Posts Tagged ‘Leadhills Estate

09
Jan
20

Decision due on General Licence restriction for Leadhills Estate

On 26 November 2019 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) imposed a three-year General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire, after receiving what it described as “clear evidence” of wildlife crimes from Police Scotland (see herehere and here).

Those alleged offences included the ‘illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers’ that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (when SNH was given the power to impose a General Licence restriction on estates or individuals in Scotland). SNH also claimed that ‘wild birds’ nests had also been disturbed’, although no further detail was provided. The estate has consistently denied responsibility and implied it was the work of ‘bird of prey activists‘.

[This adult male hen harrier was found with his leg clamped in an illegally-set spring trap next to a nest on Leadhills Estate in May 2019. His leg was almost severed and despite the valiant efforts of a world-class wildlife vet, he had to be euthanised]

The General Licence restriction was supposed to be in place for three years but it lasted only 14 days. On 10th December 2019 SNH lifted the restriction because Leadhills Estate had chosen to appeal the decision to restrict.

According to SNH policy, an appeal has the immediate effect of suspending the General Licence restriction from the date SNH receives the appeal letter. SNH then has to consider the appeal and must notify the estate of the appeal outcome in writing, setting out the reasons behind the decision. SNH policy guidelines state it will seek do this within four weeks of receiving the appeal letter.

Those four weeks are now up (Tues 7th Jan was the four week marker) although there was the Xmas break to consider so perhaps it’ll take a bit longer. Although to be frank it shouldn’t take any time at all to reach a decision. SNH has already been through an appeals procedure with the estate – as per SNH policy – when SNH first notified Leadhills that a General Licence restriction was being considered. Leadhills Estate then had an opportunity to state its case and explain why a restriction shouldn’t be made. In this case, SNH chose to crack on and imposed the restriction based on the ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime provided to SNH by Police Scotland. Why there now has to be a second appeal process is anyone’s guess.

Maybe it’ll catch on. Maybe suspects at a police station, having had an opportunity to defend themselves before a charge is laid, will then be given a further 14 days after the charge has been laid to appeal the charging decision all over again and by doing so can have the original charge lifted for at least four weeks while the police/CPS consider the second appeal. It’s genius.

It’s quite likely that a lot of people will be paying close attention to SNH’s decision on whether or not to reinstate the General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate, not least grouse moor owners’ lobby group Scottish Land and Estates (SLE). Leadhills Estate is a member of SLE and Lord Hopetoun of Leadhills Estate is Chair of SLE’s Moorland Group. So far, SLE has not commented publicly on this fascinating relationship.

12
Dec
19

SNH reinstates General Licence use on Leadhills Estate during appeal process

In late November 2019 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) imposed a three-year General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire, after receiving what it described as “clear evidence” of wildlife crimes from Police Scotland (see here, here and here).

Those alleged offences included the ‘illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers’ that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (when SNH was given the power to impose a General Licence restriction on estates or individuals in Scotland). SNH has also claimed that ‘wild birds’ nests have also been disturbed’, although there is no further detail on this. The estate has consistently denied responsibility.

[The body of a shot short-eared owl that was found shoved under some heather on Leadhills Estate in May 2017. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

The General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate on 26 November 2019.

It lasted for just 14 days.

On 10 December 2019, a notice appeared on SNH’s website announcing that the restriction had been lifted due to an on-going appeal:

This means that Leadhills Estate can, until further notice, go back to using General Licences 1, 2 & 3 to lawfully kill hundreds if not thousands of certain bird species (e.g. crows) on the estate without having to report its activities to anybody.

Leadhills Estate is perfectly entitled to appeal SNH’s decision to impose the General Licence restriction. SNH has a clearly-explained policy on its appeals procedure, which states an appeal must be made within 14 days of SNH’s decision to impose the restriction and that appeal must be in writing. From the information available in the public domain it looks like Leadhills Estate has met this deadline.

An appeal has the immediate effect of suspending the General Licence restriction from the date SNH receives the appeal letter. SNH now has to consider the appeal and must notify the estate of the appeal outcome in writing, setting out the reasons behind the decision. SNH says it will seek do this within four weeks of receiving the appeal letter.

We’ll be monitoring this case very carefully.

There’s quite a lot of deja vu going on here. You might remember that Raeshaw Estate (Scottish Borders) was one of the first to be slapped with a General Licence restriction back in November 2015 (see here). That restriction only lasted for six days before the estate appealed (see here). The appeal failed and two and half months later the General Licence restriction was re-imposed on the estate (see here).

However, a couple of months later the General Licence restriction was suspended again when Raeshaw Estate took SNH to judicial review (see here). Raeshaw lost the judicial review when the court decided SNH had acted fairly so the General Licence restriction was re-instated on the estate, again, approximately one year later (see here). Interestingly, SNH did not backdate the restriction order so effectively Raeshaw Estate didn’t serve a full three-year restriction at all, thanks to all the legal disruption.

During this time Raeshaw employees also applied for individual licences to permit the continued killing of birds on the estate (e.g. 1,000 birds reported killed under one of these licences, see here), but then even the individual licence was revoked after SNH found ‘multiple instances of breaches of conditions of an individual licence that had been granted to cover essential management activities‘ (see here). SNH also said ‘These breaches may also constitute offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, so SNH has reported the details to Police Scotland‘. We’re not aware of any pending prosecution in relation to these alleged offences. And SNH chose not to extend the General Licence restriction further, in light of these breaches, even though it had the powers to do so (see here).

The link between Raeshaw Estate and Leadhills Estate, apart from them both being grouse shooting estates and the subject of a General Licence restriction for ‘clear evidence of wildlife crime’? Leading sporting agent and grouse moor ‘guru’ Mark Osborne, whose company J M Osborne & Co is believed to be involved at both estates (involved as in ‘present’, not involved as in ‘guilty of wildlife crime’ – SNH has made clear that a General Licence restriction does not infer responsibility for the commission of crimes on any individuals).

Also of interest, to us at least, is the ownership of Leadhills Estate, which has belonged to the same family (the Hopetouns) for more than 300 years, according to the estate’s website:

It’s also of great interest that not only is Leadhills Estate a member of Scottish Land & Estates (who, incidentally, have said absolutely nothing about this General Licence restriction so far), but that Lord Hopetoun is chair of Scottish Land & Estate’s Scottish Moorland Group:

If Leadhills Estate’s appeal fails and SNH re-instates the General Licence restriction, we’ll be expecting a full response from both Scottish Land & Estates and the Scottish Moorland Group.

UPDATE 9 January 2020: Decision due on General Licence restriction for Leadhills Estate (here)

02
Dec
19

SNH explains decision to impose General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate

Further to last week’s news that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has finally imposed a three-year General Licence restriction on the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire (see here and here), there is now an explanation, of sorts, from SNH on the decision to issue the restriction notice.

It wasn’t just one alleged incident of illegal raptor persecution that triggered this sanction, but a series of them.

Well done to journalist Charlie Parker at The Times (Scotland) for getting the information.

According to Charlie’s article, SNH’s decision was based on “clear evidence” of the ‘illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers’ that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (when SNH was given the power to impose a General Licence restriction on estates or individuals in Scotland). SNH has also claimed that ‘wild birds’ nests have also been disturbed’, although there is no further detail on this.

An unnamed SNH spokesperson is quoted in the article as follows:

The police have investigated each of these cases and while it is very clear that offences have been committed, as is often the case with these types of crime it hasn’t been possible to gather the evidence to identify the person responsible.

There is also similar historic evidence of incidents on this property pre-dating the incidents, although SNH’s decision is based on incidents which occurred since January 1, 2014“.

Most of the incidents listed by SNH have been well publicised –

However, the alleged incident relating to a third hen harrier is less clear. SNH may be referring to the discovery in 2015 of a satellite-tagged hen harrier called Annie who had been shot, although her corpse was found on a neighbouring estate, not on Leadhills Estate. Or, perhaps there is another alleged incident relating to the shooting or trapping of a hen harrier on Leadhills Estate that has yet to be publicised? Time will tell.

There are two more quotes in The Times article that are worth a mention. First, one from Ian Thomson (Head of Investigations, RSPB Scotland) who said Leadhills Estate had a “long and appalling history” of confirmed raptor persecution incidents and,

While this sanction is positive news, it is becoming increasingly clear that the threat of such a penalty is no deterrent to those whose sole motivation is the maximising of grouse numbers. Until sporting estates face the potential removal of the right to shoot, we do not believe there is a sufficient deterrent to those who continue to slaughter our birds of prey.

Meanwhile, an unnamed spokesperson for Leadhills Estate is quoted as follows:

The decision to restrict the general licence does make clear it is not inferring any criminal activity on the part of the estate. The estate condemns all forms of wildlife crime and all employees and agents of the estate are in no doubt as to their responsibilities“.

It’s our understanding that the General Licence restriction ‘does not infer any responsibility for the commission of crimes on any individuals‘ This is the exact wording from SNH’s restriction notice (see here). This statement is not the same as the one being claimed by Leadhills Estate, which argues that the restriction ‘is not inferring any criminal activity on the part of the estate’.

This sounds like real twilight zone material. SNH is holding the estate to account by imposing a sanction for alleged wildlife crimes because there is insufficient evidence to attribute the activity to an individual estate employee and the estate is saying that SNH’s decision to impose the sanction doesn’t infer any responsibility on the estate. Er….

All clear?

More to come on the Leadhills Estate case soon…

 

29
Nov
19

General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate: welcome to the Twilight Zone

Earlier this week it was announced that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) had finally imposed a three-year General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire ‘on the basis of evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds’ (see here).

Before we proceed any further you should be aware that you are now entering the twilight zone, suspended somewhere between reality and fantasy.

[Leadhills Estate, photo by Ruth Tingay]

We’re in that bonkers scenario where despite Police Scotland providing “clear evidence that wildlife crimes have been committed on this property” (according to Nick Halfhide of SNH), the imposition of the General Licence restriction “does not infer responsibility for the commission of crimes on any individuals“. This leaves us on wafer-thin legal ice, not able to state what to us is the bleedin’ obvious for fear of a defamation claim, even though the original intention of Scottish Ministers was to use a General Licence restriction as a “reputational driver“.

General Licence restrictions have been available to SNH (although rarely used) since 1 January 2014, introduced by then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse in response to continuing difficulties securing criminal prosecutions for those people still killing birds of prey. Paul instructed SNH to withdraw the use of General Licences (available for legal predator control) on land where crimes against raptors are believed to have taken place but where there was insufficient evidence to instigate criminal proceedings. The decision to withdraw the licence is based on a civil standard of proof which relates to the balance of probability as opposed to the higher standard of proof required for a criminal conviction.

A General Licence restriction is not without its limitations, and has even been described as farcical, particularly as estates can simply apply for an individual licence instead which allows them to continue predator control activities but under slightly closer scrutiny.

The Leadhills Estate and the surrounding area has been at the centre of wildlife crime investigations for decades. According to RSPB Scotland there have been over 60 confirmed raptor persecution incidents uncovered here, but only two successful prosecutions: a gamekeeper convicted for shooting a short-eared owl in 2004 and a gamekeeper convicted for laying poisoned baits out on the moor in 2009.

There have been a number of reported wildlife crimes here in recent years but because SNH isn’t keen on transparency, we don’t know which ones triggered the decision to impose the General Licence restriction. Was it the alleged witnessed shooting of a hen harrier in May 2017; the alleged witnessed shooting of a short-eared owl just a few weeks later and whose body was recovered; the discovery of a buzzard in 2018 that was found to have been shot twice; the filmed buzzard that according to the RSPB was likely killed in a crow trap in January 2019, or was it the discovery of a male hen harrier in May 2019 whose leg was almost severed by an illegally-set trap next to its nest?

We do know, from SNH’s press statement, that SNH believes “there is clear evidence that wildlife crimes have been committed on this property……” which sounds like multiple incidents have informed SNH’s decision to impose the restriction:

And because this is the twilight zone we also need to draw to your attention the Estate’s outright denials of any involvement in any of these alleged crimes – we particularly liked this one, in response to the illegally-trapped hen harrier earlier this year. Bless those little gamekeepers, finding it “very difficult” to cope with repeated crimes carried out by ‘unknown third parties’.

It’s probably just kids in stolen vehicles, right? Riding around the estate in 4 x 4s or on quad bikes, firing shotguns at protected wildlife. Let’s face it, who else would have vehicular access, firearms and a motive for wanting to kill birds of prey? Nope, nobody that we can think of.

Here is a copy of SNH’s restriction notice for Leadhills Estate, for the record:

We’ve got a lot more to say about this particular General Licence restriction but we’ll have to come back to it, hopefully within a few days. There are all sorts of interesting aspects to explore……

UPDATE 2 December 2019: SNH explains decision to impose General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate (here)

26
Nov
19

SNH imposes General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate

Press release from SNH (26 Nov 2019)

General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has restricted the use of general licences on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire this week. The decision was made on the basis of evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds.

[Chris Packham holding a dead hen harrier that had been caught in an illegally-set spring trap next to its nest on Leadhills Estate earlier this year. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

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

Nick Halfhide, SNH’s Director of Sustainable Growth, said: “There is clear evidence that wildlife crimes have been committed on this property. Because of this, and the risk of more wildlife crimes taking place, we have suspended the general licences on this property for three years. They may though still apply for individual licences, but these will be closely monitored.

This measure will help to protect wild birds in the area, while still allowing necessary land management activities to take place, albeit under tighter supervision. We consider that this is a proportionate response to protect wild birds in the area and prevent further wildlife crime.”

Restrictions will prevent people from using the general licences on the land in question for three years. This period can increase if more evidence of offences comes to light.

See the full licence restrictions details at https://www.nature.scot/general-licences-birds-restrictions

ENDS

As you might expect, we have a lot to say about this news, following on from last month’s blog about it (here).

We’ll be blogging in much more detail tomorrow but for now, our initial reaction to this news is, ‘Too little, too late’.

UPDATE 29 November 2019: General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate: welcome to the twilight zone (here)

UPDATE 2 December 2019: SNH explains decision to impose General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate (here)

UPDATE 12 December 2019: SNH reinstates General Licence use on Leadhills Estate during appeals process (here)

UPDATE 9 January 2020: Decision due on General Licence restriction for Leadhills Estate (here)

22
Oct
19

Is SNH about to impose a General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate?

Last week RSPB Scotland published a blog called ‘Why vicarious liability is failing to have an impact in Scotland‘.

Written by Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species & Land Management, it’s the latest in a series, following on from the excellent blog challenging the Scottish Gamekeepers’ ignorance on satellite tags, written by Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland.

Duncan’s blog is well worth a read. It questions the Crown Office’s recent decision not to prosecute anyone for alleged vicarious liability following the conviction of Scottish gamekeeper Alan Wilson for a series of barbaric wildlife crimes on the Longformacus Estate in the Scottish Borders.

It also considers the potential benefits of having the threat of a vicarious liability prosecution, and how this may have driven down the use of illegal poisons as a method of killing raptors, but been replaced by shooting and trapping methods which are much harder to detect.

The really interesting part of the blog, as far as we’re concerned, is the section on the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire. Blog readers will recall this is where a male hen harrier was found with an almost severed leg caught in an illegally-set spring trap next to his nest earlier this summer. Despite the heroic efforts of a number of experts, he didn’t survive. The estate denied all knowledge and responsibility and nobody has been charged.

[The trapped hen harrier found on Leadhills Estate. Photo by Scottish Raptor Study Group]

Regular blog readers will know this poor hen harrier is not the only victim reported from the Leadhills Estate. The list is long and goes back more than a decade (e.g. scroll down this page). Duncan’s blog discusses some of the most recent incidents including the witnessed shooting of a hen harrier in May 2017; the witnessed shooting of a short-eared owl just a few weeks later and whose body was recovered; the discovery of a buzzard in 2018 that was found to have been shot twice; and the filmed buzzard that according to the RSPB was likely killed in a crow trap in January 2019.

Nobody has been charged for any of the above, but significantly, Duncan’s blog says this:

“We are advised that only now is an Open General Licence restriction, another sanction in the public authority wildlife crime “toolbox”, to be imposed here”.

SNH has had the power to impose General Licence restrictions since 1 January 2014. This was instigated by former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse in response to continuing difficulties of securing criminal prosecutions and was an instruction to SNH to withdraw the use of the General Licence (available for legal predator control) on land where crimes against raptors are believed to have taken place but where there is insufficient evidence to instigate criminal proceedings. The decision to withdraw the licence is based on the civil standard of proof which relates to the balance of probability as opposed to the higher standard of proof required for a criminal conviction.

This measure is not without its limitations, particularly as estates can simply apply for an individual licence instead which allows them to continue predator control activities but under slightly closer scrutiny.

SNH has only imposed four such restrictions since 2014 – a pathetically small figure when we are aware of at least a dozen other cases where a restriction should have been applied. SNH has claimed it is ‘not in the public interest‘ to explain those failures.

We’ve looked on the SNH website to see whether Leadhills Estate has been listed as having a General Licence restriction imposed (SNH does publicise the details when it imposes the restriction) but so far Leadhills Estate is not named. Potentially the estate has been notified and is currently in the period where it may challenge SNH’s decision, as per the framework for a General Licence restriction.

Watch this space.

UPDATE 26 November 2019: SNH imposes General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate (here)

16
Jul
19

Scottish Government statement on recent raptor persecution crimes

The Scottish Government has finally made a statement about the recent raptor persecution crimes.

The statement is about as impressive as the one from Leadhills Estate, just shorter but no less pathetic.

It appears to be a forced statement, made after a direct request from a journalist (Sean Bell from CommonSpace) rather than a proactive statement posted on the Government’s website to clarify its position.

Ready for this?

From an unnamed Government spokesperson:

The continued targeting of birds of prey is an extremely serious issue and we strongly condemn all those involved in it. We would urge anyone with information to contact the police. 

We are determined to protect birds of prey and have established an independent group to look at how we can ensure grouse moor management is sustainable and complies with the law. 

The review is due to report later this summer and we will consider fully any recommendations or proposed actions put forward by the group“.

The full article at CommonSpace can be read here.

It’s no wonder it took so long for the Government to say anything. It’s pretty clear from this that it has nothing new to say at all – just the same old rhetoric and platitudes and vague statements that don’t actually amount to anything. At all.

Here’s a stark reminder of the effectiveness the Scottish Government’s so-called ‘determination to protect birds of prey’. The spring-trapped hen harrier. He didn’t make it, despite the very best efforts of specialist vet Romain Pizzi and his team at the Scottish SPCA. [Photo by Ruth Tingay]

How many more victims will there be while we wait for the Scottish Government to actually do something?

Emails (polite ones, please) to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon at: firstminister@gov.scot 




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