Interesting week in the fight against wildlife crime

Gamekeepers should be passing much more information on wildlife crime to the police

Gamekeepers should be passing much more information on wildlife crime to the police

It’s been an interesting week in the fight against wildlife crime. What the Scottish Government makes of the review on game bird hunting regulations in other European countries and on satellite-tagged raptors, a review sparked by the disappearance of so many satellite-tagged golden eagles and hen harriers, is eagerly awaited, and indeed is their decision on whether to award any extra powers to the SSPCA.

To her credit, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham has been doing the rounds this past week, speaking at the Scottish Raptor Study Groups’ Annual Conference in Perth on 25 February and, at the opposite end of the wildlife crime debate, to the annual conference of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association on 3 March, again in Perth.

Ms Cunningham’s message on raptor persecution to the raptor conference was reported on the Raptor Persecution UK blog as:

‘The illegal killing of our raptors does remain a national disgrace. I run out of words to describe my contempt for the archaic attitudes still at play in some parts of Scotland. We all have to abide by the law, and we do so, most of us, all throughout our lives. All I’m asking is that everybody does the same. Sporting businesses are no different, and the people who breach the law deserve all the opprobrium and punishment we can mete out.

I have no truck with the argument that raptors damage driven grouse shooting interests. Such damage, frankly, is a business risk you have to live with and manage, but within the law. And that is what must be reiterated again, and again, and again’.

Since raptor groups are not ‘businesses’ I’d suggest this part of her address was given as information, and I am sure that many in the audience would take this as some hope that when all the evidence has been assessed by the Scottish Government something meaningful might happen to eliminate – or at least seriously reduce – raptor persecution.

In what I read as much more of a threat, it was reported in The Courier she told the gamekeepers’ conference:

‘I have no patience at all with old fashioned attitudes towards these birds that linger on in this day and age. We all have to abide by the law, and must do so every day.

‘I have no truck with any excuse that raptors damage driven grouse shooting interests – such damage is a business risk that grouse moor owners have to live with, and manage for – and this has to be done within the law.

‘I note and welcome your chairman Alex Hogg’s reiteration of the pledge to ensure SGA members only consider legal routes to conflict resolution and he has made it clear that those committing wildlife crime will be removed from the SGA.”

So, similar wording and, in my view, a real message that the Scottish Government considers any threats to grouse from raptors no more than a business risk they have to accept.  I wonder if this message will be taken on board if applications are made this spring to SNH for licences to control/cull/shoot (kill by any other name) buzzards. I have little hope that Alex Hogg’s pledge to ensure SGA members stay within the law will have much success; I have heard this for many years with only moderate evidence of improvement.

In the period between the two conferences the Green Party MSP Andy Wightman tabled a parliamentary motion that the Scottish Government grant further powers to the SSPCA. This request has been on the go for several years and opinion is split on whether it would be of assistance in the fight against wildlife crime. In my view it is not the magic bullet that some consider it to be.

I was interested in some comments on the blog Raptor Persecution UK following the announcement of the parliamentary motion:

They (SSPCA) need powers to enter land without permission to do spot checks. So many bird traps, spring traps, rabbit drop traps and snares are set illegally that it might make estate owners pause for thought – what with the risk of vicarious liability.

The police have no powers ‘to enter land without permission to do spot checks; they must have reasonable suspicion. Hardly likely such powers will be granted to SSPCA.

The SSPCA already have a Special Investigations Unit with experience in following up wildlife crimes, it includes a couple of ex policeman who would ensure there were no evidential/procedural problems with working under increased powers. These are the people who would investigate raptor killing, not the ordinary inspectorate…

This is true, but SSPCA do not have access either to sufficient staffing or to much of the forensic assistance available to the police. Let’s say the SSPCA were granted the powers they request. They then undertake an investigation into a poisoned eagle on a driven grouse moor with seven gamekeepers, two shepherds and two tenant farmers all of whom could be a suspect. If there is reasonable cause to narrow suspicion to, say four, of these folks how would the five or six SSPCA special investigations staff manage to co-ordinate simultaneous searches of them, their buildings, their vehicles, sweepings from vehicles and vacuuming of clothing for traces of pesticide, possible search of 30,000 acres of moorland, take fingerprints or DNA samples that might be required (which requires a suspect to be detained or arrested) and in due course to undertake the complex investigation required to convict a landowner of vicarious liability. If SSPCA do get more powers they would not be able to pick and choose the incidents they will attend.

That SSPCA can replicate what police officers do is simplistic. This is not a straightforward issue and I am not saying that SSPCA inspectors (across the board rather than just the special investigations staff) should not get any new powers, but that these should be targeted to allow them, if they are already on an animal welfare investigation and find evidence of a wildlife crime, to extend their search to gather evidence which they can then hand over to the police. That would fulfil their role as an animal welfare charity as well as being of considerable assistance in another aspect of crime investigation.


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