Hen harrier crime: penalties and sanctions

A hen harrier nest in deep heather

A hen harrier nest in deep heather

Hen harrier chicks at the nest

Hen harrier chicks at the nest

I’ve just listened to two very interesting interviews on the Birders again Wildlife Crime website (BAWC talk). One was by Mark Avery and the other by Chris Packham. Both were in relation to crime committed against birds of prey, focussing particularly on the hen harrier. The presentations were given on the back of an e-petition initiated by Mark and calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting. It was particularly revealing, listening to the two presentations, that neither are against shooting per se and indeed acknowledge that there are some benefits in grouse shooting. Their gripe – and that of a large proportion of the population of the UK who are aware of the issue – is that hen harriers are being killed to allow an increased production of wild grouse for shooting. Further, it cannot be disputed that the problem is at its most extreme on driven grouse moors. Driven grouse shooting is described by Mark as ‘the worst example of a field sport in the UK.’

One would need to be naïve in the extreme to argue that hen harriers are not being killed by gamekeepers. There may indeed be some other causes that result in localised hen harrier declines but science, crime intelligence and indeed an odd conviction prove the argument. Chris does not blame all gamekeepers or all estates and the point he makes is that the actions of some tarnish the reputation of the remainder. He also stated that increasing penalties for those convicted of wildlife crime is not the answer, a stance with which I agree.

Currently in the UK, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, a person convicted of an offence under that Act can be sentenced to fine of up to £5,000 and/or six month’s imprisonment.  This, in my view, is quite a realistic penalty taking into consideration the range of other crimes carrying the same penalty. However a penalty means nothing if there is little risk of being caught. Two examples spring to mind, one quoted by Chris in his interview. He quotes the £27k reward for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons involved in the recent killing of a large number of red kites and buzzards on the Black Isle. The reward still stands and no-one has come forward with evidence that would convict. The availability of a penalty of even ten year’s imprisonment in this case would therefore mean nothing.  Conversely, when in 2000 (2003 in Scotland) courts could use imprisonment against wild bird egg thieves, Operation Easter, initially a Tayside Police and now a National Wildlife Crime Unit UK-wide operation, was already in existence.  All UK police forces and RSPB were working together to pool and utilise intelligence and the risk of detection and conviction was real. There has since been a rapid decline in wild bird egg theft.

Before moving on from penalties, it needs to be understood that a sheriff or magistrate in a court cannot automatically issue the maximum available sentence. Much as we might sometimes like this, a convicted person must be sentenced according to the severity of the crime, his means to pay and any analogous previous convictions. Imprisonment for a first offence would therefore be unlikely. The crime of a gamekeeper shooting a hen harrier, for instance, is not likely to be judged as serious as a landowner who orders this action, either directly or implicitly. I think we must also accept that some sheriffs or magistrates, used to dealing on a daily basis with crimes relating to drugs, violence and dishonesty, may not see crimes against wildlife as top of their list of priorities in public protection.

While I reject the argument for increasing of penalties, there is no easy answer. Some have been tried and have failed; in fact had hen harrier persecution ceased there would be no need for Mark’s e-petition.  Sadly intelligence shows that there is no obvious end in sight. The action to counter hen harrier persecution needs to be multi-pronged and include education, crime reduction and prosecution. I was impressed by Chris’s comment that we need to ‘increase awareness and to motivate people to care’. This means raising the issue at every available opportunity so that people who may sympathise with the hen harriers plight, were they aware of it, become aware.  The hen harrier day(s), if not hi-jacked by extremists, should catch the eye of the media and swell public support. Most organisations are well-versed in good publicity so I need say little more on this facet of attack apart from remembering not to isolate landowners and game managers who are already supportive.

Though vicarious liability is not the complete answer it has some crime reduction impact, though I seriously doubt that this extends to all intensively-managed driven grouse moors. At least it is another part of the armoury, but in Scotland only! Mark referred to ‘crime in the hills …. carried out in the early hours (or even in darkness – my italics) with no witnesses’.  This activity is sometimes reported to the police as intelligence but to secure a conviction intelligence needs to be converted to corroborated evidence, which is extremely difficult. Nevertheless if there is no intelligence flow to the police then they are unaware of particular illegal activity or who may be carrying out these acts.  This is where the good gamekeepers and landowners can help – after all it is their occupation and livelihood that is being tarnished. Generally speaking there is a poor response from the game industry and this desperately needs to change.

While there is a well-trained and enthusiastic police wildlife crime officer network throughout the UK, it cannot be denied that some of the officers get little support from the higher echelons of their force. Awareness-raising in respect of chief officers and police crime commissioners would certainly pay dividends. They are not always aware of the strength of feeling on raptor persecution – indeed any wildlife or environmental crime – and in the past have been badly caught out by media coverage that sometimes exceeds that of a murder or rape. The trained officers are there: they just need to get the support of their force. Even those who may be skilled in dealing with hare coursing and other wildlife crime but not have tackled raptor persecution before can be guided and assisted during an investigation by the National Wildlife Crime Unit. I would go as far as advising that all raptor persecution investigations should at the very least be run past the NWCU at the outset.

There is no denying that obtaining evidence for a successful prosecution is fraught with difficulties. This makes me think that alternative options may be the answer. Many estates are in receipt of huge subsidies, sometimes for keeping sheep whose main purpose may be in mopping up ticks that are periodically killed off when he sheep are dipped. My experience in the past was that infractions from one year could not be continued into the next year so that evidence of a series of wildlife crimes, enough to have subsidies suspended or reclaimed, was difficult to establish. The government reclaiming subsidies and suspending further payments needs to be considered as a real disincentive to commit crime and if this sanction can be altered to be used effectively it may begin to make a difference.

There is no doubt that the ultimate sanction, the licensing of grouse moors (or if Mark’s e-petition succeeds, the banning of driven grouse shooting) would be effective. Already one landowner has told me that, regrettably, he is in now in support of licensing as the only way that the shooting industry is likely to begin to take notice of the damage caused both to protected wildlife and to the industry itself. Equally regrettably, that is now my own view.


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2 Responses to Hen harrier crime: penalties and sanctions

  1. Chris says:

    Great post! The interviews sound really interesting, do you know if there’s a recording of them somewhere? Hopefully they catch the red kites and buzzards killer!

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