The Importance of being Observant; an excerpt from my book ‘A Lone Furrow’

Bertha Loch near Perth. Mr Nasty was fishing from within the trees at the far left hand end.

Good policing is very much about using your eyes and your ears. It’s about knowing what car is regularly parked at a specific location, or ought not to be on the go in the middle of the night; who is about at certain times and at certain locations; the opening and closing times of premises; known or suspected criminals and their usual associates and much more besides. Once the police officer is aware of what is normal, anything out of place or different is of interest. The investigating of wildlife crime can benefit from using the same principles but in a very different context. A very practical example in the late 1970s was the catching of a man intent in removing as many fat brown trout from a Perthshire stank (a loch or pond which has been stocked with trout and from which there is no entry to other fish or exit for those stocked) as he possibly could by the use of a bubble float and worm.

I had a call from the landowner, who had seen the man making towards the loch carrying a fishing rod. The elderly landowner had encountered this poacher on a number of occasions and described him as ‘a very nasty piece of work’. I knew the poacher well and was of the view that the description of him given by the gentlemanly farmer had erred very much on the side of caution. I attended with a very young colleague, ‘brand new out of the box’ sometimes being the term used to describe such a rookie officer. We parked the police van a good distance from the loch so that the sound of the engine would not alert the poacher and walked quietly up through a gully towards the south shore of the loch. The loch was about 300 yards wide and just a bit under a quarter of a mile long but we had no idea where Mr Nasty had decided to fish. About 100 metres short of the loch I signalled my young colleague to stop and indicated that I was going to creep along on my belly to the lochside to see what was what. The young officer was as yet untested in stalking and I wanted to ensure that I could see without being seen.

We were in the first week of May and I had some difficulty concentrating on our poacher because of the sounds of the wildlife in the woodland. The staccato hammering of the great-spotted woodpecker was the most noticeable. As this mechanical drumming reverberated through the wood like gunfire I couldn’t help wondering how it managed to batter on the trunk of a tree without finishing up with an incredible headache. I could hear a blackbird, the repetitive lilt of the song thrush, a robin, the soft cooing of a woodpigeon (that often sounds as if it has been interrupted before it finishes, like a poem with part of the last line missing), the impressively loud crescendo of a tiny wren, and at the side of the loch, the lovely, melodious sedge warbler.

The sound of a cuckoo, possibly just landed after its long migration from North Africa, drifted across the loch. I have read At the Water’s Edge by Sir John Lister-Kaye, a man with knowledge of wildlife second to none, and a parallel command of the English language. His eloquent description of the cuckoo in his book surpasses anything I could hope to write:

In the distance throat-pouting cuckoos would float pairs of muted minims into the air like audible smoke rings, notes that seem to hang there, directionless and slightly sinister as if, along with the hawks, cuckoos have been forbidden to sing.

Regaining concentration, when I peeked through the reeds at the side of the loch I could see twenty of thirty mallard and probably about the same amount of tufted duck swimming happily at the east end. That was where Mr Nasty wasn’t fishing. Invariably these waterfowl are at the west end, which is a much more sheltered and quiet end, and I suspected they had been flushed to the less popular end by Mr Nasty. I looked towards the west end of the loch and could see three or four coots swimming about on the north shore. They are more tolerant of humans and in most cases will quite happily carry on their business a couple of hundred metres from a fisher. My guess was that Mr Nasty was on the south shore somewhere near the west end of the loch. At the west end there is woodland right down to the shore for the last 150 metres of the loch. Between where I was and the start of the woodland a field came almost to the loch side and there was little if any cover. I watched a woodpigeon flying directly up the middle of the loch making for the west end. As it came towards the wood it turned slightly left as if intending to land in the trees but shortly after its gradual left hand turn it suddenly veered off to the right and began to gain height. It had obviously spotted Mr Nasty in the trees; had he been in the field there would have been a reaction much earlier from the pigeon.

Now that I had located Mr Nasty – though had yet to see him – we needed to catch him. This entailed back-tracking, walking along the bottom of the field that ran up to the loch, entering the wood and walking slowly and quietly up to where the birds – or indeed lack of birds – had indicated the poacher was located. I told my apprentice that as we neared our goal he must be extremely quiet and not be standing on any branches that would alert Mr Nasty to our surprise visit. He did very well and, just less than an hour later, we were about 20 metres behind Mr Nasty, who was watching his bubble float bobbing on the surface of the loch waiting for it to be pulled partially under the water if a trout had a nibble at the wriggling worm on the hook somewhere near the bottom. We closed in further but when he was almost within our grasp he turned round and saw us. Quick as a flash he took a cigarette lighter from his pocket and a flame flicked from it briefly as he melted the line, casting the bubble float and skewered worms adrift.

He needn’t have bothered as even without the bubble float and the hook we had enough evidence to charge him with attempted theft of trout, these being the property of the person who had stocked the loch, the elderly farmer. I could see no fish hidden round about him but again the absence of fish was not important. I don’t believe for a minute he had caught none but I wasn’t bothered.

We had caught him; that was what mattered. I arrested him and had to suffer the usual tirade of abuse that went with being anywhere near, far less arresting, this man. He really was an extremely nasty piece of work.

See A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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The cruelty involved in badger digging

Typical lower jaw injury caused by pitting dog against badger

Occasionally I am asked to write about a particular aspect of wildlife crime. The latest was a request at the end of March by the Northern Ireland Badger Group, who wrote,

@wildlifeblog Would you do a blog on how Badger diggers and baiters train their dogs? People need to know the horrific cruelty involved.

There is certainly cruelty in the training of dogs to take badgers, but I’d suggest there is much more cruelty both to the dogs and to other mammals during the operation of this abhorrent activity. I am sure that some of the criminals involved will train their dogs in a similar way to which dogs used for fighting purposes are trained. This includes having them gripping and hanging from tyres to strengthen their neck muscles and running on a treadmill to build up their stamina. Most badger diggers, however, seem content to train their dogs to kill smaller and less powerful mammals such as cats and foxes, then graduate to badgers. They may even pit them against smaller dogs though to be honest I’ve never seen this in the various items of intelligence I’ve trawled through. It most certainly takes place though in the training of fighting dogs, with pet dogs sometimes being stolen for this purpose.

From my own experience in Tayside we dealt with a young gamekeeper who had made an artificial fox den on land beside his house. He had captured some fox cubs and had put his terrier into the den to kill them. He had also tied a ferret on to the end of a length of string and set his terrier on it. Lastly he had caught someone’s cat and put it in a cage so that his terrier could tear at the cat through the cage. Worst of all he had filmed all of these episodes for his continuing ‘interest’. His fine of £200 in court was risible. Intelligence later indicated this man was involved in badger baiting so I’ve no doubt that this was what he was working up to.

Thankfully there is comparatively little crime committed against badgers in Tayside though we had a couple of setts dug out and another two instances of snares set for badgers. In these cases, had badgers been caught, their terrifying end would have been in the jaws of large dogs. We were also told by a farmer of gamekeepers from a nearby driven grouse moor on his land with shotguns, terriers and a spotlamp. He encountered them in their landrover hiding behind a wood. The opinion at the time was that they were after badgers but unfortunately he was unable to identify the men.

Much of the intelligence I dealt with when I was working with the National Wildlife Crime Unit related to badger digging. It also showed that sometimes the same people were involved in dog fighting, but were more likely to be involved also in the taking of hares, rabbits and roe deer with their dogs. Many kept a range of dogs, from the smaller terriers that they used underground, usually wearing locator collars, to much larger dogs to set on the luckless badger once it had been dug out from its sett or simply to lamp and kill them when they were foraging. These were often bull lurchers, which are a cross between pitbull terrier-type dogs and lurchers. They are fast and strong and a badger would have little chance against even one of these dogs.

I watched a video that had been recovered from badger diggers some years ago and the content has stuck in my mind. Thugs dug out two badgers from a sett. One was put in a pit dug out in the ground and stoned with large rocks until it was so badly injured it could barely fight back against the terrier that was then put in to torment it. The other was released and shot at with a shotgun, wounding it sufficiently that it had no chance against the pack of dogs set after it. The people involve in these atrocities are sub-human and deserve long jail terms if caught. The man with the shotgun was so reckless he was as likely to have shot his pal. I was secretly wishing that he had!

While bull lurchers, lurchers and other large dogs involved in taking badgers invariably show some scarring, the terriers, forced to fight underground, come off worst of all. The terriers almost always show extreme facial scarring and loss of skin, muscle and even teeth. They seldom receive veterinary treatment since the vet would recognise the type of injuries and would hopefully contact the police. I have no doubt that these people look upon a badly scarred dog as somewhat of a trophy. If their injuries are such that they can no longer fight or if they have shown any reluctance to do what is asked of them they would simply be killed by their owner.

Badger crime UK-wide is being fought through Operation Meles, an initiative involving the police, National Wildlife Crime Unit, the RSPCA, Badger Trust and other animal welfare groups. They are working together to gather evidence of baiting, which includes targeting “hot spots”, to track down offenders and prosecute them.  I wish them every success, since the criminals involved are of the very worst type.

 

 

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Tethered eagle owl on Lammermuirs – comment

I was interested in a story on the blog Raptor Persecution UK at the beginning of April. It appears a man with a quad bike and a shotgun was seen at the edge of a shelter belt on the Lammermuirs. Tethered on a post within shotgun range of the shelter belt was an eagle owl. The man made off with the eagle owl when he saw he was being filmed.

There was much discussion on the blog as to whether or not a crime had been committed.

I’ve noticed over the last ten or so years that quite a number of grouse moor keepers are keeping eagle owls. They’re committing no offence in doing so but my suspicious mind tells me they are for use in luring in birds that the keepers want to shoot.

The law (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as amended) in this respect states:

5.–(1)     Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person

(d)          uses as a decoy, for the purpose of killing or taking any wild bird, any sound recording or any live bird or other animal whatever which is tethered, or which is secured by means of braces or other similar appliances, or which is blind, maimed or injured;

(f)           knowingly causes or permits to be done an act which is mentioned in the foregoing provisions of this subsection and which is not lawful under subsection (5),

he shall be guilty of an offence.

I don’t doubt for a minute the man was intent on decoying birds to shoot. The species of bird intended to be shot is not relevant; it is the tethering of the eagle owl for this purpose that constitutes the crime. However without any other evidence of shots being heard, empty cartridges on the ground or dead or injured birds I doubt that a prosecutor would proceed with a case.

Having said that, if we look at the elements of circumstantial evidence the case is not too far short:

Motive: Get rid of ‘problem’ birds from the moor

Ability: Presumably the man has permission to shoot (he certainly will if he is the keeper), he has a shotgun and (presumably) ammunition

Guilty Intention: This element is unknown

Identification: Unknown, but may be determined by police investigation

Conduct after the Crime: Gathered owl and sped off when he was aware he was being filmed

Opportunity: Unknown until after any interview. Clearly if the man is identified this element is complete (as opposed to him having been on holiday or having a broken leg etc)

Preparation: Eagle owl tethered to post, plus shotgun and transport

Unfortunately, in the absence of crucial evidence showing intent I don’t see that the eagle owl could be considered a ‘decoy’; it was simply an eagle owl tethered to a post, the use of which is unable to be confirmed.

There is also Section 18 of the Act, which states:

(1)          Any person who attempts to commit an offence under the foregoing provisions of this Part shall be guilty of an offence and shall be punishable in like manner as for the said offence.

(2)          Any person who for the purposes of committing an offence under the foregoing provisions of this Part, has in his possession anything capable of being used for committing the offence shall be guilty of an offence and shall be punishable in like manner as for the said offence.

He has not, in my opinion, ‘attempted’ to commit an offence. He also, in my view, falls short of the evidence required for section 18(2). Critics should always be mindful, even if the man was subsequently identified by the police, that evidence to convict must be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

I think the action taken should have been:

  • Report the incident to the police at the time. Regrettably there has been so much negative information about the police not being interested or being corrupt that some people are likely to have been put off reporting suspicious wildlife incidents to the police. These biased views do not help to solve wildlife crime and most definitely work to the criminals’ advantage. Even with most of my information now coming from the media I see evidence of cases that the police could most likely have solved had they been reported to the police in the first instance.
  • The police could have investigated the allegation and traced and interviewed the suspect. He would be unlikely to make any admission but still worth a try. Whether a positive or negative outcome an intelligence entry could then be submitted.
  • It could still be reported to the police and investigated but the end result, after details of the incident have been so long in the public domain, will almost certainly be of intelligence value only.

One comment on the blog advocates reporting to the police after releasing details on social media; another suggests reporting first to RSPB, then to SSPCA then to the police. Thankfully the blog editors make the point very clearly that crimes should not be put into the public domain before the police are informed. Why do I get the impression that some who claim to be conservationists seem more pleased to criticise and even thwart the police rather than see a criminal caught and convicted?

Postscript.

The following was posted on Twitter on 6 April:
‘Interested to know why you don’t think this meets requirement for “attempting”, and why insufficient evidence of use as decoy’?

The prosecution has to prove mens rea. The legal definition of mens rea is ‘an element of criminal responsibility, a guilty mind; a guilty or wrongful purpose; a criminal intent: guilty knowledge or wilfulness.’  In other words there needs to be proof that the conduct is criminal and that the person involved is aware of this.

You and I and our granny know exactly what was taking place on the Lammermuirs but in the absence of some supporting evidence that the bird was being used to decoy corvids or raptors to be shot I think a case would fail at the issue of guilty intention. I just do not think that there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that the man was using the owl as a decoy. Had the witnesses been a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later the evidence seen (or heard) by them may have been elevated to a new level.

There would be two options for ‘attempt’. There is the attempt at the offence discussed, which is using a tethered bird to lure other birds close enough to shoot. If there is insufficient evidence that the bird was being used as a decoy then I suggest it follows that there can be no attempt at the offence. The other ‘attempt’ offence would be an attempt to shoot a wild bird. There is absolutely no evidence of this.

I can perfectly understand how the public can get frustrated when they see something taking place that appears to be an offence, but the police, prosecutors and courts in turn must look at the relevant legislation word by word and decide if the evidence of what has taken place does indeed fit the wording of the legislation. It’s my view that there is a shortfall, albeit slight, but bear in mind this is only my view and that in trials either the view of the prosecution or the defence is always found to be wrong.

As a priority we now need to get rid of this nonsense that the police are not interested in solving wildlife crime and encourage witnesses to phone the police right away. As I’ve already said phoning non-government agencies first delays the investigation, sometimes fatally. By all means phone, for instance RSPB, after phoning the police but do not put the details into the public domain until the police have time to carry out an investigation.

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Raeshaw Estate general licence judicial review – comment

Buzzard found starved in crow cage in Perthshire

Sparrowhawk found starved in crow cage in Perthhire

Poisoned red kite (Perthshire)

That’s absolutely fabulous news that Raeshaw Estate has lost the judicial review it raised against the withdrawal by Scottish Natural Heritage of the privilege of the use of general licences to control certain species of birds some consider to be pests. The judicial review was heard by Lord Armstrong and the written judgement was published on 28 March.

The petitioner in the case was Lord Davidson of Glen Clova who, it was stated in the judgement, represented the owner of ‘land near Heriot, Midlothian, which comprises a substantial rural estate of some 8,000 acres, much of which is grouse moor’. The owner is not so easily established, given on the web as Raeshaw Holdings, Channel Islands. These are the difficulties the police encounter in trying to establish vicarious liability, though the shooting is run by William Powell Sporting, Banbury, Oxfordshire. The representative from there, who I suspect I know well, would be a good starting point if a prosecution for vicarious liability is ever required.

The evidence for the withdrawal of the use of general licences was based primarily on a number of set spring traps found during a police search on 8 May 2014 and which were attached to a small homemade cage which contained a live pigeon as bait to lure in birds of prey. Additionally, there were skeletal remains of birds of prey found nearby. These were near a crow cage registered to Raeshaw Estate and which, during the spring and probably up till the month of May, would no doubt be operated daily by the Raeshaw gamekeepers. Isn’t it strange that they never saw the dead birds of prey and reported to the police that someone had come on to the estate and either killed them or dumped them.

During a further police search one of the estate gamekeepers was found to have homemade traps identical to that in which the pigeon was being held captive.  This was tremendous evidence and must have brought the situation near to the point when someone could have been charged with setting the pigeon cage and spring traps. All that may have been lacking was a wee bit of forensic evidence or an admission, though suspect gamekeepers, like hardened criminals, invariably give a ‘no comment’ interview (which is their entitlement).

Historically, the report mentioned that several poisoned buzzards and red kites, plus poisoned baits, had been found on the estate and, as seems often to be the case with the combination of satellite-tagged birds and driven grouse moors, a tag fitted to a hen harrier stopped working over Raeshaw Estate in 2011.

It appears that the estate staff had training ‘in relation to the relevant legislation, and in relation to the possibility of prosecution, a corresponding disciplinary procedure which included the possibility of summary dismissal, and protocols and requirements in relation to the relevant reporting of the use of traps and pesticides and the maintenance of records’.  This was clearly ineffective, as was the investigation carried out by the estate, which concluded that ‘nothing was revealed suggesting that any estate employee was involved in, or aware of, the (trapping) incident’.

With this catalogue of criminality, of which a decent proportion of the hill walking and conservation-minded public in Scotland had knowledge, it was strange that the Raeshaw Estate owner remained blissfully unaware, otherwise I’m sure he would have sacked all the keepers on the spot. He must wish now that he had as the report claimed that ‘the petitioner had been adversely affected by the consequential inference of criminality, and the associated actions of pressure groups’.

Many folks associated with grouse moors have been getting away with criminality for far too long.  Thankfully, at long last, one of the battles on behalf of the public has been won. I look forward now to seeing the backlog of general licence withdrawals being put in place now the judicial review that blocked them is out of the road.

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Book Review – A Fieldworker’s Guide to the Golden Eagle by Dave Walker

 

 

A Fieldworker’s Guide to the Golden Eagle by Dave Walker is an amazing study of golden eagles over several decades. It almost seems that the author can think like an eagle, yet he admits there are many aspects of a golden eagle’s activities that remain a mystery. He challenges some of the views held by other eagle experts and in many respects he may be correct to do so. The author claims that the opinions of others are not always based on sufficient evidence. As a retired police officer I can appreciate this stance. I suspect that the author is looking for evidence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, whereas some of the beliefs he challenges may be more akin to ‘on the balance of probabilities’. In particular, I subscribe to his view that a licence (from SNH or the equivalent in constituent countries of the UK) ‘is not an excuse to visit nests: a licence holder still has to give a legitimate reason to visit a nest and can cause damaging disturbance and commit the offence of reckless disturbance even if they are holding the licence in their hand at the time’.

Walker goes into great detail on what may constitute disturbance. Having been involved in a golden eagle disturbance trial I know how difficult even reckless disturbance is to prove; intentional disturbance much more so.  With the author’s experience he is certainly a potential expert the police should keep in mind and I will discuss this with the National Wildlife Crime Unit in due course.

Reading the chapters on eagle breeding I was amazed at how many pairs fail to breed, fail at the egg stage, fail to fledge any chicks and also the risks to fledged young. Apart from the predation of egg thieves and deliberate persecution (neither of which are discussed in the book at great length) it is a wonder we have any eagles at all. The author has a similarly pessimistic view of the number of pairs of eagles in Scotland, ‘about 400 pairs in the survey years plus an unknown and variable number of singletons.  ..although it is not evident from the published results, each survey year probably had fewer pairs than the last. There is probably a documented decline in the number of golden eagles and this probably began in 1982’.

The author is of the belief that for persecution to stop, driven grouse shooting would need to cease. His perspective is interesting in that as a consequence the dichotomy is that good quality habitat with good food resources may convert to other land uses not as suitable for the golden eagle. He is also critical of the various golden eagle ‘recovery’ projects (removals to Ireland and the south of Scotland) commenting that they should be shelved ‘in favour of investigating and addressing the reasons for low productivity in the majority of the population’.

I was fascinated by the chapter on nests. I have little more knowledge about golden eagle ecology than most people but it was my belief that a pair of eagles would start to build up a nest around January/February for that year’s breeding. Not so. The author has observed eagles refurbishing nests at all times of the year, which is not necessarily evidence of a breeding attempt or even the involvement of a pair of eagles. This is only one of many, many revelations in this incredibly detailed book.

I was also of the view (by reading; not from experience) that eagles didn’t fly in the dark, which is also contradicted by the author. (Though this incident is not referred to in the book I wonder if that makes any clearer how, in 2012, the golden eagle with two broken legs suspected to have been caused by being caught in a trap, got from a driven grouse moor in Glenesk to a layby near Aboyne in Aberdeenshire, in darkness, sometime between 9.00 pm and 4.00 am.  Was it driven there or did it fly?)

Altogether a fantastic book which has increased my knowledge of golden eagles immensely. I’m sure even the most experienced eagle-watchers will learn something, or at the very least question their knowledge.

A Fieldworker’s Guide to the Golden Eagle.  £19.99

Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG

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Two buzzards shot in North Yorkshire – comment

A buzzard shot with a shotgun. Image taken at Dundee Airport scanner.

I’ve been reading about the two buzzards that were recently found shot in different parts of that disgraceful county in England for raptor persecution, North Yorkshire. There was a pretty stupid comment to the article dealing with these crimes on the blog Raptor Persecution UK, that the person commenting is ‘particularly interested in whether they (the police) have the capability and the inclination to arrest people with guns breaking the law’.

Part of another much more reasoned comment was, ‘The chances of there being any arrests for an unwitnessed shooting are essentially nil. There is no evidence tying a culprit to the offence that is more than circumstantial without that or a confession. Even the stupidest gun holder will not do that’.

Another person commented, ‘Whilst I agree that it is very difficult to investigate and convict a person responsible for shooting birds of prey, it can be done’, and gave a link to a case where a farmer in Peebles-shire had been convicted of shooting a buzzard. When I looked up the case there had been a witness to the shooting, which makes a relatively simple investigation.

I agree completely with the comment about the ‘unwitnessed’ shooting (though I would have phrased it slightly differently). Even if it had been witnessed, there is still a huge drawback to investigations in England and Wales where the very much outdated Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states:

Section 1.-(1) Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally   

(a) kills, injures or takes any wild bird;

(b) takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or

(c) takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird, he shall be guilty of an offence.

There is an easy get out of jail free card with this wording if the person maintains he thought the buzzard was some other bird that can legally be shot. It could be extremely difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was intent to shoot the buzzard. Before the law in Scotland was changed in 2004 to include the term ‘recklessly’ we dealt with a classic example of this in Tayside where the shooting was witnessed by an off-duty police officer (see –https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/2016/06/15/wildlife-cases-frustrated-by-poor-legislation/  )

Much more pressure needs to be put on the Westminster government to bring wildlife law in England and Wales up to date – unless of course it suits them to have the police investigating many aspects of wildlife crime with one hand tied behind their back.

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Interesting week in the fight against wildlife crime

Gamekeepers should be passing much more information on wildlife crime to the police

Gamekeepers should be passing much more information on wildlife crime to the police

It’s been an interesting week in the fight against wildlife crime. What the Scottish Government makes of the review on game bird hunting regulations in other European countries and on satellite-tagged raptors, a review sparked by the disappearance of so many satellite-tagged golden eagles and hen harriers, is eagerly awaited, and indeed is their decision on whether to award any extra powers to the SSPCA.

To her credit, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham has been doing the rounds this past week, speaking at the Scottish Raptor Study Groups’ Annual Conference in Perth on 25 February and, at the opposite end of the wildlife crime debate, to the annual conference of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association on 3 March, again in Perth.

Ms Cunningham’s message on raptor persecution to the raptor conference was reported on the Raptor Persecution UK blog as:

‘The illegal killing of our raptors does remain a national disgrace. I run out of words to describe my contempt for the archaic attitudes still at play in some parts of Scotland. We all have to abide by the law, and we do so, most of us, all throughout our lives. All I’m asking is that everybody does the same. Sporting businesses are no different, and the people who breach the law deserve all the opprobrium and punishment we can mete out.

I have no truck with the argument that raptors damage driven grouse shooting interests. Such damage, frankly, is a business risk you have to live with and manage, but within the law. And that is what must be reiterated again, and again, and again’.

Since raptor groups are not ‘businesses’ I’d suggest this part of her address was given as information, and I am sure that many in the audience would take this as some hope that when all the evidence has been assessed by the Scottish Government something meaningful might happen to eliminate – or at least seriously reduce – raptor persecution.

In what I read as much more of a threat, it was reported in The Courier she told the gamekeepers’ conference:

‘I have no patience at all with old fashioned attitudes towards these birds that linger on in this day and age. We all have to abide by the law, and must do so every day.

‘I have no truck with any excuse that raptors damage driven grouse shooting interests – such damage is a business risk that grouse moor owners have to live with, and manage for – and this has to be done within the law.

‘I note and welcome your chairman Alex Hogg’s reiteration of the pledge to ensure SGA members only consider legal routes to conflict resolution and he has made it clear that those committing wildlife crime will be removed from the SGA.”

So, similar wording and, in my view, a real message that the Scottish Government considers any threats to grouse from raptors no more than a business risk they have to accept.  I wonder if this message will be taken on board if applications are made this spring to SNH for licences to control/cull/shoot (kill by any other name) buzzards. I have little hope that Alex Hogg’s pledge to ensure SGA members stay within the law will have much success; I have heard this for many years with only moderate evidence of improvement.

In the period between the two conferences the Green Party MSP Andy Wightman tabled a parliamentary motion that the Scottish Government grant further powers to the SSPCA. This request has been on the go for several years and opinion is split on whether it would be of assistance in the fight against wildlife crime. In my view it is not the magic bullet that some consider it to be.

I was interested in some comments on the blog Raptor Persecution UK following the announcement of the parliamentary motion:

They (SSPCA) need powers to enter land without permission to do spot checks. So many bird traps, spring traps, rabbit drop traps and snares are set illegally that it might make estate owners pause for thought – what with the risk of vicarious liability.

The police have no powers ‘to enter land without permission to do spot checks; they must have reasonable suspicion. Hardly likely such powers will be granted to SSPCA.

The SSPCA already have a Special Investigations Unit with experience in following up wildlife crimes, it includes a couple of ex policeman who would ensure there were no evidential/procedural problems with working under increased powers. These are the people who would investigate raptor killing, not the ordinary inspectorate…

This is true, but SSPCA do not have access either to sufficient staffing or to much of the forensic assistance available to the police. Let’s say the SSPCA were granted the powers they request. They then undertake an investigation into a poisoned eagle on a driven grouse moor with seven gamekeepers, two shepherds and two tenant farmers all of whom could be a suspect. If there is reasonable cause to narrow suspicion to, say four, of these folks how would the five or six SSPCA special investigations staff manage to co-ordinate simultaneous searches of them, their buildings, their vehicles, sweepings from vehicles and vacuuming of clothing for traces of pesticide, possible search of 30,000 acres of moorland, take fingerprints or DNA samples that might be required (which requires a suspect to be detained or arrested) and in due course to undertake the complex investigation required to convict a landowner of vicarious liability. If SSPCA do get more powers they would not be able to pick and choose the incidents they will attend.

That SSPCA can replicate what police officers do is simplistic. This is not a straightforward issue and I am not saying that SSPCA inspectors (across the board rather than just the special investigations staff) should not get any new powers, but that these should be targeted to allow them, if they are already on an animal welfare investigation and find evidence of a wildlife crime, to extend their search to gather evidence which they can then hand over to the police. That would fulfil their role as an animal welfare charity as well as being of considerable assistance in another aspect of crime investigation.

 

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