In the past few weeks on driven grouse moors in Scotland we have had a satellite-tagged hen harrier caught in a Fenn trap, two satellite-tagged golden eagles on the same estate and on the same day where the signals from the sat-tags suddenly stopped despite having been working perfectly well up until then. Now we have news of a male hen harrier caught in a Fenn trap near to a harrier nest on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire, the female from the nest ‘missing’ and a Fenn trap set at the nest alongside two harrier eggs. Despite the harrier in this case being taken into the care of the SSPCA and some sterling treatment by specialist vet Romain Pizzi the bird in the end had to be euthanised.
Seven weeks after the discovery, Police Scotland investigating the crime led a multi-agency search. I’m not sure why the seven-week delay, unless a result on DNA tests on the traps was awaited, but I can’t criticise without knowing the full circumstances.
It is not surprising that no evidence was found to link the setting of the traps to any individual, but circumstantial evidence and a previous history of the discovery of up to 70 earlier wildlife crimes found on the estate over the past 20 years would suggest to any rational person that the incidents are linked to grouse production. Despite the attempts of a few individuals to deflect blame away from gamekeeping I personally have no doubt that this is where the blame lies. Intensively managed driven grouse moors like this may have up to seven or eight gamekeepers, probably a sporting manager and a sporting tenant. Will all or any of them be to blame or could it be some mystery person going around the countryside unseen, with a bag of Fenn traps, a hidden agenda and with the expertise to set a trap at any hen harrier nest encountered?
There is no doubt that those involved in driven grouse shooting are well aware that under present legislation the police are unlikely to get a case to court, especially against someone higher up the chain of command. So what can change to assist in convicting or at least deterring the criminals?
If we rely on convictions the police must have more scope under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 – RIP(S)A – to enter estate land to gather evidence. This would mean increasing the penalty for all or certain wildlife crimes to at least 3 years imprisonment so that incident like this come into the official category of serious crime.
To assist with the identification of those illegally setting traps, the traps could have a number or mark issued by the police or by SNH to the user of the trap, as is the case with snares. This is certainly not foolproof but it could be a step forward, especially if spot checks could be made.
Even with these changes detection and conviction rates would be low. The answer lies with a suite of sanctions.
Better use could be made of the removal of the right to use general licences, even though this is a minor sanction. I hope this is being considered as we speak in the case of this estate.
Better use could also be made of the clawback of single farm payments, though I’ve no idea if in this instance a payment is being made to the estate.
With only a few weeks to go (hopefully) to the submission to the Scottish Government of Professor Werritty’s report on grouse moors we are as well to have the patience to await its findings. I assume that the Scottish Government will already have a flavour of the report content, in particular the issue of the licensing of grouse moors. I cannot see the licensing of grouse moors being avoided. Poisoning of wildlife has maybe lessened but there has been no let-up in the illegal shooting or trapping of raptors; it has simply been a change of tactics. If the raptor persecution incidents being investigated by the police over the past few weeks have not already convinced the Scottish Government that nothing has changed and of the need to licence grouse moors (or something even stronger) then I feel the public has been betrayed.
It should be mandatory for each estate to nominate the person ultimately responsible for the estate so that there can be no escaping vicarious liability should the police and prosecutors require to go down that road.
In the case of an estate losing the licence to shoot grouse and to manage moorland for grouse shooting, if the estate is under the control of a sporting agent who is also sporting agent for another or other estates in Scotland, then these estates should also lose their licence.
Beyond these sanctions it should be mandatory for estates involved in shooting of any kind to demonstrate that they are improving the habitat for the wildlife that is, or should, be there. I’m working with an extensive low-ground estate just now that demonstrates this in no small measure.
I think that any reasonable person would now agree that the time for sitting round a table to reach a compromise has long past and decisive action by the Scottish Government is required. I have long been an advocate of SNP but if we are let down on this then they would no longer either have my confidence or vote.