Investigations

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Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • Singing in the rain

    What a glorious feeling

    I’m happy again

    Well for now at least.

    The 10 August 2014 was a very special day. It was Hen Harrier day - where over 500 ordinary men, women and children came out in the torrential rain to show their support for the plight of this spectacular yet beleaguered bird. People, some having travelled huge distances just to be there, who were all singing the same tune. 

    A soggy crowd in the Derwent Valley, Derbyshire show their support for the hen harrier

    Whilst H is for hen harrier, unfortunately in my job, H is usually for hunted, hounded, harried and heartache. I have lost count of the number of reports I have dealt with of hen harriers ‘mysteriously’ disappearing from their breeding sites on upland grouse moors. I have heard a toe curling account from a gamekeeper recounting to me in confidence how he and his colleagues shot around 30 hen harriers in a single year on just one estate. And perhaps, most poignantly, I have been there by myself in the early hours of a spring morning on a remote grouse moor watching as a female hen harrier was gunned down. Having pulled the pitiful corpse from where it had been hidden in the heather it was incredibly frustrating not to be able to get the necessary evidence to get the perpetrator to court.

    However, on the 10 August 2014 in the Derwent Valley in the Peak District National park, the home of many a raptor tragedy itself, H definitely stood for hope. Hope that normal everyday people could raise their voice and show their anger and frustration at the outrage we continue to suffer in our uplands. Hope that perhaps the government might now start to realise the shooting community is unable or unwilling to self police and look to bring in new regulation. Hope that one day this beautiful bird, and indeed many other raptors, will start to assume their rightful place in our environment.

    The message is clear!

    Hope is a wonderful thing, and while we have a very along way to go, today was a time to celebrate. The torrential downpour, the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha, did nothing to dampen the mood. Placards and banners were out in full force. My favourite was one from a hardened and passionate raptor study group worker who has endured the bitter battle against harriers and other raptors in the Forest of Bowland for many decades. It simply stated ‘Pleasure killers –There is no right way to do wrong’.

    The people speak

    Chris Packham and Mark Avery celebrating the moment

    Mark Avery has played a leading role in this initiative supported by RSPB, Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC) and many others. He spoke to enforce why we were all there and to thank everyone for such a fantastic show of support, albeit a rather soggy one. Chris Packham spoke eloquently and passionately about the dire situation for the hen harrier, comparing the killing of this bird to the destruction of a national treasure. Chris’ closing rally was ‘We will win’. Well, we have to – don’t we!

    Findlay Wilde speaks to the masses

    For me, perhaps stealing the show, it was a young Findlay Wilde outlining to the crowd why he built his fantastic model male hen harrier which graced the field below the dam. It is inspiring young people like this who we need to look to. It is people like these who need to help forge a generation which will simply not accept what has been deemed acceptable in our uplands for such a long time. Long after I am gone, we will need the likes of Findlay and many others to continue the fight for our precious wildlife heritage.

    The amazing male hen harrier model made by Findlay and his brother

    Hurricane Bertha did nothing to dampen spirits

    So whilst the force of Hurricane Bertha slows ebbs away, hopefully there will be a new storm brewing. Hopefully one which will howl across our countryside blowing away what is both criminal and simply unacceptable in a modern day society. Whilst I am no Gene Kelly, I did at least have a bit of spring in my step as I splashed my way through the puddles back to the car park.

    Hope is indeed a wonderful thing.

  • If you go down to the woods

    Guy Shorrock RSPB Senior Investigations Officer reports on a recent prosecution.

    When Ed McBride went for one of his brisk early morning walks on a lovely day in August last year, he had no idea of the big surprise that lay ahead. Taking a slightly different route than usual he reached the corner of a large block of woodland on the edge of some farmland just to the west of Kingsclere in Hampshire.

    At the corner of a pheasant release pen he saw a tawny owl hanging upside, one of its legs crushed in a metal spring trap, which had been tied to the corner post. He initially thought the bird was dead but on closer inspection found it was still just alive.

    Spring traps can legally be used under cover to kill small mammals such as rats and stoats which may be a problem to gamekeepers and farmers etc. They are a trap closed by a very powerful spring and designed to kill small mammals quickly and humanely. However, it is totally illegal to set these devices in the open. Traditionally a metal spring trap, known as a ‘pole trap’, was designed for actually catching birds of prey when perching on vantage points. This gruesome device was actually outlawed way back in 1904. Despite that, the practice has still continued in quiet places on some game shooting estates using a modern day spring trap. Pheasant pens, which hold large numbers of young pheasants prior to the shooting season, naturally attract predatory birds and animals. The RSPB get a few reports of pole traps in most years, the majority of which take place at pheasant release pens.

    Being unfamiliar with the operation of the trap, Mr McBride struggled for around 10 minutes before he was able to release the bird from the trap. He had nothing in which to carry the bird so, collecting the spring trap, he quickly made his way home to report the matter to the police and RSPB. As soon as the report came in, a colleague and myself set about getting our equipment together, organise a vehicle and set off in haste for Hampshire. En route, it was clear Hampshire Constabulary were having problems getting an officer allocated to the matter. This is no criticism of the police, it is simply the reality of many over-stretched police forces having to prioritise the huge array of calls that get reported to them.

    We met Mr McBride and were shown the disassembled spring trap ominously covered in blood and small feathers. It was clear there would be still a short wait for the police, so having cleared the situation with them, we made our way to the wood just in case the owl was still present. It didn't take long to find the bird sat quietly on the ground a few metres away from where it had been trapped.

    Tawny owl near to death following injuries from an unlawfully set spring trap in August 2013

    We had no idea how long the bird had struggled in the trap, but its complete lack of energy suggested it was not going to survive. It had severe injuries to its left leg, typical of the brutal damage that spring traps can cause when used unlawfully. We were fortunate to be able to be quickly seen by a local vet, and following an examination the outcome was inevitable. The bird was given a lethal injection and finally put to peace.

    So that was the start of the enquiry that led to local self-employed gamekeeper Mark Stevens. A further police visit to the same location in September found a second spring trap fastened to the same post. This time it was on a small platform partially covered with a piece of mesh. I have seen hundreds of spring traps, but never one set like this. The way the trap was covered was totally inadequate and a number of bird species could potentially have hopped onto the trap with disastrous results. Birds weighing less than a starling have been known to trigger these traps.

    Hampshire Constabulary with Mark Stevens at the trapping site in September 2013

    Stevens maintained this trap, and the one that caught the tawny owl in August, had actually been set for a troublesome squirrel which had been taking grain out of a feeder provided for his pheasants. Based on events described by Mr McBride and having worked on these enquiries for many years I have my own view of what may have been taking place. However, whatever the intentions of Mr Stevens, the fact remains he set two spring traps in an unlawful manner and one of these resulted in a pretty unpleasant death for a tawny owl. Some video clips of the enquiry can be viewed here.

    Following some really good work by Hampshire Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), on the 31 July 2014, Stevens pleaded guilty to two charges of using spring traps in a non-approved manner ( contrary to Section 8(1)(a) Pests Act 1954).  He was fined £700 and £650 costs.

    After 22 years of dealing with these issues, my own view is that it is primarily parts of the shooting industry, who employ and then either fail to manage properly or worse instruct gamekeepers to commit offences, who are the main cause of this ongoing problem. It appears they are unwilling or unable to self-police, and indeed many remain in denial about the serious conservation impacts of persecution for species like eagles, hen harriers, red kites and peregrines.  I believe those organisations that represent gamekeepers need to do more to ensure the next generation fresh out of college are not placed in a situation where their future job prospects may be dependent on being expected to commit criminal offences. 

    In addition to these wider problems, the actions of individual gamekeepers like Mr Stevens do nothing to help the image of the gamekeeping profession. I am sure many law abiding gamekeepers must despair at the way their profession continues to be portrayed. Unfortunately, I expect there will be plenty more unwanted surprises for members of the public like Mr McBride before we make serious inroads into this problem.

  • 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.