Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

04
Dec
17

Grouse shooting industry’s histrionics over proposed estate licensing

Following on from Saturday’s news that the SNP’s National Council has voted to adopt an official policy of grouse moor licensing (see here), the grouse shooting industry has responded with a fine display of histrionics.

A quick look on social media shows the usual buffoons shrieking about potential job losses and how everyone should get together for a march/demonstration, which would probably result in about four quad bikes being parked on the new Queensferry Bridge for an hour or so.

BASC has issued a press statement claiming the SNP’s new policy would “harm rural Scotland“, The Sunday Times ran with an article yesterday with the headline, ‘SNP votes to curb fox hunting and grouse shooting‘, and an article in today’s Daily Mail headlined with ‘War on the Countryside‘. They’re good at amateur dramatics, this lot.

There’s also a comment piece in the Mail by Lord David Johnstone, Chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, who argues (as he has before) that there is no need for estate licensing and everything would be just fine if only we’d all work with the shooting industry because, he says, “this does deliver results“. No, Dave, it doesn’t deliver results, unless you consider the never-ending news of poisoned, shot, trapped & bludegeoned raptors a ‘result’.

What we’re really struggling to understand is why the grouse shooting industry is so certain that estate licensing would result in the loss of jobs. Why would it? Unless this is a tacit admission that the grouse shooting industry does in fact rely on the illegal killing of birds of prey in order for shooting estates to remain viable and so the loss of a shooting licence (and possible subsequent closure of an estate) would be inevitable?

If driven grouse shooting is lawful and sustainable, as the industry so often claims, what on earth is there to worry about? There’d be no loss of licences for lawful or sustainable practices, so why is this industry so fearful of the scrutiny and regulation that the rest of us accept as part of our daily lives? Not got something to hide, surely?

There are the usual claims that ‘activists’ will ‘set-up’ estates by planting poisoned or shot raptors on grouse moors in an attempt to implicate the landowner and/or gamekeepers. Lord Johnstone used this excuse way back in 2012 when objecting to the introduction of vicarious liability for raptor persecution offences (see here). Five years on, we’re not aware of a single case where this has been shown to have happened, but we’ve seen plenty of cases where gamekeepers have been caught committing criminal offences as part of their daily routine.

The grouse shooting industry needs to face facts. Estate licensing is on its way and the industry only has itself to blame. It’s been given hundreds of chances to reform, and has received repeated warnings from the Scottish Government that further action would be taken if the industry didn’t clean up its act.

And if/when estate licensing is shown not to work, the grouse shooting industry should know what to expect next.

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10
Aug
17

W Yorks Police Firearms Licensing Dept: in breach of policing code of ethics?

A couple of days ago, the following extraordinary tweet appeared on the West Yorkshire Police Firearms Licensing Department’s official twitter account:

This is a shocking abuse of position. According to the national Policing Code of Ethics, police officers and staff are supposed to be impartial and non-political. For an official police account to use the hashtag #NoMoorMyths, which is the basis of a BASC propaganda campaign against those who oppose driven grouse shooting, is neither impartial or non-political.

Our objection isn’t based on whether or not we support grouse shooting, because we’d be equally appalled if we saw an official police account promoting the hashtag #BanDrivenGrouseShooting. This is about having confidence in the police’s ability to be professional and objective.

The police are also not supposed to abuse or harass members of the public (in this case, re-tweeting an offensive comment about Chris Packham).

The West Yorkshire Police Firearms Licensing Department’s twitter account is relatively new (the account opened on 18 July 2017) but a quick scan through some of its other tweets (e.g. promoting the Glorious 12th) is an alarming demonstration that whoever is operating the account needs to receive some advice on professional standards, and pronto!

Perhaps West Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Dee Collins might want to have a word. Emails of encouragement to: dee.collins@westyorkshire.pnn.police.uk

31
Jul
17

Ian Botham masterclass on how not to do a radio interview

You’ve got to listen to this. It’s the funniest nine minutes of car crash radio you’ll have heard for a long time.

It’s Ian Botham, being interviewed on BBC Five Live this morning, talking about how the public spirited game shooting industry is planning to donate thousands of lead-poisoned pheasants and partridges to the poor and needy.

First, here’s a bit of background (from yesterday’s Sunday Times) –

Whether you think donating thousands of lead-contaminated game birds to the poor is a great idea or whether you think it’s simply a PR opportunity to justify the killing of 50 million game birds a year for entertainment, this is fantastic radio.

Here’s the interview (starts at 2:39:12). Only available for 29 days.

24
Jun
17

Further comment on admissibility of video evidence from more law academics

Last week we blogged about a commentary from Professor Peter Duff (Aberdeen University Law School) on the admissibility of video evidence in wildlife crime prosecutions (see here).

As a quick summary, we fundamentally disagreed with Professor Duff’s conclusions that “the courts would not excuse such an irregularity in obtaining the video evidence and prosecutions would be fruitless” because the Scottish courts HAVE excused the irregularity of obtaining video evidence without the landowner’s permission and far from those prosecutions being ‘fruitless’, they actually resulted in the conviction of the accused (e.g. see the Marshall trial here and the Mutch trial here).

On the back of that blog, another Aberdeen University Law School academic, Dr Phil Glover, has now written a blog on the same subject – see here and he appears to support the opinion of Professor Duff that the COPFS was correct to apply caution and reject the RSPB’s video evidence as inadmissible. Dr Glover addresses the two case studies we had previously mentioned whereby video evidence had been deemed admissible by the courts (the Marshall and Mutch trials) and his opinion is that the two Sheriffs presiding over these cases were wrong to accept the video evidence.

Dr Glover’s blog is technical, dry, and stuffed with specialist knowledge of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 (RIP(S)A) and the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). As such, it is way beyond the scope of our limited knowledge of this legislation and thus we won’t even attempt to critique it. That is not to say it should be dismissed – on the contrary, we welcome the opportunity to read the informed opinion of a law academic, particularly one whose PhD research focused on the very subject of RIP(S)A, and hopefully some of our legally-trained blog readers will be willing to provide a critique.

Another blog has also been published on this subject, this time by Malcolm Combe, a lawyer also working within Aberdeen University’s Law School. Malcolm’s blog (here) is written in a way that is easier (for us) to comprehend and features some pertinent commentary on privacy and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, of which he has detailed, specialist knowledge.

What is clear from all three legal blogs is that the issue about the admissibility of video evidence in relation to wildlife crime prosecutions in Scotland is complex and confusing and, like most legislation, subject to interpretation, which has led to an inconsistent application in recent years. It has been fascinating to read the opinions and the rationale behind them; it’s a shame that the COPFS has not put as much time and effort in to explaining the recent decisions made by the public prosecutors to drop five wildlife crime prosecutions, leaving many questions still unanswered and public confidence in wildlife crime prosecutions at an all time low.

What is also clear is that the current legislation is practically unenforceable in cases of alleged wildlife crime that takes place on large, remote game shooting estates where the likelihood of anybody witnessing the crime is pretty slim. Back in 2014, when this issue was again at the centre of attention, the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse told a Parliamentary Committee that he was “confident” that surveillance cameras could be used in wildlife crime investigations where it was appropriate and the Lord Advocate had apparently made it clear that the option was available to Police Scotland (see here). Police Scotland had a different view and said, “Police Scotland will not be routinely deploying these tactics” (see here).

So where do we go from here? As both Dr Glover and Malcolm Combe note, there is a wider debate to be had here and maybe, on the back of the recent COPFS decisions, these commentaries from legal academics will prompt a review, leading to much-needed reform. In his blog, Dr Glover makes several suggestions for improvement, and some of our blog commentators have, in previous posts, suggested that a condition of any proposed game shoot licensing scheme could be that landowners have to agree to the installment of cameras at the nests of certain raptor species. A review of this type would come under the remit of the PAW Scotland Legislation, Regulation & Guidance sub-group, whose objectives include:  ‘To review the operation in practice of wildlife legislation and regulations; identify areas for improvement and make recommendations; produce guidance for wildlife crime law enforcement practitioners, land managers and other countryside users‘.

What absolutely cannot be allowed to continue is clear-cut evidence of illegal raptor persecution being routinely dropped on the basis of a legal technicality. If the current legislation doesn’t work (it doesn’t), it needs to be amended. We’ve seen the much-welcomed review of wildlife crime penalties, the recommendations of which have been agreed by the Scottish Government (here) but there’s no point in having stronger penalties as a deterrent if the offender knows that the chances of being caught and receiving the punishment are minimal.

15
Jun
17

Law professor comments on inadmissibility of video evidence in wildlife crime prosecutions

As regular blog readers will be aware, the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), the public prosecutors in Scotland, have, in the space of two months, either dropped or refused to prosecute five cases of alleged wildlife crime. These include:

25 March 2017 – gamekeeper John Charles Goodenough (Dalreoch Estates), accused of the alleged use of illegal gin traps. Prosecution dropped due to paperwork blunder by Crown Office.

11 April 2017 – landowner Andrew Duncan (Newlands Estate), accused of being allegedly vicariously liable for the actions of his gamekeeper who had earlier been convicted for killing a buzzard by stamping on it and dropping rocks on to it. Prosecution dropped due to ‘not being in the public interest’.

21 April 2017 – gamekeeper Stanley Gordon (Cabrach Estate), accused of the alleged shooting of a hen harrier. Prosecution dropped as video evidence deemed inadmissible.

25 April 2017 – gamekeeper Craig Graham (Brewlands Estate), accused of allegedly setting and re-setting an illegal pole trap. Prosecution dropped as video evidence deemed inadmissible.

21 May 2017 – an unnamed 66 year old gamekeeper (Edradynate Estate), suspected of alleged involvement with the poisoning of three buzzards. Crown Office refused to prosecute, despite a plea to do so by Police Scotland.

Two of these cases (Cabrach Estate and Brewlands Estate) were dropped due to the COPFS deciding that the use of RSPB video evidence, on which the prosecutions relied, was inadmissible.

There has been widespread public condemnation and political concern about these decisions, especially in the case of the alleged shooting of a hen harrier on Cabrach Estate in Morayshire. The Crown Office has attempted to explain the decisions but many questions remain unanswered for those of us who don’t have the legal expertise, or all the case details, to challenge the COPFS decisions.

We read with interest, then, a blog that was published yesterday written by Peter Duff, Professor of Criminal Justice at Aberdeen University. His blog, entitled ‘The law of evidence, video footage, and wildlife conservation: did COPFS make the correct decisions?‘ deals specifically with the Cabrach & Brewlands cases and can be read here.

We thoroughly recommend reading it. It’s important to read the perspective of an independent, expert academic who has no axe to grind on either side of the debate. It’s hard for those of us who are either tainted by years of frustration about criminal raptor killers getting away with it, or those with a vested interest in raptor killers avoiding prosecution, to take an unbiased view of the law and its application, so Professor Duff’s opinion is a valuable contribution to the debate. Not only that, it’s great to see this issue receiving wider coverage than the usual commentators.

That’s not to say we agree with his interpretation though! In short, Professor Duff concludes that the COPFS decisions were “perfectly reasonable”, and he explains his reasoning for this, but, crucially, some of what he writes does not take in to account previous case law on this issue, perhaps because he was unaware of such cases?

For example, Professor Duff states: ” In my view also, for what it is worth, I agree that the courts would not excuse such an irregularity in obtaining the video evidence and prosecutions would be fruitless“.

First of all, the Scottish courts HAVE excused the irregularity of obtaining video evidence without the landowner’s permission and far from those prosecutions being ‘fruitless’, they actually resulted in the conviction of the accused (e.g. see the Marshall trial here and the Mutch trial here).

During the Marshall trial, there were several hours of legal argument about the admissibility of the video evidence. The Sheriff accepted the video evidence, commenting that the RSPB presence on the gamekeeper’s estate [from where the video was filmed] was “neither illegal nor irregular, and the intent to obtain evidence did not make it so“.  This is no different to the recent Cabrach case.

During the Mutch trial, again involving several hours of legal argument about the admissibility of evidence, the Sheriff accepted that the RSPB had not placed the video camera with the purpose of gathering evidence for prosecution, but they had placed it as part of a legitimate survey in to the use of traps. This is no different to the recent Cabrach case.

There is also an on-going trial at the moment (concerning alleged fox hunting) that relies heavily on video evidence filmed on privately-owned land without the landowner’s permission. The court has accepted the video evidence as admissible (although we can’t comment too much on this as the trial is still live).

So on that basis, we profoundly disagree with Professor Duff’s opinion that covertly filmed video evidence would not be accepted by the Scottish courts. It already has been, on several occasions, resulting in convictions. The question remains then, why did the COPFS decide it was inadmissible? Somebody within the Crown Office (presumably an experienced lawyer from with the Wildlife & Environmental Crime Unit) decided, when this case was first marked, that the video evidence was admissible. It took nine court hearings over a period of a year before the COPFS decided that the video evidence was inadmissible. We still don’t know the basis for that decision. And the other related question to this is why didn’t the COPFS let the court make the decision? It’s this inconsistency of approach that has caused so much confusion, and as Professor Duff writes, ‘bewilderment’.

Professor Duff also writes: “The actions by the RSPB [of placing a covert camera] are a breach of the right to privacy of both the estate owners and their employees (whilst not quite analogous, imagine if your neighbour installed a secret camera to record everything that went on in your garden)“. Sorry, but it’s quite absurd to compare these two scenarios given the size difference between these two types of landholdings. Nobody could argue that placing a covert camera to film somebody’s back garden wouldn’t be a breach of privacy, as you’d reasonably expect to see the human occupants on a daily basis. But on a multi-thousand acre estate, far from any private dwelling? Come on, “not quite analogous” is one hell of an understatement. And not only that, in the Cabrach case, the camera was aimed at the nest of Schedule 1 hen harrier, which by law cannot be approached/disturbed without an appropriate licence from SNH so you wouldn’t expect to film anybody anywhere near the nest.

All in all then, Professor Duff’s interpretation of the law, whilst useful, still doesn’t explain, or justify, the decisions made by the Crown Office in these two cases.

And questions still remain about the decisions to drop the other three cases (gamekeeper John Charles Goodenough of Dalreoch Estates; landowner Andrew Duncan of Newlands Estate; an unnamed gamekeeper of Edradynate Estate), none of which were reliant upon video evidence.

12
Jun
17

Heads Up for Harriers: Tim Baynes claims illegal persecution an “historical controversy”

Another week and another duplicitous article from Tim (Kim) Baynes, Director of SLE’s Scottish Moorland Group. This guy seems to live in a perpetual state of denial when it comes to the illegal persecution of raptors on driven grouse moors.

This time he’s penned an article for the latest edition of Shooting Times about the ridiculous Heads Up for Hen Harriers project (more on this below).

The front cover of the Shooting Times has a headline banner: “The hen harrier: how much do we really know?”, which laughably infers that the cause of long-term hen harrier decline in the UK is still a bit of a mystery that needs solving, and then inside there’s a two-page spread from Tim (Kim) who suggests that ‘weather’ and fox predation are the big culprits, as recorded by Heads Up for Hen Harrier cameras. Astonishingly, he also claims that the illegal persecution of hen harriers on grouse moors is an “historical controversy”.

You can read the full article here: Shooting Times 7 June 2017_HaveYouSeenAHenHarrier_TimBaynes

Perhaps he missed the Government-commissioned 2011 Hen Harrier Conservation Framework, which set out very clearly what the main issue is: Illegal persecution is the biggest single factor affecting hen harriers and it is having a dramatic impact on the population, not only in northern England but also in Scotland:

  • The potential national hen harrier population in Scotland is estimated (conservatively) to be within the range 1467-1790 pairs.
  • The current national hen harrier population in Scotland as recorded during the 2010 national survey is 505 pairs, more than a 20% decline from the numbers recorded during the 2004 national survey.
  • In Scotland, the hen harrier has a favourable conservation status in only five of 20 regions.
  • Two main constraints were identified: illegal persecution, and in one region, prey shortages.
  • The species is particularly unsuccessful in the Central Highlands, Cairngorm Massif, Northeast Glens, Western Southern Uplands and the Border Hills. There is strong evidence in these grouse moor regions that illegal persecution is causing the failure of a majority of breeding attempts.

Tim (Kim) also appears to have missed the video published by RSPB Scotland last month showing exactly what happens when a camera is installed at a hen harrier nest without the grouse moor owner and gamekeeper’s knowledge:

He must also have missed last month’s news that Police Scotland are investigating the illegal shooting of yet another hen harrier on a grouse moor near Leadhills (see here), which incidentally is alleged to have happened on the estate owned by the Hopetoun family – that’ll be the family of Lord Hopetoun, Chair of the Scottish Moorland Group, of which Tim (Kim) is, er, Director.

The only ‘historical’ aspect of hen harrier persecution is that it’s been going on for over a hundred years. Pretending that it’s now stopped, in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is the response of an idiot.

We’ve blogged about the Heads Up for Hen Harriers project many times (e.g. see here, here, here). The idea is that estates give permission for cameras to be installed at active hen harrier nests ‘to help build a picture of why these birds aren’t doing as well as they should be’. The major flaw in this ‘study’ design is that gamekeepers will know on which nests the cameras are pointing, so obviously they’re not going to shoot the adults or stamp on the eggs/nestlings at those sites. Instead, the cameras will record natural failures (e.g. poor weather, predation) and then the grouse shooting industry can use this information to claim that illegal persecution isn’t an issue, but poor weather and predation is. This is exactly what Tim (Kim) Baynes has done in this latest article.

Now, some might argue that having grouse moor owners’ agreement to install cameras at hen harrier nests on their estates is a good thing – at least those nests will be left alone and the birds might be able to produce some young. There is that, of course. But leaving the birds alone long enough to produce fledglings isn’t enough. What happens to those young fledglings once they leave the safety of a monitored nest? You only have to look at what happened to young hen harrier Elwood to answer that question. He survived for approximately two weeks after dispersing from his monitored nest site before un-mysteriously vanishing on a grouse moor in the Monadhliaths – funnily enough in an area where many satellite tagged golden eagles have also un-mysteriously vanished.

Tim (Kim) talks about the number of estates that have agreed to participate this year (at least 15) and makes much of the fact that some of these are grouse moor estates. The same thing happened last year, although what was covered up last year was the fact that only three nests were successful and none of those was on a driven grouse moor. This wasn’t a surprise given that most of the driven grouse moor estates that agreed to ‘participate’ were located in the Angus Glens – an area that hasn’t seen a successful hen harrier breeding attempt since 2006.

What would be more interesting to know is not how many estates have agreed to ‘participate’, which is a largely meaningless figure unless they actually have an active nest, but how many estates have refused to participate? Again, this information is not made public, presumably because it’ll spoil the image of this so-called ‘widespread cooperation’ from grouse moor estates.

We’ve got another question for Tim (Kim). In this article he says:

A better idea of current numbers will emerge when the results of the 2016 UK harrier population survey are published, but the overall picture is expected to be broadly the same in Scotland“.

Really? On what basis is he making this claim? The results of the National HH Survey have not yet been released (held back, we believe, due to the General Election, but due out shortly), so what makes Tim (Kim) think that “the overall picture is expected to be broadly the same in Scotland”? Is this based on factual information or is Tim (Kim) just making up some nonsense to suit his agenda?

It’s not like he/Scottish Moorland Group/Gift of Grouse hasn’t done this before (e.g. see here, here, here).

31
May
17

Scottish Government announces significant action in fight against raptor persecution

Today is an historic one in the fight against illegal raptor persecution in Scotland. This is the day that the Scottish Government has finally agreed to take bold, innovative action against a criminal sector of society that has got away with so much for so long.

This afternoon, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham, has announced a package of measures to tackle wildlife crime, and specifically the illegal killing of protected birds of prey on some driven grouse moors.

This package has been triggered by the publication of the much anticipated review of golden eagle satellite tag data, which shows clear evidence of deliberate and sustained illegal raptor persecution over a number of years.

Here is a copy of the report: Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland

Here is a brief summary of the review’s findings:

We will be blogging about this review extensively in due course, but for now, have a look at these maps we’ve created. The first one shows the locations of the last known fixes of satellite-tagged golden eagles that have disappeared in suspicious circumstances across Scotland, and the second map zooms in on some significant clustering on several driven grouse shooting estates in and around the Cairngorms National Park (including the Monadhliaths, Angus Glens and North Perthshire).

NB: These maps are copyright of RPUK and may not be reproduced without written permission

In response to this latest evidence demonstrating the appalling scale of illegal raptor persecution, the Cabinet Secretary has announced the following measures designed to protect birds of prey, the wider Scottish environment and the reputation of those who abide by the law:

We will comment on each of these measures in due course when we’ve had time to consider the implications. As an immediate response, we very much welcome the majority of them, but we’re disappointed that the SSPCA will not be given increased investigatory powers. Nevertheless, we are delighted to see both long and short-term action, which is exactly what we asked for.

Roseanna Cunningham said:

This day has been a long time coming. Many, many people have been involved in this protracted battle for several decades and each and every one has played an important part. From the highly skilled raptor fieldworkers, to the RSPB and particularly its Investigations and behind-the-scenes advocacy teams, to the academics who have analysed and published the scientific data, to the campaigners who have brought this scandal to the attention of the wider public. It is the efforts of all of these people combined that has influenced public opinion and brought us to this watershed moment.

We would like to pay tribute to Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham. Be under no illusion about the strength and power of the dark forces that have influenced and manipulated this situation for so many decades. It takes considerable courage to go up against that and we applaud her all the more for it. Please, take the time to send her a message of thanks and let her know that you welcome and support her announcement. Emails to: CabSecECCLR@gov.scot

RESPONSES & MEDIA COVERAGE

Scottish Government statement here

RSPB Scotland press statement here

Blog from RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations, Ian Thomson here

Scottish Land & Estates press statement here (PS. they’re still in denial)

Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association statement here (still clinging on to the wind farm myth)

BBC News here

Cairngorms National Park Authority statement here

Herald here

Independent here

UPDATE 5 June 2017: Our analysis of the SGA’s response here




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