Investigations

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Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • 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.

  • 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.