Botham’s baloney

Fledgling hen harrier about to be ringed

So ex-cricketer Ian Botham wants to protect hen harriers and said in an interview with the Sunday Herald that:

“If (the RSPB) really wants to help these birds, I recommend that it experiments with putting gamekeepers in charge of its reserves.”

The methods of helping the harriers, as outlined in the article by Botham, revolve around controlling predators. He mentions foxes as predators, which no doubt is true. But harrier predators may also be badgers, pine martens, stoats, weasels, crows, gulls and some other raptors. Would they also be controlled?

Botham’s concept of conservation is sadly lacking. Harriers don’t need any of these species to be controlled for their survival rate to be improved; they either just need left alone or their human predators need to be controlled. Either method would result in many more hen harriers in the UK within a few years.

I really don’t know why Botham spouts forth about conservation. He puts his foot in it every time.  With the Sunday Herald article nobody with any knowledge of ecology, ecosystems or natural balance would agree with any of the guff he is quoted as spouting. I suspect he just does so to try to wind up the RSPB but it invariably makes him look a fool.

I’ve no idea how good a cricketer he was since I don’t watch cricket, but if he was good at it then that’s what he should stick with. Some gamekeepers are indeed successful in creating conservation benefits but Botham is certainly not cogent at putting forward that argument.

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Letter (and book) to Michael Gove MP – ‘In hope’

Killing by Proxy: wildlife crime in the UK today. Alan Stewart

One of the first people to buy my new book offered to buy another if I sent it to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment in the Westminster Parliament. This suggestion was also made independently by my daughters.

I have taken up the gauntlet, signed a book ‘In Hope’, and this will be in the post on Monday morning. It will be accompanied by the following letter, which I will also email in advance.

If it makes a difference then most of us will be pleased.


Michael Gove MP                                                                            House of  Commons                                                                                                                                             London     SW1A 0AA

15 January 2018


New Publication – Killing by Proxy: wildlife crime in the UK today

Dear Mr Gove

As a countryman, former shooting person, retired police officer, wildlife crime officer and intelligence officer I have been bitterly disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm from the Westminster Government to enact meaningful legislation that has a chance of curbing the volume of crime committed against our wildlife. This is particularly so against protected species on driven grouse moors.

As an author, in my ‘retirement,’ of books on wildlife crime I am posting off my latest book to you – Killing by Proxy: wildlife crime in the UK today. If you can make time to read the book it gives a snapshot of some of the worst of our wildlife crime taking place in ‘civilised’ UK over the past three or four years. If you can even scan through the book could I draw your attention to the following:

Pages 23 – 25: The disgrace of fox cubs being kept in captivity for fox hunting and in one case believed to be have been fed live to hounds

Pages 114 – 117: Introduction to the principal chapter, Driven Grouse Shooting, ‘a business underpinned by criminality’

Pages 137 – 139: ‘Vaporised’ golden eagles. Though this is a Scottish issue it demonstrates a much more determined approach by your counterpart in Scotland to deal with this type of crime.

Pages 150 – 151: Five missing hen harriers

Pages 159 – 169 – Missing hen harriers and abandoned raptor persecution cases. Though these incidents took pace in Scotland there is similar reluctance by prosecutors and courts in England to accept covert video evidence

Pages 172 – 177: A further demonstration of the difficulties with covert video evidence, this time in England.

Pages 189 – 192: My written evidence to the Westminster Enquiry on driven grouse shooting

Pages 195 – 197: The oral evidence to the Westminster Enquiry. This was a disgraceful sham and most certainly did not reflect democratic process nor take account of the views of the 123,000 signatories to Dr Mark Avery’s petition.

Pages 210 – 2014: ‘Pest control’ practices filmed in the Peak District National Park, during which a man, probably a gamekeeper, fired several shots from a shotgun right beside a snared badger’s ear in a botched attempt to cut the snare.

Page 219 onwards: The last chapter, The Future, with suggestions for both the Scottish Government and the Westminster Government to make a difference through meaningful legislation.

Though I have had little faith in the Westminster Government up until now, can I congratulate you on the promising start you have made with environmental matters since you joined the Cabinet. Can you please now do the same to tackle crimes committed against our wildlife.

Yours sincerely

Alan Stewart


Signed copies of my books are available by emailing me at the email address on my blog at

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Heads up for Harriers: a good or bad initiative?

Hen harrier chicks at a nest

The bronze golden eagle awarded as the prize for best project in the category Understanding the Natural Heritage (my dogs in the background were not part of the award).

I listened at 0630 this (Saturday) morning to the first item on BBC Scotland radio Out of Doors in which Professor Des Thompson was interviewed by Euan McIlwraith on the Heads up for Harriers project. This project, initiated about four years ago by PAW Scotland and led by Des is two-pronged. Firstly, it encourages people to report sightings of hen harriers, by phone to 07767 671973, or email to: Secondly, and somewhat controversially, it encourages estates to allow cameras to be placed near hen harrier nests to record the outcome, whether that be successful fledging, predation by fox or crow or by natural causes, such as by extreme weather. Human persecution is unlikely to feature as no-one is going to interfere with a nest if they are aware they are being filmed. Partners in the project include SNH, Scottish Land and Estates (SLE), RSPB, Scottish Raptor Study Groups (SRSG).

Despite some estates being difficult to persuade, in 2017 over 20 estates took part, resulting in the successful fledging of 37 young hen harriers from seven of these estates. No information was given in the interview of how many of these estates were driven grouse moors, though reading between the lines there are few or none. Des said that he was not being naïve and there were some estates the group would like to see becoming involved, though they have not yet come forward.

While I see considerable benefit in this project, it would be really helpful if the participating estates could be published. This would reward them in some way for their efforts. It may also shame others into taking part.

What am I saying? There is no way that some estates could be shamed into doing (or not doing) anything that does not suit them. Unless there has been a serious change in the policy of most driven grouse moors they simply do not want hen harriers. Neither do they want people walking over the estate looking for displaying or nesting harriers, or seeing anything else that the estate would rather was unseen.

I have twice before been involved with projects to raise awareness of the persecution of hen harriers. In 1997 Tayside Police developed a project whereby I, as the force wildlife crime officer and Constables Graham Jack and Bob Noble, two of the divisional wildlife crime officers, co-opted a couple of rural schools with smallish classes (Amulree and Kirkmichael) to undertake a hen harrier project in which they would study, draw and write about hen harriers. Graham and I also approached a number of estates with the potential for breeding hen harriers. Twelve estates agreed to take part and Graham and I spent several days, under licence from SNH and with assistance from RSPB Scotland, looking for nests, especially one to which – again under licence – we could take the school classes.

We found a suitable nest near to each school and when the chicks were well fledged, took the pupils for a quick and quiet visit. BBC Countryfile also became involved, as did Grampian Television, who later filmed the fledglings being ringed. The project raised the issue of hen harrier persecution considerably, the participating estates got some kudos and the SNH/Grampian TV/Shell UK award that the project won in the category of Understanding the Natural Heritage was an unexpected bonus.

In 2004 the UK police forces developed Operation Artemis, where upland estate owners were asked to sign a pledge that they would respect the law in relation to hen harriers. There was no legal obligation to do so but for law-abiding folks this was assumed to be fairly straightforward. Each was visited by a wildlife crime officer but the results were devastating. From memory I think most in Wales agreed to do so, about 30% in Scotland agreed but there was total rejection in the north of England.

Returning to the present project, Heads up for Harriers, while it has merit it should certainly not be seen to be letting driven grouse moors off the hook (and in no way did Des imply this in his interview), nor should it be seen as a lessening in criminality that kicks licensing into the long grass. That cannot be done until all estates agree to participate and harrier numbers are at a level that accords with a natural predator/prey relationship.

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Some thoughts on wildlife crime and legislation for 2018

Red grouse on moorland

Well I wonder what difference 2018 will make to wildlife crime. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a change of governing party at Westminster. Potentially this could make a big difference to making life more risky for wildlife criminals but the unfortunate fact is that so much time will need to be spent on the complete muck-up of Brexit that there might be little time for much else. Nevertheless with a change of government some ideas may begin to form.

With the law as it is now I don’t see hen harriers and some other protected species being allowed to survive on many (maybe even most?) of our driven grouse moors. Quite simply their presence, especially when feeding chicks, poses a threat, real or perceived, to the number of grouse chicks that can survive to be shot. They will just not be tolerated. Without a monumental change of attitude no progress can be made.

As an aside there was an interesting comment on Mark Avery’s review of my book Killing by Proxy. This came from a Tayside man with raptor interests, Mike Groves. Mike said,

Afraid that I can’t agree with Alan’s general introduction comment in his latest book ‘On driven grouse moors there is little evidence of change”. I can speak with regards to vast knowledge/experience of raptor monitoring in the Angus Glens and can safely state that he has obviously lost touch with this area completely since his retirement several years back. Surely recognition of these dramatic raptor turnarounds in several areas of the Angus Glens should be highlighted as a positive and welcome step forward rather than living in the past and constantly dragging up past historical persecution?

Much of the book content originates from media releases of wildlife crimes, most of which relate to grouse moors in Scotland and the north of England, hence little evidence of change. So far as the Angus Glens are concerned some of the incidents also relate to that area. I have also acknowledged in the book that some of the estates in the Angus Glens had – and still have – an excellent record of diverse wildlife, including raptors. Maybe these are the ones alluded to. If rogue estates have changed, maybe Mike should have identified them and listed the raptors successfully nesting there.

Returning to change for the better in 2018 I don’t see driven grouse shooting being banned, even with the force of well over 100,000 signatories and a change of Westminster Government. I foresee licensing being agreed by the Scottish Government by the end of 2018, which might instil confidence in Westminster to do likewise. This is not a perfect solution but is a big step in the right direction. Of course the effect of cryptosporidiosis might supersede the need for licensing if this disease begins to kill large numbers of grouse and driven grouse shooting becomes uneconomical.

A complete update of the Wildlife and Countryside Act is required in England and Wales, including the incorporation of vicarious liability. Having been part of a group working on changes to the law in Scotland which were enacted in 2003 and 2004 I know that this is more than a year’s worth of work. If the Westminster Government started the ball rolling in 2018 it could be enacted by 2020.

Scotland is well on the way to making the hunting of wild mammals with dogs enforceable, and I have already submitted some thoughts to the public consultation due to conclude this month. There is currently a petition to totally ban fox hunting, which I don’t think will happen, but if the various recommendations submitted by Lord Bonomy are accepted and enacted in 2018 this will make a substantial difference to enforcement (and preventing deviation from the law) in Scotland.

England and Wales are years behind with this thorny issue. Evidence recently of hounds hunting through gardens and cemeteries clearly show they are not following a trail as in drag hunting but are hunting a fox. The present Westminster Government have backtracked on their intent to get rid of the Hunting Act, but even with a change of government I don’t see any progress here over the forthcoming year.

The law in relation to the snaring of foxes has improved considerably in Scotland since new legislation in 2004 and 2011 set out circumstances in which snares could not be set, and forced every person using snares to be trained and to acquire a registered number from the police to be attached to every snare. Making people more accountable for their actions certainly works. I can see similar conditions being written in to an improved Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales, though this is likely to take a few years.

I don’t see the use of snares being banned in any part of the UK, but there should be a ban on the use of snares that are not break-away snares. These snares open if a mammal of greater weight than a fox is caught and allow the animal to run free without any part of the snare remaining attached to it. This urgent requirement was strongly reinforced at the sight of a masked man, probably a gamekeeper, filmed covertly trying to shoot a snare off a badger on an estate in England during 2017 by firing several deafening shots, close to the badger’s ear, in a failed effort to break the snare. He eventually returned with a spade and cut through the snare, allowing the badger to run off with not one but two snares round its neck. The use of the shotgun would probably have caused ear canal damage to the animal and the snares still on its neck would most likely cause it a slow death by starvation. This is one of the most barbaric acts of animal cruelty I have seen.

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The man who shot the buzzard – would he have been convicted in England or Wales?

A shot buzzard

An x-ray of a shot buzzard (taken on an airport x-ray facility)

It was widely reported in the Press and Journal of 12 December, and subsequently in other media, that a man had been convicted after trial in Inverness Sheriff Court the previous day for shooting a buzzard.  Keith Riddoch, an oil executive had been one of the guns at a shoot near Newtonmore in November 2016 when the bird was flushed from a wood by beaters and was shot by Riddoch. I meant to write a blog on this at the time, but time, that valuable commodity, even for someone who is retired, has been scarce this past week or so.

Looking at the text in the news report the following wording is of interest:

(He) shot a buzzard he thought to be a pheasant

(He) was convinced he had bagged a hen pheasant

(The) raptor had been shot by mistake

(He) denied….recklessly shooting it

(He claimed to have) made a genuine mistake…(and) didn’t misassess the situation.

Thankfully (but only since 2004) the wording of the offence in Scotland is:

1.- (1)     Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally or recklessly–

(a)        kills, injures or takes any wild bird;

he commits an offence.

But what if the same situation arose in England or Wales where the wording of the offence is:

1.– (1) Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally-   

                              (a) kills, injures or takes any wild bird;

he commits an offence

Riddoch, according to the wording of the article, maintained all along he didn’t intend to kill or injure a buzzard; he meant to shoot a pheasant. That he killed or injured the buzzard would, at least in this case, be easy to prove. It would even be straightforward to prove that he killed or injured the buzzard recklessly, by failing to identify it as a protected species, but not that he intentionally shot a buzzard.

In England and Wales, even if he admitted to shooting the buzzard but gave the excuses as listed above, it is likely that the magistrate would need to consider these as a plea of not guilty to the intentional killing of the buzzard and proceed to trial. This would then be an extremely difficult case in which to secure a conviction.

There are many changes required in England and Wales to bring an outdated law into being fit for the 21st century. This is but one.

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Scottish Government Wildlife Crime Report 2016 – first thoughts

Hare coursing when it was legal. Only difference now is that the dogs don’t wear collars. Same outcome for the hare.

But the use of traps like this to take raptors seem to be increasing

I have just finished my first skim through Wildlife Crime in Scotland, the 2016 report by Scottish Government covering the financial year 2015/2016. It is welcome news that wildlife crime reduced by 8% compared to the previous year, being down from 284 to 261. There is no doubt that a higher proportion of the public are aware of the signs of various crimes against wildlife and report their suspicions to the police. This heightened awareness is well-known to some of those who would commit these crimes and I have no doubt that, at least in some types of wildlife crime, there is some deterrent value.

Nothing seems to deter the hare coursers, and being caught, convicted and fined means little to them. The figures shown in the report indicate that the hare coursing incidents reported have increased from the 20s and low 30s in the four preceding years to 44 during the year covered by the report.

The incidents may well have increased but I strongly suspect that these are nothing like the real figures. The figures given are those recorded by the police, but I know from experience that many – maybe even most – hare coursing incidents that are reported and logged by control rooms are not recorded in the crime database used to inform the Scottish Government statistics.

The most common example of this is the reporting by a farmer or other witness of hare coursing taking place. It is logged by the control room and a police unit, if available, is dispatched to deal with the report. Invariably, even if it only takes a short time for the police to arrive on the scene, the vehicle and occupants are gone. The police make a search of the nearby roads for the vehicle but there is no trace. They are then diverted to another incident and at the end of their shift no report is made out of the hare coursing incident. The incident has therefore been recorded by the control room, it has been investigated (to a degree, especially since hare coursers’ vehicles are almost never registered to them) it may also be recorded as intelligence on the Scottish Intelligence Database but it is not recorded on the electronic system and under the code used for Scottish Government statistics. As long as the police are stretched to breaking point I don’t see how this will change. Unless hare coursing really has reduced, which I don’t believe, I’d bet the year’s total of 44 across Scotland would barely account for the incidents reported during that year to my old area of work, Tayside.

Figures are complex, too, for raptor persecution. The number of poisoning incidents has remained pretty level over the past five years between four and six, with six being the number of poisoning incidents, with the same number of victims, in the year under review. The number is still far too high but is considerably better than in 2010/2011, when there were 24 poisoning incidents with 32 victims. However what needs to be factored in are the seven incidents in 2015/16 where companion animals were poisoned, where SASA noted:

While the poisoning of a companion animal is not a wildlife crime … the companion animal may have been the accidental victim of an illegal poison intended to target wildlife, while wildlife could also be put at risk by poisons placed to target pets.

Police Scotland have broken down the 25 raptor persecution incidents for the year into Shooting, Poisoning, Trapping, Disturbance or Other. There were eight incidents of shooting of raptors and six incidents where raptors were trapped. With the six already discussed as having been poisoned (though one incident involved poisoning and trapping) this left three in the category of Disturbance and three under Other. Still far too many, and while the numbers poisoned or shot remained the same as during the preceding two years there is a worrying increase in raptors being trapped.

In her Ministerial Foreword, Roseanna Cunningham reminds us that she was:

horrified to learn that the data strongly indicated that around one third of tagged golden eagles, forty-one birds, had disappeared in suspicious clusters, many of which were on or near moorland managed for driven grouse shooting.  Because the majority of these birds had simply disappeared, with no carcase or tag ever found, they could not appear in recorded wildlife crime figures.

So even in these two types of wildlife crime briefly discussed there is some good news on raptor persecution that might not be quite as good as it seems, and some bad news on hare coursing that, at least in my view, is almost certainly worse than the statistics show.

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Licensing of shooting estates – comment

Snare believed set by neighbouring gamekeepers without permission. Trees had also been cut down and used to guide foxes towards snares.

Roe deer suspected shot by neighbouring gamekeepers after vehicle seen shining spotlight on to neighbour’s land

At a meeting of the SNP’s National Council in Perth on Saturday 2 December there was a vote to support the establishment of a licensing system for driven grouse estates, in order to help to prevent wildlife crimes. This is good news, though of course the final decision is that of the environment secretary after seeing the findings of the newly-formed group looking at various issues around grouse moors, including licensing. Nevertheless this important vote must be taken into consideration.

There has been an unsurprising reaction from shooting interests to the effect that licensing is unnecessary, that the shooting industry can regulate its members, that jobs will be lost and that grouse shooting is vital to rural economy. The argument is well-covered in the article of 4 December on the Raptor Persecution UK blog.

I just don’t know why the shooting industry does not just accept the fact that licencing has become necessary and, at least in my view, inevitable. I was involved, 20 years ago now, in the very early days of an attempt to encourage self-regulation through awareness-raising and peer pressure. It made me unpopular with some conservationists but I thought it was worth a try. Self-regulation has been tried and better tried. It has not worked. I have written on this subject at length in my book due for publication any day now Killing by Proxy; wildlife crime in the UK today (Thirsty Book, Edinburgh) but in summary certain landowners, sporting agents and gamekeepers have been allowed to run riot in the commission of wildlife crime, especially that relating to raptors with not a thing done by shooting organisations to stop them. Unfortunately their peers have been condemned by this continued criminal conduct even though they have been abiding by the law (though not necessarily doing much to change the situation.)

In the blog mentioned above there is an excellent comment submitted by a person who, for obvious reasons, wants to remain anonymous and is simply writing under ‘SGA member’. He makes it clear in his comments that the shooting industry is responsible for much of the wildlife crime taking place, saying

‘Some of us with a view of what has been going on have been saying for years now that those involved in the illegal persecution need to stop it and divert their efforts into finding legal recourse if they have predation issues, but persecution is easy, it’s a lazy way to get bigger bags’.

He puts blame on

‘The big shots who see themselves as the “proper” gamekeepers, removing all predators legal and otherwise from the whole area surrounding the moor and their neighbour’s estate too if necessary. Untouchables, they get away with it every time, except all they have really done is drag us down with them’.

As many decent keepers are aware, some of these criminals don’t just stick to their own ground, and there have been countless examples of raptor nests being destroyed, fox dens or badger setts interfered with, fox snares being set or even deer being shot on land neighbouring known problem estates. Equally, as most folks know, wildlife crime on shooting estates seldom finishes up in a court since the evidence is so hard to obtain, bringing us back to the urgent need to license, where conditions can be imposed and as a sanction that can be withdrawn.

There are plenty more of the same opinions as ‘SGA member’ out there, indeed over the years I have spoken to many of them. Their representative organisations need to garner their support and begin to do their decent members justice.

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