Police Scotland withholding raptor crime data – comment

Buzzard in pheasant pen dying after consuming pheasant poult bait laced with alpha-chloralose and carbofuran

Buzzard in pheasant pen dying after consuming pheasant poult bait laced with alpha-chloralose and carbofuran

I was interested in a blog on Raptor Persecution UK the other day. Questions had been asked of Police Scotland as to why certain information on raptor crime was missing from the RSPB Birdcrime’s 2015 report, (which I blogged about on 7th February). The response from Police Scotland is quoted as being:

‘Primarily, the Police Scotland concern is about specialist knowledge becoming public knowledge in these cases. Police Scotland actually withholds the data from publication in relatively few cases and only after consideration against the agreed investigative strategy for a particular case. If Police Scotland is to make an appeal for information about a bird of prey killing and has chosen not to identify the substance as part of the strategy (or even identify that poisoning was the cause of death) this would be undermined by the identification of the chemical used in a public document. It would not take too much initiative to put the two together and that specialist knowledge tool is lost. A similar argument is equally as legitimate where other modus operandi (MO) are used in this form of raptor persecution.

On occasions, the decision is made not to make an investigation public at all for a variety of reasons (time of year, other ongoing investigations etc.). Publication of pesticide data or MO by HSE, RSPB or whoever else would ensure that Police Scotland loses control over this tool.

Differences in the legal system in Scotland is also another issue. The time bar for bringing wildlife crimes to court in Scotland is (in most cases) three years from the date of the offence. Police Scotland therefore expect to be able to legitimately withhold information relating to cases for that time period. This argument was supported by a specialist prosecutor from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s Wildlife & Environmental Crime Unit who also thought that this was particularly relevant in Scotland because we still have a requirement for corroboration.

Police Scotland cannot speak for the approach taken by forces in England and Wales but our commitment to wildlife crime ensures that we must ensure that we use every tool available and therefore on occasions this will include withholding information about a crime’.

I have no idea of why these particular details are missing but some of the readers of the Raptor Persecution blog are clearly making the assumption that the police are involved in some sort of collusion with raptor killers. Excerpts from some of the comments are:

‘That’s a pretty verbose excuse for complacency, indolence and corruption’

‘The only conclusion I can make from Police Scotland withholding such information is collusion with the criminals’.

‘…they intend to orchestrate cover ups’

‘…the Police have picked a side and it isn’t with us but the shooters’.

‘The only possible reason Police Scotland could have for withholding data and information that they don’t intend to use in court is to protect the interests of certain shooting estates and their owners’

Whatever the reason for withholding certain information it will not be for any corrupt purpose.

I agree with the Raptor Persecution blog that the police should publish details of raptor crime at every opportunity, and at the earliest date possible provided it does not jeopardise any future court proceedings. That is not being done and in my view that is a failing of Police Scotland. The police should also take the lead with media releases. I frequently see reports of incidents where the lead for the story has been RSPB and there is no quote from the police. RSPB and others can often add valuable information to a media release but it should be clear that the investigation is being carried out by the police.

With cases of pesticide abuse there is always a risk to anyone encountering a poisoned bait or the victim of a bait, which makes a media release even more important. Several years ago a couple of teenage girls picked up a dying buzzard on the roadside bordering Edradynate Estate near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. The buzzard had been sick and the breast feathers were wet. As it turned out the bird had been poisoned by the pesticide alpha-chloralose. Had it been the much more toxic and more commonly used pesticide carbofuran the girls would have been in real danger.

Another person commented,

‘…if anyone finds something suspicious regarding raptor crime, make sure you tweet it and tag in as many people as possible before calling the cops’.

The naivety of this comment is of real concern, and the outcome of such action is likely to alert the criminal involved long before any investigation can be made. It’s a pity this comment had not been countered on the blog.

I am not sure what to make of the blog Raptor Persecution UK. The principle is excellent and allows a wider range of the public to be alerted to raptor-related crime than would otherwise be the case. It also delves into different aspects of criminality that most folks wouldn’t have the time or in many cases the knowledge to explore themselves. I just wish it wasn’t so anti-police, anti-COPFS and anti-judiciary. It is clear how this rubs off on some of its more easily influenced readers and may well put them off reporting an incident to the police that may just provide a vital link in an investigation.

Another extremely worrying comment was,

‘The police are the enemy right now’.

It is worth remembering that the police are in support of almost all of Raptor Persecution UK’s readers (and hopefully the readers of this blog). I am sure this is especially so of the hundred or so officers in Scotland who have been trained in wildlife crime investigation, some of whom have been desperate for years to get raptor killers before a court.

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Dealing with hare coursing

Hare discarded by coursers in field where caught. No external injuries visible apart from mouth, which was picked by carrion crow.

Hare discarded by coursers in field where caught. No external injuries visible apart from mouth, which was picked by carrion crow.

Hare discarded in same field. Note minimal external injuries. Hares seldom 'torn to bits' as often claimed.

Hare discarded in same field. Note minimal external injuries. Hares seldom ‘torn to bits’ as often claimed.

Pair of dogs typical of use for coursing hares

Pair of dogs typical of use for coursing hares

I recently read a blog on the Onekind website http://onekind.scot/onekindblog/  titled Scotland has a hare coursing problem. Here’s how to stop it. Since I put a lot of effort into dealing with hare coursing when I was wildlife crime officer with Tayside Police I read on, interested in Onekind’s solution. I have a lot of respect for the work carried out by Onekind but in my opinion they are away off the mark with part of their ‘solution’. It is two-fold, and I’ll comment on the second part first.

‘We’re calling for urgent reform in sentencing for hare coursing and other wildlife crimes’.

This is already underway in Scotland under the report of the Wildlife Penalties Review Group, which recommends an increase in the maximum level of fines and imprisonment. This will make little difference to those convicted of hare coursing since I know of no instance where anyone convicted of that crime has received anywhere near the current maximum level. The report, however, gives some short-term solutions:

That the use of conservation/ecological impact statements and animal welfare impact statements is put on a more systematic basis than at present. This might initially be done on an administrative basis with the prosecution seeking these as a matter of course and where appropriate, from either SNH in the former case, or a vet in the latter case. 

It may assist the court in its sentencing options if in each case it was made aware through an impact statement that the brown hare is classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan because of its relatively low numbers. The court should also be made aware that poaching, which includes hare coursing, is one of the UK wildlife crime policing priorities because of the volume of criminality.

That forfeiture provisions are extended and these and other alternative penalties are made consistent across the range of wildlife legislation as appropriate. 

Forfeiture and alternative penalties are the key terms here. The most obvious item for forfeiture is the vehicle used by the convicted person, though these are seldom worth more than a few hundred pounds. Much more important is the forfeiture of the dogs used. There are clear difficulties here (and I have explored the options in the past, once at the request of sheriffs keen to forfeit dogs) in kennelling the dogs in the period between the incident and the conviction. If there was a will to do so this could be overcome and I would suggest it needs looked at again and that a committee of the key players be formed to revisit this option, which would be guaranteed to make a difference.

So far as penalties are concerned, in the initial stages leading up to a trial realistic bail conditions may be able to be applied, which could curtail the accused person being with any dog more than, say, a mile from his house. Disqualification from driving for using his vehicle in the commission of a crime has occasionally been tried, to great effect. More recently in wildlife crime cases antisocial behaviour orders have been used with success.

The first of the solutions offered by Onekind was:

‘The simplest way of significantly improving the situation would be to give the Scottish SPCA powers to investigate wildlife crimes’.

The investigation of hare coursing, in my view, is not something that can be undertaken by SSPCA.  Firstly those involved in coursing are invariably violent. If they are caught in the act or soon after, the following powers are required without warrant:

  • Power to arrest or detain
  • Power to stop a vehicle
  • Power to search a vehicle
  • Power to search a suspect
  • Power to seize a vehicle
  • Power to seize any items used in the commission of the crime or that may help to prove the crime
  • Power to seize dogs (outwith any welfare issues)
  • Access land to do any of these things

Most hare coursers that are charged are caught in the act. If they are not, their vehicle registration number is seldom of use since many of them buy and sell cars and are only in possession of a vehicle for a short time. The vehicle is almost never registered to them, may be registered under a false name and address and the insurance, since it covers their trading in vehicles, does not have registration numbers listed. If the vehicle is not traced and stopped within a few days the chances are it will have been sold on. Investigation can continue by utilising other methods, usually undertaken by a wildlife crime officer. This generally means a lot of effort sometimes with little outcome.

So unless SSPCA staff are going to be given the same powers as police officers I doubt they can take on hare coursing. Having said that, in unmarked vehicles and along with farmers and gamekeepers, their use would be invaluable as ‘spotters’ during any operation to catch coursers, and to call in a marked police vehicle if coursing is witnessed or suspected.

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Op Manhattan, badger crime op in North Wales – compliment and comment

Typical lower jaw injuries to dog caused by being pitted against badger

Typical lower jaw injuries to dog caused by being pitted against badger

Badger sett dug two metres deep

Badger sett dug two metres deep

It was interesting watching the enforcement of Operation Manhattan by North Wales Rural Crime Team last week. From updates regularly unfolding on Twitter, the operation dealt with badger crimes and the associated animal welfare issues of the dogs used in the brutal ‘sport’ of digging and baiting badgers. From the information in the public domain three men were arrested on the day of the searches and a fourth has been interviewed. A ‘wild’ animal, probably a captive fox or badger, was recovered from a locked shed, and 42 dogs were seized.

This was a massive undertaking and was an excellent example of the police working in partnership with other agencies. I have no idea what the evidence is, and in any event that could not be published before the conclusion of any court case, but having organised a similar operation for raptor persecution involving 50 police officers and other staff, it is a daunting task. For those who are not too acquaint with policing (and some armchair detectives who frequently criticise the police at every opportunity despite not knowing the difficulties) let me have a guess at the work that the North Wales Police Rural Crime Team undertook.  The team is led by Rob Taylor, recently retired sergeant from the team and now the team manager. The rest of the team comprises a detective constable on secondment, three constables and three community support officers.

Most police operations are intelligence-led, and the intelligence for this operation may have originated from the police, National Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit, RSPCA, League against Cruel Sports or from any combination of these agencies. Invariably search warrants are required, and these will only be granted by a sheriff or magistrate who is convinced by current intelligence that there are reasonable grounds for warrants to be used. In this operation I’d guess at least four search warrants would be required.

Four search warrants probably means at least four locations to be searched (in the Tayside case to which I referred there were seven, plus about 30,000 acres of moorland, though police powers for the land were sufficient and this did not require a warrant). This probably means at least four police officers to each address, assuming they have to be searched simultaneously, which would most likely be the case here since word could spread quickly and evidence is likely to disappear. Two of the officers would be involved with the search, probably with the assistance of specially search-trained officers, one of whom would be an exhibits officer (or in Scotland, a productions officer) to log the productions. Two might also be involved assisting at the address but would be available to detain or arrest the suspect if and when that became necessary.

In an operation of this magnitude wildlife crime officers from other forces may be asked to assist, as may investigation support officers from NWCU. I note that in this case dog section officers were on hand as was a firearms unit. The request for their assistance would depend on the intelligence and any background knowledge of the suspects.

It is always important to provide a court with the best evidence possible. In this operation it is likely that the recovery of any interesting items, the dogs and the conditions in which the dogs were kept would be video-recorded and/or photographed.

In a case like this it would be anticipated that dogs would need to be examined and probably seized. This would require a vet, who could move between addresses, and probably two RSPCA inspectors at each address to deal with and remove the dogs.

So we possibly now have an idea of the considerable staffing required for the job, but of course transport is also required. It would be easy to have a van for each locus and to pile everyone for that address on board. That’s certainly not suitable as officers carrying out different tasks are likely to need their own transport as some may need to leave the address before others or even move between addresses. In many of these operations vehicles are hired for the duration of the job. RSPCA would also have their own transport with cages to remove animals, whether dogs, foxes or badgers.

There must be communication between the different teams, and indeed to whoever is controlling the operation, who might be at a police station rather than at any of the addresses. In the Tayside operation I was based in the nearest police station to the operation along with a uniformed inspector (I had the knowledge but, as a retired police officer, little or no authority, while the inspector had the authority but little knowledge of wildlife crime or associated wildlife or animal welfare legislation). Every team member must therefore know how to contact the other team members. The officer in charge must also be considering the welfare of those in the teams and work out, if possible, how to get some refreshments to them. There are seldom complaints from team members as they are normally so busy they hardly notice that 10 or 12 hours have passed without a bite to eat. (As well as on wildlife jobs I also experienced this during my three years on the drug squad). Unfortunately in the current climate finance must also be a consideration, though I suspect in this type of investigation overtime payments are the least of the participants’ considerations. I’m sure they just want a satisfactory conclusion and maybe some extra time off in lieu of overtime.

The day starts, normally very early, with a briefing by the officer in charge. Every team member must know exactly what he or she has to do and, equally importantly, if there is anything that he or she must not do. At the end of the operation it is good to have a debrief, though it is much harder to get everyone back together again as some tasks take much longer than others. The debrief allows interesting information and intelligence gleaned to be shared. Importantly it is a chance to pick up on what aspects of the operation went particularly smoothly and what went wrong and can be modified for future operations.

The searches are only the beginning of the operation. Items seized are likely to be dogs, mobile phones, computers, laptops, ipods, tablets, photographs, video footage, relevant books and articles on the subject of the search, cages, blood and hair samples, any documents showing ownership of the dogs, home remedies for treatment of injuries and any documentation that might show veterinary treatment. Forensic work on some of these exhibits/productions may take weeks or even months. RSPCA invariably take on the difficult job of looking after the dogs. This is likely to include veterinary treatment, which is unlikely to be recoverable from the owners of the dogs.

Suspects have to be interviewed. The position with suspects is different in England and Wales compared with Scotland but it would be unlikely, unless absolutely necessary, for the suspects to be kept in custody for the court. This forces the prosecutor’s hand into making a decision on sometimes limited and hastily-prepared evidence on whether to prosecute. It is generally better to put a complete case forward once all evidence has been collated. Generally with wildlife crime cases the police would be in consultation with the prosecutor at an early stage in any case and could be directed appropriately.

I was really impressed that North Wales Police kept the public abreast of the progress of this operation through Twitter. It is yet another aspect of an already busy day for the officer in charge, but is an incredibly clever strategy for garnering public support and information, so important in trying to get a successful conclusion in wildlife crime cases. Most operations of this sort are run equally efficiently; it is just that the public are not aware of them. Full marks in any case to North Wales Police, to Rob and his team and to the other participating organisations. I know that police forces are struggling financially but others would do well to follow the North Wales Police example of creating an extremely competent and dedicated rural crime team.

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RSPB Birdcrime Report 2015 – comment

Trap similar to that used by Wainwright. On this occasion the trap had caught a buzzard which had died of starvation

Trap similar to that used by Wainwright. On this occasion the trap had caught a buzzard which had died of starvation

I managed to get time this morning to read the RSPB Birdcrime 2015 report (which shows that some folk can be busy even when retired).  I can’t say I was impressed by the new format, the main reason being that any time I tried to open one of the links to Legal Eagle it was going to take forever to reveal the contents. This may be OK for folks with good broadband connections but many of us in the backwoods still have broadband that operates at a snail’s pace.

Having said that, the report showed that raptor persecution had barely slackened. As expected, the areas of driven grouse moors were demonstrably the worst. In relation to reported incidents of raptor persecution, Lancashire had 19, North Yorkshire, 40, Scottish Borders 20, Tayside 27, Grampian 23 and Highland 39. These six areas of the UK, all areas of driven grouse moors, had 170 incidents out of a UK total of 519.

I had been aware of the two goshawk incidents in the Peak District in 2013 and 2015 when men appeared at active goshawk nests in the middle of the night, and also in what appeared to be conditions of heavy rain. In the 2013 incident three of the first names of the men were known as they were heard speaking to each other. Since their motive is most likely to have been to get rid of goshawks that might cause them problems with game birds (they’d be no problem to a farmer) they are unlikely to have travelled far to the nest and through a combination of criminal intelligence and the use of the details in the firearm licensing department of the local police force I would have thought they should have been identified. Maybe they were of course but there may have been nothing at the scene to link them apart from a combination of names. They were just black shadows in the video though I wonder if voice recognition may have been possible. Crime intelligence is only of value if there has been a relevant input, which is often a failure of police officers and conservationists alike. The tree had been climbed, and according to French forensic scientist and criminologist Sir Edmund Locard every contact leaves a trace. However halfway up a tree is not the easiest place to carry out a scene of crime examination.

In the second incident four shots were fired, presumably into the nest. The men were seen scouring the area underneath, presumably to remove any evidence of dead birds of cartridge cases.

The two cases demonstrate how difficult it is to show that a crime against birds of prey has been committed and reinforce the view that the crimes discovered are indeed only the tip of the iceberg.

I picked up a case in the report that I had missed at the time. In February, 2015 a gamekeeper, Neil Gordon Wainwright of Norbury, Shropshire pleaded guilty to two pesticide offences and the insecure storage of ammunition. He was fined £500 with £115 costs. The circumstances leading to this were that RSPB Investigations staff had found a trap baited with two live quails next to a pheasant pen on land keepered by Wainwright. They installed surveillance cameras, which recorded Wainwright checking the trap, which was of the type typically used to catch hawks. The evidence was passed to West Mercia Police and in a subsequent search by police assisted by RSPB the trap and quails were recovered. Wainwright was later interviewed by a West Mercia police officer and an investigation support officer from NWCU. He admitted having set the trap but claimed he was trying to catch rats, stoats and mink. What utter tripe!

During the trial, with experts from RSPB Investigations and NWCU available, I don’t think there would have been any difficulty in proving the trap was set for hawks. Nor would there have been any difficulty for specialist avian vet Neil Forbes in proving that there was a welfare issue in relation to the two quails in the trap.

Following legal submissions about the admissibility of the RSPB video evidence the district judge ruled that the surveillance evidence was disproportionate in this case and dismissed the three related charges. I suspect he did that reluctantly since he ordered Wainwright to cover his own legal costs, telling him he had brought the prosecution upon himself.

This is the second case that has failed due to the archaic term in England of ‘trespassers’. The judge said said even when ‘trespassers’ acted with the best motives, that did not allow their conduct to be ‘unfettered’. There may have been another option to identify the criminal, which I’ll not publish but will discuss with RSPB Investigations.

In the various appendices to the 2015 report I see there are several pesticide abuse cases being investigated by Police Scotland where the type of pesticide has been withheld. In Scotland the police have three years from the date of the offence to get a case to the procurator fiscal (obviously less a few months for the fiscal to prepare the case for court). It is common in the investigation of any crime not to put specialist knowledge that only the person committing the crime may have into the public domain. In this respect it does not surprise me that pesticide details have been withheld. I am a bit surprised however that there are no details at all of four incidents; neither listing the species involved nor the area of Scotland in which the incident took place.

I like good mysteries….but only if I can solve them!


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A brighter future ahead for the investigation of wildlife crime?

The result of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for two Scottish estates is awaited with interest

The result of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for two Scottish estates is awaited with interest

There is a lot going on just now with the efforts of the Scottish Government and Police Scotland to tackle wildlife crime. It was summarised in part in the 2015 report Wildlife Crime in Scotland, published towards the end of 2016, with the Scottish Government making the following commitments for priority work ahead:

“We must protect the environment from those who seek to damage it for personal gain. We will increase the penalties for wildlife crime and consider the creation of new sentencing guidelines in line with recommendations from the Wildlife Crimes Penalties Review Group. Police Scotland will create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit to support the existing network of wildlife crime officers in complex investigations.

In order to safeguard vulnerable species from illegal persecution, we will carry out a review of prevention measures including the operation of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime and supporting Police Scotland in their work to target wildlife crime hotspots. We are prepared to introduce legislation where necessary.

We will consider the outcome of Lord Bonomy’s review into whether existing legal controls on hunting with dogs provide the intended level of protection for foxes and other wild mammals, while allowing for the effective and humane control of these animals where required.”

I was particularly interested in the commitment for Police Scotland to create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit. This appears in the report as a Scottish Government commitment so I wonder if we can assume that the Scottish Government, through PAW, will at least in part be funding it so might have some say over its format. If I can have a stab at it, the unit might incorporate a sergeant in charge and all six of the full-time wildlife crime liaison officers. Since the unit would be dealing with some of the more complex enquiries, particularly vicarious liability and wildlife crimes where a court might seek recovery of profit under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) this would require detective officers with fraud training and trained in the identification of assets for recovery. There are other specialist police services that would be required from time to time, such as scene of crime officers and search-trained officers but I doubt they would be part of this unit and could be called on as required, as could any of another 100 trained wildlife crime officers. I would see the unit having close links with the National Wildlife Crime Unit in respect of the preparation of intelligence packages and the expertise of one or more investigative support officers though again I suspect that would also be on an ad hoc case by case basis. It’s all very exciting and I’ll see how close my prediction is when it materialises.

There are several other developments on the back burner just now, not least the review of game bird shooting regulations in force in other countries. The review has been completed but results are not yet in the public domain. Hopefully this review, the review of satellite-tagged raptors and the outcome of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for Raeshaw and Burnfoot estates might all influence the outcome of the petition by Scottish Raptor Study Groups for the licensing of game bird shooting in Scotland. This currently sits with the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee.

Also relevant to game shooting is the intention of parliament, in the next few months, to look at the ownership and management of estates and hopefully ensure these details are included in a land register. In any other business this would equate to a chain of command. This needs to be done as a matter of urgency so that in vicarious liability cases the specific individual who is liable for activity on an estate can be identified and reported for prosecution.

We also have proposed increased sentences for wildlife crimes plus possible improvements to the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act (hunting with dogs) as recommended by Lord Bonomy, both of which I have written about earlier. In addition, on 6 October 2016, the Scottish Sentencing Council began work to create new sentencing guidelines for environmental and wildlife crime.

I have often said that trying to obtain evidence for a prosecution in many of the wildlife cases in which I was involved while a wildlife crime officer was about the biggest challenge in my investigative career. Gary Aitken, the fiscal in charge of the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit, hit the nail on the head when he said, “The criminal killing of wildlife species on land has been described to me as a murder investigation with a serious fraud investigation tacked on to the end of it.”

There seems a slightly brighter future ahead for the investigation of wildlife crime, and possibly even for its reduction. Let’s hope that these advancements are not hindered too much by the Brexit issues being forced up on us.

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Illegally-set traps on grouse moor in Aberdeenshire – comment

Bridge or rail trap set on an Angus grouse moor with no effort to limit access to legitimate 'pest' species

Bridge or rail trap set on an Angus grouse moor with no effort to limit access to legitimate ‘pest’ species

I have held back on commenting on the illegally-set bridge or rail traps found by walkers on what is reported to be the Glendye Estate in Aberdeenshire. On 17 January the walkers found a number of traps set on logs over burns where there was no restriction to mammals or birds that are not the legal targets of these traps. Photographs and details were published on an excellent blog – davidadamsketchbook.blogspot.co.uk –  written by one of the walkers but unfortunately there was no mention as to whether the police had been informed.

Since 17 January the incident has been reported by others on social media and it would not have taken long for the phones of the keepers on the estate to be red hot warning them of the widespread public knowledge of these crimes. If they had set the traps they would be there in a flash to remove them.  I suspect that the police had been informed by the walkers since they had left the traps in the set position, leaving them liable to catch a mammal or bird, but that is only a guess since I thought from the blog that the writer seemed a very responsible person who, like many of us, has a hatred of wildlife crime.  In any event I did not want to add to the chance of the criminals being forewarned before the police had a chance to carry out their investigation. As I have said in other articles I believe in publication of criminal acts as early as possible after the discovery provided it does not hamper the police investigation.

The bridge traps in question appeared from the photos to be Fenn Mk IV traps set either in wire mesh tunnels with no restrictions on the ends to exclude mammals other than small ground ‘pest’ species, or simply with a single loop of fence wire over the trap. I have never encountered this latter method before and I can see no use whatsoever for the loop of wire. Either of the traps could easily catch protected species such as pine martens or even wildcats, and these larger mammals would be unlikely to be killed outright and more likely to be trapped by a leg and left dangling from the log.

The use of these traps in this illegal condition is pure laziness on behalf of the person setting them. Most of these traps I have seen lately have been set legally and it takes little effort to surround the trap with a proper wire cage. Gamekeepers state they are professionals and if a gamekeeper set these (and on any grouse moor regularly patrolled by gamekeepers it is hardly likely to have been anyone else) there is nothing professional about them.

Part of the SGA quote on the incident is:

‘all traps operated must be set in accordance with the strict guidelines governing their use’.

It’s a wee bit more than ‘guidelines’ that govern their use; it’s legislation. The criteria for setting these traps are not something that might be advisable to do, they’re conditions that must be followed. I bet that Bert Burnett is absolutely raging at this latest incident. There are many critics of Bert but I found when I was with Tayside Police that he did more than anyone else in SGA to discourage gamekeepers from breaking the law, especially in relation to raptor persecution.

Let’s hope that the police managed to get to the traps before they were spirited away.

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Evidence to the ECCLR Committee on the Scottish Govt Wildlife Crime Report – comment

Trapping and snaring offences were up from 19 in 2013/14 to 27 in 2014/15

Trapping and snaring offences were up from 19 in 2013/14 to 27 in 2014/15

I listened over the last couple of days to the evidence being given to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee of the Scottish Parliament in relation to the Scottish Government Wildlife Crime Report, 2015. I must say I was very impressed with the convener of the committee, Graeme Dey, and indeed all of the committee members. While some may have had their own agendas they were polite, put forward sensible and relevant questions and were extremely respectful to the various panel members who gave evidence; a complete contrast to the Westminster evidence on the petition for the banning of driven grouse shooting.

The police and COPFS were first and I wondered how the police would fare. ACC Steve Johnson and Detective Chief Superintendent Sean Scott represented Police Scotland. I don’t know them and I wondered, as is sometimes the case with senior officers speaking on wildlife crime issues, that they might just be figureheads with limited relevant knowledge. Mr Johnson transferred to Police Scotland in May 2016 and has only held the wildlife portfolio for a relatively short time, however in his former post of chief superintendent in Cumbria Constabulary he was also the lead on wildlife crime. Both officers displayed a knowledge of wildlife crime far higher than that normally shown by officers of those ranks. There were a few operational questions which they couldn’t answer, such as why four raptor-related crimes were not in the Scottish Government report yet were in the corresponding RSPB report, but at their level their role is primarily strategic rather than operational. I’ve no doubt they were well briefed by Sergeant Andy Mavin, who co-ordinates the Police Scotland wildlife crime officers but no matter how good the briefing there is always a question comes up that can’t be answered. I saw Andy sitting in the public bench behind the panel and I’ve no doubt that had he been beside Mr Johnson he could have fielded that and other operational questions.

I was a bit puzzled myself as to why these crimes were missing. I could see three of the alleged four crimes in the RSPB report. They were described as a crow trap baited with two live pigeon decoys, set spring traps beside a pigeon decoy and four shot buzzards (which could be argued would make six crimes), all discovered by the police in May 2014. It was stated during the evidence that the incidents had occurred on Raeshaw Estate, near Heriot in the Scottish Borders. Over a decade this has been one of the worst estates in Scotland for the discovery of wildlife crimes. I would have thought that, unless the publication of details of these crimes would jeopardise any proceedings it would have been in the public interest to do so. In any event this will be researched by Police Scotland and a written update given to the ECCLR committee.

I think there was consensus among the different organisations giving evidence (which included RSPB Scotland, Scottish Badgers, Bat Conservation Trust and Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, that more transparency was required. Rightly, Ian Thomson of RSPB stated that this did not mean knocking on the door of the estate owner (if he or she can be identified) and advising that there may be a shot, poisoned or missing bird of prey on the land. Personally, I would like to see every wildlife crime of interest put into the public domain as soon as possible, though at a time that would not thwart an investigation or without such detail as would jeopardise a prosecution.

Much was made of figures and tables and an interesting question was put by the convener as to whether, in relation to raptor persecution, is there a change in the behaviour of those who are involved. With fewer incidents of poisoning but more satellite-tagged birds disappearing the questioner wondered whether the criminals had got wise to the police methods of investigation and had changed the way they deal with birds of prey. This tends to happen in all areas of criminality, with the criminal trying to keep a step ahead of the police. I saw evidence of this comparing raptor persecution investigations between the early 1990s and when I eventually retired in 2015, by which time the recovery of evidence had become more difficult despite better forensic techniques. I can only speculate that this would be likely to continue.

The SGA fielded a spokesman who was a retired police officer, now a gamekeeper. He seemed a genuine chap and stated that he sees ‘a massive change on the ground’ in relation to raptor persecution. He also stated that the SGA does not condone the killing of birds of prey and have thrown five members out of their organisation. These are heartening statements but SGA is still reluctant to admit that gamekeepers are responsible for most of the raptor persecution reported, or that it may indeed be the tip of the iceberg. Various pie charts kept over the years clearly show that a preponderance of raptor crime is committed by gamekeepers, plus anyone who knows anything about the countryside knows that only a proportion of the raptors killed or illegal traps or poisoned baits set out are discovered. It is unfortunate that figures cannot be put on that proportion.

I was interested in the discussion as to whether the SSPCA should have additional powers to search for and recover evidence not directly involved in animal welfare. I agree with ACC Johnson when he stated that that SSPCA is a charity that deals with animal welfare and neglect, while the police investigate crime. He stated that the police have primacy in the investigation of crime and if SSPCA get increased powers there could be a conflict of interest, a lack of accountability plus they do not have access to some of the specialist services that the police have. I think I reached the conclusion that there may be some merit in slightly extending the power of SSPCA so that if during an animal welfare investigation they discover a wildlife crime, they may extend the investigation to include a search, there and then, for evidence which could subsequently be passed to the police.

I was interested in Mr Johnson’s experience that there is a correlation between the areas in which Police Scotland have full-time wcos and recorded crime. I certainly saw that when in post in Tayside. It serves to show that wildlife crime may not be increasing, but simply that the public are much more aware of it and know to report their suspicions to the police.  Having looked, however, at the Tayside wildlife crime statistics for 2014/15 I am not convinced that all wildlife crimes are being recorded. There were no badger crimes for that year, which is unusual, and there were only two bird crimes. Apart from any raptor-related crime I am sure that there will have been many more than two instances of birds’ nests being destroyed. There were two instances of cruelty to wild animals. I wonder if, in the days of so much CCTV, this includes the regular kicking and injuring/killing of gulls feeding on pavements by drunks making their way home. These might be recorded as bird crime, as might the shooting of swans with air rifles, but there again there were only two of those for the whole year. There were no cases of deer poaching being recorded, yet this was one of the more common wildlife crimes when I was working, as was hare coursing, yet only five incidents were recorded. Some of these incidents would no doubt be attended by officers who were not wildlife crime officers. I know that if no-one was caught at the time I used to have to chase the officers up for a crime report otherwise one would not have gone in. If this is the case Scotland-wide then the police are still very much under-recording wildlife crime.

There were many more interesting discussions, including fox hunting, bats, badgers, a register of estate ownership and vicarious liability. I was really pleased to see one of the Scottish Government’s commitments as:

‘Police Scotland will create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit to support the existing network of wildlife crime officers in complex investigations’.

This would be of major benefit and brings me back to an observation by Gary Aitken, who was the representative from COPFS, who said, in relation to vicarious liability that it was ‘like a murder investigation with a serious fraud allegation tacked on to the end of it’. In addition to such an investigation unit it would also be of huge advantage in the quick response to wildlife crime if all of the full-time wildlife crime liaison officers worked as a unit and could cross divisional boundaries as and when required.

I noted in the Scottish Government report that the police dealt with 19 trap and snare offences during 2013/14, which had increased to 27 during 2014/15. It may be on the back of this increase that the Scientific sub-group of PAW Scotland distributing a guide to police officers for recovering fingerprints and DNA from spring traps.

Lastly I was pleased to see in the report that September 2015 saw yet another continuous professional development seminar for wildlife law enforcement at the Scottish Police College attended by police, COPFS, UK Border Force and SNH.

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