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Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • Some good news from the front

     

    During the autumn of 2000, which seems a long time ago, I made a visit with a colleague to Cyprus following reports of extensive illegal trapping of migrant birds using mist nets and electronic tape lures.  Cyprus provides a key staging post for millions of migratory birds, and has important resident populations of birds.  Due to its location in the eastern Mediterranean, a number of important migration flyways converge over Cyprus, and millions of birds use the island as a crucial stopover for feeding and resting.  Many of Europe’s migrant birds are in trouble and breeding populations of long-distance, trans-Sharan migrant birds have declined sharply since the 1970’s.  The RSPB ‘Birds without Borders’ programme is bringing BirdLife partners to work together and develop initiatives that will tackle the problems faced by migratory birds.

    Stonechat caught on a limestick

     

    Bird trapping using twigs coated in a sticky substance called ‘lime’ was a traditional culinary activity in Cyprus and at one time caught birds were probably an important food source.  However, all forms of bird trapping were made illegal in 1974.  The term ‘ambelopoulia’ is used to describe the migrants birds caught for consumption and blackcap has been the traditional favourite with birds migrating south in autumn carrying high reserves of fat for the arduous journey ahead. 

    Jar of ambelopoulia

    However, our visit showed that whilst limesticks were still widely used, it was the proliferation of the illegal use of mist nets with electronic calling devices which was breathtakingly blatant across large areas at the south east corner of the island.  This was industrial bird trapping and during the autumn season professional bird trappers were making substantial sums of money trapping birds for the restaurant trade and other retail outlets.  In many places nets were obvious and visible near main roads and in back gardens.  Several large houses had securely-fenced grounds containing numerous set nets.  A significant illegal trapping area was on the Cape Pyla headland, a natural migration route, which formed part of the Eastern Sovereign Base Area (SBA).  The two Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus are important strategic military locations for the UK and are managed by the MOD.

     

    Here the trappers had gone to huge trouble to plant and irrigate several acres with a fast-growing, non-native acacia.  Several diesel pumps thudded away throughout the day illegally pumping up groundwater which was dispersed into miles of black plastic piping to irrigate the area.  I also got to see the trappers at first hand and very early in the morning filmed two of them checking a net ride and casually cutting the throats of birds caught in the mist nets before tossing them into a bucket.  All rather grim.  The footage was passed to the authorities who were able to prosecute one of the men.

    Trapper filmed illegally catching migrants with a mist net during my first visit in 2000

    Significantly, this initial visit set the wheels in motion for a whole series of events.  In 2001, a report was submitted by two Cyprus Ornithological Groups and BirdLife International to the Bern Convention.  The Bern Convention Standing Committee made a number of recommendations to the UK and Cypriot authorities.  This included the clear need for increased enforcement action.  Encouragingly, 2001 saw a strong response by the SBA authorities with the large scale seizure and destruction of mist nets and other trapping equipment from the SBA.  The Cypriot authorities also became much more active in enforcement, their thoughts no doubts focussed by their forthcoming accession to the EU in 2004.

    In 2002, it was decided to start a survey to try to get some assessment of the levels of illegal bird trapping in the two main trapping areas in SE Cyprus.  Two staff were employed by BirdLife International and I worked with them to try to develop the survey methodology.  There were a number of problems.  Firstly, there were no other real examples of this type of survey work of an illegal activity.  Furthermore, health and safety consideration meant it was not possible to go out very early in the morning when the mists nets were in place as the trappers would be present and there was a clear risk of violence towards the surveyors.

    So a survey method was developed to visit a number of randomly selected one kilometre squares and assess the levels of trapping activity.  Most of the nets were taken down during the day so more subtle signs of activity included the tell-tale  presence of feathers and blood spots in the trapping rides where birds had been caught and killed.  Encouragingly there seemed to have been a huge reduction in the levels of illegal trapping.  The significant recent enforcement action by the UK and Cypriot authorities was no doubt part of the reason for this.  This reduction no doubt saved the lives of millions of migrant birds passing across Cyprus.

    With the formation of BirdLife Cyprus in 2003 (BLC), this impressive monitoring work to assess trapping activity has continued during every autumn trapping season until the current day.  There has been additional survey work done during some spring and winter periods when trapping of migrants and winter visitors also takes place.  Initially the level of trapping, though still unacceptable, at least stayed around the reduced 2002 level for a number of years.

    Blackcap in an illegally set mist net

    Unfortunately, the level of trapping has increased in recent years.  Ultimately, this is a supply and demand type of crime.  With a plate of dozen ambelopoulia in a restaurant costing 60 Euros or more, this provides the lucrative incentive for the trappers to continue.  All the restaurant trade is outside the SBA.  Back in 2002, some nine restaurants serving ambelopoulia were raided by the Cypriot Authorities.  This whole issue is very political and it seems this action did not go down very well with influential figures within the hunting and 'ambelopoulia eating' community.  Since that time there appears to have been very little effort to tackle the root cause of the problem.  Whilst the demand remains it seems trappers will continue to risk the chances of being caught and prosecuted for the high financial rewards available. 

    Cape Pyla within the SBA has remained a key trapping hotspot.  Cutting down the large areas of non-native acacia seems an obvious action to take but there are both financial and political considerations for the UK authorities to consider and the potential reactions of some Cypriot residents who regard this illegal activity as part of their ‘livelihood’.  Whilst the SBA authorities have continued to commit resources to enforcement work, the increasing level of trapping activity with the last few years has understandably prompted increased pressure by BirdLife Cyprus and RSPB on the UK government.

    With the increased trend of illegal trapping, in recent years the survey methodology has come under more scrutiny.  Consequently, on Tuesday this week, some ten years since my last visit in 2005, I attended a workshop at Akrotiri, inside the Western SBA, to discuss the validity of the survey work and whether any improvements could be made.  In addition to representatives from the SBA, the MOD, NGOs and Cypriot Police we were very fortunate to have the presence of two independent experts from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).  The BTO is an independent charitable research institute combining professional and citizen science aimed at using evidence of change in wildlife populations, particularly birds, to inform the public, opinion-formers and environmental policy.  With their impressive track record in research and surveying, I confess I was slightly apprehensive about their detailed scrutiny of the survey methods we had been forced to put together at fairly short notice way back in 2002.

    Encouragingly, the methodology itself seemed to have stood the test of time pretty well as a means to assess the trends in the level of trapping.  The BTO will provide further feedback in due course with some suggested tweaks to improve the assessment of the levels of trapping within the SBA. Translating levels of trapping activity into the number of birds actually being caught is difficult.  But there seems little doubt that, at the very least, some hundreds of thousands of birds continue to be illegally trapped and I think all were agreed there is much more work to be done.

    Removal of non-native acacia used by the trappers on Cape Pyla

     

    It is hoped acacia clearance like this like will continue within the SBA

    Without doubt the most encouraging news was that the MOD was committing significant resources to the removal of some of the acacia.  On the Wednesday, I returned with a small party to one of the worst trapping areas on the notorious Cape Pyla.  In the heat of the day around a dozen contractors were engaged with heavy duty machinery in removing and chipping a large area of acacia.  One of the fieldworkers for BLC, who had been doing the arduous survey work for the last few years, was delighted to see some the most regularly abused trapping rides now being laid bare by the contractors.  Now at last the native vegetation would have the chance to recover and the opportunity to illegally trap thousands of migrants would be removed.

    Very recently it was announced that the SBA have put forward Cape Pyla as a potential Special Area of Conservation (SAC).  I understand there are some wonderful displays of spring flowers.   If this is implemented it will provide a further incentive for removal of the non-native acacia.  So it is to be hoped the MOD will continue with a determined effort to reduce the opportunities for the trappers and restore the environmental value of this area of the coastline.  At the same time, outside the SBA, it appears that an increased political will is desperately needed in the Cypriot Republic to tackle the demand for ambelopoulia.  Only then does it seem that millions of migrants will be free to cross this sunny island unmolested. 

  • How much for an eagle?

    What value you would put on a fantastic bird like a white-tailed eagle? 

    I suspect many would simply say priceless.  At the other extreme, a few misguided individuals may be all too eager to see these birds, and other similar species, removed off the face of our landscape.  I believe most people can appreciate the importance of protecting our environment, whether it be for the food, water, air and resources it provides, or purely for its aesthetic and intrinsic value and benefits for wildlife tourism and employment.

    However, putting a financial value on a free living animal or a piece of habitat would appear to be no easy thing.  However, in Finland it appears they have started to look at the value of the environment to society and introduced a form of environmental compensation legislation.  So the value of white-tailed eagle has been assessed as worth 6,400 euros.  Consequently the killing of this bird, or taking of its eggs, could make an individual liable to compensate society for the damage caused.  I am not entirely convinced about assigning values in this manner, but I suspect it certainly focuses the mind of some people about the environmental crimes they may be considering to commit.

    In 2009, I assisted the UK authorities with the start of an egg collecting enquiry that revealed a whole network of people involved in the illegal trading of birds’ eggs.  Some of these were egg thieves themselves, others happy to build their own collections from the criminal endeavours of such people.  Two men were convicted in the UK, both receiving suspended jail sentences.  The trading web, spread through the internet, reached to the US, Australia and also a little closer to home in Sweden.  Following information from the UK authorities, over 6,000 birds’ eggs were seized and in January 2014 three men in Sweden were sentenced for their part in this strange network of criminals.  One received a jail term of a year, the others substantial fines - see here.

    The Swedish authorities were assisted by experienced ornithologists, in the same way RSPB have long assisted the UK authorities.  Their knowledge helped bring a further individual in Finland in to the limelight and this led to another seizure of over 9000 birds’ eggs.  The Finnish authorities were supported in their enquiries by the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit.

     

    Birds ' eggs and other items seized in Finland in the autumn of 2011

    So after another long investigation and trial, on 20 February 2015 a Finnish man was convicted on charges relating to over 5,000 eggs.  He too received a jail term of a year.  However, it was the environmental compensation penalty of an eye-watering 250,000 euros that took centre stage.  Apparently the prosecutor had asked for over twice this sum.  As a business man, the defendant presumably has the assets to cover this, however it is perhaps no surprise he has since appealed.  Whatever, the merits of the Finnish approach, I believe there is no doubt that there is a need in all societies to find some mechanism to impress upon those committing environmental damage that their actions will not be tolerated and they will be held accountable.

    Here in the UK there are huge areas of the uplands, where, due to the selfish hands of a relative few, the landscape remains deprived of viable populations of some of our most spectacular and iconic birds of prey.  Catching a few of the responsible individuals every year, usually local gamekeepers, with the typical outcome of a modest fine has, it seems, for decades done little to affect the mindset of their often wealthy employers.

    However, in January this year Aberdeenshire gamekeeper George Mutch became the first person to receive actual custody for crimes against birds of prey.  A tragedy for him as an individual, but this is something that has unfortunately been coming as the catalogue of incidents has continued and public outcry has increased.  The managers and employers within the shooting industry who have been involved with these crimes appear to have ignored the signs; perhaps the chances of being held personally accountable were considered so low and they were aware that it was far more likely a member of staff would be the one to take the fall.  This conviction may at least last start to focus the minds of some individuals who have until now felt relatively secure behind the financial resources and status of their employers.  Perhaps some may start to question what their paymasters would ask of them.  I struggle to believe loyalty extends as far as a jail cell.

    I suspect even more relevant is that a month earlier in December 2014, Scotland saw the first conviction for an employer being held vicariously liable for a member of his staff who committed crimes against raptors.   It has been disappointing that there seems to be a distinct lack of appetite to bring in comparable legislation in other parts of the UK.  The incident also led to the landowner losing around £66,000 of agricultural subsidies, far more than any financial penalty likely to be imposed by a court.   Like many, I hope these parallel landmark events will now start to usher in a new era of accountability across the Scottish countryside.   The RSPB also believe a registration process for driven grouse shooting, where the most serious problems lie, should also be considered.  This could mean that crimes against raptors leading to the loss of the ability to run a shooting business for certain periods.  Such an approach to focus the minds of errant sporting estates would help build on the recent momentum and promote good practice and responsibility.

    Ultimately, only time will tell whether the priceless shadow of the eagle will fall more frequently across our land.

  • How bad does it have to get?

    On the 1 October 2014, at Norwich Magistrates Court, Allen Lambert, a gamekeeper formerly on the Stody Estate in Norfolk, was found guilty of two charges relating to the killing of 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk and possession of pesticides and other items to prepare poisoned baits.  He had earlier pleaded guilty to five charges relating to the possession of nine dead buzzards, possession and use of banned pesticides (mevinphos and aldicarb) and breach of a firearms certificate.  This was a really good team effort with Norfolk Constabulary supported by Natural England, HSE, Fera, NWCU, CPS, RSPB, RSPCA, BTO and local ornithologist Richard Porter..

    Today he was sentenced for those crimes. He received 10 weeks jail (suspended for a year) for poisoning 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk and 6 weeks jail (also suspended for a year) for possessing 9 dead buzzards and firearms offences. Lambert was ordered to pay £930 costs and a victim surcharge of £80. In sentencing, the District Judge Peter Veits criticised the running of shooting estates. He said, “Those who employ gamekeepers have a strict duty to know what is being done in their name and on their property. They also have a duty to ensure that their gamekeepers are properly trained and capable of keeping abreast of the complex laws relating to the use of poisons. “In other industries, employers as well as the employee could be facing prosecution in such cases and I hope therefore that this case can serve as a wakeup call to all who run estates as to their duties.” He added, “It is clear that the buzzard population in Norfolk is increasing and this is something to be applauded and not seen an inconvenience by those who choose to run shoots.”

    The case came to light in April 2013. Every year the RSPB receive hundreds of reports from the public about possible crimes against wild birds. Assessing these is not always easy and some well intentioned reports, such as a pile of dead raptors, turn out to be something quite innocent, like a pile of lawfully shot pheasants. However, on the 3 April 2013 a report of some 'dead buzzards' in a wood on the Stody Estate, near Holt in Norfolk sounded worth following up. On the following bitterly cold morning I left home just after 6.00 am and drove to Norfolk.

    Dead raptors found on the Stody Estate, Norfolk in April 2013 (G Shorrock RSPB)

     

    I went to a wood on the Stody estate and discovered the corpses of four buzzards, a sparrowhawk and a tawny owl. All but one appeared to have been left at one spot and things were looking very suspicious. It was clear pheasant rearing was taking place in the area. I collected all the carcases, carefully bagging and labeling them.  My next stop was the at RSPCA centre at East Winch. I was very lucky that the staff were able to squeeze my unannounced visit into their busy schedule. Their x-rays showed no obvious signs of the birds being shot. However, one of the fresher buzzard carcases clearly had food in it crop. Birds don’t normally die in the middle of a meal! I was immediately concerned that illegal poisoning may be involved.

    At least one of the x-rayed buzzards showed signs of food in the crop (G Shorrock RSPB)

    I contacted Dr Ed Blane at Natural England (NE). NE are involved with the HSE Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme which is set up to assess whether wild animals, pets and beneficial insects have been poisoned. This can range from the improper use of legal products through to the deliberate and indiscriminate placing of poison baits in the open countryside. Ed, with years of experience in this area, leapt into action and quickly contacted Norfolk Constabulary to arrange a follow up search on the Stody estate. In these sorts of case, there is often considerable benefit in prompt action and sometimes cases languish far too long without any meaningful action. I had a mad dash to drop off the corpses at the post-mortem laboratory in Bury St Edmunds then back up to Holt Police station where Ed had a small posse of eager police officers already assembled and briefed. Local enquiries had established that gamekeeper Charles Lambert was the gamekeeper on the Stody Estate.

    On arrival at Lambert’s home near Hunworth, he was not home, but arrived in his Landrover a few minutes later. The police and Natural England carefully outlined the process of the search that would take place. In his Landrover we soon found a small pesticide container. Ed, as usual, was suspicious and tipped out a small quantity for examination. It certainly wasn’t what it said on the tin, and we both immediately thought we had hit the jackpot as the product looked like a banned product which contained the highly toxic pesticide aldicarb. This was confirmed by later analysis by the government Fera laboratory. This agricultural product was withdrawn in 2007, though continues to feature in a number of wildlife poisoning cases. We also found between the front seats, and immediately to hand, a metal container of Phosdrin. This highly toxic insecticide contains the active ingredient mevinphos. This substance was banned way back in 1993 and was historically regularly abused for poisoning wildlife. Nearly two decades on, and despite government funded schemes to encourage the handing over of such unapproved products, this substance still turns up nearly every year in wildlife poisoning cases. We found two further containers of Phosdrin in his unlocked garage. Particularly significant was the presence of a syringe and a number of needles with one container; in the trade this is known as a ‘poisoner’s kit’ and typically used to inject a pesticide into a suitable bait such as eggs or carrion.

    Container of the banned pesticide mevinphos with a syringe and needles (G Shorrock RSPB)

    However, without doubt the most shocking find was the contents of a plastic bag on top of Lambert’s quad bike parked next to his Landrover. A quick peek inside was enough to know this was significant. So with the video camera rolling, Ed carefully emptied the contents onto polythene sheeting laid out on the ground. In total, the pitiful corpses of nine buzzards were laid out in a row. In all my years I had never seen anything like this, and was fully expecting the result that came back from the laboratory. All nine birds had been poisoned and tested positive for the banned pesticide mevinphos. I suspect these birds had been poisoned on the estate and cleared up by Lambert. The Fera laboratory also confirmed that at least one buzzard and one sparrowhawk I had picked up from the wood that morning also had been poisoned by mevinphos.  The forensic work done by Fera toxicologists , quietly tucked away in a laboratory near York, is absolutely essential and their rigorous attention to detail is the bedrock of all wildlife poisoning convictions and it is vital the government continue to support this work. 

    RSPB Investigations Officer with nine illegally poisoned buzzards found at Lambert's home (E Blane NE)

     

    Mr Lambert was interviewed and whilst admitting possession of the pesticides and the occasional illegal use for ‘a tricky fox’ or wasps, he denied poisoning any of the birds of prey we had recovered that day. My day finally finished at 04.15 am, some 22 hours since I had left home. A police Sergeant kindly lent me some blankets. In the old days I could probably have used an empty cell, however modern police stations don’t really cater for guests. So I grabbed a couple of hours under a desk in an empty office until some rather bemused cleaning staff found me.  As I returned home the following morning I reflected on a comment that Lambert had made during his interview when he suggested that 9 out of 10 gamekeepers in Norfolk would have Phosdrin (mevinphos) in their shed. Whilst I have no doubt this was a clear exaggeration, what is abundantly clear is that far too many gamekeepers, on far too many shooting estates, are still illegally keeping and using these sorts of products. It has been illegal to place poisoned baits in the countryside for just over 100 years, but the shooting industry has not really shown much signs of getting its house in order.

    The RSPB Birdcrime report for 2013 came out last week with the usual depressing catalogue of illegally poisoned, shot and trapped raptors. These are of course only the reported incidents, forming the tip of an undoubtedly very large iceberg. As usual it was not well received by parts of the shooting industry, who would no doubt prefer such information to be swept under the carpet. I believe it would be far more helpful if they expended their energies in trying to clean up the problems within their own industry. What about the enthusiastic fresh faced 16 years old trainee gamekeeper who arrives on an estate, simply wanting to do his job, and then placed in an impossible position where he feels he has no choice but to break the law or have no future employment? It is these people, at the start of what could be a very long career, who need to be set the right example and allowed to go about their lawful work.

    What Mr Lambert did was undoubtedly bad, but I believe he, and many others, are simply the product of an industry that has failed to give our wildlife and countryside the respect it deserves. How long do we have to suffer these antiquated, dangerous and inexcusable practices in our countryside? Another 100 years?

    The start of 2012 saw the introduction of vicarious liability in Scotland in an attempt to try to make managers and employers more accountable for the actions of their staff. Whilst far too early to know if this will be effective, it is a step in the right direction. Disappointingly, the government have failed to show any enthusiasm for bringing in similar legislation outside Scotland. We have seen the hen harrier become nearly extinct as a breeding species in England, despite habitat for over 300 pairs. Golden eagles, red kites and peregrines are still significantly affected by illegal persecution. What I would really like to know is just how bad do things have to get before the government will actually start standing up for nature. When will they start to create a climate, using suitable legislative and financial pressure, to make errant sporting estates start getting into line and really start making raptor persecution a thing of the past.

     Unfortunately, despite the insightful comments of the judge, I suspect we still have a very long way to go, and the deaths of many more raptors and other protected wildlife, before we turn a meaningful corner.

    Video of the discovery of the dead buzzards can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL8-1cyH3QY