Raeshaw Estate general licence judicial review – comment

Buzzard found starved in crow cage in Perthshire

Sparrowhawk found starved in crow cage in Perthhire

Poisoned red kite (Perthshire)

That’s absolutely fabulous news that Raeshaw Estate has lost the judicial review it raised against the withdrawal by Scottish Natural Heritage of the privilege of the use of general licences to control certain species of birds some consider to be pests. The judicial review was heard by Lord Armstrong and the written judgement was published on 28 March.

The petitioner in the case was Lord Davidson of Glen Clova who, it was stated in the judgement, represented the owner of ‘land near Heriot, Midlothian, which comprises a substantial rural estate of some 8,000 acres, much of which is grouse moor’. The owner is not so easily established, given on the web as Raeshaw Holdings, Channel Islands. These are the difficulties the police encounter in trying to establish vicarious liability, though the shooting is run by William Powell Sporting, Banbury, Oxfordshire. The representative from there, who I suspect I know well, would be a good starting point if a prosecution for vicarious liability is ever required.

The evidence for the withdrawal of the use of general licences was based primarily on a number of set spring traps found during a police search on 8 May 2014 and which were attached to a small homemade cage which contained a live pigeon as bait to lure in birds of prey. Additionally, there were skeletal remains of birds of prey found nearby. These were near a crow cage registered to Raeshaw Estate and which, during the spring and probably up till the month of May, would no doubt be operated daily by the Raeshaw gamekeepers. Isn’t it strange that they never saw the dead birds of prey and reported to the police that someone had come on to the estate and either killed them or dumped them.

During a further police search one of the estate gamekeepers was found to have homemade traps identical to that in which the pigeon was being held captive.  This was tremendous evidence and must have brought the situation near to the point when someone could have been charged with setting the pigeon cage and spring traps. All that may have been lacking was a wee bit of forensic evidence or an admission, though suspect gamekeepers, like hardened criminals, invariably give a ‘no comment’ interview (which is their entitlement).

Historically, the report mentioned that several poisoned buzzards and red kites, plus poisoned baits, had been found on the estate and, as seems often to be the case with the combination of satellite-tagged birds and driven grouse moors, a tag fitted to a hen harrier stopped working over Raeshaw Estate in 2011.

It appears that the estate staff had training ‘in relation to the relevant legislation, and in relation to the possibility of prosecution, a corresponding disciplinary procedure which included the possibility of summary dismissal, and protocols and requirements in relation to the relevant reporting of the use of traps and pesticides and the maintenance of records’.  This was clearly ineffective, as was the investigation carried out by the estate, which concluded that ‘nothing was revealed suggesting that any estate employee was involved in, or aware of, the (trapping) incident’.

With this catalogue of criminality, of which a decent proportion of the hill walking and conservation-minded public in Scotland had knowledge, it was strange that the Raeshaw Estate owner remained blissfully unaware, otherwise I’m sure he would have sacked all the keepers on the spot. He must wish now that he had as the report claimed that ‘the petitioner had been adversely affected by the consequential inference of criminality, and the associated actions of pressure groups’.

Many folks associated with grouse moors have been getting away with criminality for far too long.  Thankfully, at long last, one of the battles on behalf of the public has been won. I look forward now to seeing the backlog of general licence withdrawals being put in place now the judicial review that blocked them is out of the road.

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Book Review – A Fieldworker’s Guide to the Golden Eagle by Dave Walker

 

 

A Fieldworker’s Guide to the Golden Eagle by Dave Walker is an amazing study of golden eagles over several decades. It almost seems that the author can think like an eagle, yet he admits there are many aspects of a golden eagle’s activities that remain a mystery. He challenges some of the views held by other eagle experts and in many respects he may be correct to do so. The author claims that the opinions of others are not always based on sufficient evidence. As a retired police officer I can appreciate this stance. I suspect that the author is looking for evidence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, whereas some of the beliefs he challenges may be more akin to ‘on the balance of probabilities’. In particular, I subscribe to his view that a licence (from SNH or the equivalent in constituent countries of the UK) ‘is not an excuse to visit nests: a licence holder still has to give a legitimate reason to visit a nest and can cause damaging disturbance and commit the offence of reckless disturbance even if they are holding the licence in their hand at the time’.

Walker goes into great detail on what may constitute disturbance. Having been involved in a golden eagle disturbance trial I know how difficult even reckless disturbance is to prove; intentional disturbance much more so.  With the author’s experience he is certainly a potential expert the police should keep in mind and I will discuss this with the National Wildlife Crime Unit in due course.

Reading the chapters on eagle breeding I was amazed at how many pairs fail to breed, fail at the egg stage, fail to fledge any chicks and also the risks to fledged young. Apart from the predation of egg thieves and deliberate persecution (neither of which are discussed in the book at great length) it is a wonder we have any eagles at all. The author has a similarly pessimistic view of the number of pairs of eagles in Scotland, ‘about 400 pairs in the survey years plus an unknown and variable number of singletons.  ..although it is not evident from the published results, each survey year probably had fewer pairs than the last. There is probably a documented decline in the number of golden eagles and this probably began in 1982’.

The author is of the belief that for persecution to stop, driven grouse shooting would need to cease. His perspective is interesting in that as a consequence the dichotomy is that good quality habitat with good food resources may convert to other land uses not as suitable for the golden eagle. He is also critical of the various golden eagle ‘recovery’ projects (removals to Ireland and the south of Scotland) commenting that they should be shelved ‘in favour of investigating and addressing the reasons for low productivity in the majority of the population’.

I was fascinated by the chapter on nests. I have little more knowledge about golden eagle ecology than most people but it was my belief that a pair of eagles would start to build up a nest around January/February for that year’s breeding. Not so. The author has observed eagles refurbishing nests at all times of the year, which is not necessarily evidence of a breeding attempt or even the involvement of a pair of eagles. This is only one of many, many revelations in this incredibly detailed book.

I was also of the view (by reading; not from experience) that eagles didn’t fly in the dark, which is also contradicted by the author. (Though this incident is not referred to in the book I wonder if that makes any clearer how, in 2012, the golden eagle with two broken legs suspected to have been caused by being caught in a trap, got from a driven grouse moor in Glenesk to a layby near Aboyne in Aberdeenshire, in darkness, sometime between 9.00 pm and 4.00 am.  Was it driven there or did it fly?)

Altogether a fantastic book which has increased my knowledge of golden eagles immensely. I’m sure even the most experienced eagle-watchers will learn something, or at the very least question their knowledge.

A Fieldworker’s Guide to the Golden Eagle.  £19.99

Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG

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Two buzzards shot in North Yorkshire – comment

A buzzard shot with a shotgun. Image taken at Dundee Airport scanner.

I’ve been reading about the two buzzards that were recently found shot in different parts of that disgraceful county in England for raptor persecution, North Yorkshire. There was a pretty stupid comment to the article dealing with these crimes on the blog Raptor Persecution UK, that the person commenting is ‘particularly interested in whether they (the police) have the capability and the inclination to arrest people with guns breaking the law’.

Part of another much more reasoned comment was, ‘The chances of there being any arrests for an unwitnessed shooting are essentially nil. There is no evidence tying a culprit to the offence that is more than circumstantial without that or a confession. Even the stupidest gun holder will not do that’.

Another person commented, ‘Whilst I agree that it is very difficult to investigate and convict a person responsible for shooting birds of prey, it can be done’, and gave a link to a case where a farmer in Peebles-shire had been convicted of shooting a buzzard. When I looked up the case there had been a witness to the shooting, which makes a relatively simple investigation.

I agree completely with the comment about the ‘unwitnessed’ shooting (though I would have phrased it slightly differently). Even if it had been witnessed, there is still a huge drawback to investigations in England and Wales where the very much outdated Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states:

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

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

(b) takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or

(c) takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird, he shall be guilty of an offence.

There is an easy get out of jail free card with this wording if the person maintains he thought the buzzard was some other bird that can legally be shot. It could be extremely difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was intent to shoot the buzzard. Before the law in Scotland was changed in 2004 to include the term ‘recklessly’ we dealt with a classic example of this in Tayside where the shooting was witnessed by an off-duty police officer (see –https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/2016/06/15/wildlife-cases-frustrated-by-poor-legislation/  )

Much more pressure needs to be put on the Westminster government to bring wildlife law in England and Wales up to date – unless of course it suits them to have the police investigating many aspects of wildlife crime with one hand tied behind their back.

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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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The Review of Game Bird Licensing in Europe – comment

Raven found poisoned on driven grouse moor in Angus

Raven found poisoned on driven grouse moor in Angus

Close up of the raven

Close up of the raven

The review of game bird hunting and licensing in other European countries, commissioned by the Scottish Government, has now been published. It is an excellent, in-depth publication covering 14 countries but concentrating mainly on Germany, France, Sweden, Norway and Spain. These countries all license shooting (mainly referred to as ‘hunting’) to some degree and in every case have elements that are worthy of consideration for Scotland. I’m sure that the Scottish Government will manage to use the most relevant parts and create new licensing legislation that will help to solve our disgraceful reputation in Scotland for raptor persecution. With any luck we might manage (yet again) to show the Westminster Government how to better deal with criminals blighting Scotland’s reputation.

The problem to be addressed is the killing of raptors, particularly on driven grouse moors.

We already have:

  • The best wildlife legislation in the UK, albeit it is almost impossible to enforce it against raptor-related crime in the uplands
  • Six full-time and approximately 100 part-time police officers trained to a high standard of wildlife crime investigation
  • Within the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service a Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit comprising four full-time prosecutors and with access to an Advocate.
  • Back-up support from specialist areas of policing such as search, fraud, proceeds of crime confiscation.
  • Back-up support from a number of government organisations, especially in forensics and chemical analysis
  • Back-up support and advice from many non-government organisations
  • The possibility of sanctions such as clawing back often substantial single farm payments, though the situations in which this can be used with success have been dramatically eroded since its inception. Also the possibility of revocation of general licences, though this seems also to have been suspended awaiting a judicial review following a challenge.
  • Reasonable penalties, with the strong likelihood of an increase that would be adequate to deal with a landowner or sporting agent who indulged in raptor persecution to improve profits from shooting.

I doubt that we need any change to shotgun and firearm licensing. Even if these are revoked they make little difference to the former holder and it has been proved time and time again that certificate holders are not all responsible people so far as raptor persecution is concerned.

Most other countries have a hunting licence system. We have tried that already in the UK in the form of a game licence, and it was scrapped some years ago. In any case I think the Scottish Government should be considering the loss of the right to shoot on a particular piece of land rather than the loss of the right of an individual to shoot.

So what we need from this game shooting licensing review is a sanction that will stop landowners and sporting agents in their tracks from directing, encouraging or turning a blind eye to raptor-related crime. The bosses, whether they be addressed as Lord, Lady, Sir or just plain Mr or Mrs are they key to this problem of killing birds of prey. If they want it stopped in case they really risk going to jail or the suspension of the right for shooting to take place on their land then they will most certainly ensure their employees comply with their instructions.

The European Commission has called for ‘well-regulated hunting’ with, amongst other conditions, full compliance with the law. They correctly state that ‘management aimed at raising artificially high yields of one species can be detrimental, particularly if it is linked to illegal persecution of birds of prey’.  Most other countries have encouraged their hunters to be, in addition, conservationists (though at least in the short term I don’t see this on driven grouse moors). Terms are used in other countries such as ‘long-term balance to be achieved between man and the environment’. If game management plans were to be adopted here, as they are in some other countries, they could specify measures for the improvement of habitats as agreed possibly between SNH and landowners. They must not merely focus only on game species but must produce a balanced plan that will also benefit a large number of protected species.

I was interested to read that ‘research commissioned by the French National Hunting Federation in 2014 found that 48% of hunters are involved in conservation volunteering and a hunter spends an average of 75 hours a year volunteering (which amounts to an annual contribution of 78 million hours per year). This was calculated to be equivalent to 1.6 billion EUR (gross) contribution to the economy and to represent the equivalent contribution of more than 50,000 full time jobs. The same study concluded hunting contributes more than 3.6 billion EUR per annum to the French economy as a whole’.

Reading the outcome of the commissioned report Spain is probably nearest to the UK in terms of private land ownership, game shooting and raptor persecution. As in this country it is permissible for the owner of land to hunt the game on his/her land, but the game itself does not belong to the landowner. Rather, it is regarded as a natural resource belonging to the country as a whole.  The principal difference is that in Spain they have in recent years been investing in an EU-funded project to address this criminality and to quote the report, ‘The illegal killing of raptors in Spain is now decreasing following the success of the Life+ VENENO project to tackle the problem through effective enforcement and sanctions’. The report continued, ‘SEO/ Birdlife, the non-governmental Spanish ornithological society, worked with the Spanish environmental police and regional authorities on the EU funded Life+ project to respond to the problem of raptor persecution. Investment was made to provide specifically trained officers in the police force to work with NGOs and to raise public awareness of the unacceptability of wildlife poisoning. The public were further engaged by the provision of a freephone reporting line and the development of legal precedents for attaching an individual monetary value to birds killed illegally, based on the public interest and the level of public investment in protecting the particular species’.

The report went on, ‘The Life+ VENENO project brought about the establishment of legal precedents on sanctions. It also developed good practice on cooperation between police and environmental bodies, training officers to gather evidence of poisoning and working together to carry this out on the ground, with the help of canine units. More than thirty prosecutions were successfully brought under the project. In 2007 the maximum fine for bird crime was increased to 2 million EUR.7 The Criminal Code enacts sentences of imprisonment ranging from four months to two years, disqualification from a profession or occupation and disqualification from exercising the right to hunt or fish for period of two to four years. These sanctions are used concurrently and the Spanish bird conservation body consider this layering of sanctions as vital to the effectiveness of the approach’.

As in Scotland, in some regions of Spain there are also provisions within Spanish Law to hold landowners or tenants of land vicariously responsible for wildlife crime which takes place on their land.  Possible penalties range from 25,001 to 100,000 EUR plus the possibility of total or partial suspension of hunting on the land where the offence has taken place for a term ranging from six months to two years.

As an example of penalty, in October 2015 a farmer was convicted of laying out nine poisoned baits, poisoning six Spanish Imperial eagles and a fox. His crimes were uncovered with the assistance of canine units used to search his land. He was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, a three-year disqualification from hunting following release from prison and a fine of 360,000 EUR (then £259,800) to be paid to the regional government for the estimated value of the six eagles.

Some years ago I spent a week on a course run by the Spanish police and hosting one wildlife or environmental crime officer from each constituent country of the EU. I was really impressed by the situation in Spain, even at that time, where the police officers in the Service of Nature Protection of the Civil Guard (SEPRONA) had an amazing amount of equipment at their disposal not only to investigate wildlife crime but to check air, water and soil quality. In effect they were combining a job equivalent to that of the police and Scottish Environment Protection Agency. In my view they were in the lead on wildlife crime investigation in Europe – and this still seems to be the case – followed by the UK, Germany and Sweden.

We have accomplished many improvements already in Scotland but there is plenty room for expansion, adaptation and creativity. Let’s hope, at last, that the Scottish Government use this report to consign raptor persecution to the past.

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Police Scotland withholding raptor crime data – comment

Buzzard in pheasant pen dying after consuming pheasant poult bait laced with alpha-chloralose and carbofuran

Buzzard in pheasant pen dying after consuming pheasant poult bait laced with alpha-chloralose and carbofuran

I was interested in a blog on Raptor Persecution UK the other day. Questions had been asked of Police Scotland as to why certain information on raptor crime was missing from the RSPB Birdcrime’s 2015 report, (which I blogged about on 7th February). The response from Police Scotland is quoted as being:

‘Primarily, the Police Scotland concern is about specialist knowledge becoming public knowledge in these cases. Police Scotland actually withholds the data from publication in relatively few cases and only after consideration against the agreed investigative strategy for a particular case. If Police Scotland is to make an appeal for information about a bird of prey killing and has chosen not to identify the substance as part of the strategy (or even identify that poisoning was the cause of death) this would be undermined by the identification of the chemical used in a public document. It would not take too much initiative to put the two together and that specialist knowledge tool is lost. A similar argument is equally as legitimate where other modus operandi (MO) are used in this form of raptor persecution.

On occasions, the decision is made not to make an investigation public at all for a variety of reasons (time of year, other ongoing investigations etc.). Publication of pesticide data or MO by HSE, RSPB or whoever else would ensure that Police Scotland loses control over this tool.

Differences in the legal system in Scotland is also another issue. The time bar for bringing wildlife crimes to court in Scotland is (in most cases) three years from the date of the offence. Police Scotland therefore expect to be able to legitimately withhold information relating to cases for that time period. This argument was supported by a specialist prosecutor from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s Wildlife & Environmental Crime Unit who also thought that this was particularly relevant in Scotland because we still have a requirement for corroboration.

Police Scotland cannot speak for the approach taken by forces in England and Wales but our commitment to wildlife crime ensures that we must ensure that we use every tool available and therefore on occasions this will include withholding information about a crime’.

I have no idea of why these particular details are missing but some of the readers of the Raptor Persecution blog are clearly making the assumption that the police are involved in some sort of collusion with raptor killers. Excerpts from some of the comments are:

‘That’s a pretty verbose excuse for complacency, indolence and corruption’

‘The only conclusion I can make from Police Scotland withholding such information is collusion with the criminals’.

‘…they intend to orchestrate cover ups’

‘…the Police have picked a side and it isn’t with us but the shooters’.

‘The only possible reason Police Scotland could have for withholding data and information that they don’t intend to use in court is to protect the interests of certain shooting estates and their owners’

Whatever the reason for withholding certain information it will not be for any corrupt purpose.

I agree with the Raptor Persecution blog that the police should publish details of raptor crime at every opportunity, and at the earliest date possible provided it does not jeopardise any future court proceedings. That is not being done and in my view that is a failing of Police Scotland. The police should also take the lead with media releases. I frequently see reports of incidents where the lead for the story has been RSPB and there is no quote from the police. RSPB and others can often add valuable information to a media release but it should be clear that the investigation is being carried out by the police.

With cases of pesticide abuse there is always a risk to anyone encountering a poisoned bait or the victim of a bait, which makes a media release even more important. Several years ago a couple of teenage girls picked up a dying buzzard on the roadside bordering Edradynate Estate near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. The buzzard had been sick and the breast feathers were wet. As it turned out the bird had been poisoned by the pesticide alpha-chloralose. Had it been the much more toxic and more commonly used pesticide carbofuran the girls would have been in real danger.

Another person commented,

‘…if anyone finds something suspicious regarding raptor crime, make sure you tweet it and tag in as many people as possible before calling the cops’.

The naivety of this comment is of real concern, and the outcome of such action is likely to alert the criminal involved long before any investigation can be made. It’s a pity this comment had not been countered on the blog.

I am not sure what to make of the blog Raptor Persecution UK. The principle is excellent and allows a wider range of the public to be alerted to raptor-related crime than would otherwise be the case. It also delves into different aspects of criminality that most folks wouldn’t have the time or in many cases the knowledge to explore themselves. I just wish it wasn’t so anti-police, anti-COPFS and anti-judiciary. It is clear how this rubs off on some of its more easily influenced readers and may well put them off reporting an incident to the police that may just provide a vital link in an investigation.

Another extremely worrying comment was,

‘The police are the enemy right now’.

It is worth remembering that the police are in support of almost all of Raptor Persecution UK’s readers (and hopefully the readers of this blog). I am sure this is especially so of the hundred or so officers in Scotland who have been trained in wildlife crime investigation, some of whom have been desperate for years to get raptor killers before a court.

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Dealing with hare coursing

Hare discarded by coursers in field where caught. No external injuries visible apart from mouth, which was picked by carrion crow.

Hare discarded by coursers in field where caught. No external injuries visible apart from mouth, which was picked by carrion crow.

Hare discarded in same field. Note minimal external injuries. Hares seldom 'torn to bits' as often claimed.

Hare discarded in same field. Note minimal external injuries. Hares seldom ‘torn to bits’ as often claimed.

Pair of dogs typical of use for coursing hares

Pair of dogs typical of use for coursing hares

I recently read a blog on the Onekind website http://onekind.scot/onekindblog/  titled Scotland has a hare coursing problem. Here’s how to stop it. Since I put a lot of effort into dealing with hare coursing when I was wildlife crime officer with Tayside Police I read on, interested in Onekind’s solution. I have a lot of respect for the work carried out by Onekind but in my opinion they are away off the mark with part of their ‘solution’. It is two-fold, and I’ll comment on the second part first.

‘We’re calling for urgent reform in sentencing for hare coursing and other wildlife crimes’.

This is already underway in Scotland under the report of the Wildlife Penalties Review Group, which recommends an increase in the maximum level of fines and imprisonment. This will make little difference to those convicted of hare coursing since I know of no instance where anyone convicted of that crime has received anywhere near the current maximum level. The report, however, gives some short-term solutions:

That the use of conservation/ecological impact statements and animal welfare impact statements is put on a more systematic basis than at present. This might initially be done on an administrative basis with the prosecution seeking these as a matter of course and where appropriate, from either SNH in the former case, or a vet in the latter case. 

It may assist the court in its sentencing options if in each case it was made aware through an impact statement that the brown hare is classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan because of its relatively low numbers. The court should also be made aware that poaching, which includes hare coursing, is one of the UK wildlife crime policing priorities because of the volume of criminality.

That forfeiture provisions are extended and these and other alternative penalties are made consistent across the range of wildlife legislation as appropriate. 

Forfeiture and alternative penalties are the key terms here. The most obvious item for forfeiture is the vehicle used by the convicted person, though these are seldom worth more than a few hundred pounds. Much more important is the forfeiture of the dogs used. There are clear difficulties here (and I have explored the options in the past, once at the request of sheriffs keen to forfeit dogs) in kennelling the dogs in the period between the incident and the conviction. If there was a will to do so this could be overcome and I would suggest it needs looked at again and that a committee of the key players be formed to revisit this option, which would be guaranteed to make a difference.

So far as penalties are concerned, in the initial stages leading up to a trial realistic bail conditions may be able to be applied, which could curtail the accused person being with any dog more than, say, a mile from his house. Disqualification from driving for using his vehicle in the commission of a crime has occasionally been tried, to great effect. More recently in wildlife crime cases antisocial behaviour orders have been used with success.

The first of the solutions offered by Onekind was:

‘The simplest way of significantly improving the situation would be to give the Scottish SPCA powers to investigate wildlife crimes’.

The investigation of hare coursing, in my view, is not something that can be undertaken by SSPCA.  Firstly those involved in coursing are invariably violent. If they are caught in the act or soon after, the following powers are required without warrant:

  • Power to arrest or detain
  • Power to stop a vehicle
  • Power to search a vehicle
  • Power to search a suspect
  • Power to seize a vehicle
  • Power to seize any items used in the commission of the crime or that may help to prove the crime
  • Power to seize dogs (outwith any welfare issues)
  • Access land to do any of these things

Most hare coursers that are charged are caught in the act. If they are not, their vehicle registration number is seldom of use since many of them buy and sell cars and are only in possession of a vehicle for a short time. The vehicle is almost never registered to them, may be registered under a false name and address and the insurance, since it covers their trading in vehicles, does not have registration numbers listed. If the vehicle is not traced and stopped within a few days the chances are it will have been sold on. Investigation can continue by utilising other methods, usually undertaken by a wildlife crime officer. This generally means a lot of effort sometimes with little outcome.

So unless SSPCA staff are going to be given the same powers as police officers I doubt they can take on hare coursing. Having said that, in unmarked vehicles and along with farmers and gamekeepers, their use would be invaluable as ‘spotters’ during any operation to catch coursers, and to call in a marked police vehicle if coursing is witnessed or suspected.

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