Posts Tagged ‘shooting



08
May
17

Some more thoughts on the shot hen harrier video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05
May
17

Hen harrier shooting: fury at decision to drop prosecution

Two weeks ago, the public prosecutors in Scotland (Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service) decided to discontinue criminal proceedings against a (now former) gamekeeper who was alleged to have shot a hen harrier on a grouse moor at Cabrach Estate in June 2013 (see here).

No explanation was given for this decision.

Earlier this morning, RSPB Scotland released video footage of the incident and issued a press statement (here). Here is the video in case anyone missed it:

After watching this video, it’s hard to find words to express the disbelief, frustration and fury about that decision to discontinue the prosecution. Social media has erupted in outrage and the Crown Office is seen as a laughing stock. Most reasonable, law-abiding people who don’t have a vested interest in driven grouse shooting would be hard pressed to disagree.

The RSPB Scotland statement said that the Crown Office had indicated they could not use the video as evidence, but no further detail was provided. RSPB Scotland quite rightly pointed out that other cases that have relied upon video footage have been used successfully in Scottish courts (the most high profile one being the conviction of gamekeeper George Mutch in 2014), and the RSPB was bewildered by the inconsistency of the COPFS’ approach in this case.

However, this morning, in response to the release of the video, the Crown Office has finally decided to provide an explanation, as published in a BBC news article:

In accordance with the Crown’s ongoing duty to keep prosecutions under review and after carrying out a detailed review of all of the relevant material, Crown counsel considered that the inevitable conclusion was that RSPB investigators entered the land in question and embarked upon evidence gathering for the purpose of prosecution.

Discussions have taken place over a number of years between RSPB and COPFS about the admissibility of evidence obtained through the use of covert surveillance.

The Crown has consistently made it clear that strict legal tests must be met before evidence which has been obtained irregularly, such as the evidence in this case, is admissible. We will continue to have further dialogue with RSPB.

In the whole circumstances, Crown counsel concluded that the evidence would not be admissible in court.

In light of that conclusion it was entirely appropriate that proceedings were brought to an end.”

This statement begs several questions:

  • Essentially, this statement implies that RSPB Scotland was lying about the deployment of the video camera. RSPB Scotland had clearly explained that the camera was positioned as part of a routine research/monitoring study focusing on the breeding success of a threatened species. There’s a Scottish Government project (Heads up for Hen Harriers) that is deploying cameras at hen harrier nests for exactly this purpose for Christ’s sake! The Crown Office apparently disputes the RSPB’s explanation for camera deployment. Why? What evidence do they have that makes them think the RSPB is lying? [NB: see update at foot of blog]
  • If the COPFS believed this camera had been placed “for the purpose of prosecution“, why on earth did it take them three years from the date of the shooting to decide to charge the suspect, and why did it take a further year of court hearings (nine in total) before the decision was made to discontinue proceedings? Why did the COPFS even mark this case for proceedings if they didn’t believe the RSPB’s version of events? What changed in the four years the COPFS have been considering this case?
  • Why is the admissibility of video footage such a controversial issue in cases of alleged raptor persecution, and yet we see it being used in a current court case of alleged fox-hunting? We’ve spoken to one of the investigators who filmed the footage being used in the hunt case and he has confirmed he was filming covertly on private land without landowner permission as part of a wider research project on the behaviour of hunts, whether the hunts were involved in alleged criminal activity at the time or not. That’s no different to the circumstances of this hen harrier case.
  • If the circumstances of how this camera footage was obtained were so controversial, why didn’t the COPFS allow the evidence to be assessed by the court? In a very similar case to this current one, in 2006 a gamekeeper was convicted of stalking a hen harrier and his conviction was based on RSPB video evidence. During that trial, there were several hours of legal argument about the admissibility of the video evidence. The Sheriff accepted the video evidence, commenting that the RSPB presence on the gamekeeper’s estate [from where the video was filmed] was “neither illegal nor irregular, and the intent to obtain evidence did not make it so“.
  • We’ve discussed the issue of the admissibility of video evidence time and time and time again. In 2013, the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse told us that this very issue had been raised with the Lord Advocate (see here). Why then, four years later, is there still such inconsistency and lack of clarity about video admissibility?
  • Why did it take the publication of this video footage, two weeks after the Crown’s decision to discontinue proceedings, for the COPFS to provide an explanation for their decision? Hen harrier persecution is one of the highest national wildlife crime priorities and there is huge and legitimate public concern about it. By remaining silent for two weeks, we would argue the COPFS has displayed an arrogance and contempt for that public concern. It’s not the first time the COPFS has been criticised for poor communications – the Scottish Environment LINK report on wildlife crime enforcement published two years ago was damning on this issue, and this year’s Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee report on the role and purpose of the COPFS reached a similar conclusion.

The general public, is, quite rightly, furious about how this case has been handled. It seems to us that the Crown Office is more concerned about how the evidence was obtained than the actual alleged crime of killing a protected, national priority species. Of course, the COPFS has to assess the evidential circumstances on a case by case basis, and we don’t question that at all. What we do question is, in this case, on what basis the COPFS decided to disbelieve the RSPB’s explanation for deploying the camera, and why it took so long, at such huge cost to the public purse, to decide to discontinue proceedings.

And let’s not forget that this case is one of three that the Crown Office has recently discontinued, all in the space of two weeks (see here).

For a comical interlude, have a read of the statement issued by the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association in response to the video footage. They say, “The SGA has no membership interest in this case. It is not our place to comment, therefore, on individuals involved in the alleged incident or to provide a critique of COPFS“. This is the organisation that is supposedly signed up to the Partnership for action Against Wildlife Crime and who serves on the PAW Raptor Group.

Do we have any confidence in the Scottish criminal justice system to address the on-going persecution of birds of prey? On current evidence, the answer is a resounding NO.

What to do about it? We would urge you to contact your MSP (find out who yours is here) and ask him/her to contact the Scottish Government’s Justice Minister, Michael Matheson to complain on your behalf about the handling of this case. The more MSPs that see this video footage, and hear about the public’s serious concerns, the better.

If you don’t live in Scotland but still want to voice your concerns, please email the Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, Margaret Mitchell MSP (Scottish Conservatives). Email: margaret.mitchell.msp@parliament.scot

Don’t be fobbed off with platitudes or claims of “We can’t comment on individual cases”. Public scrutiny is fundamental to democracy and the public has every right to be asking questions about this ongoing, disgraceful shambles.

UPDATE 14.30hrs: RSPB Scotland has issued a statement in response to the claims of the Crown Office that the camera had been “deployed for prosecution purposes”. Here’s what it says:

In response to the Crown Office’s statement of 5th May as to why the video evidence would not be admissible in court Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations, RSPB Scotland said: “We do not agree with the opinion from the Crown Office that we were attempting to gather evidence for a prosecution. We installed a camera to monitor a protected breeding bird’s nest site, core business for a conservation organisation. We did not share the information about the nest site with anyone, as would be the case with any rare and vulnerable breeding bird species. 

“The fact that an individual came and allegedly shot the female harrier, and that this was captured on film, was an incidental consequence of the camera’s deployment, in the same way that it could easily have captured footage of the nest being naturally predated or failing due to bad weather. It is very disappointing that the opportunity for the court to consider the issue of the admissibility or otherwise of this evidence, as has happened in previous cases, has been removed. Until today, we have received no rationale for the decision to drop the case despite the fact that a number of our staff have provided significant time and expertise in supporting the authorities with the prosecution case.” 

ENDS

UPDATE 8 May 2017: Some more thoughts on the shot hen harrier video (here)

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

05
May
17

Hen harrier shooting on Cabrach Estate: RSPB releases video footage

Two weeks ago we blogged about the Crown Office dropping all proceedings against a gamekeeper who was alleged to have shot a hen harrier on the Cabrach Estate in June 2013. At the time, the Crown Office did not offer any explanation for their decision to discontinue the case (see here).

Today, RSPB Scotland has published video footage of what happened at that hen harrier nest in June 2013:

RSPB Scotland has also released a press statement:

ALLEGED ILLEGAL KILLING OF A HEN HARRIER

Court proceedings against a former gamekeeper, accused of shooting a protected hen harrier, have been dropped by the Crown Office, who have indicated that after considering all of the relevant material they could not use RSPB Scotland video evidence to support the prosecution in court.

Since the incident occurred at Cabrach, Morayshire in June 2013, the case has been subject to a prolonged police investigation and nine separate court hearings, at a considerable cost to the public purse. Only now has the Crown Office Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) abandoned the prosecution just a few weeks prior to the scheduled trial.

The evidence was obtained as a result of RSPB Scotland staff monitoring the active nest of a breeding pair of hen harriers on the Cabrach Estate, in Morayshire, which contained 4 eggs. On 20th May 2013, a camera was deployed in a moorland area away from human habitation to film the nest to record the outcome of the nesting attempt – a routine part of RSPB Scotland’s work to observe the success of breeding attempts for this protected and threatened species. Over the next three weeks the footage recorded at the nest showed normal hen harrier breeding behaviour.

However, the film revealed that on 10th June 2013, the female hen harrier was flushed from the nest, and immediately afterwards two gun shots were heard. The bird was apparently hit as a shower of feathers can be seen. A few seconds later, a man, carrying a shotgun entered the picture and moved in the direction of where the hen harrier had flown. He then returned into the picture holding the carcass of the dead hen harrier, and was seen to pick up a number of feathers that had been dislodged from the bird.

On reviewing the footage, RSPB Scotland Investigations staff immediately reported the incident to Police Scotland, as we believed the footage showed clear evidence of a wildlife crime having been committed. This case was then reported for trial by the Crown Office following the identification by the police of a suspect.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland said:

In our opinion, the video footage clearly shows an individual involved in the illegal killing and then disposal of a hen harrier, one of Scotland’s most threatened bird species. Whilst we know that hen harriers are often illegally targeted by gamekeepers seeking to protect red grouse stocks, such crimes usually take place in remote areas, and it is therefore very difficult to obtain evidence to bring the perpetrators to justice. This incident would never have been uncovered had the nest not been monitored by our camera”.

He continued: “RSPB video evidence has been used in the successful prosecution of previous wildlife crime cases in Scotland, including two very similar incidents of hen harrier persecution, and more recently our film footage assisted in the conviction of an Aberdeenshire gamekeeper for a number of raptor persecution offences. Digital imagery has also been used to assist successful prosecutions on a number of occasions in England. We are appalled and extremely frustrated that the court has not been given the opportunity to give a judgement based on this clear footage, and we are perplexed by the inconsistency in approach to these cases that seems to be taken by the Crown Office (COPFS). The hen harrier is an agreed Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAWS) priority and yet despite this, and the quality of the evidence our staff gathered, we were notified, by email on a Friday afternoon, of the decision to take it no further. In our view, justice has not been seen to be done in this case, and the public interest seems to have been very badly served by COPFS. We have written to the Lord Advocate and will be seeking urgent meetings with the Crown Office to consider the implications. There is little point in passing laws to protect our most threatened species if the public authorities ignore the strong public concern about the scale of wildlife crime in Scotland.”

ENDS

We will be commenting on this press release, the video, and the wider consequences of the COPFS’ decision to (a) exclude the video as evidence, and (b) discontinue criminal proceedings, later this morning. We’ll also be advising what you can do in response. More later…….

UPDATE 13.30hrs: Hen harrier shooting: Fury at decision to drop prosecution (see here).

UPDATE 8 May 2017: Some more thoughts on the shot hen harrier video (here)

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

21
Apr
17

Prosecution dropped against gamekeeper in alleged hen harrier shooting

Regular blog readers will know we’ve been tracking the prosecution of Scottish gamekeeper Stanley Gordon, who was alleged to have shot a hen harrier on Cabrach Estate in Morayshire in June 2013.

It took the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) almost three years to charge Mr Gordon, and they just beat the statutory time bar by a few weeks.

The first court hearing took place in May 2016 and there followed a total of nine court hearings in this case. Mr Gordon pleaded not guilty in September 2016 and so a trial date was set for 19 December 2016. This trial date was later dumped and another provisional trial date was set for 15 May 2017.

Today, there was supposed to be a final hearing (intermediate diet) to confirm the trial date. However, we have learned that the case was not called today because the COPFS have dropped all proceedings.

We do not yet know why the case has been abandoned.

There is no chance of anyone else being prosecuted in this case because the case is now time barred.

So in the space of ten days, yet again the COPFS have dropped a long-running prosecution for alleged raptor persecution; they recently dropped a vicarious liability prosecution because, they said, ‘it wasn’t in the public interest to continue‘ (see here).

And just as in the abandoned vicarious liability prosecution, this latest abandonment comes after a protracted period of court hearings, right up to almost the eve of the actual trial date.

Efforts will be made next week to try and find out why the COPFS dropped proceedings, but, as before, we don’t expect much detail to be revealed because public accountability appears to be limited.

It’s worth remembering at this point that hen harrier persecution is listed as a National Wildlife Crime Priority.

We will have more to say about this case in due course.

16
Apr
17

Shot hen harrier Rowan: no further metallurgical tests

The farcical reporting about the shooting of young hen harrier Rowan continues.

As you’ll recall, Rowan was satellite-tagged by the Hawk & Owl Trust / Natural England at Langholm in 2016. His corpse was discovered, in suspicious circumstances, in Cumbria /Yorkshire Dales National Park in October 2016, shortly before the Westminster debate on banning driven grouse shooting.

A press release issued by Cumbria Police (after consultation with Natural England and possibly the Hawk & Owl Trust) stated he was ‘likely to have been shot‘. We questioned that phrasing and a series of FoIs revealed that Cumbria Police had changed their statement from ‘was shot‘ to ‘was likely to have been shot‘. Why did they introduce an element of doubt? Was this a political move?

We asked Cumbria Police and Natural England to publish the post mortem report and the x-ray of Rowan’s corpse – they refused, saying it ‘might affect the course of justice‘. This made us even more suspicious as police forces routinely publish x-rays of shot birds as part of their appeals for information. By not publishing Rowan’s x-ray, it was almost as though they had something to hide.

Then on 3 February 2017, the RSPB published an image of Rowan’s x-ray on their blog. The image was clear: Rowan had suffered gun shot injuries to the leg and metal shot fragments were visible at the fracture site.

Later that day, the Hawk & Owl Trust issued a statement saying ‘the initial post mortem results were not wholly conclusive and further metallurgical tests were required‘.

We asked the Hawk & Owl Trust, several times, who had decided the post mortem results were inconclusive, who had decided that further metallurgical tests were required, had those tests been done, and if so, what were the findings?

The Hawk & Owl Trust did not respond.

So in March 2017, we submitted an FoI to Natural England to ask about these ‘further metallurgical tests’. Here’s their response:

You’ll notice that our questions about whether further metallurgical tests were ‘required’ and if so, who deemed them a ‘requirement’, were carefully dodged. The response to question 1 should really have been the response to question 3.

But that little anomaly aside, it’s clear from Natural England’s response that further metallurgical tests are not being undertaken. Does that mean that it is now accepted that Rowan had been shot? And if so, why all the obfuscation in the earlier press releases? To us, it looks remarkably like a cover-up job, albeit a bodged one.

Meanwhile, in the March edition of the RSPB’s Legal Eagle newsletter, it was stated that ‘the Zoological Society of London post mortem examination, including a radiograph of its fractured left leg, showed the bird’s injuries were entirely consistent with it having been shot‘.

And what of the Hawk & Owl Trust? Well, last week they published a statement on their website, out of the blue, about this case:

Why did they publish this statement last week? Was it because they’d been tipped off by Natural England that an FoI had been submitted seeking clarification on the claim that ‘further metallurgical tests were required‘? It certainly looks that way. So now they’re trying to put responsibility for this claim back on to Natural England! (“All subsequent statements from the Hawk & Owl Trust were based soley on information provided to them by Natural England“).

So, was it Natural England who determined that ‘further metallurgical tests were required‘ and if so, why haven’t these tests been done? Or was it the Hawk & Owl Trust who determined that ‘further metallurgical tests were required‘ in an attempt to introduce an element of doubt about the circumstances of Rowan’s death, to justify their continued involvement in the DEFRA Hen Harrier Inaction Plan, even though they’d previously stated that they’d pull out if criminal activities continued?

12
Apr
17

Buzzard, raven & crow shot in Brecon Beacons National Park

The RSPCA is appealing for information after the shooting of three birds in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

A member of the public discovered a dead raven and a dead buzzard near Pen-y-Cae on 5 April 2017. They were taken to the RSPCA’s Merthyr Tydfil clinic where x-rays revealed they had been shot with a pellet gun (x-ray image by RSPCA).

An injured crow was rescued but later euthanised due to its injuries.

Local residents have reported seeing an unusual white van parked in the area around 5 April.

Anyone with information is urged to contact the RSPCA Appeals Line, in confidence, Tel 0300-123-8018.

BBC news article here

ITV news article here

08
Apr
17

Red kite shot in Hertfordshire

Hertfordshire police have issued the following appeal for information:

APPEAL FOR INFORMATION ABOUT SHOOTING OF RED KITE

7 April 2017

Police are appealing for witnesses and information after a wounded bird of prey was taken to a vet in Buntingford.

The Red Kite was spotted in Furneux Pelham, Buntingford, in distress and unable to fly. The vet concluded that the Kite had been shot and had suffered injuries which meant that it had to be put down.

Rural Operational Support Team Sergeant Jamie Bartlett said: “All wild birds are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act. As a bird of prey Red Kite persecution is monitored by DEFRA and the National Wildlife Crime Unit, as Raptor Persecution is a National Wildlife Crime Priority. Not only is this a serious criminal offence but, this female would have been ready to breed this season and its death will impact on the local Kite population.

If anyone has information about this incident or has seen people shooting or carrying hunting rifles in the area, please contact the Herts Police non-emergency number 101 quoting reference A2/17/197.”

ENDS

Photo of a red kite by Richard Stonier




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