The scandalous bludgeoning of two buzzards

The bludgeoning of two buzzards by Colin Burne, of Winters Park, Penrith, on land managed by a private shooting syndicate in Whinfell Forest, near Penrith, Cumbria, (as reported in the National Wildlife Crime Unit website at and the RSPB website at illegally?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=News ) must rate as one of the worst wildlife crimes I have seen. Though there have possibly been more brutal crimes, especially in relation to badger baiting, the clinical manner in which this gamekeeper dispatched the two unfortunate buzzards was sickening. It seemed as if this was an everyday occurrence for him. He is 64 and I wondered how many times during his life as a gamekeeper this has taken place. It is something we will never know, but the fact that he pleaded guilty to killing five buzzards prior to this incident tends to suggest that it has been a regular event.

I am sure that the magistrate had been shown the video footage of the incident and was desperate to impose a jail sentence, but it is reported that Burne had ill health, and instead a 70-day jail sentence, concurrent on each of three charges, was imposed, but was suspended for 12 months.

Few wildlife crimes have had as much media coverage as this one. It probably sets back the work of decent gamekeepers and responsible game management organisations as much as has any incident where a bird of prey has been killed or a cache of pesticides recovered. I wouldn’t really expect relevant organisations in Scotland to comment but I looked at the website just now of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, which covers gamekeeping in England and Wales, for condemnation of Burne and his actions. Disappointingly not a word!

This was a case where video footage of the incident was captured by the RSPB, who then reported the matter to Cumbria Police wildlife crime officer PC Helen Felton. RSPB regularly employ the use of covert video surveillance in England but this is a tactic not currently accepted by the courts in Scotland. The environment minister recently announced several measures in Scotland aimed at reducing and dealing more efficiently with crime committed against birds of prey. One paragraph of his announcement was particularly interesting –

The Lord Advocate has instructed the specialist prosecutors in the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit to work with Police Scotland to ensure that law enforcement utilises all investigative tools at their disposal in the fight against wildlife crime.

While this might not necessarily pave the way for NGOs to carry out surveillance I wonder if it means that it might be made easier for police officers to carry out surveillance on private land, something that is currently not available in respect of most wildlife crimes.

Lastly, had vicarious liability been available in England as it is in Scotland, this may well have been an ideal case for the police to investigate those higher up the chain of command.





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4 Responses to The scandalous bludgeoning of two buzzards

  1. Stanechacker says:

    There has never been an explanation why video footage obtained by NGOs in Scotland is not, as you put it “currently accepted by the courts in Scotland”. What are the differences in law north and south of the border that cause this?

    • The guidance from Crown Office, so far as I understand it, is that if a person is in the countryside and chances on an offence being committed then that evidence is likely to be accepted by the court. This could also cover using a video camera on a nest to establish, for example, what food items are being brought in and capturing an egg thief in the footage. If a person uses surveillance on someone else’s land to gain evidence of an offence or goes out specifically looking for offences then the evidence is unlikely to be accepted. It is difficult for police officers to gain the necessary authority under RIP(S)A to carry out surveillance on private land and it would certainly be much easier if ngos’ evidence as above was accepted. However we have to stick to the Crown Office interpretation of law, not what we think the law should be. Nothing, of course, prevents lobbying for change.

      • Stanechacker says:

        Thanks for your reply. But, is there a difference in the relevant law between Scotland & England? Surely it is not for the Crown Office to interpret the law – that should be the role of the courts!

      • I can’t speak for the Crown Office’s position in interpreting the law, though I’m sure they can. Based on court decisions, human rights and any other legal factors, Crown Office gives direction to the procurators fiscal who prosecute all criminal cases in Scotland (unlike England and Wales there are no prosecutions by other agencies). If any case – not just relating to wildlife crime – were to be submitted by a police officer to the procurator fiscal and that case was based on the surveillance we had earlier discussed, it would be given consideration but if it fell outwith Crown Office guidelines it would either be marked ‘no proceedings’ or the fiscal might contact Crown Office and take advice. Once a case gets to court, of course, it is the sheriff who interprets the law. Be assured there is no hidden agenda as is sometimes claimed. In Scotland we are ahead of the game. With one Scottish police force there is now a wildlife crime unit headed by a detective superintendent, with a detective sergeant in charge of policy, 6 full-time and 50-60 part time wildlife crime officers. The officers can also rely on the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the Scottish Intelligence Database for intelligence background and for practical assistance from the NWCU investigations officer (a police officer). There are also three specialist fiscals dealing only with wildlife and environmental crime, and a senior advocate from Crown Office with responsibility for those matters. All are absolutely committed to presenting the best possible case to the courts within the agreed legal guidelines.

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