The Review of Game Bird Licensing in Europe – comment

Raven found poisoned on driven grouse moor in Angus

Raven found poisoned on driven grouse moor in Angus

Close up of the raven

Close up of the raven

The review of game bird hunting and licensing in other European countries, commissioned by the Scottish Government, has now been published. It is an excellent, in-depth publication covering 14 countries but concentrating mainly on Germany, France, Sweden, Norway and Spain. These countries all license shooting (mainly referred to as ‘hunting’) to some degree and in every case have elements that are worthy of consideration for Scotland. I’m sure that the Scottish Government will manage to use the most relevant parts and create new licensing legislation that will help to solve our disgraceful reputation in Scotland for raptor persecution. With any luck we might manage (yet again) to show the Westminster Government how to better deal with criminals blighting Scotland’s reputation.

The problem to be addressed is the killing of raptors, particularly on driven grouse moors.

We already have:

  • The best wildlife legislation in the UK, albeit it is almost impossible to enforce it against raptor-related crime in the uplands
  • Six full-time and approximately 100 part-time police officers trained to a high standard of wildlife crime investigation
  • Within the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service a Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit comprising four full-time prosecutors and with access to an Advocate.
  • Back-up support from specialist areas of policing such as search, fraud, proceeds of crime confiscation.
  • Back-up support from a number of government organisations, especially in forensics and chemical analysis
  • Back-up support and advice from many non-government organisations
  • The possibility of sanctions such as clawing back often substantial single farm payments, though the situations in which this can be used with success have been dramatically eroded since its inception. Also the possibility of revocation of general licences, though this seems also to have been suspended awaiting a judicial review following a challenge.
  • Reasonable penalties, with the strong likelihood of an increase that would be adequate to deal with a landowner or sporting agent who indulged in raptor persecution to improve profits from shooting.

I doubt that we need any change to shotgun and firearm licensing. Even if these are revoked they make little difference to the former holder and it has been proved time and time again that certificate holders are not all responsible people so far as raptor persecution is concerned.

Most other countries have a hunting licence system. We have tried that already in the UK in the form of a game licence, and it was scrapped some years ago. In any case I think the Scottish Government should be considering the loss of the right to shoot on a particular piece of land rather than the loss of the right of an individual to shoot.

So what we need from this game shooting licensing review is a sanction that will stop landowners and sporting agents in their tracks from directing, encouraging or turning a blind eye to raptor-related crime. The bosses, whether they be addressed as Lord, Lady, Sir or just plain Mr or Mrs are they key to this problem of killing birds of prey. If they want it stopped in case they really risk going to jail or the suspension of the right for shooting to take place on their land then they will most certainly ensure their employees comply with their instructions.

The European Commission has called for ‘well-regulated hunting’ with, amongst other conditions, full compliance with the law. They correctly state that ‘management aimed at raising artificially high yields of one species can be detrimental, particularly if it is linked to illegal persecution of birds of prey’.  Most other countries have encouraged their hunters to be, in addition, conservationists (though at least in the short term I don’t see this on driven grouse moors). Terms are used in other countries such as ‘long-term balance to be achieved between man and the environment’. If game management plans were to be adopted here, as they are in some other countries, they could specify measures for the improvement of habitats as agreed possibly between SNH and landowners. They must not merely focus only on game species but must produce a balanced plan that will also benefit a large number of protected species.

I was interested to read that ‘research commissioned by the French National Hunting Federation in 2014 found that 48% of hunters are involved in conservation volunteering and a hunter spends an average of 75 hours a year volunteering (which amounts to an annual contribution of 78 million hours per year). This was calculated to be equivalent to 1.6 billion EUR (gross) contribution to the economy and to represent the equivalent contribution of more than 50,000 full time jobs. The same study concluded hunting contributes more than 3.6 billion EUR per annum to the French economy as a whole’.

Reading the outcome of the commissioned report Spain is probably nearest to the UK in terms of private land ownership, game shooting and raptor persecution. As in this country it is permissible for the owner of land to hunt the game on his/her land, but the game itself does not belong to the landowner. Rather, it is regarded as a natural resource belonging to the country as a whole.  The principal difference is that in Spain they have in recent years been investing in an EU-funded project to address this criminality and to quote the report, ‘The illegal killing of raptors in Spain is now decreasing following the success of the Life+ VENENO project to tackle the problem through effective enforcement and sanctions’. The report continued, ‘SEO/ Birdlife, the non-governmental Spanish ornithological society, worked with the Spanish environmental police and regional authorities on the EU funded Life+ project to respond to the problem of raptor persecution. Investment was made to provide specifically trained officers in the police force to work with NGOs and to raise public awareness of the unacceptability of wildlife poisoning. The public were further engaged by the provision of a freephone reporting line and the development of legal precedents for attaching an individual monetary value to birds killed illegally, based on the public interest and the level of public investment in protecting the particular species’.

The report went on, ‘The Life+ VENENO project brought about the establishment of legal precedents on sanctions. It also developed good practice on cooperation between police and environmental bodies, training officers to gather evidence of poisoning and working together to carry this out on the ground, with the help of canine units. More than thirty prosecutions were successfully brought under the project. In 2007 the maximum fine for bird crime was increased to 2 million EUR.7 The Criminal Code enacts sentences of imprisonment ranging from four months to two years, disqualification from a profession or occupation and disqualification from exercising the right to hunt or fish for period of two to four years. These sanctions are used concurrently and the Spanish bird conservation body consider this layering of sanctions as vital to the effectiveness of the approach’.

As in Scotland, in some regions of Spain there are also provisions within Spanish Law to hold landowners or tenants of land vicariously responsible for wildlife crime which takes place on their land.  Possible penalties range from 25,001 to 100,000 EUR plus the possibility of total or partial suspension of hunting on the land where the offence has taken place for a term ranging from six months to two years.

As an example of penalty, in October 2015 a farmer was convicted of laying out nine poisoned baits, poisoning six Spanish Imperial eagles and a fox. His crimes were uncovered with the assistance of canine units used to search his land. He was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, a three-year disqualification from hunting following release from prison and a fine of 360,000 EUR (then £259,800) to be paid to the regional government for the estimated value of the six eagles.

Some years ago I spent a week on a course run by the Spanish police and hosting one wildlife or environmental crime officer from each constituent country of the EU. I was really impressed by the situation in Spain, even at that time, where the police officers in the Service of Nature Protection of the Civil Guard (SEPRONA) had an amazing amount of equipment at their disposal not only to investigate wildlife crime but to check air, water and soil quality. In effect they were combining a job equivalent to that of the police and Scottish Environment Protection Agency. In my view they were in the lead on wildlife crime investigation in Europe – and this still seems to be the case – followed by the UK, Germany and Sweden.

We have accomplished many improvements already in Scotland but there is plenty room for expansion, adaptation and creativity. Let’s hope, at last, that the Scottish Government use this report to consign raptor persecution to the past.

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