Law abiding shooters and gamekeepers must be totally disgusted at the litany of wildlife crime reported in the media and on social media over the past month. The latest is a plea of guilty to a long list of wildlife crimes by Alan Wilson, the gamekeeper for Longformacus Estate in the Scottish Borders. The case has been ongoing in the court since 2017 and arose from the initial investigation in 2016 by the League against Cruel Sports, who had been tipped off by a walker of snares being set on the estate. The LACS research officer attended at the estate and found snares and a stink pit with dead animals. It is not clear at this stage where the snares were set and if they were illegal but they may well have been set on a fence around the stink pit, which would attract foxes. Snares set on a fence make it likely in most cases that any animal caught will be fully or partially suspended, which is an offence in Scotland.
The LACS research officer returned in 2017 and found the carcass of a badger and some birds, the species of which is not identified in the news report. Neither is it reported whether the dead badger was in the stink pit. It seems that around this point the police and SSPCA were informed of the situation.
In June 2017 Police Scotland led a multi-agency investigation into the incidents, along with SSPCA, RSPB Investigations staff and others. During the search, evidence was found that two goshawks had been shot and that three buzzards, three badgers and an otter had also been killed. Wilson pleaded guilty to killing them, and also to charges of using illegal snares and the possession of two bottles of carbofuran. He pleaded not guilty to other charges, these pleas being accepted by the Crown.
This is a horrendous killing spree. Further, these are the only protected species for which charges could be proved over the course of a year or so. The length of time that Wilson has been a gamekeeper is not stated in the report but considering that he is 60 years old, it is likely that he has been gamekeeping for some time. If these are the protected species found to have been killed over a year how many remain undiscovered that were killed illegally over that period. Multiply that by the years that Wilson has been a gamekeeper and it can be imagined how he has deprived the Scottish countryside of protected and sometimes rare species.
So what might the sheriff at Jedburgh Sheriff Court impose as a penalty. I doubt if he will be able to take into account a previous conviction. This was a conviction in 2018 under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 for keeping an eagle owl in filthy conditions. This conviction took place subsequent to the report by Police Scotland to the procurator fiscal for the 2017 wildlife crimes so is unlikely to be made known to the court.
Options are a fine, imprisonment or a community penalty as a direct alternative to imprisonment. I would doubt that the sheriff will consider a fine to be appropriate. This is one of the most serious wildlife crimes to come before a sheriff for sentencing that I can remember. It includes the killing of two Schedule 1 birds, goshawks; an otter, which is a mammal with the highest protection under the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations 1994; and not just a buzzard and a badger but three of each. In addition, in times when the use of deadly pesticides to kill wildlife is becoming less common, and after an amnesty period, Wilson had two containers of this banned substance. Lastly comes the snaring offences, though not just one but 23. There has been no more deserving case for a court to make an example of a convicted person by imposing a sentence of imprisonment. Wilson’s defence solicitor may well have had this in mind with advice to plead guilty and thus have the possibility of a sentence of imprisonment reduced for avoiding a trial.
Had this case been a few years hence the imprisonment available to courts under consideration by the Scottish Government might be 5 years. In 2015, in Scotland, an independent review conducted by Professor Mark Poustie found the current laws around wildlife crime may not be serving as a sufficient deterrent, while punishments fail to reflect the serious nature of some crimes. He recommended that for serious wildlife crimes – and they don’t come much more serious than this – penalties be increased to a maximum of 5 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine. This is being consulted on right now and hopefully the Scottish Government, taking account of Professor Poustie’s recommendations plus the recent upsurge in wildlife crime, will agree to these increased penalties.
To end on a note of fairness, since the snaring legislation in Scotland was improved substantially in 2010 under the Snares (Scotland) Order and in 2011 under the Wildlife and Environment (Scotland) Act, most of those who use snares have played by the rules. The level of wildlife crime discussed here, plus the recent golden eagles enigma and the trapping of a hen harrier may yet have disastrous consequences for those who participate in shooting. All of this could have been avoided if the criminal gamekeepers, sporting agents and landowners in their midst had been outed by law-abiding shooters and their respective organisations.
I am not aware of the full circumstances of the start of this investigation but reading the information that is available I can’t help thinking that LACS, instead of embarking on their own in what may well have been a wildlife crime investigation, had passed the information to the police at the outset and had a wildlife crime officer accompany the LACS staff member. Maybe lessons will be learnt from this.
We now await with interest the penalty handed out to Wilson and (hopefully) a report by Police Scotland to the procurator fiscal in regard to vicarious liability.