyshire Constabulary issued a remarkable statement on Facebook claiming that the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the poisoned buzzard, lying next to the poisoned bait, were ‘inconclusive’ as to whether the buzzard had been deliberately poisoned (yes, really – see here).

More criticism followed, quite rightly in my opinion, and shortly afterwards Derbyshire Constabulary posted another statement on Facebook, where they discussed the size of the geographic area they had to cover, their high workload, the lack of resources available to them and the small size of the team. They did though, commit to doing better (see here).

Just six weeks later this reported shooting of two buzzards landed on their desks.

As I said at the top of this blog, I have no interest in a general slagging off of the police. And particularly of Derbyshire Constabulary – a few years ago an elderly member of my family, suffering from advanced dementia, was prone to wandering off in a confused and distressed state, often for hours on end. Time and again, officers from Derbyshire Constabulary went looking for him and brought him home safely. I will always be grateful for the care and diligence shown by those officers, who went above and beyond my family’s expectations. Their efforts were exemplary and hugely appreciated.

My point is, again, that bringing the perpetrators of wildlife crime to justice, and particularly those guilty of raptor persecution, is difficult enough without some police officers seemingly doing their best to obstruct investigations. Blogs like this one make for uncomfortable reading but it’s clear that there needs to be a root and branch overhaul of procedures, with examples of best practice being highlighted and encouraged, at a national level. This is a role the so-far useless Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) can play in England & Wales, and by the so-far useless PAW Raptor Group can play in Scotland, supported by the National Wildlife Crime Unit.

There are some seriously good officers dealing with wildlife crime but they need to be seen as the rule, not the exception.

22
Sep
21

Man charged in connection with death of raptor in Inverness-shire

Some very good news!

Police Scotland has issued the following statement this afternoon:

A 22-year-old man has been arrested and charged in connection with the death of a sparrowhawk in Inverness-shire.

Officers were called to land south of Inverness following a report of a bird of prey which had been killed on Thursday, 16 September.

The man has been charged with wildlife crime offences following a police investigation and a report will be submitted to the Procurator Fiscal.

Detective Chief Superintendent Laura McLuckie, Police Scotland’s lead for wildlife crime, said: “We are committed to tackling wildlife crime in the Highlands and work closely with a range of partners to ensure all incidents are thoroughly investigated.

We know this is an issue which concerns many people in communities across the region and I would encourage anyone who has concerns about wildlife crime in their area to call Police Scotland on 101.”

ENDS

As the individual has now been charged no more can be said about this prosecution until court proceedings commence. Suffice to say this case will be of significant interest to readers of this blog and, I dare say, Government officials. I’ll be following it closely.

Well done to the police wildlife crime officers in the Highland division of Police Scotland – the charging of this man is as a result of some top-level police work, with officers responding at significant speed. That they’ve also produced a press statement is excellent.

Compare and contrast with the frankly pathetic response of wildlife crime officers in the Tayside division in relation to the shot peregrine and illegally trapped long-eared owl that I’ve been blogging about this week (see here and here).

This inconsistency of approach is hugely frustrating and I hope will be addressed by senior officers responsible for dealing with wildlife crime at a national level.

22
Sep
21

NatureScot considering another out-of-season muirburn licence for notorious Leadhills Estate

You may remember last year that NatureScot (formerly known as Scottish Natural Heritage), the statutory conservation agency, granted an out-of-season muirburn licence to the notorious Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire (see here, here, here, here).

This was a controversial decision for a number of reasons, not least because at the time muirburn had been banned across the whole of Scotland after emergency Coronavirus legislation was passed in April 2020, but also because Leadhills Estate is notorious as being at the centre of wildlife crime investigations (approx 70) over the last 18 years and is currently serving a three-year General Licence restriction, imposed on the estate by SNH because Police Scotland provided ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crimes having being committed by persons unknown in recent years. The estate is reportedly under further police investigation since more wildlife crime allegations were made last year, so questions were asked about why it was receiving ‘special treatment’ from the licensing authority.

[An example of muirburn on a grouse moor in the Angus Glens, April 2021]

The environmentally damaging consequences of muirburn (setting fire to upland heather moorlands as part of the routine ‘management’ for grouse shooting) are well documented, with some of these fires leading to increased carbon emissions, increased flood risk, increased air pollution and threats to other ecosystem services.

With the intensification of grouse moor management in some areas of Scotland comes an increase in the extent and intensity of rotational heather burning. These fires have even been lit on areas of deep peat (forbidden by the voluntary Muirburn Code, which many land managers seem to simply ignore) causing damage to protected blanket bog habitat – in fact 40% of the area of land burned for grouse moor management in Scotland is on deep peat (see here).

Why on earth, in a climate emergency, is NatureScot permitting out-of-season burning, and especially on this particular estate that is supposedly the subject of sanctions due to ongoing wildlife crime?

As it turns out, the management of Leadhills Estate (which appears to be a company run by our old friend Mr Osborne) decided against using its out-of-season muirburn licence last year, because, according to its licence return, of the Coronavirus restrictions, although NatureScot has told me that the restrictions did not apply at the time the estate wanted to set fire to the moor.

Fast forward a year and guess what? In June 2021 Leadhills Estate applied yet again for another out-of-season muirburn licence and according to a series of FoI responses I’ve received, NatureScot is actively considering the application.

Here’s a copy of the licence application:

And here is the map showing the proposed area of burning on the grouse moor:

The licence application was submitted in June 2021 and it requested permission to set fire to the grouse moor from 1st – 30th September (the official muirburn season in Scotland runs from 1st October to 15th April, although this can be extended to 30th April at the landowner’s discretion, right at the time when ground-nesting birds have commenced their breeding season – its totally bonkers).

Here’s a summary of the FoI responses I’ve received from NatureScot about this year’s licence application:

17 June 2021 – I asked NatureScot whether a licence application had been made for Leadhills Estate.

15 July 2021 – NatureScot confirmed an application had been received (on 9 June) but said it hadn’t yet been assessed and that they were advising customers that there was a six week waiting time for applications relating to anything other than health and safety purposes.

16 July 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application.

12 August 2021 – NatureScot told me ‘the licensing team intend to assess this application in the next few days’.

1st September 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application (as this was the start date for the out-of-season licence to begin).

2nd September 2021 – NatureScot replied, ‘The licensing team is awaiting for some further information from one of our advisors before taking this further’.

15th September 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application.

16th September 2021 – NatureScot replied, ‘I have chased up licensing team but haven’t heard anything back from them yet’.

So apparently, NatureScot still hasn’t made a decision on this licence application, and with only nine days remaining until the muirburn season officially opens anyway, perhaps this is a clever stalling tactic to avoid having to issue the licence. Although I would argue, for all the reasons stated above, that the licence application should have been dismissed at first sight back in June.

The issue of setting fires to grouse moors in a climate emergency is quite high on the political agendas of both the Westminster and Scottish Governments. In November 2020, in response to the long-awaited Werritty Review on grouse moor management, then Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon announced there would be a statutory ban on burning peatland except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as habitat restoration. She also said that the Government would revisit the definition of ‘peatland’ and consider whether a tighter and stricter definition was required.

We’re still waiting to see progress on that commitment.

I’ve done some further digging about out-of-season muirburn on Leadhills Estate and have found the following information:

2017 – Licence issued (although apparently the estate failed to provide a licence return, which is a breach of the licence conditions).

2018 – The estate did not apply for an out-of-season muirburn licence.

2019 – Licence application made but was refused. The NatureScot assessor wrote: ‘Removing dead Molinia does not constitute a licensable purpose as burning within the muirburn season will achieve this aim and is a common management practice’. And, ‘Evidence of high Molinia not presented [in photographs]’.

2020 – Licence application made. NatureScot refuses it but estate appeals and NatureScot caves in and approves the licence.

The explanation given by NatureScot for its refusal of the 2019 licence is very interesting, because the removal of Molinia is again the stated purpose on Leadhills Estate’s current licence application for permission to conduct out-of-season muirburn.

What’s the decision going to be this year?

What’s more important – grouse shooting or the climate emergency?

21
Sep
21

Long-eared owl illegally held in trap on same Strathbraan grouse moor where shot peregrine found

Further to yesterday’s blog about a shot peregrine being found dead on a grouse moor in the notorious raptor persecution hotspot of Strathbraan (see here), further news has just emerged of another offence being committed on the same shooting estate.

Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland has just tweeted the following:

The dead peregrine was found during a police/SSPCA follow-up to incidents of cage trap abuse on the same estate – eg. this LE Owl had been illegally held in a trap, in pouring rain, for >24hrs. IMO there is no legitimate reason for a grouse moor be using crow traps in October…

Here is a photo of the illegally-trapped Long-eared owl:

Crow cage traps are not illegal to use under the General Licences, as long as certain conditions are met. Birds of prey can often enter these traps and are then unable to escape. Catching a raptor is not an offence in itself. However, the trap operator has a legal obligation to check the trap at least once every 24 hours and if a trapped raptor (or any other non-target species) is found and it is uninjured, the trap operator MUST release it back to the wild immediately. If the trapped raptor is held for longer than 24 hours then the trap operator has committed an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.

To not release this long-eared owl within 24 hours of capture is a clear offence and there may also be other welfare offences to consider under the Animal Health & Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 if the owl did not have adequate food, water and shelter.

Ian also raises the question of the legitimacy of operating a crow cage trap in October. He’s absolutely right to question this. Crow cage traps can be used under the General Licences in Scotland for three purposes:

  • GL 01/2021: To kill or take certain birds for the conservation of wild birds.
  • GL 02/2021: To kill or take certain birds for the prevention of serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables and fruit.
  • GL 03/2021: To kill or take certain birds for the preservation of public health, public safety and preventing the spread of disease

For what legitimate purpose was this crow cage trap being deployed on a Strathbraan grouse moor in October??

I’m very curious about why a charge has not been brought against the trap operator in this case. All crow cage traps now have to be registered with NatureScot by the trap operator and a sign affixed to the trap to show the trap operator’s registration number. Police Scotland can use this number to identify the trap operator and pursue a prosecution if an offence has been committed.

I’m even more curious to know why NatureScot has not imposed a General Licence restriction on this estate. The crow cage trap offence was committed in October 2020. The shot peregrine was discovered in November 2020. The Scottish SPCA is pursuing a case for alleged snaring offences also discovered in November 2020.

It’s now September 2021.

Just what is going on here? There are serious questions to be asked of Police Scotland and NatureScot.

Why no publicity?

Why no prosecution?

Why no General Licence restriction?

20
Sep
21

Peregrine found shot dead on grouse moor in Strathbraan – Police Scotland refuse to publicise

A peregrine falcon was found shot dead on a grouse-shooting estate in the Strathbraan area of Perthshire in November 2020.

The discovery was made during a police-led multi-agency raid following reports of suspected wildlife crime taking place on the estate. I blogged about that raid in February this year (see here).

This is an estate that has previously been under investigation for alleged wildlife crime offences.

My understanding is that the Scottish SPCA are progressing a case for alleged snaring offences but that Police Scotland were dealing with the shot peregrine (because it was already dead and so was beyond the (current) remit of the SSPCA)

Strathbraan is an area that has received much attention on this blog. Dominated by grouse-shooting estates, it has a very well-earned reputation as a wildlife crime hotspot, and is particularly notorious for the suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged eagles (one of whose tags turned up in a river, its harness cut and the tag wrapped in lead sheeting to prevent transmission – see here). It is also the area where SNH issued a (flawed) licence in 2018 permitting the mass killing of ravens on the basis of ‘seeing what happened’ – but which was later withdrawn after a legal challenge by the Scottish Raptor Study Group.

[Evidence of intensive grouse moor management in Strathbraan. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

Given the reputation of Strathbraan as a wildlife crime hotspot, and given that raptor persecution is a national wildlife crime priority, and given that Police Scotland has spent much of the last year with a dedicated campaign to try and raise public awareness of wildlife crime and encourage people to recognise and report suspected incidents, it’s difficult to understand why the police have deliberately withheld this crime from the public.

And it has been deliberately withheld. This wasn’t an oversight, or an admin error. It was a conscious decision not to say anything about it. How do I know that? Well, because I’ve been talking to Police Scotland about this crime since January 2021 and have asked, repeatedly, when they were planning on putting out the news / making an appeal for information because I believed it to be in the public interest to do so.

At first I was told that no press release was planned “until I have done a little bit more enquiry in to the circumstances“.

Fair enough.

Three months later I asked again but got no response. I tried again at four months and then finally five months later I was told, “There was no need for us to put out anything in the press from our perspective“, and “As you say from the evidence we have, we will never know where and when it was shot“.

Good grief.

Where’s the x-ray of the shot bird? An examination of its injuries (e.g. broken wings) would provide a pretty good indication of whether it was shot close to where it had been found dead, or whether it might have had the capacity to fly several miles before succumbing to its injuries. In which case, an appeal for information would have been a logical next-step, surely?

And if the police decide to say nothing, as they have in this case, where is the public record of this offence? It’s been almost a year since it was found.

How many more raptor persecution crimes are Police Scotland keeping quiet about? Quite a few, as it happens. More to come….

UPDATE 21st September 2021: Long-eared owl illegally held in trap on same Strathbraan grouse moor where shot peregrine was found (here)




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