What an insightful article from Mark Avery on ‘Why Raptor Persecution is Different’ on his blog (see http://networkedblogs.com/GHa3d ). He states that there are at least three issues that make reducing raptor killing tricky compared with many other crimes, then goes on to describe these. As someone who has investigated crime, particularly crime against our wildlife, over the course of 45 years, I can add to Mark’s three issues.
Four. Until vicarious liability for certain wildlife crimes became law in 2012 (at least in Scotland), landowners and other management levels have been almost bombproof. To prove that any person ‘knowingly caused or permitted’ the offence (the killing of a raptor) to take place was almost impossible. Employers and managers could hide behind employees, sometimes paying their fines if they were unlucky enough to be caught and convicted, but with almost no risk of gaining a criminal record themselves. While vicarious liability may never be easy to establish it has increased the risk to employers, and should thereby have a deterrent effect.
Five. In the majority of cases those convicted of any form of raptor persecution have (1) no previous record, and (2) the raptor involved is usually one of the more common species, such as a buzzard. This makes it very difficult for a court, much more used to dealing with regular offenders and with serious drug-related cases, to hand out a sentence of imprisonment. Having said this there have been one or two cases where I thought – and probably hoped – that imprisonment might be on the cards but without knowing all the facts, and any mitigation put forward by the defence, it can be hard to take issue with a court verdict.
Six. Police officers investigating crimes have to be objective and can’t make assumptions without supporting evidence. However where evidence points to game management (and that farming and pigeon fancying interests have been ruled out) there may be six or seven possible suspects, even without the list being extended to contiguous estates. This makes an exceptionally difficult investigation. Having been involved in the investigation of the whole range of crimes, from reset to rape, minor assault to murder, on the scale of difficulty raptor persecution is near the top.
Expanding on Marks’ second issue, the horror of the manner of death, I have found birds in incredibly contorted positions in death. A raven had gone right back over on its tail and a white-tailed eagle had its legs stretched forward and its head arched back. Birds poisoned by carbamate pesticides suffer muscle contractions, which must be agonising in the extreme.
Picking up on his third issue, that in most crimes there is a human victim, I’d say that we are all victims when birds of prey are killed. Almost everyone loves to see a hen harrier, golden eagle or peregrine in flight, displaying or hunting. Every one illegally killed is another opportunity to watch nature in tooth and claw denied to us. The police do get information from the rural and shooting communities, but not nearly as much as should be taking place. From experience I know that when a potential witness or informant is in leased accommodation or employed by a suspect, he or she will be very reluctant to rock the boat. Gamekeepers give information about other gamekeepers, but never in a manner that can be used as evidence; only as intelligence. Also they can be too defensive about public allegations that their peers are killing birds of prey, lending tacit support for illegal activity rather than condemnation.
Further expanding Mark’s third issue, while in one sense gamekeepers may benefit from a neighbour illegally killing birds of prey, this must be offset by the incredibly bad press that befalls all gamekeepers when birds of prey are poisoned, shot or trapped. And this is often on the assumption that a gamekeeper had been responsible, an assumption that is worthless as hard evidence.
So hopefully these extra factors on how different, and of course how difficult, the investigation of raptor persecution is from other crimes may help explain why so few people ever appear in court for these crimes.
Lastly, having known the ways of gamekeepers for well over half a century, I am of the view that there has been a sea-change over the past decade and that those who kill birds of prey are now in the minority. Unfortunately they can still wreak havoc, like a fox in a chicken coop. Law-abiding landowners and gamekeepers need to grasp this nettle and ostracise those who bring their profession into disrepute. They are an embarrassment to the industry and indeed to the UK.