Of ospreys, balloons and a shot buzzard

Osprey.  (Photo courtesy of Laurie Campbell)

Osprey. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Campbell)

The buzzard shot in North Yorkshire

The buzzard shot in North Yorkshire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was interested in a story in the media that on the evening of Wednesday 17th August a Virgin hot air balloon flew low over a nest containing four osprey chicks at Balgavies Loch, Forfar.  As the balloon passed within what was reported as 50 feet from the nest the four chicks took flight in panic.

The various reports stated that the matter had been reported to the police and that it is an offence, punishable by a fine of up to £5,000 and/ or 6 months imprisonment to disturb nesting ospreys.

A few days later it was reported in the press that no report was to be sent by the police to the procurator fiscal regarding the incident.  This result was clearly of concern to many people, who were quite clear that the young ospreys would have been disturbed.  Indeed they were disturbed, so much so that they took off from the nest. Had they been younger they may even have jumped from the nest, which would have eventually resulted in their death, either from the fall or more likely from starvation through not being fed or as a result of predation.  It was indeed a serious matter.

But what not everyone is aware of is the wording of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in relation to birds included in Schedule 1 to the Act, which includes the osprey.  Section 1 (5) states:

Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally or recklessly–

(a)        disturbs any wild bird included in Schedule 1 while it is building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young; or

(b)        disturbs dependent young of such a bird,

he shall be guilty of an offence.

The crux of this offence is that there is evidence that it was committed intentionally or recklessly. Whatever the situation seemed to the witnesses I suspect that the investigating police officers were unable to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that the pilot (a) was aware of the nest, or (b) that he was aware but he was unable to dictate the route of the balloon. I know no more than what was in the media, though I suspect if the pilot was aware of the nest he may not have been able to steer away to the left or right but I suspect he could have changed elevation and risen well above the nest.

Raptor persecution continues in North Yorkshire, with another dead buzzard being found and containing shotgun pellets. It was interesting to see that this bird has at least 11 shotgun pellets in its body. One is in the head and three are in the area of the lungs and heart.  From the location of these pellets there is a good chance that the bird, if not killed instantly, would fall from the sky (or from wherever it was shot) at the point it was hit. That would give the most likely location for the offence being committed as opposed to the bird being wounded and flying off to die elsewhere. This should help to limit the list of suspects. Invariably these can be found by using the force’s shotgun registration system and postcodes relevant to the area.  It does pose the question, though, as to why the bird was not picked up by the person (the criminal) shooting it and disposed of.

I’m sure North Yorkshire Police will have the answer to these questions but yet again demonstrates that investigating wildlife crime is never simple.

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Book Review: Gone Wild by Malcolm Smith

Gone Wild, by Malcolm Smith

Gone Wild, by Malcolm Smith

What a fascinating book. The author describes his adventures (and misadventures) in a variety of far-flung places as diverse as the Saudi Desert and the Niger River, though some are as close to home as Pembrokeshire and the New Forest. He is in search of facts and figures in relation to species that are often exotic or endangered but always interesting.  These include vultures, honeyguides, European bison, wild turkeys, black rhino, Arabian oryx, monk seals and the collection of eiderdown in Iceland.

The stories are beautifully told and demonstrate not only an incredible knowledge of wildlife word-wide but of the influence, good or bad, of humans on some species and their habitat.  The author, a scientist, puts across his knowledge in plain language and with more than a hint of humour.

Gone Wild is a world tour for wildlife enthusiasts and is a book I would thoroughly recommend.

 

Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG.   www.whittlespublishing.com   £16.99

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‘Vaporised’ golden eagles

 

The author and golden eagle 'Alma' found poisoned on Millden Estate, Angus, in 2009.

The author and golden eagle ‘Alma’ found poisoned on Millden Estate, Angus, in 2009.

Poisoned white-tailed eagle 'White G' recovered by the author in 2008 near to poisoned baits on Glenogil Estate boundary fence, Angus

Poisoned white-tailed eagle ‘White G’ recovered by the author in 2008 near to poisoned baits on Glenogil Estate boundary fence, Angus

It is crushingly disappointing and frustrating news that yet another satellite-tagged golden eagle has disappeared in the Monadhliaths. In less than five years eight satellite-tagged golden eagles have disappeared, all in this grouse moor area. As I’ve said in an earlier blog on missing satellite-tagged hen harriers these devices are reliable and the chance of them all suddenly failing after working perfectly normally is a coincidence that even the most naïve amongst us would not accept.

The latest bird, named Brodie, was two years old and vanished last month. I assume the procedure would still be for the RSPB to discuss the disappearance with Police Scotland and get the green light to attempt to find the bird somewhere near its last known location. In this case there may have been no ground search; more likely a search in the area to attempt to track a signal. Until the search is concluded the fact that the bird is missing in a particular area is unlikely to be made public.

Gamekeepers maintain that golden eagles are not a problem, yet I was told by a former head keeper that an eagle flew over a grouse drive one day and was seen by the landowner, who told him it better not be there on the next shooting day. Eight golden eagles known to be missing in an area of grouse moors, together with a further golden eagle found poisoned in the same area in 2010 tend to confirm that golden eagles are still being eliminated.

I was pleased to see that Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary, has ordered a review, stating “I have instructed officials to analyse the evidence from around 90 surviving and missing satellite-tagged eagles, to discover if there is a pattern of suspicious activity.

“Grouse moor management does help species such as curlew and golden plover as well as generating much needed rural employment and income but this cannot be at any price.

“The public rightly expects all businesses in Scotland to obey the law. Let me be clear: grouse shooting is no exception.

“As previously stated, the Scottish Government is prepared to introduce further regulation of shooting businesses if necessary. It will be unfortunate if the activities of a few bring further regulation on the whole sector, but that is the risk those who defy the law and defy public opinion are running.”

The review cannot have any other outcome but to indicate highly suspicious activity. Hopefully it will be conducted in double-quick time as the list of poisoned, shot, trapped and vaporised golden eagles is growing ever longer. Given the current climate of understandable distrust of driven grouse moors, the now over 85,000 signatories to the petition to ban driven grouse shooting and the latest petition to license game shooting we may at last see some meaningful ‘further regulation.’ As I have said many times, despite often lengthy investigations by wildlife crime officers, the only solution lies outside the current wildlife legislation.

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‘Bad’ buzzards and sparrowhawks

Female sparrowhawk eating a grrenfinch

Female sparrowhawk eating a grrenfinch

Lapwing and chick. Once common farmland birds

Lapwing and chick. Once common farmland birds

Pair of grey partridges. Seldom seen on farmland now. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Campbell)

Pair of grey partridges. Seldom seen on farmland now. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Campbell)

I read the following letter in the local paper the other day.  It was in response to an article by wildlife writer Jim Crumley on the lack of legal protection for the wild beaver population in Tayside. The first half of the letter sounded quite promising but I was astonished and dumbfounded at the second half:

Farmers also love nature

Once again, I was annoyed after reading the article from Mr Crumley (2nd August) in which he says farmers and keepers would rather kill everything inconvenient that moves rather than give nature time and peace.

Mr Crumley, we are farmers, and most evenings my husband and I have a walk round the fields to look at the cattle, and it would not be the same if it was not for the wildlife around us.

We will see maybe a deer and of course all the different birds – that is, the ones a buzzard or sparrowhawk haven’t killed.

Why can’t you see, Mr Crumley, that there is good and bad in wildlife, just as there is with humans.

We think just as much, believe it or not, of our wildlife as you do, but we as farmers see at first hand the devastation some species can cause, both to our own animals and to nature.

Of course sparrowhawks will kill small birds; that is what they eat. Buzzards will take young ground-nesting birds such as lapwings and oystercatchers; that is part of their diet. In terms of evolution this is nothing new. Predators have killed and eaten prey for thousands of years. Lions eat zebra, orca eat seals, dolphins eat salmon, peregrines eat pigeons, blackbirds eat worms, blue tits eat greenfly, bats eat midges.  What is comparatively new is interference by the most dangerous predator: man.

While we may not necessarily kill other creatures to eat them we destroy their habitat: worldwide, the pollution of seas and rivers and the destruction of forests.  In this country the ripping out of hedgerows, enlargement of fields, spraying of crops, cultivation of fields, and these actions are carried out by farmers, the occupation of the letter-writer who is complaining of some birds being killed by predators.  Predators, as I interpret the letter, are the ‘bad wildlife’ which, again as I interpret it, take farm stock and native species (though buzzards taking rats or rabbits may be excused).

I have great respect for most farmers, whose job seems to get more difficult by the year, but they must realise that modern farming methods have killed off far more farmland birds than predators do. Anyone in their 60s and 70s has witnessed at first hand the change in farming and the rapid disappearance of skylarks, grey partridges, lapwings, corn buntings etc.

There is no doubt that this is being addressed to some degree by some farmers who are taking practical measures to ameliorate these losses, sometimes at their own expense, but it will be a long time before wildlife on farmland returns to what it was when I was a teenager. I just hope the letter-writer is one of these conservation-minded farmers. Somehow I doubt it.

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The law on hare coursing in Scotland

Lurchers typical of those used for coursing hares

Lurchers typical of those used for coursing hares

Hare freshly killed by lurchers and left lying in stubble field

Hare freshly killed by lurchers and left lying in stubble field

Seeing the field of winter barley behind my house being combined last night I was reminded that we are now entering the busiest season for one of the scourges of the countryside: hare coursing. It might be helpful if I wrote a piece on hare coursing, how to recognise this crime and what evidence is required for the police to gain a conviction in court.

We are lucky in Scotland in having the choice of two different pieces of legislation for use against hare coursers. Firstly the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 makes it an offence to course wild mammals with a dog or dogs, or to search for them for the purpose of coursing.  ‘Mammals’ for the purposes of this Act do not include rabbits and rodents. I think it was wrong to exclude rabbits as most folks caught hare coursing maintained they were not after hares, but were after rabbits. This was an offence under different legislation but with a penalty that did not include the option of imprisonment. This is rectified now since, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, it is an offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment to take or to attempt to take rabbits or hares without authority to do so. Additional offences may be to take brown hares during the close season (1st Feb to 30th Sept), or for the purposes of committing an offence under the Act, have possession of anything capable of being used for committing the offence. In certain circumstances this could include lurcher dogs, slip leads, binoculars or lamps.

One advantage in the use of the Wildlife and Countryside Act is that if a hare (or indeed a rabbit) is taken during the coursing, only a single witness is required for a conviction to be gained. Oddly – maybe a mistake by the legislators – the normal corroboration is required if the dogs have chased but been unable to catch a hare.

Persons involved in hare coursing usually have fairly old cars (in case they are forfeited by the court) which are sometimes 4WD vehicles.  They drive quiet country roads until they see a suitable field where they can spot hares from the road, sometimes using binoculars to do so. These fields are generally large, so that the chase is not impeded by fences as would happen in smaller fields. The crop is usually winter or spring-sown cereal crops where hares can often be seen from the road. During the day the hare claps down in a form, a depression in the ground, and rests. Even so it can sometimes be seen from a distance and often can be approached to quite close quarters, especially if the person does not walk straight towards it but walks as if he will pass the hare at some distance.

One or two of the coursers, with usually between one and three dogs, will enter the field while another person or persons remain with the vehicle, watching from the roadside, driving round roads to the other side of the field or even driving some distance away so that attention will not be attracted to the stationary vehicle and to a point where the coursers can be picked up later, communication being by mobile telephone.  The coursers approach the hare and once they are too close for comfort for the hare, which can be as close at 20 metres, the hare will bolt from its form and the dogs are released. Occasionally if a hare is seen not far from the road a dog or dogs are released from the vehicle into a field without the persons necessarily entering the field. Other methods are to walk in line across a field until a hare is disturbed, then let the dogs off to chase. This method is often used in stubble fields where hares are more difficult to spot.

I can never understand the mindset of these folk. Their interest in the hare is finished as soon as the dogs kill it and invariably the hare is left where it is killed. Despite this their main excuses in court are: ‘we were only walking our dogs’ or ‘we were just after a hare for the pot’.

People involved in hare coursing are never pleasant individuals and frequently resort to threats or violence. For this reason they are better not to be approached and the police should be contacted as soon as possible. In the meantime it would be helpful to the investigating officers if they could get a good description of those involved, the colours of the dogs, who appears to have which dog, if a hare has been seen to be chased or killed and if so where they hare could be recovered. Any vehicle description is also helpful.

 

 

 

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The scandal of spring traps set in the open

Trap 1, completely invisible under the grass and bracken leaves

Trap 1, completely invisible under the grass and bracken leaves

Trap 1, now that it has been uncovered

Trap 1, now that it has been uncovered

Trap 2, this time the edge of the trap is visible under the bracken leaves

Trap 2, this time the edge of the trap is visible under the bracken leaves

Trap 2, uncovered

Trap 2, uncovered

Earlier today I read an RSPB news release to the effect that another wildlife crime on a grouse moor was being investigated.  On a driven grouse moor named as Invercauld by the chief executive officer of the Cairngorms National Park, within whose boundaries the estate lies, a common gull was found with each of its legs caught in illegally-set spring traps. A dead rabbit had been used as bait.

In summary, two hill walkers had found the gull struggling in the traps, SSPCA had attended initially and had euthanised the gull, and later Police Scotland, assisted by SSPCA and RSPB Investigations had carried out a search of the moorland area. Evidence was found that six other traps had been set with dead rabbits as bait but by then had been removed. It is unfortunate the other traps had disappeared as the police may well have gained DNA evidence leading to the criminal.

I suspect that spring traps such as these, legal if set in a tunnel where the entrance is restricted to small mammals such as stoats, rats and weasels, are much more commonly abused than we realise. Until the point that they catch a victim they are extremely difficult to see. In this case, on a grouse moor, it is likely they had been set for some species of raptor, but of course they are completely indiscriminate.

In 2010, as wildlife crime officer in Tayside, in my last dealings with spring traps set in the open they had been set round the perimeter of pheasant release pens in Angus. Several illegal snares were also set in the same area and in due course we charged the gamekeeper. He pled guilty to the snaring offences but denied responsibility for the traps, despite the fact they were round a pheasant pen to which he was attending. In due course he was fined, though I forget the level of fine.

In the photographs of this incident the reader will realise just how difficult it is to spot these traps, especially if they have not been encountered before.

Returning to the Aberdeenshire incident it has been widely condemned. Grant Moir, CEO of the Cairngorms National Park said,

“It is appalling that spring traps have been illegally set resulting in the death of a common gull. The law on the use of traps is clear and it is simply unacceptable for them to be used in this way. I have this morning asked for a meeting with the Head Trustee of Invercauld Estate and with the Sporting Partner to discuss these issues. I have also written to Police Scotland and other public sector partners to ask for a meeting to discuss resourcing further enforcement work in the National Park to tackle these type of issues.”

Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, and Chair of PAW Scotland, said:

“All forms of wildlife crime are unacceptable and I condemn the illegal use of spring traps wherever it takes place. In Deeside, the use of them has resulted in tremendous suffering for a gull which had to be euthanised. It is difficult to see their use as anything other than a blatant and criminal attempt to target protected birds of prey. The Scottish Government takes this issue extremely seriously and I urge anyone with any information about criminal activity intending to harm our wildlife to contact Police Scotland.”

The Scottish Government has several times stated that if necessary it would take further action to stop criminal activity on sporting estates. My view is that the time has come, and that there is a clear choice between banning driven grouse shooting and licensing game shooting.

If ever an industry was suicidal ……

 

 

 

 

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Are these snares legal?

Properly set snare with stop, which prevents the snare closing to less than 23 cm

Properly set snare with stop, which prevents the snare closing to less than 23 cm

Snare attached to log as a drag. Illegal if drag can be moved, whether 2 metres or 200 metres

Snare attached to log as a drag. Illegal if drag can be moved, whether 2 metres or 200 metres

Snare set on netting fence where victim likely to jump over and become suspended

Snare set on netting fence where victim likely to jump over and become suspended

Snare set on fence where fox has jumped over and become partially suspended

Snare set on fence where fox has jumped over and become partially suspended

Snare set under a fallen tree. Entanglement and partial suspension of victim likely

Snare set under a fallen tree. Entanglement and partial suspension of victim likely

Snare on log over stream. Victim would be fully suspended.

Snare on log over stream. Victim would be fully suspended.

I visited an excellent blog the other day, Upland Exposure, the purpose of which is to expose bad land management in the Scottish uplands. It is written by ‘a couple of Scots who have lived and worked in the Uplands of Scotland for (collectively) 90+ years. We are both employed in land management in the uplands so get to see first-hand what goes on.’ It is extremely well written, well illustrated, covers some relevant issues and, at least so far, does not have comments written by ill-informed or extremely biased people.

One of the issues relates to foxes being caught in snares attached to a fence on a Scottish estate. Since I was so impressed by the blog I thought I would write a complementary article to help folks walking in the countryside to identify illegally-set snares and outline what action they can take.  Firstly I should state that if properly set and checked, snares for foxes, rabbits and hares are legal and should not be interfered with.

The law in relation to the use of snares was made much more strict, at least in Scotland, in 2011. Basically anyone setting a snare:

  • Must have permission to do so
  • Must have attended and passed a training course and received an accreditation certificate
  • Must have received a personal identification number from Police Scotland which must be attached to each snare in a weatherproof format, and show with the letter F, BH or R whether the snare is set for fox, brown hare or rabbit. (There are other admin requirements that are for policing purposes and are not relevant for the purposes of this article).
  • In the case of fox snares, they must have a stop fitted to prevent the snare closing to less than 23 cm (13 cm in the case of snares for rabbits or brown hares).
  • Must not set a snare attached to an item that can be dragged (which means any distance, short or long)
  • Must not set a snare where the animal is likely to become fully or partially suspended or drown
  • Must inspect the snare every day at intervals of not more than 24 hours
  • Must ensure the snare is free-running
  • At each inspection must remove any animal caught, whether live or dead

All of these requirements are quite clear, but it does not mean that a snare may never be set on or under a fence; the test is whether any victim of the snare is likely to become fully or partially suspended. It is perfectly possible on some netting fences to set a snare where there is nothing on which the victim can become entangled, no holes for it to jump through and reduce the length of the snare causing partial suspension, or no possibility of the fox jumping over the fence and hanging down on the other side.

Any suspected snaring offence should be reported to the police. Dialling 101 is sufficient unless there is a case of urgency, when 999 would be appropriate. If you can speak to a wildlife crime officer that is even better as he/she may be able to determine right away if what you are describing is legal or otherwise. Taking photographs, a video and a map reference would be a great help to the investigating officers.  It is also helpful for the officers responding to have some sort of landmark, if there is one, to guide them. I can speak from experience that trying to follow someone’s directions on open moorland is not always easy. If there is a suspect, a description of age, build, height, hair colour and clothing worn are all details of great value. Vehicle details, if available, are also extremely helpful, especially if a registration number can be noted

The place where a bird or mammal has been deliberately killed, injured or illegally trapped is a crime scene, and great care should be taken not to tramp about and destroy any item that may provide DNA, or stand on sole or tyre impressions that might be suitable for the police to photograph or cast in plaster.

Bear in mind that if a suspect is aware that his crime has been witnessed, he is likely to take steps to eliminate evidence or to make its retrieval more difficult. Witnesses should not normally remove evidence, as it is much better left in situ for the police to photograph and recover. If these circumstances arise and you can make contact with the police from the scene, be guided by them.

If there is a live animal in the snare again you could be guided by the police as to the action to take. If the snare appears to be set illegally then the police are likely to want an inspector of the SSPCA (or RSPCA in England or Wales) to attend to assist, especially if the animal will have to be euthanased. If the snare is set legally and the animal caught is not injured the police may want the person who set the snare to come and deal with it. You may be able to assist in this by quoting the tag number on the snare if it is safe to do so.

Be aware that in Scotland for a person to be convicted normally two sources of evidence are required (though as earlier stated this situation is being examined and may change).  These may be two eye witnesses, which is the easiest form of corroboration. It could also be one eyewitness and some other form of corroboration, such as the finding of particular items in the suspect’s possession or his admission of the crime. A case can also be built purely from circumstantial evidence, though this is by far the most difficult form of evidence to obtain.

Upland Exposure can be found at http://www.uplandexposure.co.uk/

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