It has been a bad few days for birds of prey. Just over a week ago a peregrine was found dead in the grounds of a cathedral in Northern Ireland. The bird, which was popular with locals, is now the subject of a police investigation to establish firstly the cause of death and in due course, if death was as a result of a crime, who committed the crime.
My first port of call, had I been investigating this case, would be to run the bird through a scanner either at a prison or airport. This gives a first class result, free of charge to the public purse, of whether the bird has been shot. The x-ray can even be photographed and used in court, and leaves the option for the prosecutor to have either a further x-ray by a vet or a post mortem examination by a veterinary pathologist if that is considered necessary. So far, in my experience, the evidence has been sufficiently clear in the first x-ray to make this second option redundant.
If the bird has not been shot, a post mortem examination would normally be carried out by a veterinary pathologist, which might show the cause of death as due to natural causes. If this examination is inconclusive samples from the gullet and liver in particular would be taken and sent for examination for pesticides. Depending on the pesticide involved the veterinary pathologist may be able to see traces in the gullet, which could be sufficient to allow the police investigation to get under way.
Next was the welcome news that Allen Lambert, a gamekeeper on the Stody Estate in Norfolk, had been convicted of the killing of ten buzzards and a sparrowhawk. The birds were found to have been poisoned, most with the extremely toxic banned pesticide mevinphos, and Lambert had been found in possession of containers of mevinphos and aldicarb along with needles and syringes. The conviction was as the result of a joint investigation by the police, Natural England and RSPB.
On the occasions I have had to deal with mevinphos, which is a liquid, it has terrified me. It has the potential to kill a human by being absorbed through the skin of even by the fumes being inhaled. Any person handling whatever the baits were that Lambert had set out would have been put at severe risk and the common law charge that we have available in Scotland, culpable and reckless conduct, would not be out of place in circumstances like these.
If comments attributed to the magistrate are true, a degree of blame was being directed towards Lambert’s employer, who had allegedly been lax in the training of Lambert in using legitimate chemicals. This case must make a solid argument for England and Wales to incorporate vicarious liability into their legislation. It is not the complete answer but is considerably better than what is currently available for police and courts to work with.
It is most unusual for there to be sufficient evidence to convict a person of the actual poisoning of wildlife. Most convictions are for the possession of pesticides, with normally insufficient to link the poisoned baits or victims with the person involved. (I have been involved in investigations with poisoned baits and victims recovered, traces of the pesticide involved recovered in vehicles, gamebags, knives and on suspects’ clothing, yet still insufficient to get a case to court). I am sure the magistrate is well aware of all of this, and also that this was hardly a one-off incident. I have little doubt that during his lifetime Lambert will have killed hundreds of birds of prey and probably other protected species that he has seen as a threat to game birds. Nevertheless I am still doubtful that a custodial sentence will be imposed in November when Lambert next appears in court. A person can only be sentenced on what has been proved. Though this in considerable in Lambert’s case, his age (and I am guessing here) the absence of previous analogous convictions and the degree of responsibility of his employer may mitigate against imprisonment. I’d be surprised, though, if the estate is not hit for a considerable clawback of single farm payments.
The most recent revelation is the discovery of six dead buzzards in a field in the south of Aberdeenshire. A police investigation is under way but there is no cause of death for the birds at this stage.