Posts Tagged ‘shooting

12
Nov
18

Licences to kill marsh harriers on grouse moors – an update

In November last year we blogged about some second-hand information we’d received that the Moorland Association (the grouse moor owners’ lobby group in England) was interested in obtaining licences from Natural England for the lethal control of Marsh harriers (see here).

The issue was alleged to have been raised by Amanda Anderson (Director, Moorland Association) at a meeting of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG – the English/Welsh version of the PAW Raptor Group) on 9 November 2017.

The news was shocking. It was utterly ludicrous that grouse moor owners might consider this species such a significant threat to their over-stocked grouse populations that they would seek licences to kill it.

Marsh harriers are Amber listed on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern and are recovering from a virtual population wipeout – down to one known breeding pair in 1971 thanks to a combination of illegal persecution, habitat loss and DDT and currently with an estimated breeding population of 400-450 pairs.

[Male Marsh harrier by Markus Varesvuo]

Marsh harriers are locally common in some areas such as East Anglia but still extremely rare or absent in many others. They most commonly breed in lowland wetland habitat, particularly reedbeds but increasingly on farmland too. This female was found shot next to a lowland partridge release pen in East Yorkshire in 2016. Very rarely do they breed on upland grouse moors although when they do, they are illegally targeted by men dressed as gamekeepers.

When we blogged about the news that the Moorland Association was interested in licences for this species, Amanda Anderson denied the allegation with a two word tweet: “Complete nonsense“, but ignored all requests to clarify the MA’s position.

Amanda wasn’t the only one wanting to keep a lid on this. Philip Merricks (Hawk & Owl Trust) weighed in, even though he wasn’t at the meeting, and Chief Inspector Martin Sims, then head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and who was at the meeting told us, “There was never any discussion about Marsh harriers” (see comments on this blog – scroll down towards the end).

It’s taken us a year, but we’ve finally got some pretty damning evidence that suggests this conversation did take place at the RPPDG meeting last November.

It’s taken us so long because DEFRA has given us the run around on a series of FoIs we submitted between Nov 2017 and July 2018. We asked for the minutes of the 9 Nov 2017 RPPDG meeting, and, suspecting that those minutes may be santised given the public furore over the alleged Marsh harrier licensing, we also asked for copies of all correspondence between RPPDG members relating to those minutes before they were finally approved.

DEFRA repeatedly failed to comply with the FoI regulations over a period of eight months and didn’t provide us with the information so eventually we resorted to threatening to report them to the Information Commissioner. Shortly afterwards, in August 2018, DEFRA finally released some (but not all!) the info we’d requested.

As expected, the minutes of the Nov meeting were heavily redacted: RPPDG-minutes_9-Nov-17_final_redacted

We looked for any discussion about licences for killing Marsh harriers but only found this:

There was an inference about licensing but nothing unequivocal, and the redactions meant we couldn’t be sure the subject had been raised by Amanda or another MA rep, nor with whom she/another rep was having the conservation.

The latter question was answered when we realised that whoever had done the redactions on those minutes hadn’t done a very good job and if the redacted version was pasted in to another programme the original, unredacted version appeared: Unredacted RPPDG minutes_9_Nov2017_final

The unredacted version was useful as it confirmed that Amanda was the only representative of the Moorland Association at that meeting and it also revealed that the above conversation had taken place between Amanda and ‘GS’ , who was identified in the minutes as Ginny Swaile from Natural England:

But still no mention of the word ‘licence’ or ‘lethal control’, just an inference.

So then we turned our attention to the correspondence between RPPDG members as they discussed the approval of the minutes. DEFRA released SOME of this correspondence (we know it wasn’t all of it) but did any of the members mention the inclusion/exclusion of a discussion on Marsh harrier licensing in the draft version of the minutes?

From what we can see, most of them didn’t mention Marsh harriers, although some of this email correspondence was redacted in parts and also the marked-up copy of the draft minutes was not made available to us, so it’s hard to be sure that most of them chose to ignore the subject, although that’s what it looks like, apart from Natural England and the Moorland Association who clearly commented on the issue but the redactions hide the details:

BASC comments (British Association for Shooting & Conservation)

CLA comments (Country Land & Business Association)

MA comments (Moorland Association)

NE comments1 (Natural England)

NE comments2 (Natural England)

NGO comments1 (National Gamekeepers Organisation)

NGO comments2 (National Gamekeepers Organisation)

Police comments (National Wildlife Crime Unit)

Welsh Gov comments (Welsh Government)

Yorkshire Dales NPA comments (Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority)

But there were two other RPPDG members whose correspondence we were particularly interested to see – the RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF).

First up, the RSPB’s correspondence. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, DEFRA did not release the RSPB’s initial comments made to the RPPDG when the minutes were being discussed in early December 2017. Instead, they released two pieces of correspondence, one dated 18 January 2018 and the other dated 12 February 2018. Why do you think the early December correspondence was missing? Perhaps DEFRA ‘forgot’ to include it.

RSPB comments1 (dated 18 January 2018: Bob Elliot (then Head of RSPB Investigations) just asking DEFRA and RPPDG Chair Police Supt Chris Hankinson what was the status of the minutes)

RSPB comments2 (dated 12 February 2018: a heavily readacted email from Bob Elliot to the group saying he didn’t feel the minutes were an accurate reflection of the meeting but his reasons for this were all redacted):

Then we looked at the correspondence from NERF. Again, DEFRA had released two pieces of correspondence, one dated 7 December 2017 where Steve Downing (NERF Chairman) tells the RPPDG he is out of the country but will respond in detail the following week, and the other dated 17 April 2018 where Steve writes to Supt Hankinson telling him he objects to the sanitised final version of the minutes and that he intends to raise this issue at the next RPPDG meeting. Interestingly, and again perhaps tellingly, DEFRA did not release Steve’s email from December where he laid out his comments on the draft minutes. Hmmm.

NERF comments1 (dated 7 December 2017)

NERF comments2 (dated 17 April 2018, see copy below):

It was pretty clear to us by then that both the RSPB and NERF had objected to the way the minutes had been edited but we were still none the wiser about the specific details.

Having had a belly full of DEFRA’s ineptitude with our long-running FoI requests we decided to approach the RSPB and NERF directly to see if they would be prepared to share their unredacted RPPDG correspondence so we could see exactly what was going on.

Being gentlemen of principle, both Bob and Steve agreed but on the condition that they would only share with us their comments, and would redact the comments of any other RPPDG member. Fine by us, because the redacted names can be pieced together from the unredacted version of the minutes for those who want to look.

Here’s what they sent us:

The unredacted version of Bob’s RSPB email to the RPPDG dated 12 February 2018 (we have added the red box for clarity):

The unredacted ‘missing’ email from Steve to the RPPDG, dated 12 December 2017, outlining his recollections of the meeting on 9 Nov based on notes he’d taken during that meeting (we have added the red text box to highlight the bit about licences for the lethal control of Marsh harriers on grouse moors):

So there you have it. Two members of the RPPDG recall a discussion between the Moorland Association and Natural England about the potential for obtaining licences to kill Marsh harriers on grouse moors. None of the other RPPDG members seem to recall it, not even Amanda. Imagine that.

Here’s a reminder of Amanda’s response to our original blog in November last year:

For the record, we’ve checked with Natural England to see whether anyone has submitted an application for a licence to kill Marsh harriers but according to NE (if you believe them), nobody has. Yet.

This sordid episode of what looks like a massive cover-up /suppression exercise is no more than we would expect from the RPPDG. We’ve criticised this so-called ‘partnership’ for several years because, like many other ‘partnerships’, it has contributed absolutely nothing of any value towards the conservation of birds of prey since it was established in 2011. If Supt Chris Hankinson was still in charge of it we’d be calling for his resignation right about now.

Kudos to Bob Elliot (now Director of OneKind) and Steve Downing (NERF Chair) whose integrity speaks volumes. Bob must be delighted not to have to endure this cabal anymore.

However, as some of you may be aware, there’s a new Chair in town and he’s looking to shake things up at the RPPDG. Police Supt Nick Lyall took on the role in September 2018 and already we’ve seen more action from him in the last seven weeks than we have from Chairs over the previous seven years.

He’s bringing transparency to the group (we’ve already had a conversation about the need to provide un-redacted minutes from RPPDG meetings without having to chase them via FoI requests), he’s writing a blog to keep people informed of RRPDG activities, he’s active on Twitter (@SuptNickLyall), he’s inviting more conservation-focused groups to join the RPPDG to counter the current game shooting industry imbalance, and later this week we’ll be attending his national raptor persecution workshop where he intends to gather ideas to put together an action plan for the RPPDG, with measurable targets, instead of letting it fester from year to year with no direction and no accountability. If any blog readers have any ideas please leave a comment – we know Nick will be reading this post (to his credit, we gave him warning that this blog was coming and he didn’t try to dissuade us from writing it).

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10
Nov
18

Buzzard found in North Yorkshire with horrific injuries from shotgun

This buzzard was found today at Skipwith in North Yorkshire, with horrific injuries caused by a shotgun.

[UPDATE 11/11/18: This bird was picked up just of King Rudding Lane on Thursday 8 Nov 2018]

According to Jean Thorpe (raptor rehabilitator extraordinaire) the buzzard was found alive but with a broken shoulder and humerus. She thinks its injuries were so severe it would not have been able to fly from the location where it was shot.

If anyone has any information please contact Police Wildlife Crime Officer Jez Walmsley at Malton Police Station (Tel: 101) or the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline (Tel: 0300-999-0101).

10
Nov
18

Has this convicted gamekeeper had his shotgun/firearms certs revoked yet?

You’ll remember Timothy Cowin. He’s the gamekeeper who was convicted this summer for the illegal killing of two short-eared owls on the Whernside Estate in the Yorkshire Dales National Park (see here).

Cowin’s criminal activities were captured on camera by the RSPB Investigations Team, whose extraordinary footage also included a chase across the moor, his dramatic arrest, and then the meticulous police search to find the corpses of the owls (they’d been shot and stamped on before one was hidden in a drystone wall and the other stamped in to the peat).

One of our blog readers sent us this screengrab from Facebook earlier this week, showing Cowin’s Bonfire Night effigies, including one that appears to represent an RSPB Investigator and another one revealing some racist xenophobic tendencies judging by the text on the guy’s t-shirt. Note the comment made by Mr Cowin to the right of the photo:

We’re wondering whether Cumbria Constabulary has revoked Mr Cowin’s shotgun and firearms certificates yet? And if not, why not? Somebody already convicted of a sadistic violent crime against two defenceless owls, showing no sign of remorse, is hardly someone of ‘sound mind and temperate habits’.

If you read the Home Office guidelines on how the police should assess the suitability of a person to be entrusted with a firearm, it seems pretty clear: Guide-on-Firearms-Licensing-Law-2012-13-Suitability

It’s even clearer when you look at this infographic produced by Firearms UK, an organisation dedicated to promoting and protecting firearms ownership:

We haven’t heard whether Cumbria Constabulary has made a decision on Mr Cowin’s suitability to own shotgun and firearms certificates but we’ll certainly be asking them about it….

27
Oct
18

Red kite shot in Ashwell, Hertfordshire

Press statement from Hertfordshire Constabulary (25 Oct 2018):

Red kite shot in Ashwell

Officers from Hertfordshire Constabulary’s Rural Support Team are currently investigating the shooting of a Red Kite.

The injured bird was spotted by a local gamekeeper on a bridleway called Green Lane, just off Northfields Road in Ashwell, on Saturday September 29. However he was unable to catch it until October 3. He then took the bird to a local vet where x-rays indicated that it had been shot and had also sustained broken wings. Sadly, it was therefore put to sleep.

Officers are appealing for anyone who has any information about the bird and its injuries to contact them as soon as possible.

Detective Constable Amanda Matthews said: “The reintroduction of Red Kites has been a fantastic success story and the expansion of the population into Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire has allowed more people to see these amazing birds.

The persecution of birds of prey is a National Wildlife Crime Priority and we treat all incidents of this nature very seriously. We are therefore urging people to come forward with any information that could assist us to progress this matter.

Anyone who has any information about the incident is asked to contact DC Amanda Matthews via the non-emergency number 101, quoting reference 41/47461/18. You can also report information online.

Alternatively, you can contact the independent crime-fighting charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or through their anonymous online form. No personal details are taken, information cannot be traced or recorded and you will never need to go to court.

ENDS

Full credit to the gamekeeper whose persistence enabled this critically-injured kite to be put out of its misery.

 

17
Oct
18

Shot goshawk found dead in Angus

In yesterday’s blog (here) we discussed how the raptor-killing criminals have changed tactics to avoid detection and are going to greater lengths to remove/hide the evidence of their crimes.

This latest case is a good example of how this may be happening and how this can lead to raptor persecution crimes remaining undetected.

In March 2018 a member of the public found a dead goshawk washed up at the mouth of the River North Esk near St Cyrus in Aberdeenshire. The bird had an identifying leg ring and the finder reported this ring number to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The BTO quickly notified the ringer, Dr Chris McGuigan, and provided him with the grid reference of where the bird had been found. Chris contacted a colleague in the area (Simon Ritchie) who was able to attend the scene and collect the fresh corpse.

[Photos of the dead goshawk by Simon Ritchie]

Chris was able to identify the bird as one of three females that were ringed as chicks in Angus in 2014:

Having experience of finding dead raptors in Angus which upon closer examination turned out to have been illegally shot, and given the location of where the corpse had been found (not prime goshawk habitat), in addition to the known level of hatred directed towards goshawks by many in the game-shooting industry, Chris took the decision to submit the dead goshawk for testing. It was a very good decision.

The goshawk was sent to the Royal School of Veterinary Studies at Edinburgh University where an x-ray revealed the goshawk’s body was peppered with lead shot, suggesting it had been shot at close range.

So how did the dead goshawk end up washed up on the shoreline at the mouth of the River North Esk? Given the large amount of lead shot in its body it would have died immediately, so it’s possible it was killed on the shoreline and left to rot, although this seems unlikely given the habitat and the stupidity of leaving an illegally-killed raptor in full view of any passing members of the public.

Another explanation is that the goshawk had been shot and killed further inland and then tossed in the river for the water to carry away the corpse (and thus the evidence of the crime).

[Map showing the River North Esk running down through the Angus Glens grouse moors and out along the plain to the North Sea]

Undoubtedly there will be some who consider this explanation far-fetched, but throwing dead goshawks in to rivers isn’t unheard of in Scotland – we’ll shortly be reporting on another case that includes some amazing supportive evidence……we’re just waiting for a bit more detail on that one.

Meanwhile, back to the investigation in to the illegal shooting of this goshawk in Angus….

When Chris submitted the goshawk carcass to the Edi Vet School he hadn’t notified the police as there was nothing to report at that stage – just the discovery of a dead goshawk. However, when the x-ray revealed the lead shot in the goshawk’s body, he asked the staff member to report the incident to Police Scotland.

We understand that the staff member sent the corpse to Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) for a post-mortem (standard practice) and that the SRUC would then notify the police.

However, when we contacted Police Scotland last week to ask about the status of the investigation and why they hadn’t made a public appeal for information (this goshawk was found in March, remember, that’s seven months ago!), we were told that the police had only been informed about the incident ‘in the last couple of weeks’ and so the investigation was ‘at the very early stages’.

We asked Police Scotland for a crime reference number that we could include in this blog but we were told that a crime number ‘had not yet been issued’.

Hmm.

There are several lessons to learn from this case, not least the importance of submitting carcasses for further examination to help detect criminal activity – if Chris & Simon hadn’t acted, this crime would not be recorded in the official statistics.

But this case also highlights the importance of sending reports of suspected raptor crime to RSPB Scotland at the earliest possible time, so if there is a subsequent breakdown in communication between the authorities, which appears to have happened in this case, the RSPB can follow-up and make sure that at least these crimes are properly recorded and investigated, even though the chances of catching the culprit are precisely zero.

UPDATE 20 Oct 2018: This blog has been picked up by an article in The Express (here)

UPDATE 20 Oct 2018: This blog has also been picked up by an article in The Press & Journal (here)

16
Oct
18

2017 raptor persecution stats show criminals getting better at hiding evidence

The Scottish Government’s annual raptor persecution maps have just been released showing the number of reported crimes in 2017.

A five-year map showing the number of reported raptor persecution crimes between 2013-2017 has also been published:

An accompanying press release is as follows:

Recorded cases of bird of prey poisonings at record low

2017 saw only one recorded incident of illegal bird of prey poisoning in Scotland, according to new maps published by the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) Scotland.
This is the lowest total in a single year since PAW Scotland began compiling data for 2004 onwards.
Despite the drop in recorded incidents, data from satellite tagged raptors continues to show birds disappearing in unexplained circumstances, with persecution strongly suspected in many cases.
There was a further 36% fall in all recorded bird of prey crimes during 2017. The new figures show 9 confirmed crimes compared to 14 the previous year.
Species illegally killed in 2017 incidents included buzzards, owls, and a hen harrier, while the golden eagle, osprey and merlin were victims of disturbance cases. In addition to the poisoning incident, there were two shootings, two illegal trappings and three cases of disturbance.
Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said:
While I welcome this further reduction in recorded bird of prey crimes, including our lowest ever total for poisoning incidents, reports from early 2018 indicate that this remains a problem in some parts of Scotland.
It is extremely frustrating that some criminals continue to undermine the good work that has been done by conservationists and land managers in recent years, with much of that work being done through the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW Scotland).
We have recently provided additional resources to Police Scotland for the detection and investigation of wildlife crime, and set up a review group to look at grouse moor management, including the potential for licensing this type of business.
ENDS
The maps are available on the Scottish Government website here
It’s interesting that the Government’s headline refers only to poisoning incidents, and of course this is the line that will be picked up by the press (e.g. BBC news here). A drop to only one reported poisoning incident in 2017 does look like progress has been made, but we are well aware that the criminals have switched tactics in recent years, favouring shooting over poisoned baits, presumably because a shot bird can be swiftly removed from the crime scene to avoid detection whereas a poisoned bait (and any poisoned victim) is more likely to be accidentally discovered by walkers before the poisoner has had the time to return and remove the evidence.
However, as pointed out by Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham in the press release, this reduction to only one reported poisoning incident in 2017 appears to just be a temporary hiatus; we know that in 2018 there have been at least five reported raptor poisoning crimes (of which we’re aware), including four red kites and buzzards that were poisoned in Dumfries & Galloway between Jan-May this year (see here) and a poisoned peregrine found in the Pentland Hills in May this year (see here). There may well be further cases that Police Scotland are keeping quiet about, as they did with the Pentland peregrine. It’ll be interesting to see whether the headline accompanying the 2018 persecution maps highlight an upturn in illegal raptor poisoning.
The Government maps no longer just focus on poisoning  – they now include other types of raptor persecution such as illegal trapping, shooting, disturbance, nest destruction etc. However, what they don’t include are the suspicious disappearances of satellite-tagged golden eagles, hen harriers and white-tailed eagles. Again, it’s good to see this point being highlighted in the Scottish Government’s press statement but it’s about time these incidents were also included in the official data.
The 2017 report on the fate of satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland was unequivocal, showing clear evidence of deliberate and sustained illegal raptor persecution over a number of years.
[Stars indicate last known location of satellite-tagged golden eagles that have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circustances, 2004-2016. Data from golden eagle satellite tag review]
Since the research was completed in January 2017, the findings of which the Scottish Government accepted as strong evidence of ongoing illegal persecution, at least eight more satellite-tagged raptors have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances in Scotland (3 x golden eagles, 2 x white-tailed eagles, 3 x hen harriers), and seven of these vanished on land managed for driven grouse shooting. None of these incidents are included in the Government’s raptor persecution maps, even though the pattern of disappearance is damning.
There is further evidence of continued raptor persecution crimes, again not included in the Government’s maps. This evidence is provided by the national and regional surveys of several raptor species, which show another clear pattern of criminality with golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines noticeably absent from many areas managed for driven grouse shooting and illegal persecution identifed yet again as the main factor limiting these populations.
Until all the available evidence is compiled together to show an overall picture of the continued criminal killing of birds of prey, these annual persecution maps should be considered as an under-representation of what is actually going on.
Hiding the evidence of raptor crime is definitely on the increase, and the next blog will provide a good example of how this is achieved….
UPDATE 3pm: Great to see The Scotsman journalist Jane Bradley recognising the limitations of the Govt’s ‘official’ raptor crime stats (here).
11
Oct
18

Merlin nest shot out in the Pentland Hills

Following Tuesday’s news that a peregrine had been illegally killed with a highly toxic banned poison in the Pentland Hills Regional Park earlier this year (see here), we’d also blogged yesterday (here) about other recorded wildlife crime in this area, including the shooting out of a merlin’s nest in 2017:

We’ve been asked some questions about the merlin case so here are some background details about that crime.

A breeding pair had taken over an abandoned crow nest at the top of a tree on the edge of a small copse. The immediate land was being used for sheep farming but the site was close to an area being managed for driven grouse shooting (as you can see from the above map). The sheep-farming landowner (believed to be Alastair Cowan of Eastside Estate, according to Andy Wightman’s brilliant Who Owns Scotland website) was known to be very supportive of raptors having previously given permission to local Raptor Study Group members to erect nest boxes for kestrels and nest baskets for merlin.

[Merlin nest tree, photo SSPCA]

The merlins had laid four eggs and were at the incubation stage when a routine monitoring visit by licensed Raptor Study Group fieldworkers led to suspicions that the breeding attempt had failed. Climbing to the nest to investigate, they found smashed eggs and feathers from the adult female congealed together. They also found residual bits of bark in the nest cup and fresh damage marks on the surrounding tree branches that were suspected to have been caused by shotgun pellets. Given that the eggs were on the point of hatch, the fieldworkers were concerned the incubating female had been shot on the nest, although there was no sign of her body but had she been shot it’s possible her body had been scavenged by corvids.

[Merlin nest contents, photo SSPCA]

The incident was reported to the SSPCA who also notified the police. Typically in a case such as this that’s as far as things would have gone. It would have been recorded as a ‘probable’ wildlife crime but without witnesses or video evidence it would have been virtually impossible to progress the case.

However, although the prospects of solving the case were slim to zero, the SSPCA investigator wanted to do everything possible to at least demonstrate that this was a crime, so after securing the landowner’s permission, the top of the tree was cut off and sent for digital x-ray. The results were clear, the nest and the branches around the nest were peppered with shotgun pellets:

[X-rays from SSPCA]

It could be argued that the nest had been blasted by a shotgun prior to the merlins taking it over for their breeding attempt; if the nest had previously been occupied by corvids then destroying the nest, eggs and adults of specified corvid species is a legal activity under the terms of a General Licence. It’s a fairly barbaric thing to do but nevertheless it is a lawful activity, routinely undertaken by gamekeepers up and down the country who only require a shotgun certificate and the landowner’s permission.

However, in this case the fresh damage marks to the tree branches and the presence of pieces of bark in the nest cup were indicative that this nest had been blasted with a shotgun while the nest was being used by a protected species, the merlin.

The shooting of a nearby raven’s nest the previous year (see map above) where the corpse of a raven riddled with holes was found on the nest is also suggestive that someone with access to a shotgun is waging a determined campaign against protected species in this area. Perhaps the same person using a dangerous toxic poison to kill peregrines?

Full credit to the SSPCA for the extraordinary and creative lengths they were prepared to go to to secure the evidence that would see this incident recorded as a confirmed crime. We’re not aware of any other case where a tree top has been removed and x-rayed.

Although nobody has been charged, the details of this case, along with the other recorded wildlife crimes in the Pentlands, are all building a picture of yet another raptor persecution hotspot in south Scotland, right under the noses of the Scottish Government (who, incidentally, still haven’t responded to the news that a peregrine was illegally killed in this area with a highly toxic banned poison).




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