Shot short-eared owl at Leadhills – comment

Skull of hen harrier shot with shotgun

Shotgun pellet damage to feather of victim of shooting

So another bird of prey has been shot on Leadhills Estate, Biggar. This time it was a short-eared owl, shot in broad daylight at 11.45 on 31 May by a man whose description was given by a witness and who was driving a black 4×4 with a dark canopy.  The previous bird, a hen harrier, was also shot in broad daylight, this time at 17.15 on 4 May. The criminal on this occasion was believed to be a man on a quad bike with his face covered.

The police have appealed for information in relation to both incidents. I can understand the slight delay in the publication of the most recent incident. When a crime is witnessed – an unusual bonus in the case of wildlife crime on grouse moors – there is a higher than normal chance of obtaining evidence against the criminal and the police would want to carry out certain investigations before putting the crime into the public domain. They are still clearly short of the evidence they would like and an appeal through the media gives a further (slight) chance of more evidence. Importantly it also lets the public know what is still going on in relation to some driven grouse moors.

It is not only Leadhills that is currently the centre of police attention for wildlife crime; an investigation is also underway on Raeshaw Estate, a driven grouse moor in the Borders and, as I said in a recent blog, a gas gun was photographed in use on a third driven grouse moor: Glenogil in Angus.

It is almost beyond belief that these incidents are still taking place in an industry teetering on the edge of being licensed. This disgraceful conduct affects the decent, hard-working and law-abiding gamekeepers and landowners who will be dragged under by their criminal colleagues. The common factor with all three estates I have mentioned, plus several more, is that they have been hotbeds of wildlife crime for many years with a disgraceful catalogue of incidents logged against them. Despite reservations by some senior police officers of these incidents being the ‘tip of the iceberg’ I totally disagree. It stands to reason that the crimes discovered on an estate of many thousands of acres must surely be only a fraction of those taking place.

I wonder if, at last, shooting and landowning organisations will collectively make an approach to the landowners, sporting agents, shooting tenants or gamekeepers who are still determined to bring about the demise of driven grouse shooting? Will they also deign to pass on intelligence to Police Scotland that might allow them to put the criminals responsible before a court?

Unfortunately on past records neither of these aspirations is likely to materialise.

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A blackbird with a penchant for building nests.

The tame female blackbird, here for at least its fourth year.

The first nest was in the jasmine on the right of the pergola. Eggs were laid but the bird deserted.

The second nest was high in this ivy. No idea whether eggs were laid.

The third nest was half-way up this conifer. No idea whether eggs were laid.

The fourth nest is in this clematis. The chicks must be near to fledging.

It’s a while since I’ve written about what is happening in the garden. We’ve had a young red squirrel for the past 10 days. This is the first this year so I hope it stays. It seems very settled and feeds regularly from one of the birds’ peanut feeders. This feeder is right next to a squirrel feeder with peanuts, which would be a far easier meal than chewing parts of peanuts through the feeder mesh, but it hasn’t worked this out yet.

The tame female blackbird is now on its fourth spring here. It has had a very strange breeding season this year. It first built a nest in a pergola covered in clematis and jasmine. It laid eggs but for whatever reason deserted them. It next built a nest high up in ivy clinging to a neighbour’s house. I thought this was an ideal place as it seemed relatively safe from cats, but when it should have been brooding eggs it was regularly joining me in the garden. This was the first indication it had failed; the second indication being it gathering nest material again and building a nest quite high in a coniferous tree.

I’ve no idea whether it laid eggs there but quite soon after it was building a nest in a clematis growing up against the corner of the house. It seems to have had success this time as it and its mate have been busy feeding chicks for the past 10 days. I’ve been giving them a liberal supply of mealworms, which it only started to take in to the chicks when they were about 5 days old, looking for small earthworms and grubs instead.

It follows me around everywhere when I am gardening. It seems to recognise a spade, rake or rotovator as an indicator that food might be on the go. I’ve just been turning some compost bins and it was hopping round my feet picking up the brandling worms that abound in good compost. At one point it actually hopped on to my boot. The chicks are certainly being well fed and must be wee fatties. I’ll look forward soon to them hopping around the garden and Molly the dog and I will do our best to ensure there are no intruding felines.

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Blame the anti-grouse shooting activists (or are they extremists?)

Starved buzzard in Perthshire cage trap. Gamekeeper convicted and fined £450.

I read the other day an article written by Tim Baynes, director of Scottish Land and Estates’ Scottish Moorland Forum and published in the summer 2016 edition of a magazine I somehow have completely missed on the shelves of bookshops: the Scottish Sporting Gazette. The article was copied on the Raptor Persecution UK blog, which was where I read it. Its content, in summary, was a claim that crime against birds of prey and linked to shooting estates is ‘hugely improved’ and that ‘the police believe that wildlife crime generally is now under control’.

There are many arguments that would counter these two statements, even more so now that Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham is seriously considering further action against shooting estates, including licensing. What really made my blood boil was Tim’s claim that:

‘the problem now is that all the positive work by land managers risks being derailed by a small number of committed activists, particularly those who are anti-grouse shooting’.

I read the comments on the Raptor Persecution UK blog and was surprised that no-one picked up on this preposterous statement.  There are most certainly activists trying to draw the attention of the Scottish Government and the public to wildlife crime, especially that committed on grouse moors. I agree they are committed but would question that we are talking about a small number; indeed a significant proportion of the population are disgusted at the continuing arrogance of some estates. As an example, despite all the negative publicity about the use of gas guns on grouse moors where raptors, particularly hen harriers could be nesting, a gas gun was recently operating on Glenogil Estate in Angus. This may not be illegal but everyone and their granny knows its purpose. I would have thought that a beleaguered industry would try to comply with public opinion rather than put two fingers up.

I have no doubt that positive work is indeed being carried out by some land managers. If this is being derailed surely the blame lies at the door of the estate owners, sporting agents and gamekeepers who continue to kill (or are complicit in the killing of) protected species.  In Scotland there are several people in some of these positions whose greed at producing the biggest possible number of grouse for driven shooting includes wiping out as many species that would adversely affect grouse as is possible.  Their identities are well known; indeed I have discussed their illegal methods with many land managers over the past decade. They are still operating and in fact are revered by some in the grouse industry rather than being reported to the police. Tim knows them as well as I do, yet for any alleged derailing of positive work he blames law-abiding people (that he later in his article refers to as ‘extremists’) who simply want the law upheld.

Coming out with transparent twaddle like this is not helpful. Admittedly the article is nearly a year old but I’ve seen nothing in print since then that puts the blame for raptor persecution exactly where it should be focussed.

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The Poisoned Golden Eagle and the Man from Lewis – an except from ‘The Thin Green Line’

Poisoned golden eagle (though not related to this case)

Tub of the banned pesticide carbofuran

The Thin Green Line

It’s too wet for gardening today and I’m stuck in the house. The car could do with a wash but it’s my least favourite job and I’d much rather do another blog. Since disappearing golden eagles and the illegal use of pesticides have been in the news recently here is a tale from my second book, The Thin Green Line:

THE POISONED GOLDEN EAGLE AND THE MAN FROM LEWIS

The Outer Hebrides, possibly because of the absence of commercial game management, is almost free from the scourge of poisoning wildlife that affects much of mainland UK. In October 2005 Constable Martin Macrae was stationed at the village of Balallan, (Gaelic: Baile Ailein meaning Allan’s town) which has the distinction of being the longest village in northern Scotland. It is four miles from end to end along the head of a sea loch and developed due to a mixture of crofting and fishing. As the wildlife crime officer for the Outer Isles, Martin was made aware of the tragic poisoning of a golden eagle at Coduinn on Morsquil Estate on the Isle of Lewis. Tests at the Scottish Agriculture Science Agency (now Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture) in Edinburgh confirmed that the bird had died from eating the pesticide carbofuran, the main pesticide of abuse in Scotland. The scientists at the lab were also able to state that the contaminated bait that had been eaten was a rabbit.

Martin suspected that the culprit had been a crofter trying to (illegally) control the raven population to protect his sheep flock. As would happen on any mainland poisoning investigation he called in some help, this taking the form of staff from the then Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD), now the Scottish Government Rural Payment Inspections Department (SGRPID). He also called in some help from Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland. The estate was searched, as were some crofts, but after all this Martin was no further forward.

The following month Martin and a colleague were carrying out a completely unconnected enquiry on Lewis in relation to a firearm certificate renewal. Part of this process entails a check of the firearms held by the applicant, and also the security of the place they are kept. In this case this gentleman – we’ll call him the Man from Lewis – wished to renew his certificate to possess a .222 rifle. The rifle was examined by the officers and he was asked the reason he required it. ‘For deer control,’ was the answer. Only roe deer in Scotland can legally be shot with a .222 rifle, and under the Deer (Firearms etc) (Scotland) Order 1885 the bullet needs to be of an expanding type of not less than 50 grains, with muzzle velocity of not less than 2450 feet per second and muzzle energy not less than 1000 foot pounds. Worse, there are no roe deer on the Outer Isles, with the only species being the biggest, the red deer. This was the first of the Man from Lewis’s problems. This was explained to him, and he changed his mind. ‘It’s for shooting vermin. Ravens,’ he said. Ravens are one of the two members of the corvidae family that are completely protected, the other being the chough. He had no licence to shoot ravens and now had a second problem.

Martin and his colleague continued their questioning and asked the red-faced islander if he had shot any red deer with the rifle but the answer, not surprisingly, was in the negative. The same answer was given when he was asked if he had shot any ravens. The question then had to be asked as to why he needed authority to have a .222 rifle.

If there was some doubt beginning to emerge that the firearm certificate was close to being revoked and the rifle seized by the police, the next find sealed its fate. On a shelf at the back of the gun cabinet Martin spotted a jar that was half-full of dark blue granules, innocently labelled ‘celery.’ In the recoveries made by the police of illegally-held pesticides they are invariably decanted into a container such as a coffee jar, a juice bottle or a smaller receptacle such as a 35mm film tub. In many cases the label of the original product remains and in one case in Tayside in 1995, while still a police officer, I recovered the most deadly of all pesticides, the liquid pesticide mevinphos, in a Lea and Perrins sauce bottle, two products of a similar colour. In that case there was a real risk of death to anyone who ventured to open the bottle and I charged the person concerned with the common law charge of culpable and reckless conduct.

Because of the infamy of carbofuran as a killer of wildlife it is well-known to all wildlife crime officers. Martin asked the Man from Lewis what the substance in the jar was, but he said he couldn’t remember the name. Maybe, maybe not, but Martin knew that he would be aware of its illegal use. He asked him what he had the granules for. ‘It was for the turnips.’ was the answer. It was the stock answer, sometimes varied to ‘It’s for the carrots.’ He elaborated. ‘You spread it on the turnips.’ Wrong! ‘You hand-spread it on the turnips when the stem is about four inches tall.’ Worse! Whatever you would do with carbofuran you wouldn’t want to handle it. Whatever other outcome there may be he could now safely say goodbye to his firearms certificate.

There have been countless instances throughout the UK where the police have recovered pesticides in circumstances where they are perfectly well aware that they were held for an illegal purpose. The main legislative difficulty was that until recently this was not an offence in itself. It was an offence to use the pesticide in circumstances outwith its government approval, or to store it outwith the terms of approval on the container, most usually violated by transferring it into another container. Even so, these offences were under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 and only incurred a moderate monetary penalty. It was not until 2005 – and only in Scotland – that possession of the most commonly abused pesticide became an offence in its own right, though there was an exception if the person could show that he had a good reason for possessing it. Carbofuran is top of the list of ‘prescribed’ pesticides, as they are termed, because of its widespread abuse.

So Martin had a coincidental recovery of carbofuran while investigating the poisoning of a golden eagle, the very bird many visitors go to the Western Isles to see. Whether or not the Man from Lewis had played any part in this crime his excuse that the carbofuran was for nurturing turnips was a lie. Though the approved use for the chemical was as an insecticide on root crops, including of course turnips, it requires to be drilled into the ground by machinery to place it in a position to kill soil-dwelling pests.

The charge of possession of a banned pesticide now carries a penalty of £5000 and/or 6 months imprisonment. The Man from Lewis was fined £50. Had there been evidence he was involved in the killing of the golden eagle this penalty would have been considerably increased, though in fairness to him he may not have been in any way involved and his possession of carbofuran purely coincidental. And unfortunate!

At least ravens and red deer would be safeguarded against being shot by a .222 rifle!

 

I’m happy to post out a copy of The Thin Green Line (RRP £11.99) free with the purchase of any other of my books. See https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/books/

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Ayrshire gin trap case; comments and a similar case.

Gin trap, offence to set or to possess with intent to use. Not offence simply to possess.

I was interested in the case reported in the recent Sunday Post where a gamekeeper in Ayrshire accused of using gin traps to catch fox cubs had the charges against him dropped because of a paperwork mistake – getting dates wrong, possibly the date of the offence on the copy complaint. The report in the paper suggested that the keeper was caught with gin traps covered in animal blood and that dead fox cubs had been seen near his traps in May 2016.

Following hot on the heels of four other wildlife cases being dropped this is infuriating. The report does not state whether this is a police mistake or a mistake by COPFS but it is not unique. I remember a salmon netting case being dropped just before trial as the date of the offence contravened, as given on the copy complaint, was out by a century. Though it would be more work, it could be well worth an experienced wildlife crime officer having a read of wildlife cases as prepared by the prosecutor well in advance of trial. I know as an author my editor (and family) pick up many mistakes that I miss. While fiscals make very few mistakes like this, every one is a disaster for complainers, witnesses, the investigating officer and indeed the public. It is also an embarrassment for COPFS.

The case reminded me of an almost identical one we dealt with around 2002. It started with a poisoned buzzard, which had been killed by carbofuran, being found on a Perthshire estate, intelligence that the keeper was bragging about killing about 30 buzzards a year and culminating in a search that we, as former Tayside Police officers and staff, carried out with assistance from, at that time, SEERAD, now renamed Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate, plus RSPB Investigations.

The increased powers of search without warrant for the police in wildlife cases only came about in 2004, so rather than request a search warrant we decided to use powers given to SEERAD (and subsequently SGRPID) officers to carry out searches without warrant in relation to the use and storage of pesticides. The search of outbuildings resulted in the recovery of a small egg collection which included a buzzard egg, a small quantity of strychnine, which at that time the keeper was entitled to have for mole control, a film container with traces of carbofuran and a number of gin traps with blood and fur being visible on the jaws of one of the traps.

The explanation for the egg collection was that it had been collected prior to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, apart from the buzzard egg, which the keeper admitted he had added to the collection in much more recent times. He also claimed that the carbofuran had been used on carrots in his garden! Despite the use of gin traps being banned since the 1950s, the keeper admitted he used them to catch fox cubs in springtime.

The land search turned up a dead crow, which had also been killed by carbofuran, near a pheasant release pen operated by the keeper.

Charges against the keeper were (1) having an article in his possession (the film container with traces of carbofuran) that could be used to commit a crime; (2) setting out an unknown bait laced with carbofuran to kill a wild bird; (3) intentionally (there was no option of reckless until 2004) killing a carrion crow and a buzzard; (4) possessing a buzzard egg; (5) storing carbofuran in a container other than its original marked container; (6) possessing 11 gin traps for a purpose for which they were unlawful.

The case went to trial and part-way through the trial the accused offered a guilty plea to charged 4, 5 and 6. He was fined £250, which was a moderate fine and no doubt considerably less than his lawyer’s fee would be.

I strongly suspect that had the trial run its course we would have lost all the charges. Through a lack of police search powers still two years distant we were using the powers of another agency, SEERAD. With hindsight and a lot more experience I’m sure we were stretching SEERAD powers well beyond their legal limits. SEERAD powers certainly didn’t include egg collecting and the use or possession of gin traps and on finding these items we should probably have gone for a warrant.

The modernisation of wildlife law has made a difference. In view of the recent cases that have been binned is it time now for some of the case law in Scotland to reflect modern times?

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A week of mixed fortunes for raptors

Captive golden eagle

Young peregrine falcons (photo courtesy of Neil Macdonald)

I was delighted with the news earlier in the week that, following the report by SNH into the disappearance of satellite-tagged golden eagles which concluded that almost a third of the tagged birds have died in suspicious circumstances, mainly on intensively-managed grouse moors, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced a package of measures to combat this totally unacceptable situation. Over 40 sat-tagged golden eagles have disappeared in suspicious circumstances in a 12-year period. There must be a similar proportion of eagles that were not tagged met the same fate. That can also be extended to hen harriers, goshawks and several other birds of prey. Grouse management can no longer hide behind lame excuses and lies.

The measures, as listed in a Scottish Government press release, are to:

  • Set up an independently-led group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices such as muirburn, the use of medicated grit and mountain hare culls, and to recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation;
    • Immediately review all available legal measures which could be used to target geographical areas of concern;
    • Increase resources for the detection and investigation of wildlife crime and work with Police Scotland to pilot the use of special constables in the Cairngorms National Park;
    • Rule out giving the Scottish SPCA more investigative powers, in light of legal advice;
    • Examine how best to protect the valuable role of gamekeepers in rural Scotland;
    • Commission research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland’s economy and biodiversity.

I think licensing – at least of grouse moors – will be inevitable. Withdrawing a licence from an individual would not work; the licence would need to be withdrawn in relation to land, for example a whole grouse moor. I think that simply withdrawing the right to shoot over the land would hit landowners hard in their deep pockets but I wonder if that would be enough. If they were still able to continue land ‘management’ for grouse they could still burn heather, including rank heather suitable for nesting hen harriers. They could also continue predator control, which on some moors would leave raptors and some protected mammals at risk. Whether a licence could be tailored to permit (or in the case of withdrawal, to ban) identified activities related to game management I don’t know.

The SNH report identified hotspots in which tagged eagles appeared to have been vaporised. I wonder if a licence could have the condition that spot checks on licensed estates could be carried out by the police. This would allow the police to ‘target geographical areas of concern’. Bearing in mind the need for corroboration, this would be an ideal use for special constables acting along with a regular officer, which I don’t think needs to be restricted to the Cairngorms National Park.

I don’t think that increasing the powers of the SSPCA was ever going to work. If a situation arises where a member of SSPCA staff is attending an incident that he or she thinks requires an extended search it could be passed to the police, with SSPCA guarding the evidence until the police arrive. SSPCA are simply not equipped to carry out a major investigation involving 5 or 6 suspects who need to be visited simultaneously, probably also in conjunction with a land search and maybe even the detention of suspects. These are difficult enough for the police with the considerable resources at their disposal. If SSPCA had the same powers of search as the police it would have been inevitable that incidents were reported to them that they would need to pass on to the police, in other words picking and choosing the cases they would undertake and with any associated delay in passing on the investigation. The SSPCA do an excellent job with animal welfare and not taking on additional work with wildlife crime will allow them to concentrate more on puppy farming in particular.

I know many gamekeepers who do indeed carry out a valuable role and I think that they deserve some credit and support. They have been operating in the dark shadow of the criminals in their midst for years and it is unfair to group them with the landowners, sporting agents and gamekeepers who have brought their occupation to the situation in which it is now immersed. This bullet point no doubt stems from Ms Cunningham’s comment,

“The continued killing of protected species of birds of prey damages the reputation of law-abiding gamekeepers, landowners and indeed the country as a whole. Those who carry out these crimes do so in defiance of the will of Parliament, the people, and their own peers. That must end”.

It is interesting that she has omitted ‘law-abiding sporting agents.’ Was that intentional or was it a mistake?

I don’t know how the Scottish Government would protect the gamekeepers’ role but many of them certainly do not warrant being lumped in with their criminal colleagues. The land on which they operate may be subject to licensing but apart from the necessities licensing may bring they should have nothing to fear from the police or any other authority.

The last bullet point is interesting in view of the many detriments (rather than benefits) some of the large shooting estates have foisted on Scotland. I’ll be interested to read, in due course, how much these estates cost the public purse in subsidies and how much better use may be made of some of the land and of the subsidies.

Despite the elation of Ms Cunningham’s announcement, the week has ended on a sad and frustrating note. RSPB revealed that they had recovered two dead peregrines at a nest site at Clee Hill in Shropshire. They also found a pigeon that had all the signs of a poisoned bait. The police, Natural England, a vet and a raptor rehabilitation centre are now involved.  Three half-grown chicks were recovered from the nest ledge and in due course will be fostered on to other broods.

I know nothing of this area but somehow suspect this could be the work of pigeon fanciers rather than gamekeepers. I hope that the publicity brings in some information that results in a conviction and a substantial sentence.

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A really interesting day in the garden

The remains of the young blackbird. Note the speckling on the tuft of feathers.

The bat close to the surface of the burn (almost in centre of pic)

The dipper in the burn

The tame blackbird (note the speckling on the breast that made me think it had been the victim of the mystery predator)

I’d a really interesting day in the garden on Sunday. First off there was an unfortunate find: the feathers of a blackbird that had appeared overnight on a strip of grass beside the burn. There were no body parts, simply some feathers including a tuft of feathers that initially made me think that they were from our tame blackbird that has been with us for four years. She has a speckled breast and the feathers on this tuft were speckled. Closer examination showed they were from a young blackbird, so even though it was unfortunate, I was slightly relieved. The feathers had not been plucked, so that made the predator less likely to have been a sparrowhawk. I settled on the bird having been killed by a cat, though events later in the day gave me an alternative……

The interest was centred on the burn that day as, for the second time recently, I watched a bat hunting over the deepest pool in the burn. A dozen times it came swooping towards me just above the water, sometimes creating a small concentric ripple as it took an insect off the surface. Like the last time it was a small bat, probably a pipistrelle. I took several photos but only one showed the bat, and it could easily have been mistaken for a small fly with whirring wings. I wondered afterwards why it always hunted with the flow of the water, not that there was much flow in any case due to the long dry spell. I also wondered why it had the need to hunt in daylight.

I’d been planting leeks in the garden and had been to the house for a cup of tea. I was returning down the drive to the vegetable part of the garden again and started to cross the bridge over the burn when a movement slightly downstream caught my eye. I’ve caught half a dozen or so mink in the burn in the 23 years we’ve been in the house, the last being just over a year ago.  I’ve only ever seen two eels in the burn, the last being at least ten years ago. Here in front of my eyes was a chocolate brown coloured mink struggling with a decent-sized eel. The eel was wrapped round the mink like a spring and would take a bit of killing. I hoped that would give me time to run – well, trot –  to the house for the camera. Unfortunately, even in these few minutes, predator and prey were gone on my return. Why do I ever leave the house without my camera?

I’ve never got around to setting a trap yet but really the mink is too close for comfort to my ducks (10 metre away) and hens (50 metres away). If it attacked them and I was not around to intervene it could devastate my flock of 22 khaki campbell ducks. I’ll need to find a bit of smelly fish somewhere to bait a trap. The mink, of course, could have been the guilty party in relation to the young blackbird.

Later in the day I heard a commotion at the top of the wood. There was the screeching sound of a young blackbird or song thrush in distress. I immediately thought it had been caught by a cat, then wondered about the mink. A small flock of birds had gathered in the trees and bushes chattering in desperation and swooping down on whatever was causing the problem. I could see blackbirds, song thrushes, chaffinches and various tits.  These were joined by half a dozen starlings that strangely didn’t stay the full course of the action and flew off just before I saw the cause of the mayhem: a carrion crow. It may have been robbing a nest of chicks but the sound of whatever bird it got hold of indicated a chick of around fledging stage.

A short time later I was crossing the bridge again and looking downstream in case the mink was still around. Almost at the same place as the mink had been killing the eel a dipper was sitting on a rock in the centre of the burn. My camera was in my pocket and the dipper was kind enough to wait to be photographed.

Lastly I was joined in the garden by the tame blackbird, also photographed. The speckling on its breast explains how I was initially confused by the speckling on young blackbirds. I’m glad it is still here.

And I eventually got my leeks planted out….

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