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Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • One man’s poison

    Blog post written by Bob Elliot, RSPB's Head of Investigations

    Carbofuran, aldicarb, mevinphos, strychnine and alphachloralose.

    That is a pretty horrific list of pesticides for those in the know. The first four have all been unapproved (i.e. banned) for many years and are highly toxic for anyone who could potentially come into contact them, whether it is human or animal.

    For the RSPB Investigations team, over the years, these pesticides have become all too familiar.  These have been amongst the most regularly abused products to illegally poison wildlife during the last 20 years and have generated a torrid catalogue of raptor victims.  Carbofuran and alphachloralose alone, account for well over half of all cases of raptor poisoning during this period. 

    On the 28 May 2014, Derek Sanderson, a former gamekeeper who worked as the head gamekeeper for a shooting syndicate on the Sledmere Estate in Humberside, pled guilty at Beverley Magistrates Court to the storage of five unapproved pesticides - namely  carbofuran, aldicarb, mevinphos, strychnine and alphachloralose.  For this offence, he received a six month conditional discharge* and was ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge.  Four other charges were discontinued.

    In November 2012, a dead buzzard was found on the Sledmere Estate and toxicology tests confirmed it had been poisoned by aldicarb.  As a result, in March 2013 the Humberside police raided the home address of Sanderson, who had just retired a few weeks earlier.  The police search discovered the storage of the five unapproved pesticides, four stored in a cupboard inside his house the other in an unlocked outbuilding.

    It must be made clear that Sanderson was not found guilty of the killing any birds or laying any poison baits and it was accepted in court there was no causal link to the death of the buzzard. 

    However, it must be asked why such a highly experienced former gamekeeper, apparently with 46 years in his trade, had these pesticides at his home in the first place.  Three of them are former agricultural products and have never had any place in legitimate game keeping activities.  Certainly none of them should ever have been kept inside a dwelling house and any professional pest controller should be fully aware of the requirements for the safe and secure storage of pesticides.

    We do not know how this case was presented by the CPS to the court and they can only sentence based on the information presented to them.  However, the outcome, on the face of it, does seem extraordinarily lenient.

    In additional to the long catalogue of pesticide abuse against wildlife, the risks to human health are also significant.  One gamekeeper has already died after accidentally poisoning himself with mevinphos, which he had illegally held for wildlife poisoning.  Over the years, searches have found a whole range of potentially lethal pesticides in highly dangerous situation.  Pesticides in unmarked and fragile containers, sometimes within reach of innocent people and even children.  There are approved schemes for disposal of such products and government have even run projects to allow these products to be handed in at minimal costs.  Why after all this times are these banned pesticides still being found during search warrants?  This type of sentence does not suggest it will form any real deterrent for others who may hold similar products.

    In 2006, legislation was introduced in England and Wales under the Natural England and Rural Communities Act to try and make people more accountable for the possession of pesticides commonly used in wildlife poisoning.  Despite regular prosecutions in Scotland under similar legislation, the government has repeatedly failed to answer calls to provide the relevant list of pesticides to make the 2006 offence active.

    In March 2013, the Environmental Audit Committee published the Government response and rejection of a number of recommendations to improve the investigation of wildlife crime, see here.  This again included a refusal to tighten up on controls on the possession of pesticides.

    A long and depressing catalogue of poisoning incidents and continuing prosecutions show that serious problems remain with the use and storage of pesticides within the shooting industry.  The situation for eagles and red kites in many parts of the UK, as highlighted by recent events on the Black Isle in Scotland, demonstrate just how much more still needs to be done to have these birds occupying their proper place in our environment. The government needs to do far more to make those involved accountable and create a meaningful deterrent.  Tighter regulation and the introduction of vicarious liability controls across the whole of the UK, rather than just those now in place in Scotland, are the sorts of things the government need to be urgently looking at.

    Unfortunately, one thing is in no doubt, that raptors and other wildlife will continue to be poisoned whilst those involved with the illegal storage or use of pesticides feel the risks of being caught pose little real deterrent.

    *A conditional discharge is a sentence in the finding of guilt in which the offender receives no punishment provided that in a period set by the court no further offence is committed. If an offence is committed in that time, then the offender may also be re-sentenced for the offence for which a conditional discharge was given.

  • Stuck in the Dark ages

    Written by Howard Jones, Assistant Investigations Officer

    When I used to think of the year 2014 as a child it sounded like a date that was so far into the future that it was simply beyond all comprehension. It was a date straight out of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ where robots would serve us dinner and cars would drive us. Yet having been part of the Investigations team for nearly two years now, I can only say that some facets of our country are still trapped in a bygone Victorian era and firmly stuck in the Dark Ages.

    In June 2013, my colleagues received a report from the League Against Cruel Sports of a potential pole trap inside a plantation on the Swinton Estate in North Yorkshire. When my colleagues arrived the following day, their worst fears were realised. It was a pole trap. A device banned since 1904, three years after the fall of Queen Victoria because of its indiscriminate way of catching animals and being synonymous with catching birds of prey.

    For those not aware, a pole trap is a device that involves placing a spring trap (basically an extremely powerful mouse trap) on an elevated platform such as post or a pole. Spring traps can be operated legally to target mustelids such as stoats and weasels but only when placed under a cover so that non target animals, such as protected mammals and birds, avoid being caught. Unfortunately, pole traps are still used as a method of targeting birds of prey, which like to perch and have a vantage position when hunting. They are usually discovered on land managed for game bird shooting where some people have tried to reduce potential predation by birds of prey and owls. Sparrowhawks, goshawks and tawny owls are typical intended victims, though a wide range of birds species landing on such a trap are vulnerable to being caught. Birds caught in such traps are usually despatched by the trap operator or die as a result of their horrific injuries.

    This particular pole trap was disabled by my colleagues and a covert camera was installed to monitor who was responsible for it. A few days later, the culprit arrived on camera. See the video here.

    The video shows a 25 year old male called Ryan Waite who is a gamekeeper on the Swinton Estate, situated within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Waite casually re-sets the spring trap placing it back on top of the tree stump. Following this footage, a search warrant was executed by North Yorkshire Police assisted by RSPB. When we arrived at the pole trap site with the police, we found the trap had been removed. It later emerged on our camera footage that Waite had removed the trap. The same trap was found on his premises later during the search. Waite admitted in police interview that he had set the pole trap though he claimed the device was set to target squirrels and not birds of prey.

    Most professional predator controllers (gamekeepers) worth their salt will tell you that a pole trap is not used for squirrels. There is no need to take the risk to control a squirrel illegally when there are numerous legal alternatives to controlling squirrels that are far more effective than a pole trap. There was no mention of squirrels in the work diary of Waite, which documented the animals killed during his predator control work on the estate. The area within the plantation that the pole trap was set in would be an ideal flyway for a raptor. In the event, although Waite subsequently pleaded guilty to setting the trap, the court were unable to determine what he had set if for other than that he had been reckless in doing so.

    It is hard to contemplate why a 25 year old male with his whole career in front of him would even take the risk to set a pole trap. Most people in their right mind would not dream of breaking the law. The stakes are far too high. If you break the law, then you can expect to face huge consequences including the possibility of losing your job and potentially risking your whole career. Yet the financial incentives to increase game bird numbers on shooting estates for clients by whatever means possible (including raptor persecution) seemingly makes the risk worthwhile for some. Since 1990, over a hundred gamekeepers have run the same gauntlet, appearing in court for raptor persecution offences.

    It is broken system that dictates that a person feels they can commit a crime using a device banned for over a century and accept the risks that he undertakes. We come across far too many prosecutions where financial penalties incurred such as fines and legal costs seem more like an inconvenience rather than a sentence. Furthermore, convicted gamekeepers usually either keep their jobs or are re-employed elsewhere in the shooting industry. It is the convenient relationship where gamekeepers take the fall in court but are looked after by their employers behind the scenes. The deterrents to stop people committing raptor persecution are not in place at the moment either through the courts or within the shooting industry. This is the major problem faced in tackling this type of crime. We still come across far too many incidents of poisoning, trapping and shooting of birds of prey.

    One way that could pay dividends and might lead to a real reduction in these crimes is if criminal liability for the actions of their gamekeepers was extended to cover their managers and employers. An offence of “vicarious liability” was introduced in Scotland in January 2012. This can make landowners culpable for the actions of their gamekeepers if they commit raptor persecution crimes unless they can show they have taken steps to prevent it from happening. It’s still early days. There are some encouraging early signs with a reduction in recorded poisoning incidents in Scotland in 2012 compared to previous years, though we need to see if this is sustained over the years ahead. We need the Westminster Government to take raptor persecution as seriously as the Scots have and introduce vicarious liability south of the border. That step, combined with some robust sentencing by magistrates and employers taking a stronger line with their employees following conviction, could go a long way towards stamping out this barbaric practice. But as long as it continues, the shooting industry will continue to carry the raptor persecution millstone around its neck.

  • A thief by any other name

     

    German: Eierdieb

    Swedish: Äggtjuv

    Finnish : Munavaras

    English: Egg thief

    A conviction earlier today (here) of three egg collectors in Sweden, one of whom was jailed for a year, has highlighted yet again that it is not just the UK who has problems with this peculiar type of criminal.  When I started at the RSPB back in 1992, I came into contact for the first time with the strange world of egg collectors. At that time there was a general impression this was a peculiarly ‘British’ thing, and this sort of eccentric criminality was not really a problem outside the UK. Since that time, it has become clear we are not alone with these types of environmental vandals. The term ‘egg collectors’ sounds fairly passive and it is true to say there are individuals who do not actually physically take birds’ eggs from the wild but acquire eggs taken by others. Some of these people possess entirely legal old collections, others are less discerning and may have illegally held eggs as well. I think it was my former colleague Dave Dick in Scotland who started to promote the term ‘egg thief’ in order to identify those individuals actively taking eggs from the wild. The taking of birds’ eggs is not theft in the strict legal sense, but I think few would argue it is a theft from nature, and I would suggest from society as a whole.

    In 1999, the German Authorities contacted us for some advice about a suspected ‘egg thief’ they were investigating. We gave them some advice about what to look for, how to catalogue collections. This was the start of a rather large snowball – having raided one individual and found his egg collection, they also found details of several associates. These were raided and numerous more collections were found - in total around 90,000 eggs were seized! The prospect of a ring of UK egg thieves all having their own collections at their home addresses would be remote to say the least, as most have learned, often from bitter experience, that a ‘safe house’ is needed if they wanted to keep hold of their precious booty. The German authorities simply did not have these people, or indeed this type of criminality, on their radar. We have had a long relationship with a very helpful German official working in wildlife crime, and a visit was arranged. Myself and a colleague arrived at some fairly drab government concrete buildings in the former East Germany; though a flock of waxwings outside helped brighten the scene.

    Some of the 90,000 eggs seized in Germany in 1999

    As you might expect, German efficiency had been applied, and a whole team of biologists and enforcement officials had been involved in cataloguing the huge number of eggs. We sat as the pleasantries were exchanged, with our German friend doing the translation. On the table were printed off very long excel spreadsheets cataloguing the various collections. The working of police and government agencies has existed for decades in the UK, however it seemed the German authorities were initially a little bemused as to why we were there. Whilst international negotiations continued, I started flicking through the spreadsheets, and noticed at various places a comment ‘Jahre in rot’ – from my single year of German at school I knew this meant ‘Year in red’.  I quickly started cross referencing a few species on the different spreadsheets and saw eggs taken from the same place had the same day and month, but with a different year.  I quietly interjected into the ongoing conversation that I thought the entries in red were false dates. One of the German biologists immediately looked at me in a very curious manner and stated “How do you know zis?”  It turned out they had already reached the same conclusions. It appeared some of the egg thieves had gone on trips abroad together to take eggs and decided to create false data to make the eggs appear old and therefore lawfully held. Rather entertainingly, one had subtracted 20 years and another 30 – which showed up very quickly once all the data was entered on a computer!   Anyway, I think my remark probably helped break the ice a little and showed we at least understood what they were dealing with. We did indeed get the full guided tours with cabinet upon cabinet of eggs plus taxidermy, birds traps and other items which had been seized. Numerous individuals were later convicted, and interestingly it appeared that some eggs had been supplied by Scandinavian collectors.

    So egg collecting is a strange crime, but where does the trading in eggs fit into all this. We know collections are sometimes sold when egg thieves pass them on late in life, but generally money has not been the motivation for these people. Historically, there were a number of people and auction houses involved in the sale of birds’ eggs to collectors. However, the Protection of Birds Act 1954 made it illegal to sell birds’ eggs and that seemed to pretty much end this business. However, the Internet and modern electronic communication does seem to have rekindled a little of this type of trade.

    In 2009, I became involved at the start of a very long trail dealing with a number of people in the UK involved with the trade in birds’ eggs. This was mainly by swapping, but in some cases cash purchases were also taking place. This was part of a ring involving people as far afield as the US, Australia and Sweden. Two men, one from County Durham and another from Inverness were convicted, as detailed in a previous blog. These two were primarily collectors and traders rather than egg thieves. However, some of their international contacts were clearly active egg thieves. One of their associates from Scotland was in direct contact with individuals in Sweden. From various emails and photographs that had been seized, they seemed to me to be fairly hard-core egg thieves. It appeared that eggs from Sweden were obtained by the associate in Scotland, and some of which were passed to the two men ultimately convicted. I prepared some intelligence reports which the UK authorities passed to Sweden. As a result three Swedish men were raided in 2010 and around 6,600 eggs were seized, leading to the recent convictions. Interestingly, this enquiry identified a further individual in Finland and a further 10,000 eggs were seized. This case is still ongoing.

      

    Swedish egg thieves taking gull eggs 

     

     

    These crane eggs found in Scotland in 2009 had been taken from the wild in 2002 & 2003

     

    One of the crane clutches found in Scotland photographed by an egg thief in a nest in Sweden in 2003 prior to being taken

     

    Enquiries in Sweden also found a large number of photographs of eggs in nests before they were taken. From these, it was possible to match a clutch of black-throated diver eggs found in County Durham as having been taken from Sweden in 2007; and two clutches of crane eggs seized from the associate in Scotland, had been taken in Sweden in 2002 and 2003. Hopefully, these recent cases will encourage this new breed of egg traders to think twice before swapping or selling their ill-gotten gains. The activities of egg thieves seems encouragingly to be on the decline in the UK, probably mainly due to the introduction of jail sentences in 2001 plus increased police enforcement action. How many more egg thieves are at large in other countries remains unknown but I suspect more will come out of the woodwork.

     

    These black-throated diver eggs found in County Durham in 2009 had been taken in Sweden in 2007

     

    STOP PRESS!

     

    Just heard two Norwegian egg theives were in court yesterday for taking two white-tailed eagle eggs from an island on the west coast on Norway in 2012.  One got a 21 day suspended sentence, the other (who had denied the offence) got 45 days in jail!