Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

08
May
17

Some more thoughts on the shot hen harrier video

Three days on and our anger has not subsided. If anything, it’s grown. The more we’ve watched that video, and the more we’ve tried to comprehend the reasoning behind the Crown’s decision to drop all criminal proceedings, and the more we’ve contemplated the injustice and wider implications of the Crown’s decision to drop all criminal proceedings, and the longer the silence from a Government that repeatedly claims a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on raptor persecution, the more incensed we’ve become. And we’re not alone.

This 59-second video is actually a microcosm of a war that has been raging for over 60 years, ever since birds of prey were afforded full legal protection. It’s got everything, all the characteristics with which we’re now so familiar: the remote upland landscape, an area with a long history of raptor persecution, the supposedly protected hen harrier so vulnerable as she waits until the last second to abandon her eggs and flee her nest, the violent gunshots, the explosion of feathers as she’s hit, the poignant silent aftermath as her feathers float to the ground, the armed man apparently removing and hiding the evidence of the crime. Only this time the crime was witnessed, captured on film and now, finally, exposed for the world to see.

And then comes the ridiculous pantomime of legal protocol that forces fearful commentators to describe this as an ‘alleged’ crime, which implies it might not have happened. Our eyes work just fine and it is our opinion that it did happen. The only questionable part is who pulled the trigger (twice). The video footage is not conclusive on this point and the man who was charged had pleaded not guilty. It’s fair to comment that the charges against him were alleged (in other words it’s not known whether he was responsible or not) but let’s not pretend that this crime didn’t happen. Somebody shot that hen harrier in June 2013 and whoever it was has escaped justice as the case is now time-barred.

There are several aspects of this case that fan the flames of our exasperation. We’ve already discussed the role of the Crown Office and the questions raised by their decision to drop all proceedings. These matters are deeply concerning and need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Other issues concern the long history of confirmed raptor persecution on Cabrach Estate. Two gamekeepers have previously been convicted for such crimes: one for having a poisoned peregrine in the back of his vehicle (here) and one for shooting two buzzards (here). Other crimes were also detected including the discovery of 11 shot buzzards that had been stuffed inside rabbit holes, 24 poisoned baits, three illegal pole traps and an owl with smashed legs (here) but nobody was charged. We want to point out that the current team of gamekeepers is very recently employed and there isn’t, to our knowledge, any evidence of further crimes since the shooting of the hen harrier in 2013. But the appalling history provides a long-term perspective on what had been going on for a number of decades and that is hard to ignore.

Map showing the location of Cabrach Estate, bordering the Cairngorms National Park (estate boundary based on information from the Who Owns Scotland website).

The publication of this video by RSPB Scotland last Friday has provoked an outpouring of public outrage. Social media has been alight all weekend, and commentary has been provided by many, including a 15-year-old schoolboy (here), a leading figure in conservation (here), another well-known campaigner (here) and a retired police officer (here).

Statements from the game-shooting industry have been thin on the ground but where they have been made, the words chosen have very carefully avoided discussing the killing of a hen harrier.

The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association said they had no comment to make as they didn’t have a membership interest in this case. The video footage was totally ignored (see here).

Scottish Land & Estates also ignored the video content and instead opened with the vague statement, “Evidence of apparent ill-treatment of any protected species is, of course, deeply concerning“. There then followed the usual denials about the extent of raptor persecution, the same old spin about their involvement with the partnership working sham that is the Heads up for Hen Harriers project (which we have previously addressed, here) and then a bit more spin with this line: “In this instance, the estate in question was praised in an RSPB report last year as a potential model sporting estate given its commitment to species conservation, including Hen Harriers“. We were intrigued by this ‘RSPB report’ until we realised that it wasn’t an official RSPB report written by professional upland scientists based on a long-term & detailed assessment, but rather a report of a day trip to the estate, escorted by the new Head Keeper, of the local RSPB members’ group. Hmm, not quite as compelling an endorsement as SLE try to portray. Has Lord Johnstone been taking spin lessons from Beefy Botham on how to make a report sound more credible than it actually is?

So far, there has been no comment from the Scottish Government.

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

27
Apr
17

Raptor groups slam DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Plan

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

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

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

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

The NERF statement can be read here

26
Apr
17

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

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

24
Apr
17

Evidence session: petition to introduce gamebird hunting licensing

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

The archived video of the session can be viewed here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05
Mar
17

Environment Secretary’s message to Scottish gamekeepers re: raptor persecution

roseanna-cunninghamLast week, Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham gave a speech at the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s annual conference, where she described, with feeling, her ‘contempt‘ for the continued illegal persecution of birds of prey (see here).

Her speech was warmly welcomed by those in the audience and many were hoping she would deliver the same message when she spoke at the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association AGM, six days later on 3 March.

It seems as though she did. According to this article in the Courier, her speech to the SGA was similarly-worded and hopefully it was delivered with the same strength of feeling she gave at the SRSG conference.

Here are some quotes from her SGA speech:

Not only are you valuable eyes and ears in the Scottish countryside, but you are stakeholders in the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, with a vital role to play.”

We also need to continue to work together to change attitudes and every person in this room can help“.

The successful reintroductions of red kite and white-tailed eagle, and the recent 15% increase – which is in real terms a recovery – in golden eagle numbers, from the results of the last national survey – is welcome progress“.

For many people seeing these magnificent birds is a rare event. Many of you here today are in the fortunate position of seeing them regularly and I envy you that“.

Unhappily however the illegal killing of raptors is still with us“.

I have no patience at all with old fashioned attitudes towards these birds that linger on in this day and age. We all have to abide by the law, and must do so every day“.

I have no truck with any excuse that raptors damage driven grouse shooting interests – such damage is a business risk that grouse moor owners have to live with, and manage for – and this has to be done within the law“.

I note and welcome your chairman Alex Hogg’s reiteration of the pledge to ensure SGA members only consider legal routes to conflict resolution and he has made it clear that those committing wildlife crime will be removed from the SGA.

Although it looks like she didn’t go as far as directly pointing the finger at the SGA, it is to be hoped that the sub-text was clear enough to have some people squirming in their seats.

As several commentators have mentioned on this blog, although the Environment Secretary’s words were welcome, we have heard them all before, not only from her but also from three previous Environment Ministers, and yet raptor persecution continues. For now though, we’re cautiously giving Roseanna Cunningham the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, her words to the SGA are a big improvement on the words her predecessor gave to the SGA (see here) and yes, she’s bought herself and the Scottish Government a bit more time with these two speeches, but society’s patience is not limitless. We expect to see further measures enacted, and soon. There will be a lot of attention placed on the Cabinet Secretary’s response to the recently-published game bird licensing review, the forthcoming review of satellite tagged raptors, and the decision on whether to give increased investigatory powers to the SSPCA.

There’ll also be a great deal of attention paid this year to whether SNH grants licences to gamekeepers allowing them to kill protected raptors and if so, on what grounds? Roseanna has been clear that any perceived damage by raptors to grouse moor management should be a ‘business risk’ that has to be ‘managed within the law’. The SGA will no doubt argue that applying for licences to kill raptors would be ‘managing the business risk within the law’ and technically, they’d be correct, in as much as the provision is there to apply for such licences but whether protecting artificially high numbers of game birds is justification for legally killing protected raptors, especially when illegal raptor persecution continues, is an argument that will dominate MSPs’ inboxes if licences are given this year.

Interesting times ahead.

27
Feb
17

Scottish Gamekeepers chairman attacks Raptor Study Group

hogg-shiteAlex Hogg, Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, has a long track record of talking out of his backside.

Previous missives directly attributable to the SGA’s esteemed leader have included lines such as, “Professional gamekeepers do not poison raptors” (here), “It is unfair to accuse gamekeepers of wildlife crime” (here), “In the last ten years we have stamped out poisoning” (here), “We kill animals because probably we’re the doctors and nurses of the countryside” (here) and, when asked whether gamekeepers are involved in the poisoning, shooting and trapping of raptors: “No they aren’t. We would dispute that” (here).

In the latest edition of the Shooting Times, he accuses the Scottish Raptor Study Group of ‘driving [gamekeepers’] wives, children and grandchildren from their homes‘. Here’s part of the article to provide the context to his claim:

One of the reasons the SGA was set up was to stop the police raiding our houses without proper evidence of wrongdoing. Wives and children were being subjected to dawn raids, houses were being pulled to pieces; in some cases children’s cough mixture was confiscated in case poison was being hidden in the bottle.

Hopefully these bad old days are gone. The SGA has worked extremely hard with our members to drive the poisoning incidents almost off the map. We have been very successful and last year it looks as if we had only two incidents of poisoning that involved a raptor. If the police had these results in any other form of crime it would be in all the news media for months.

Still, all we hear from the RSPB is that this can only be the tip of the iceberg. The Scottish Raptor Study Group, along with the RSPB, has launched a petition calling for the licensing of Scottish shooting estates. This group has been publicly funded since inception and has taken access on estates for years without even having to inform the keeper or landowner. In this regard it is unaccountable as it can log whatever it wishes, with little or no checks or balances on the process or the effects of its monitoring.

It seems strange that a group lacking in accountability is calling for shoots to be licensed. We will not stand by and allow double standards to drive wives, children and grandchildren from their homes. Everybody who works and lives in the countryside must now be wary that compliance with such organisations, sadly, is compliance with people who are attacking our jobs and way of life. It should never have got to this stage.

If the SGA had not been formed 20 years ago, what we live for would have been swallowed up by different government bodies. Some people hate the truth, but we will always tell it. It is that honesty which has gained us the respect that we have’.

ENDS

It seems that Alex hasn’t read the Scottish Moorland Group’s recently proposed ‘four point plan‘ for eradicating illegal raptor persecution, as presented to the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee last December. Point four was, “We would very much like to see greater cooperation between ourselves, the Raptor Study Groups and the RSPB“. Oops.

A few other points for Alex to consider:

  1. The police are not allowed to raid houses on a whim. They first have to apply for a search warrant from a Sheriff (via the Crown Office) and this will only be granted if there are reasonable grounds to assume that evidence of criminal activity may be uncovered during a search.
  2. It’s no surprise if children’s cough mixture has been confiscated during a raid. It has not been uncommon to find illegal poison stored in everyday household containers (particularly coffee jars!) and on at least one search a banned, highly toxic poison was found in a container on a shelf within a child’s reach.
  3. Raptor persecution has not stopped. Poisoning reports may have dropped, but other methods (particularly shooting and trapping) have not. Stop pretending otherwise.
  4. Members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, just like every other member of the public, are entitled to access land without having to inform the keeper or landowner. Get over it.
  5. Members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group are individually licensed to visit the nests of Schedule 1 birds. They are accountable for their actions as they have to submit data returns to the Government’s licensing authority on an annual basis as a condition of the licence. If you want to discuss unaccountability, contrast this licensing regime with that of gamekeepers, who are not individually licensed and do not have to submit annual returns detailing any of their activities, which mostly involves killing wildlife.
  6. It’s not clear to us how launching a petition calling for a licensing scheme for gamebird shooting is going to ‘drive wives, children and grandchildren from their homes’. What will drive them from their homes is if gamekeepers get caught illegally killing raptors and lose their jobs (and tied house) as a result of a conviction.
  7. The SGA is supposedly a partner organisation in the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW), and notably, the PAW Raptor Group. Quite how publicly slagging off and warning SGA members to be wary of cooperating with another PAW partner (the Scottish Raptor Study Group) is evidence of good partnership working is beyond us. Perhaps the SGA will be asked to explain this at the next PAW Raptor Group meeting.

Alex’s article also touched on some other issues, including how the SGA is this year going to push for the Scottish Government to issue licences to ‘control’ (kill) protected species such as badgers, buzzards and ravens. He mentions that Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham will be a guest speaker at the SGA’s annual conference in March and how staff members from SNH’s licensing team will also be in attendance to answer questions about this issue.

Interestingly, this subject was raised during Roseanna Cunningham’s address to the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s annual conference last Saturday. If she tells the SGA conference what she told the SRSG conference, there’ll be tears at bedtime for Alex and his wildlife-killing colleagues. (We’ll be blogging about the Cabinet Secretary’s speech to SRSG members in the next day or so, highlighting several points she made about raptor persecution and her full endorsement and gratitude for the “dedicated high quality fieldwork” of the SRSG).

Here is a copy of the Shooting Times article in full: alex-hogg-article_shooting-times_23feb2017

24
Jan
17

ECCLR session 2: the SGA and their ‘alternative facts’

Two weeks ago the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee held an evidence session to scrutinise the Government’s 2015 annual wildlife crime report.

The evidence session was divided in to two parts – we’ve blogged about session 1 [evidence from Police Scotland and the Crown Office] here.

This blog is about session 2, where witnesses from RSPB Scotland, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA), Scottish Badgers and the Bat Conservation Trust were invited to speak.

The video of the session can be watched here and the full transcript can be read here.

This session was fascinating and we’d really encourage you to read the transcript – and even better, watch the video. There’s too much to blog about here so we’ll just focus on the SGA’s ‘evidence’, which turned out to be a series of ‘alternative facts’, which perhaps isn’t all that surprising although it is of concern when you realise Andy Smith, the SGA rep, was a former police officer for 30 years and so he should be well versed in dealing with actual facts, not made-up ones.

Here are some of the SGA’s alternative facts. This is not an exhaustive list, just the ones that amused us the most:

Alternative Fact #1

According to Andy Smith, the SGA doesn’t support the proposal that the SSPCA should be given increased powers to help investigate wildlife crime because he was told that the SSPCA’s Chief Superintendent traveled to London to listen to the Westminster debate on driven grouse shooting, which, according to Andy Smith, means the SSPCA has an anti-shooting agenda.

The logic Andy Smith used to reach this conclusion is, well, illogical, because plenty of people attended the Westminster debate, including GWCT staff members, who most definitely are not anti-shooting. Anyway, as it turns out, the SSPCA’s Chief Superintendent did NOT travel to London to attend the debate, as he clearly explains in a recent letter to the ECCLR Committee that has been published on the Scottish Parliament’s website:  20170111_mike_flynn_to_convener_regarding_ecclr_meeting_10_january_2017

Alternative Fact #2

According to Andy Smith, “There are places in this country that should have birds of prey – raptors – but do not have them. That includes some RSPB reserves that have the perfect conditions. For example, I do not think that there are very many in Abernethy“.

Oops. There are at least eight species of breeding raptors at the RSPB’s Abernethy Reserve (perhaps more, we haven’t checked), including, er, the world famous ospreys at Loch Garten.

Alternative Fact #3

According to Andy Smith, “We should remember that the Cairngorms National Park has the highest density of eagles in the world“. [Interruption]. “Am I not right in thinking that?“.

Ian Thomson (RSPB Scotland): “No, you are not“.

Andy Smith: “It is certainly where the highest density of eagles is in the UK“.

Ian Thomson: “Harris has the highest density of golden eagles“.

Another commonly repeated myth from Andy Smith. It’s nothing new (e.g. see here, and it was also repeated in the SGA’s most recent edition of its in-house rag Scottish Gamekeeper), but it doesn’t matter how many times it’s repeated, it doesn’t make it factual. The Cairngorms National Park does NOT have the highest density of eagles in the world, nor in the UK. As Ian Thomson correctly pointed out, golden eagle density in the Western Isles (i.e. nowhere near a driven grouse moor) is among the highest recorded, although a few populations in North America have an equally high density.

The truth is that golden eagles in the Cairngorms National Park have one of the lowest rates of site occupancy in the whole of Scotland. Sure, there are breeding golden eagles in the CNP, but as was described in the authoritative Golden Eagle Conservation Framework, the vast majority of those sites are associated with open woodland (i.e. deer forest) where they are generally left alone; they are, with a handful of exceptions, absent from the extensive areas of open moorland managed for driven grouse shooting.

ge-vacant-territories-2003The data in the above table were derived from the 2003 national golden eagle survey. Since then, a 2015 national survey has been undertaken and we await publication of the detailed results, although the preliminary findings have shown that there have been improvements in occupancy in some regions, but not, unfortunately, in the Eastern Highlands, which includes large parts of the Cairngorms National Park and North East Glens, where intensively managed moorland for driven grouse shooting remains the dominant land practice and where illegal persecution continues to constrain the golden eagle population, as well as a number of other raptor populations including peregrine and hen harrier.

The SGA should watch out. With a performance like Andy Smith’s, the Trump administration may well try to headhunt him to join The White House press team.




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