Brewlands Estate pole trap case – comment

RSPB Scotland have now released a second video recorded covertly by them which filmed a man setting a pole trap. The recording has been released since the Crown Office has decided not to proceed with the case.

Briefly the background is that in July 2015 RSPB Scotland staff discovered an illegally-set spring trap placed on top of a pheasant carcass which had been placed on a pole. This effectively made it a pole trap and was most likely to catch a bird of prey by the leg as it landed on the trap.  The estate involved was Brewlands Estate in Angus, though the same criminal scenario is likely to be being played out almost anywhere in the UK.

The RSPB staff sprung the trap and deployed a video camera (which they happened to have with them?) covertly. They made contact with the police and a few days later attended with the police to recover the trap and check the camera.

The camera showed that the trap had twice been re-set and the police managed to identify the person setting it, who was charged with the offence. A report was submitted to the procurator fiscal but the case was eventually abandoned before proceeding to trial on 15 May 2017. Though no reason was given for discontinuing the case it seems likely that it was for the same reason as the first case: the use of covert surveillance on ‘private’ land without permission of the owner of the land.

When there is clear evidence of a crime being committed it is infuriating that the perpetrator is not brought to justice. I’m sure RSPB Scotland investigations staff are aware that their evidence might not be accepted for prosecution for the reason above so are they right to continue to use this method?

What were the alternatives for the RSPB?

They could have made contact with the police as soon as possible and reported the incident. The police then had various options to try to detect the criminal involved. The police MAY have managed to obtain permission under RIP(S)A to deploy covert surveillance; even the use of the RSPB’s equipment under police direction, but that takes form-filling and can’t be done quickly. However the offence may not have been deemed serious enough to warrant RIP(S)A authority. If that is the case then the level of severity of offence and accompanying penalty might need to be reconsidered.

Recovery of DNA might have been an option, but that cannot be guaranteed, especially when a trap had been exposed to the elements. There is also another possible method which I am not going to elaborate on since it will alert the people who are involved in this criminality.

None of these methods is straightforward and there is no doubt that the action the RSPB took was the most likely to obtain evidence, though of course it may well be deemed inadmissible.

So we return to the question of whether RSPB Scotland took the correct action. I do not blame them for taking that route. It brings the crime to the attention of the public, and there can be no argument from the game management side that the incident was a ‘plant’ to get the estate into bother. It demonstrates yet again that wildlife crime is still taking place on shooting estates, though it stands to reason that it must be far more common than the few that are discovered. It may also change criminal justice procedures in due course due to the swell of public anger generated both by the crime and the failure to see justice done.

Throughout my time as a detective officer I was very aware, through case law, that the interests of the accused must be balanced against the interests of the public. These last two cases show a very strong bias towards the accused. Something needs to change to redress the balance.

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5 Responses to Brewlands Estate pole trap case – comment

  1. Steve Harris says:

    As well as needing RIP(S)A authorisation, would the police not also need to get authorisation under the Police Act 1997 to install surveillance cameras on private property without the consent of the owner/occupier (property interference)? If so, authorisation can only be approved if the conduct amounts to ‘serious crime’. Offences under the WCA don’t qualify as serious crime as defined under the Police Act 1997. If I have understood this correctly, raptor persecution in Scotland is never going to get sorted out unless the law is changed.

  2. Steve, Unless things have changed the application was all on the one form. You’re correct though about the ‘serious crime’ aspect, which is why I said in the article ‘If that is the case then the level of severity of offence and accompanying penalty might need to be reconsidered’. That is the main issue blocking surveillance on which I hesitate to call ‘private land’, though in Scotland in some cases the offence might also be a common law offence (for example conspiracy or culpable or reckless conduct) which could have the potential to bring the incident into the bracket of ‘serious crime’. It is good news that Richard Lochhead MSP has stepped in to the fray. This and the earlier case which was abandoned are getting some terrific media attention which we would hope may well lead to much-needed changes.

  3. Steve Harris says:

    I completely agree. Something good has to come from these travesties.

  4. Adam says:

    What I find intriguing is that RSPB has been doing this for quite a while and their covert video footages are regularly used in courts – mostly in England and Wales though.

    I posted some examples here:

    I think it would be great to provide an opportunity to the High Court to clarify this issue in a decision (ie. if such evidence was deemed inadmissible by a sheriff then the Crown should appeal it).

  5. Adam, Going back to the discussion between Steve and I, what I would like to see first of all is the level of ‘serious’ crime and the minimum penalty altered to allow the police to operate covert surveillance in these circumstances. Had that been the case then we would probably now be looking at two convictions. The risk with your suggestion would be if the court decisions went against RSPB operating covert surveillance. There must be a solution; it is simply not right to record people committing a crime and for them to get off Scot-free. The right heads need to get together to resolve this infuriating issue.

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