I meant to comment on the Bleasdale case earlier but a decent spell of weather meant that my energies were channeled into getting vegetables planted and sown in my garden.
For those who are unaware, the Bleasdale case related to charges made against the gamekeeper on Bleasdale Estate, a grouse moor in the Forest of Bowland. A covert surveillance camera had been placed by RSPB covering a peregrine nesting site that it is claimed had failed over a succession of years. This, in many cases, means that human interference is the cause. The camera covered the nest site only and, since peregrines are protected as birds included in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the camera was only likely to record the presence of a person licensed to disturb the bird or a person with criminal intent.
On 13 April 2016 the camera recorded the female peregrine flushing off the eggs then four gunshots followed. Shortly after, a man wearing a camouflage suit and in possession of a hammer went to the nest and left within a few minutes. It seems likely he was setting a trap.
On the following day a peregrine, possibly the male of the pair, landed on the nest ledge and was soon caught in a spring trap. After dark, a man with a torch visited the nest site and daylight the following day revealed that the peregrine was gone, assumed to have been removed by the man with the torch.
The court case commenced but collapsed on a series of technicalities that are well reported in the blog Raptor Persecution UK.
The first thing that struck me about the case were the number of charges:
1) On 13 April Intentionally disturbing the nesting site of a Schedule 1 wild bird; 2) Killing a Schedule 1 wild bird; 3) Possessing an article capable of being used to commit a summary offence under section 1 to 13 or 15 to 17 (a shotgun, a trap?) 4) On 14 April Intentionally killing a Schedule 1 wild bird (the trapped peregrine); 5) Setting a trap to cause injury to a wild bird; 6) Intentionally taking a Schedule 1 wild bird; 7) Possessing a live / dead Schedule 1 wild bird or its parts; 8) Between 12 and 27 April Possessing an article capable of being used to commit a summary offence under section 1 to 13 or 15 to 17 (possibly a knife and a hammer recovered during a police search of the suspect’s outbuilding and bearing races of peregrine DNA; and 9) On 14 or 15 April Causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal.
I don’t have access to the same amount of information as the reporting police officer or the CPS but I have never been a believer in confusing a court by throwing in as many charges as possible. I believe it is far better to stick to the main issues, though in this case the disturbance may be more easily proved than the more serious charge of killing the peregrine. Firstly, there is evidence that the peregrine had been disturbed since it flew off amid a series of shotgun shots. There seems little evidence that the shots hit their mark. The court may have been able to revert to a conviction of attempting to shoot the bird, though there is little real evidence of what took place outwith the view of the camera and seems circumstantial. That four shots were required does not indicate a very accurate shooter, or indeed may there have been two people involved? The circumstances suggest that the man with the camouflage suit and the hammer was setting the trap near the nest scrape to trap either the male peregrine (or either bird if the four shots had missed the flushed peregrine).
No shotgun was recovered and I assume CPS were depending on the circumstantial evidence that for four shots to have been heard a shotgun must have been present. The circumstantial evidence indicating that the suspect fired the shots or was even present was weak and would have been strengthened had the camouflage suit been recovered at the suspect’s premises during a police search a few days later.
Charges 4 and 5 seem superfluous, with no evidence that the trapped peregrine was killed (though undoubtedly it was). Charge 6 covers the circumstances perfectly and has the same penalty as charges 4 and 5. I see no evidence for charge 7, unless CPS is depending on peregrine DNA to account for peregrine ‘parts.’ Indeed if the crown had managed to secure a conviction for intentional disturbance, intentionally taking a peregrine and possession of the trap, hammer and knife as items capable of being used to commit and offence that would have been a most satisfactory conclusion.
However the complications of the use of covert surveillance had to be overcome first. This is always a difficult hurdle for the prosecution and was certainly in this case not helped by what appears to have been a very inadequate and ill-prepared prosecutor. He may even have been a barrister, though that seems almost unbelievable. There was a catalogue of apparent incompetence which is very well set out in Raptor Persecution UK. This ineptitude, in the distant past, has been replicated in wildlife crime cases in Scotland, but has been overcome by the appointment of specialist wildlife and environment prosecutors. They train alongside police wildlife crime officers and work closely with them, in many cases from the very start of an investigation.
One of the legal arguments put forward successfully by the defence was that the RSPB and the police are so inextricably linked in the investigation of some raptor-related crime that the police must be aware that the RSPB use covert surveillance. In Scotland, if RSPB Investigations staff discuss the use of covert surveillance with the police before installation, and it relates to a situation where RIP(S)A authority is required, then the police would be obliged to take over responsibility for the installation of the equipment. if (a very big IF) they can obtain authority. I suspect the same would apply in England and Wales. If the RSPB fail to inform the police, as the district judge in this case stated, then the RSPB have effectively taken on the role of the police, but without the statutory scrutiny that accompanies the work of a public body.
I have discussed this thorny issue elsewhere in this blog and in even greater detail in my book Killing by Proxy but the solution is far from simple. A better prepared prosecutor may have managed to convince the judge to allow the evidence in this particular case but more often than not evidence arising from covert surveillance on shooting estates is either not accepted by the court or indeed by the prosecutor. In many – indeed most – of investigations of this type the police would not be able to gain RIPA or RIP(S)A authority so who can blame the RSPB Investigations staff for obtaining evidence of a crime and at least putting that evidence into the public domain.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for some of our other interesting bird species. Yet another satellite-tagged white-tailed eagle has disappeared in an area of Perthshire with a history of crime committed against raptors, and this has been well publicised in media and on social media. The circumstances of its disappearance strongly suggest criminal intervention. A search was carried out for the missing bird, organised by the police and utilising RSPB Investigations staff and a number of gamekeepers local to the area in which the bird disappeared. While at least some of the gamekeepers involved in the search were no doubt there with the best of intentions it can’t be discounted that a person with some involvement or even knowledge of the bird’s disappearance was present. In the circumstances I think this was a bad call by the police.
Compounding the public’s anger and frustration was the announcement by Scottish Natural Heritage of a cull over 5 years of 300 ravens in the same area of Perthshire in which the white-tailed eagle disappeared. This is claimed to be an experiment to see if wader numbers improve. I think what seems to have annoyed most folks is that the decision was reached to grant a licence without consultation with some of the people or groups with most knowledge of ravens in the area. There has been a massive outcry, rightly so, and I would hope that SNH reconsider and ditch this daft idea, which parallels the stupidity of Defra’s proposed hen harrier brood translocation. Both seem a sop to driven grouse shooting, which needs to put its house in order before being awarded concessions of any kind.