Posts Tagged ‘short-eared owl

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)

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)

11
Dec
18

Continued inertia from grouse shooting industry reps on illegal raptor persecution

Last week we blogged about two owls (a short-eared and a tawny owl) that had been found shot on moorland in the Peak District National Park (here). West Yorkshire Police and the RSPB issued a joint statement appealing for information.

[Photo of the shot short-eared owl from RSPB]

As usual, the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) has issued an official response statement on its website (see here).

But what about the other members of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG), you know, that so-called ‘partnership’ whose main objective includes raising awareness of illegal raptor persecution? How many other ‘partners’ have also issued a statement of condemnation and an appeal for information on their websites?

As we’ve come to expect…… there are no public statements about these two crimes on the websites of the Moorland Association, National Gamekeepers Organisation, BASC or the Countryside Alliance.

There was also silence from the continually failing Peak District Birds of Prey Initiative (of which the Moorland Association is a supposed ‘partner’). This so-called ‘partnership’ is already in the last chance saloon so perhaps the absence of a joint partnership statement is because the Peak District National Park Authority is about to announce the termination of this pointless useless scheme?

Similarly, there are no public statements on the websites of the grouse shooting industry ‘partners’ about the discovery of a shot red kite found on a grouse moor in the Nidderdale AONB at the end of October – one of the worst places for red kite and hen harrier persecution in the entire country but apparently not significant enough to warrant a mention.

Perhaps they’re sleeping partners?

Or perhaps they’re not genuine partners at all, but are just using their membership of the RPPDG as a convenient cover to portray themselves in the media as ‘concerned conservationists’.

It’ll be interesting to see how long Police Supt Nick Lyall (the new RPPDG chair) will tolerate this long-standing inertia before he starts to put his words in to action and boots out from the ‘partnership’ those who are not contributing to tackling this filthy organised criminality.

07
Dec
18

Two owls shot in Peak District National Park

Police are appealing for information after the discovery of two shot owls in the Peak District National Park.

On the evening of 11 September 2018 a local runner witnessed a short-eared owl flying overhead, followed by what sounded like gunshots. The following morning she returned to the moorland near Wessenden Head in the northern Peak District. She found the bird on the ground, still alive. It was taken to a vet but had to be euthanized due to its injuries, which included a shattered wing.

[Photo of the shot short-eared owl, via RSPB]

The runner who saw the short-eared owl said: “I had just got back to my car when I suddenly saw a short-eared owl fly over my head – it’s always fantastic to see one of these gorgeous birds. This however was followed by the sound of a gunshots, coming from the direction of a dark-coloured pickup. I really hoped this wasn’t aimed at the owl I’d just seen.

The next morning I returned to the same spot and, there on the ground, was a short-eared owl, still alive but clearly wounded. I was so upset but also furious to think that someone had done this on purpose.”

The police are wanting to speak to the driver of the dark-coloured pick up truck, described as having two dog cages on the back with a thick wooden cover over the cages.

This land (Marsden Moor Estate) is owned by the National Trust and is a designated Special Protection Area (SPA) for short-eared owls.

[RPUK map showing the location of the Marsden Moor Estate (orange) in the Peak District National Park]

On 1 October the dead body of a tawny owl was discovered close to where the short-eared owl was found. It had been shot and stuffed inside a dry stone wall on the Kirklees Way footpath near Greenfield Road (not on National Trust property).

[RPUK map showing proximity of Wessenden Head and Kirklees Way footpath to areas managed for driven grouse shooting in the Peak District National Park]

If you have any information relating to these crimes, call West Yorkshire Police on 101 quoting police log number 174211/09/2018.

To share information about raptor persecution in your community in confidence, please call the Raptor Crime Hotline: 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….




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