Archive Page 2

17
Apr
18

Legal challenge against hen harrier brood meddling continues, x2

Two separate High Court applications have been submitted this week, seeking a judicial review of Natural England’s highly controversial decision to issue a hen harrier brood meddling licence.

As a quick re-cap for new blog readers, in January this year, Natural England issued a licence to Jemima Parry-Jones (International Centre for Birds of Prey [ICBP], Newent, Glos) permitting the removal of hen harrier eggs and chicks from some nests on grouse moors in Northern England, to protect artificially-high stocks of red grouse being farmed for shooting. The licence permits the ICBP to rear the young hen harriers in captivity and then release them in August back to the same grouse moor areas from where they were removed, where they will once again be put at risk of being illegally killed.

This licence is fundamental to DEFRA’s hen harrier brood meddling plan, which forms part of its ludicrous Hen Harrier Action Plan. For background reading on hen harrier brood meddling, please see here.

The ICBP is being paid by the Moorland Association to undertake the brood meddling work, and the licence is supported by the members of the Hen Harrier Brood Meddling Project Board, which includes Rob Cooke (Natural England), Adrian Jowitt (Natural England), Steve Redpath (Aberdeen University), Jemima Parry-Jones (ICBP), Adrian Smith (GWCT), Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust), Amanda Anderson (Moorland Association), Robert Benson (Moorland Association).

In early February, lawyers acting on behalf of Mark Avery decided to challenge the lawfulness of Natural England’s decision to issue this licence by way of a judicial review. The lawyers agreed to work at reduced rates and Mark successfully raised over £26,000 via crowdfunding to support the legal action.

In late February Mark’s lawyers sent a ‘pre-action protocol letter’ to Natural England, outlining the perceived legal inadequacies of the decision to issue the licence. The letter also invited Natural England to revoke the licence and undertake a proper public consultation on the issue of hen harrier brood meddling.

In March the RSPB also sent a pre-action protocol letter to Natural England on the same issue.

Natural England’s response letters have been seen as unsatisfactory by Mark and by the RSPB and so yesterday Mark submitted an application to the High Court seeking permission for a judicial review, because, as Mark’s lawyer says,  “My client believes that the decision to grant this licence is unlawful as it is in breach of EU law – it takes criminal activity as its starting point and looks to ease the path for those who break the law, often for profit, for the purpose of shooting red grouse“.

Today the RSPB has also announced it, too, has submitted an application seeking a judicial review.

Good stuff.

There was an article in The Guardian yesterday about Mark’s application.

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16
Apr
18

Grouse-shooting industry’s reaction to the failed Bleasdale Estate prosecution

The prosecution of a gamekeeper, employed by the Bleasdale Estate in Bowland to manage a grouse moor, collapsed recently on a series of legal technicalities (see here, here and here).

We’ve been wondering how the grouse-shooting industry would react to this failed case. Would they condemn the alleged illegal killing of two breeding peregrines at a nest site on a driven grouse moor? And, seeing as all charges against the defendant were dropped, would the industry put out a public appeal for information to help find the alleged perpetrator?

So far we haven’t seen any public commentary from the owner of the Bleasdale Estate, Mr Jeremy Duckworth. This is a bit surprising. At the time of the alleged offences (April 2016), Mr Duckworth was a Director and a regional representative of the Moorland Association (a group representing the interests of grouse moor owners in England):

According to documents lodged at Companies House, Mr Duckworth resigned his Directorship of the Moorland Association in September 2016. The timing of his resignation coincided with the early stages of the police investigation in to the alleged offences on his grouse moor – obviously nothing to do with damage limitation and purely and simply coincidental, of course:

As well as silence from Mr Duckworth, nor have we seen any commentary from the Moorland Association (MA) itself. As a member of PAW (Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime), it’s not unreasonable for us to expect the Moorland Association to have provided comment. Surely the MA must be concerned that an unidentified individual appears to have repeatedly visited the grouse moor nest site of a specially protected species and allegedly killed two peregrines, no?

What we have seen though, is a press release issued by You Forgot The Birds (YFTB), an astroturfing lobby group funded by the grouse shooting industry.

Perhaps this press release from YFTB was issued on behalf of the Moorland Association, or with the MA’s blessing, or funded by members of the MA? No, that can’t be right, because the YFTB press release wasn’t concerned at all about the alleged killing of two peregrines on a grouse moor, but instead, just like all its other press releases (funded by the grouse-shooting industry) this press release was focused entirely on attacking the RSPB and attempting to undermine its credentials.

The press release was sent out to media journalists last Friday, embargoed until one minute past midnight on Saturday morning, obviously designed to hit the weekend papers. We’re grateful to the journalist who sent us a copy. It read as follows:

Judge accuses RSPB of ‘deliberate circumvention’ of law

A judge in Lancashire has accused the RSPB of “deliberate circumvention” of the law regarding covert surveillance. In a case concerning alleged wildlife crime the judge said the RSPB had “effectively taken on the role of a police officer” and that wildlife crime police officers were “turning a blind eye” to how the RSPB was seeking to avoid complying with the law.

Sitting in Preston last month District Judge Jane Goodwin examined the use of covert videoing by the RSPB of a peregrine falcon nest in the Forest of Bowland. James Hartley, a gamekeeper, had been accused of persecuting the birds.

The judge ruled that the RSPB investigators – who were both former police officers – should have informed the police about their proposed videoing but did not because that would have triggered the safeguards of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

In her decision Judge Goodwin said that “the deliberate circumvention of the RIPA legislation… leaves an air of disquiet.” The RSPB had also “trespassed… without justification [and] breached the PACE Codes of Practice…The RSPB have acted improperly and out with their remit”.

The judge noted two previous occasions when RSPB evidence had been deemed inadmissible by prosecutors because of irregularities.

Last month an FOI response revealed that national police officers had been highly critical of the RSPB’s attempts to dominate the investigation of bird crime. The Defra official in charge of wildlife crimes had written that the charity’s approach could “prejudice the integrity of investigations.”

Commenting on the latest case Ian Gregory of the pro-grouse moor group You Forgot The Birds said: “The RSPB is facing a crisis of trust. It should reflect on why so many find it difficult to work with it. Only through good relations with the justice system and gamekeepers can it help to reduce bird crime.”

ENDS

Interestingly, two contacts were provided for editors who wanted more information. One was Ian Gregory (the usual YFTB contact) but the second contact was none other than the Bleasdale defendant’s solicitor, Tim Ryan! Imagine that!

Blog readers who have been following this case and have read the farcical court proceedings (see here, here & here) will see how YFTB has cherry-picked all of District Judge Goodwin’s criticisms of the RSPB and then tried to present them as a coherent representation of what happened in court, completely ignoring the ridiculous legal technicalities which caused the collapse of this case. YFTB’s intentions are clear: ignore the details of the horrific alleged peregrine persecution and instead besmirch the integrity and reputation of the RSPB’s Investigations Team.

Unfortunately for YFTB, this attempted smear against the RSPB didn’t really go to plan. We saw two articles in the weekend press that were clearly informed by YFTB’s press release (one in The Times on Saturday [behind a paywall] & one in the Mail on Sunday [not behind a paywall]) but neither of those articles presented the case as YFTB had intended. Instead, those two papers took a rather more balanced view and as well as mentioning the judge’s criticism of the RSPB, they also both focused on the alleged crimes, particularly the Crown’s case that one of the peregrines had been caught in a trap for over ten hours, and that peregrine DNA had been found on a knife and a hammer recovered from the defendant’s home/outbuildings. They both also included a response from the RSPB which said similar evidence [to the Bleasdale Estate case] had been accepted in other court cases.

Blimey, is this an indication that mainstream journalists have finally got the measure of YFTB and understand that YFTB press releases require detailed scrutiny to get beyond the spin?

It certainly looks that way.

16
Apr
18

Why other evidence was also ruled inadmissible in the Bleasdale Estate case

This is the third blog in a series about the recent failed prosecution of a Bleasdale Estate gamekeeper.

Gamekeeper James Hartley was accused of nine offences in relation to the alleged killing of two peregrines at a nest site on the Bleasdale Estate, Bowland, in April 2016. He denied all charges.

In blog 1, we outlined the prosecution’s case against Mr Hartley, and the skeleton argument put forward by the defence (see here).

In blog 2 we examined why the judge ruled the RSPB’s covert video evidence inadmissible (see here).

In this blog we examine why other evidence was also ruled inadmissible by the judge. This relates to two points: (1) the legality of the first search of the nest site and surrounding grouse moor on 21 April 2016, and (2) the alleged breach of the Data Protection Act in relation to the way the RSPB handled the ‘data’ (recordings made by the video camera).

Let’s start with the land search. Here is an extract from the judge’s ruling on this point:

Basically Mr Rouse QC for the defence argued that the Police and the RSPB breached Code B of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) because they did not notify the landowner of their intention to search the nest site area and surrounding grouse moor.

It seems to us that the Police and RSPB did not notify the landowner due to the exemption listed under 6.4 (iii) (see above) because ‘there are reasonable grounds for believing that alerting the occupier or any other person entitled to grant access would frustrate the object of the search….’

This exemption is routinely used by the police in wildlife crime cases like this one, for obvious reasons. If the landowner, or an employee, was suspected of either committing, or being complicit to an alleged wildlife crime, telling them in advance that a search was about to be conducted would alert any potential suspect who could then hide any evidence in advance of that search.

In this specific case, had the landowner been notified of the search in advance, what do you think would be the chance of the police finding the tool bag & equipment, found on a later search of the defendant’s house and outbuildings, and found on subsequent forensic DNA analysis to contain peregrine DNA?!

That’s an obvious point, isn’t it?

Well apparently not. Mr Yip for the prosecution did not raise this point and nor did he call for a live witness to explain to the court why the exemption applied in this case. The judge was left with no option but to rule a breach of the PACE code.

The other line in the defence’s argument was that the RSPB Investigator (name redacted) had breached the Data Protection Act as he wasn’t a registered data controller:

Mr Yip for the prosecution submitted that the RSPB Investigator did not need an individual licence of registration as he was operating lawfully under the collective registration licence of the RSPB. He wasn’t acting an an individual, but as an employee of a registered organisation. Unfortunately, the collective registation document was not submitted to the court as evidence. As the judge said in her ruling:

Without the evidence, and in the absence of live witnesses to address the point, how am I supposed to be satisfied that what the Crown say is indeed correct?“.

Again, she was left with no other option than to rule a breach of the Data Protection Act.

What a bloody shambles.

As you’ve seen from blog 2 and this blog, the collapse of this case on a series of technicalities was wholly avoidable had the prosecution got its act together.

Now we wait to see whether legal advice will allow the RSPB to release the video footage, which is believed to show one of the peregrines frantically struggling for more than ten hours on the nest ledge as it tried to escape the jaws of an allegedly illegally-set trap clamped around its leg.

Perhaps when the public sees this footage they’ll understand why the defence went to such lengths to have this evidence ruled inadmissible.

And perhaps when the public sees the footage they’ll gain an insight as to why peregrines are doing so badly on many driven grouse moors in northern England and Scotland.

UPDATE 16 April 2018: Grouse-shooting industry’s reaction to the failed Bleasdale Estate prosecution (here)

13
Apr
18

Buzzard found shot dead at Leadhills, south Scotland

From the Carluke Gazette (13/4/18):

POLICE NEED INFO ON BUZZARD THAT WAS SHOT

Police Scotland officers at Lanark are seeking the public’s help as they investigate the shooting of a bird of prey.

A deceased buzzard was found near to Station Road in Leadhills. Examination of the bird showed that it had likely been shot, had managed to recover, before then being shot a second time and killed.

Officers are seeking witnesses to any shooting activity which is suspicious.

Those with information on the dead bird are urged to contact police on 101, or Crimestoppers on 0800-55511, quoting incident number 0571 of 03/04/18.

ENDS

There is no information about when this buzzard was found dead although a local source advises it was earlier this year.

Here is a photo of Station Road, surrounded on either side by the grouse moors of Leadhills Estate:

Here is the position of Leadhills Estate (and the neighbouring Buccleuch Estate boundary in red dashes) in south Scotland. [Boundary details from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website]. It’s in close proximity to the Moffat Hills, the proposed release site for the South Scotland Golden Eagle Project, due to begin later this year.

Leadhills is a notorious raptor persecution hotspot, with over 50 confirmed crimes recorded in the area since 2003. Only two of these have ever resulted in a successful prosecution (gamekeeper convicted in 2004 for shooting a short-eared owl; gamekeeper convicted in 2009 for laying out a poisoned bait).

Last year, witnesses reported the alleged shooting of a hen harrier on Leadhills Estate (here) and the alleged shooting of a short-eared owl (here). We’re not aware of any pending prosecutions in relation to these incidents.

We have been waiting to see whether SNH would impose a General Licence restriction but so far SNH has refused to comment, saying it’s not in the public interest to explain these decisions.

13
Apr
18

Why the video evidence was ruled inadmissible in the Bleasdale Estate case

We’ve been reporting on the case against Bleasdale Estate gamekeeper James Hartley since September 2017 (see herehereherehere for previous posts).

The case against Mr Hartley collapsed recently after the judge ruled the RSPB’s video evidence inadmissible.

In a series of blogs we’re examining what happened in this case.

In part one (here), we set out the nine charges against Mr Hartley relating to the alleged shooting of a peregrine and the alleged spring-trapping of a second peregrine on the Bleasdale Estate, Bowland, in April 2016. We outlined the evidence as presented to the court by the Crown Prosecution Service, the defence’s skeleton argument calling for the video evidence to be ruled inadmissible, and other technical issues relating to further evidence which the defence argued should also be ruled inadmissible. We also commented on the quality of the presentations by both the CPS barrister and the defence QC.

In this blog we discuss the legal argument surrounding the admissibility of the RSPB’s video evidence and the judge’s explanation for why she ruled the evidence inadmissible. In later blogs we’ll discuss the other issues raised, including the RSPB’s alleged breach of the Data Protection Act and the alleged breach of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act during the police search of the nest site and surrounding grouse moor.

Before we get in to the details of the legal arguments for and against the admissibilty of this particular video evidence, it is worth bearing in mind the statement made to the court during the first court hearing in September 2017, by the defendant’s solicitor, Tim Ryan:

My client did not carry out the alleged offences and is not the person shown in the video footage“.

Unfortunately the strength of this argument and the evidence to support it remains untested in a court of law.

It’s also worth noting the judge’s comments to the court before her ruling on the admissisbility of the video evidence:

I must remark that reaching a decision in this case has been made all the more difficult by the Crown declining to call live evidence [i.e. RSPB witnesses], despite the court inviting the Crown to consider doing so. The CPS website when addressing cases of this type states:

‘…Where surveillance product is to be relied upon, the question of whether that surveillance was overt or covert and was carried out at the initiation of or with the encouragement of the police in circumstances likely to result in private information being obtained, are questions of fact to be determined in each individual case…’

Even with that guidance, the Crown in this case ask the court to make such findings on the basis of written evidence alone. They have given no explanation as to why they do so. I find that approach most unusual“.

That statement alone probably summarises all you need to know about this particular case. The video evidence was crucial to the prosecution’s case, and yet the prosecution barrister missed opportunity after opportunity to challenge the defence QC’s legal arguments against its use.

On to the legal argument.

We’ve prepared an edited version of the court’s ruling on the admissibility of this particular video evidence, as delivered by District Judge Goodwin on 14 March 2018. We have redacted several names of witnesses and the peregrine nest site name, for obvious reasons.

This document summarises the defence’s argument against the admissibility of the video evidence, the prosecution’s counter-claims (such as they were), and the judge’s consideration of each point.

Download it here: Bleasdale RIPA_RPUK copy

A few thoughts….

The defence accepted that as the RSPB was not a public authority it was therefore not subject to RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) whereby authorisation would be required for covert surveillance on private land. However, Mr Rouse QC (for the defence) painted a picture of the RSPB and police “working hand in glove” and being “inextricably entwined” and that the two RSPB investigators involved in this case were both ex-police officers [not actually true] and thus should have known that RIPA authority should have been sought for the installation of this camera and by not doing so they were “deliberately flouting the rules“.

Mr Yip (for the prosecution) argued that no breach of RIPA had occured because the RSPB is not a public authority, is not listed on the RIPA Schedule, and had been monitoring this nest for a number of years as a matter of routine. He also pointed to many other similar cases that had been reliant on covert video evidence where there hadn’t been an issue with its admissibility or where there had, the court had used its discretion to accept the evidence because the actual trial process, where the evidence is tested, still ensures the defendant receives a fair trial.

Mr Rouse suggested to the court that if the [RIPA] law doesn’t apply to the RSPB then it shouldn’t apply to others, “…for example, Fathers for Justice, who could put bugs and cameras in hospitals, schools, bedrooms“.

In our opinion, Mr Rouse stretched this point beyond its limit. To compare the action of the RSPB placing a covert camera aimed at the nest of a protected Schedule 1 peregrine (to which only those in possession of a Sched 1 disturbance licence are permitted to visit) in the middle of a grouse moor far away from any homes and dwellings, with the placing of bugs/cameras in hospitals, schools and bedrooms, is simply ludicrous. Of course you would expect to capture ‘private’ information about people if you bugged hospitals, schools and bedrooms. You would NOT expect to capture private information about anybody if you pointed a camera at a Sched 1 nest site in the middle of a remote moor because nobody should have been there unless they held a disturbance licence.

Mr Yip should have been all over this and highlighted the obvious difference in circumstances, but he didn’t, other than to say the camera was not placed near a dwelling. Indeed he couldn’t take the argument apart, because as he told the court, he had not watched the video footage and nor did he have a copy available when the judge asked to see it (presumably she asked to see it to help determine the position of the camera and the view being recorded).

Mr Rouse argued that the RSPB’s placement of the camera did fall under the definition of ‘directed surveillance’ as defined by RIPA because even if it hadn’t captured ‘private’ information, the camera was CAPABLE of capturing private information (audio and visual) because the grouse moor was open access and the “public is entitled to privacy when out and about“. Again, had Mr Yip seen the video footage (it was nowhere near a private dwelling) and understood the restriction on visiting the nest sites of Schedule 1 species, he could have put this argument to bed.

The defence argued that the RSPB should have sought RIPA authority via the police for the placement of the camera, and pointed to a previous case, reported in Legal Eagle 2006, where this had been done. The judge asked Mr Yip what his view was on that case. Mr Yip said he didn’t know the details of that case but the circumstances would have been case specific. Had Mr Yip been familiar with that case, he would have known that it was a police-led investigation whereby the police had requested the assistance of the RSPB, not the other way around, that the landowner’s consent had been granted for the placement of a camera (it was a quarry owner) and therefore RIPA authority was easily obtained. [RIPA authority is not available for what are considered ‘low level’ offences such as wildlife crime, UNLESS the landowner’s permission is granted for the placement of a camera]. The judge asked Mr Yip why the RSPB had not sought the landowner’s consent for the Bleasdale camera and when he couldn’t answer she invited him to consider calling a ‘live’ witness [from the RSPB] to explain. Mr Yip did not accept the invitation, for reasons unknown, thus depriving the RSPB of an opportunity to explain.

Mr Rouse QC also drew the court’s attention to an open letter written last year by the Crown Office (Scotland) detailing its reasons why several prosecutions, all reliant on RSPB covert video footage, had recently been dropped [the alleged shooting of a hen harrier on Cabrach Estate & the alleged setting of a pole trap on Brewlands Estate]. Mr Rouse argued that this letter proved the RSPB had been told not to use covert cameras in Scotland “but the RSPB has decided to go on in England and take their chances“, referring to the current Bleasdale case. However, the Crown Office letter was written in May 2017, over a year AFTER the camera was placed on the Bleasdale Estate, so it was disingenuous of Mr Rouse to suggest the RSPB had ignored advice “and decided to go on in England and take their chances” at Bleasdale. Mr Yip missed this point entirely.

There’s no denying that the interpretation and application of RIPA is complex, is dependent upon the particular circumstances of a case, and we do not pretend to be experts on its use. Far from it. However, what is clear, not just from the Bleasdale case but also several others where covert footage was central to the prosecution, is an inconsistency of approach. Some courts allow it without question, others do not, and recently in Scotland the decision hasn’t even been made by the court because the Crown Office has ruled it inadmissible instead of allowing a Sheriff to consider the specific circumstances of each case.

So where does this leave us, apart from with an ever-increasing sense of injustice and an ever-decreasing confidence in the criminal justice system?

The RSPB and other groups who rely upon using covert video evidence could continue as they have been, and run the risk of cases collapsing on technicalities. That’s not really satisfactory though. Investigators need to be clear about the restrictions in advance, to allow them to take every measure to avoid this outcome and to safeguard the privacy of innocent individuals.

Alternatively, as has been suggested a few times now, the RSPB could simply forget about reporting suspected incidents to the police for a potential prosecution and instead could just place the footage in the public domain for the public to make up its own mind. This would save years of endless delay waiting for a case to reach court and, as we’ve seen in recent failed cases, video footage is a very powerful tool and stirs up public debate far more than a conviction does – the failed Cabrach case is a good example of this, as people are still talking about the injustice of that case collapsing a year on, whereas if there’d been a conviction the case would have been in the news for a few days and then forgotten. This alternative option is not really satisfactory either though. There would undoubtedly be legal issues about privacy and human rights (although it’s not difficult to pixellate a face to avoid identity) and it wouldn’t result in fair justice for either the alleged perpetrators (who wouldn’t have the opportunity of defending themselves in court) nor justice for the victims of these crimes.

Interestingly, as an aside, we’ve yet to see the covert video footage captured at Bleasdale Estate. We’ve heard about its apparent gruesome content, as described to the court, but surprisingly the RSPB has not yet put the footage in the public domain, as it has with other cases. Perhaps the defence is looking at ways of preventing its publication? Time will tell.

Another alternative is to change the law. As mentioned above, RIPA authority, without the landowner’s permission, is only available for what is classed as ‘serious crime’ (defined by the custodial sentence available for that offence). The types of crimes we’re seeing against raptors don’t fall within this definition. However, this might change in Scotland once the Scottish Government implements an increase of penalties for wildlife crime, following its acceptance two years ago of recommendations made in the Poustie Review. Would that mean that RIPA authority could then be sought by the police to investigate suspected raptor persecution crimes? We’re not entirely sure but hopefully some clever lawyers will be looking at that.

Whatever, something needs to change, and fast. It’s quite clear that the current rules permit landowners and their employees to commit whatever crimes they want against raptors, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be held to account. NB: this is not a direct reference to the Bleasdale case, but is a general observation of raptor persecution crimes taking place on privately-owned land.

The next blog on the Bleasdale case will consider the legal arguments put forward against the admissibility of some of the other evidence collected, involving alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act and alleged breaches of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act in relation to the search of the nest site and surrounding grouse moor.

UPDATE 16 April 2018: Why other evidence was also ruled inadmissible in the Bleasdale Estate case (here)

UPDATE 16 April 2018: Grouse-shooting industry’s reaction to the failed Bleasdale Estate prosecution (here)

12
Apr
18

‘Nonsense to suggest that grouse shooting is good for wildlife’

Last week The National published an astonishing letter from John Andrews, of Caithness, who falsely claimed, among other things, that hen harriers ‘never breed successfully’ unless on a grouse moor!

The letter is well worth a read (here), as are the comments below it. For posterity we’ve reproduced it here because these things have a habit of disappearing, a bit like satellite-tagged raptors flying over grouse moors:

LETTERS: GROUSE SHOOTING IS A BOON FOR ALL SORTS OF WILDLIFE

6 April 2018

SEEMS ‘tis the season for attacking the grouse shooting industry (Carolyn Leckie’s column of March 19 and Letters, March 31).

Fieldsports, mainly fishing and game shooting, employ many thousands, bringing many thousands of visitors who contribute many millions of pounds to rural areas of need. This greatly helps to keep alive many rural communities. Gamekeepers, ghillies, estate managers etc have wives and kids. Kids need schools, schools need teachers. All need healthcare, healthcare needs doctors and nurses, and so on. A small army of students and locals needing part-time work are gainfully employed each season as beaters.

Sadly, much of the hostility towards grouse shooting seems to stem from a distorted form of inverted snobbery. Not all slayers of grouse are tweedy, titled aristocrats – many are ordinary professional, business and tradespeople, many making vital contributions to Scottish society. They are not all forking out thousands to take a gun to the moor – a day “walking-up” grouse may cost less than a round of golf. Every grouse shot ends up as somebody’s dinner.

Contrary to popular belief, gamekeepers in these enlightened days do not seek to destroy everything with a hooked beak. Many of them are college-trained in a professional manner and seek to control only legitimate targets such as foxes and some corvids, which directly benefits hill-farming as well as game interests. It appears that there have been unexplained losses of eagles and other raptors in recent times – eagles kill eagles, so do starvation and powerlines and admittedly the odd rogue shepherd. Foxes kill ground-nesting hen harriers, buzzards kill osprey poults and red squirrels. If a gamekeeper is convicted of wildlife crime they automatically loses their firearms certificate and shotgun licence, thus becoming unemployable.

The management of hill land as grouse moors benefits many desirable species. All upland ground-nesting birds – curlew, lapwing, golden plover and many others – benefit, including hen harriers which never breed successfully where there is no food (grouse) or an abundance of predators (fox, corvids). The nutritious young heather created by strategic “muirburn” and control of heather beetle feeds mountain hare, deer and sheep as well as grouse.

[Satellite-tagged hen harrier Annie, found shot on a Scottish grouse moor, photo by RSPB]

If you want to see a prolific variety of wildlife, take a walk across a managed grouse moor – you can, you have a right thanks to our Scottish Government, and the nice landowner has even provided you with a nice hill track to make it easy. This type of land management creates the “bonnie purple hills” so well-loved by tourists and poets.

It is difficult for those who have not really examined the big picture to view grouse as a crop, but producing grouse is little different from producing hill sheep or cattle – the end result is the same for the beast except that many of the grouse stock are permitted to survive. Notable that a brace of grouse is worth considerably more to the rural economy than a brace of lambs. A bonus is that all these forms of husbandry are not mutually exclusive and all may be carried out side by side on the same ground.

Multiple and varied ownership and use of all land should be the way ahead in a progressive Scotland, with everyone now having a right of access. A sensible cooperation between varied interests could be very productive. For instance, the problem of raptor predation on game species could be eased with feeding stations for birds of prey during peak nesting/rearing times. Rats, rabbits, deceased day-old chicks are good grub for young harriers and eaglets. Viewing hides at these feed stations could provide additional tourist attractions. No reason why the RSPB could not steer some of its wealth in this direction combining interests and sharing funding with land owners and everybody wins.

Much as it is a romantically attractive idea to “divvy-up” Scotland’s huge upland areas into little parcels and share these out among the population, creating a living from a small acreage of hill ground is problematic. The bulk of Highland hill and moorland is of little agricultural value, suitable only for blanket forestry, limited sheep or hill cattle grazing or for grouse production.

Progress is being made. Some community buy-outs are thriving, injecting a new vigour into some parts of the Highlands. An independent Scotland will flourish best with a good mix of types of land ownership and a tolerant understanding and cooperation between those who wish to utilise it.

John Andrews, Caithness

In response to this drivel, a letter written by Graeme Myles, of Alyth, was published yesterday. Again, well worth a read as well as the comments below it (here).

LETTERS: NONSENSE TO SUGGEST THAT GROUSE SHOOTING IS GOOD FOR WILDLIFE

11 April 2018

I WRITE in response to your long letter of April 6 from John Andrews extolling the virtues of grouse shooting. I honestly thought that this tosh had been consigned to history. Where to start? I shall try to address his points one by one.

1) Game shooting is an economic mainstay of rural life. Estate owners are not benevolent benefactors propping up the countryside for the benefit of the rural economy – far from it. Estates receive huge subsidies from the public purse simply for owning land, and these are more than enough to offset the wages of a few gamekeepers. If I can quote Andy Wightman: “there is something seriously wrong with a rural development programme that relies on a few wealthy individuals owning huge swathes of land who support a few low-paid jobs.”

The estates themselves can be a very lucrative investment. A recent advertisement in a well-known country magazine read: “As an investment, owning Scottish sporting estates has generally proved very rewarding, with significant long-term capital gain being achieved.” A recent Scottish Ratings and Tribunal Chairman’s report, when referring to shooting estates, read: “The local staff are poorly paid, their wages bearing no relation to the capital investment. Estates use short-term labour, leaving the taxpayer to often pay their staff from the dole for the rest of the year.”

2) Shooting grouse is not just for toffs. Quite apart from the fact that most right-thinking people would not be interested in blasting a few small birds to bits for fun, his figures don’t add up. Shooting for a party of eight guns on a prime grouse moor was advertised at £35,000 plus VAT. Think about that on your next outing, which will it be? The food bank, or pop up the hill and kill something?

3) Eagles die of various causes. Two RSPB studies are very interesting here. Firstly: “Occupations of those convicted of offences linked to raptor persecution in Scotland 1994-2014: gamekeepers 86 per cent, farmers six per cent, pigeon fanciers six per cent, pest control two per cent.”

Secondly: “Land use types in relation to confirmed poison abuse incidents 2005-2014: grouse moors 57 per cent, lowland pheasant shoots 24 per cent, farmland 14 per cent, urban two per cent, quarry three per cent.”

4) Gamekeepers found guilty of wildlife crime might lose their jobs – and so they should.

5) Waders thrive on grouse moors – not this old chestnut again! I think this nonsense stems from a report from the RSPB of all people from the early 90s, where they looked at wader numbers on two moors – one keepered intensively, one not – and the keepered one had more. Not really a surprise, as every living thing which could possibly be a threat to grouse had been shot, snared, poisoned, and trapped. I don’t know about you, but this is certainly not the countryside I want to see.

If we look at wader species, lapwing feed on worms and prefer the grassy moorland edges, curlew prefer a mixture of tufty grass, sedge and heather, and golden plover and dunlin prefer the high tops. George Monbiot states that research in the Cairngorms found wooded habitats were 11 times richer than grassland and 13 times richer than moorland in naturally important species. Of the 223 species on the Cairngorm massif only one, a fungus which lives on billberry leaves, requires heather moor for its survival. Intensively managed grouse moors are a desert given over to one species: the red grouse.

6) Hen harriers only breed on grouse moors. Where do I start with this one? The hen harrier was all but wiped out as a breeding species in mainland Britain. They survived only on the Western and Northern Isles, where there are no intensive grouse moors. In his monograph The Hen Harrier, Donald Watson comments on hen harrier breeding in forestry plantations. This was in the 1950s. On the continent hen harriers breed in hugely diverse habitats (some very close to human occupation) and would do so in this country too if they were allowed to.

7) Muirburn is good. Only in Britain could burning be looked at as a conservation tool. Muirburn is highly damaging to the ecosystem. It destroys untold numbers of reptiles and insects, including many nationally protected species. It destroys nationally important peat bog habitats and wetlands. It releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. It increases the risk of flooding. It acidifies the water table and pollutes the water supply with particulates.

I hope this can be published to counter some of the nonsensical statements made.

Graeme Myles, Alyth

[The two pie charts are from RSPB Scotland’s report: The Illegal Killing of Birds of Prey in Scotland 1994-2014: A Review]

12
Apr
18

Injured buzzard rescued from trap, rehabbed & released back to the wild

Great partnership working by North Yorkshire Police, RSPCA and Jean Thorpe (Ryedale Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre) resulted in an injured buzzard being released from a trap, rehabilitated and then released back to the wild.

There’s no information about the type of trap, whether it was illegally-set, or the extent of the buzzard’s injuries, but still a job well done by all concerned.

Read the full press release and watch the video of the buzzard’s release on North Yorkshire Police website here

Police Wildlife Crime Officer Jez Walmsley prepares to release the buzzard (photo by Jean Thorpe)




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