For over 20 years I’ve dealt with the dirty world of bird of prey persecution offences. In addition to dealing with a depressing catalogue of magnificent birds which have been shot, trapped and poisoned it has also provided an insight into why this problem won’t go away.
In the last couple of decades there has been much to celebrate with increases in buzzards and marsh harriers and successful re-introductions of red kites and white-tailed eagles. However, in the uplands of northern England and Scotland, where land is managed for red grouse shooting, the situation remains depressingly bleak. Species like golden eagles and hen harriers continue to be badly affected by illegal persecution. Last year a perilous four pairs of hen harriers bred in England, despite habitat for over 300.
My job is to try to get those persecuting raptors into court. Whilst very difficult crimes to investigate, the RSPB have been instrumental in many convictions. This has understandably made us rather unpopular with the criminal element within the shooting industry.
Just this month gamekeeper Glenn Brown from the High Peak Estate in Derbyshire lost his appeal at Derby Crown Court. This followed a conviction for the illegal use of a cage trap baited with a live pigeon (a ‘hawk trap’) after he was covertly filmed - see recent blog posts on the court case and appeal for all the details. His failed appeal brought his costs to an eye watering £17,000, though the defence bill for employing a QC would no doubt have already dwarfed that figure. It seems somewhat unlikely that Mr Brown will be covering these bills and is a sign of the resources available to fight these cases.
Held to account
So another gamekeeper in the dock, now over one hundred since 1990 for raptor persecution related crimes. Of those how many of their employers or managers have been held to account? – well none that I’m aware of. In many ways the gamekeeper is something of a fall guy. The gamekeeper is man who does the dirty work whilst those in charge keep their heads well and truly down. If caught, he will get a good defence, keep his job and probably have his fine paid. In return, he keeps those in charge out of the frame.
Gamekeepers themselves have told me that raptor persecution on upland grouse estates is routine and that it is something they are expected to do if they want to keep their jobs. I have no doubt it is the shooting industry itself, the managers and employers who run these wealthy shooting estates, who are at the root of this pernicious problem.
Much of the shooting world remains in denial about the extent of raptor persecution. It is this lack of accountability for those running the show which means catching a few gamekeepers every year has limited deterrent effect. Encouragingly, Scotland has taken a step forward and introduced new legislation and an offence of vicarious liability. This seeks to make managers and employers more accountable for the criminal actions of their staff – this has to be a step in the right direction.
What can you do to help?
An e-petition is currently running to try to persuade the government to adopt similar legislation in England. Please step up for nature and take just a moment and to sign the vicarious liability e-petition to add your support.
Despite over 50 years of legal protection there seem to be little sign of the shooting industry getting its house in order. It is about time those crouched behind the parapet are finally made to stand up and be held to account for the damage being inflicted on our countryside.
Have you ever been accused of something you haven’t done? When I say accused I mean directly, in front of others, repeatedly being told you’re unscrupulous and a liar in the strongest possible terms?
Imagine if the truth is the very opposite and that the only defence the aggressor has is to attack you and your credibility. Finally, imagine if it’s in your job description to expect it.
For the past 14 days, myself and three RSPB Investigations colleagues have been in this exact situation. Bertie Woodcock, the defence QC has dished it out without any recourse or single shred of proof, but why?
Because his gamekeeper client, Glenn Brown, was filmed in an undercover RSPB operation illegally operating a hawk trap baited with live pigeons in the Derwent Valley, Derbyshire. The same valley where the raptor population has suffered a catastrophic collapse since 2006, with only four goshawk nests being successful from the last 20 attempts.
If you believe the defence, with MI5-like credentials RSPB officers elaborately set the operation up, obtained one of Brown’s pigeons, put it in one of his cage traps, planted a dead sparrowhawk nearby, filmed the keeper apparently checking an empty trap. Then we convinced Derbyshire Police to raid the premises, after placing a ‘marked’ pigeon in the keeper’s pigeon loft awaiting its certain detection.
The simpler truth is far too inconvenient to some. Yet another gamekeeper persecuting raptors, in this case presumably to reduce grouse predation on a moor where the tennant showcases his commercial heather restoration.
Thankfully not so for Judge Goulbourn overseeing the first conviction (see her full judgement here) or Judge Watson who presided over the appeal.
So why does this happen? It’s because RSPB Investigations working with the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service is the only dedicated team able to pull off these complex gamekeeper- related investigations and convictions, making us an obvious target.
When attempting to protect your name runs up a legal bill of tens of thousands of pounds, it’s the biggest back-handed compliment to the RSPB and our supporters possible. Gamekeepers continue to be the fall guys, some being sacked, while the criminal elements in the shooting industry, who orchestrate these crimes, keep out of the limelight. Of over 100 gamekeepers convicted of raptor persecution offences since 1990 not one of their employers has had to face charges in a court room.
In Scotland, through the recently-introduced vicarious liability clause there may be a time when we see keepers and landowners in the dock together. We don’t have it in England yet but if you think we should then you can add your support here
So what next? We move on, we take the experience from this case and invest it along with our costs in the next operation, maybe in the Peak District again or elsewhere. After all, we have the element of surprise. Having filmed Brown's trap for an entire week at less than 30 feet we can do it, to save nature, watch this space!
Guy Shorrock, RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, reports on the latest scientific report which highlights the continuing threat to the peregrine falcon in the north of England
For millions of years the process of evolution has continued and shape and push life to achieve things that leaves us gasping in amazement and struggling to comprehend how such things are even possible. The peregrine falcon is one of those species which has pushed the evolutionary envelope. Holding the title of the fastest animal on the planet this is a bird that can come out of the heavens like a thunderbolt at speeds reputedly in excess of 200 mph.
Man has had a long history with this amazing bird. It has been used in falconry for more than 3,000 years, beginning with nomads in central Asia. Henry VIII made it a felony to take the eggs of birds of prey because of their value for falconry. In recent years the illegal taking of peregrines for falconry has been tackled by innovative forensic techniques such as DNA profiling.
The profile of the peregrine really came to the fore during the 1950s and 60s. Due to our use of organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, and their accumulation in the food chain. In several parts of the world, such as the eastern United States, this species became locally extinct and the peregrine became an endangered species. The global collapse of the peregrine population helped alert the world to the implications of these chemicals in our food chain and the recovery of the species has been something of a cause célèbre amongst conservationists.
Unfortunately, the prowess of this astonishing bird is not appreciated by everyone. In recent years, there has been an increasing conflict with some members of the pigeon racing community. Despite research showing the major losses of racing pigeons are not due to predation by raptors, species like the peregrine have suffered from at the hands of individuals taking the law into their own hands.
However, undoubtedly the main problem for the peregrines in the UK remains its unpopularity on many upland estates managed for red grouse shooting. Every year we receive reports of peregrines being illegally shot, trapped and poisoned. We have no doubt these reported incidents can only ever be the tip of the iceberg of what actually takes place.
Last week the RSPB launched its annual Birdcrime report for 2010. As usual the shooting community were quick to challenge RSPB figures and downplay the extent of the problem. We believe the shooting industry must be fully aware of the scale of persecution. Whilst the gamekeeper is the man who typically ends up in court, we believe it is the managers and employers lurking in the background who allow and direct their staff to commit these criminal acts on their behalf who are the real culprits. In 2012, Scotland is set to introduce an offence of vicarious liability to try to make these individuals more accountable for what take places on the land they manage and the actions of their staff.
Whilst the few crimes that are discovered give us a good insight into where these offences are being committed and the occupations of those involved, it can only ever provide a narrow window to view what is really taking place.
In the UK we are fortunate to have a dedicated network of volunteers, Raptor Study Group Workers, who are involved in monitoring the populations of many birds of prey. The data gathered by such people has been put to increasing use and in recent years a succession of peer-reviewed scientific papers has provided a disturbing insight into the levels and impact of human persecution on raptors. Research on species such as golden eagle and hen harrier have confirmed the profound affect of persecution associated with land managed for red grouse shooting.
The most recent study looking at peregrine breeding success in the north of England has just been published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation. This has revealed the shocking extent of persecution of peregrines that attempt to nest on England’s grouse moors.
The paper was jointly produced by RSPB and the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF), who coordinate raptor monitoring work across the north of England. The study used Google Earth to map the characteristic 'strip burning' that is typical of moorland managed for intensive grouse shooting. This map was then combined with nearly three decades of nest monitoring information that had been collected by the teams of dedicated volunteers. Breeding success of peregrines breeding on grouse moors was half that of other habitats. Only a third of nests produced young on grouse moors and the higher levels of breeding failure meant that peregrine populations on grouse moors were not self-sustaining. Regional extinction was only prevented by the immigration of birds reared from more productive nest sites away from grouse moors.
The study also looked at all the distribution of confirmed and probable incidents of peregrine persecution between 1990 and 2006 across the study areas in northern England. It found that these incidents occurred far more frequently on grouse moors than on other habitats, despite there being more pairs breeding away from grouse moors.
So there you have it, if peregrines only chose to nest on grouse moors they would rapidly become extinct. It will be interesting to see how the shooting community react to yet another piece of scientific work clearly spelling out what is happening in our uplands.
The Government has already identified bird of prey persecution as one of its six wildlife crime priorities and earlier this year, it added peregrine to the list of priority species. This was a welcome decision which this study fully indicates. Unfortunately, there has been little real progress in tackling bird of prey crime. The government need to find ways to put pressure on the shooting industry to reduce the level of offending. Species like the hen harrier with just a few pairs left in northern England, despite habitat for over 300 pairs, are desperately in need of such help. The RSPB 2010 Birdcrime report has identified a series of areas where Government needs to step up to address illegal persecution of birds of prey and secure the future of our raptors.
The peregrine may be the fastest creature on the planet, but unfortunately still not fast enough to escape the hand of man in large parts of our uplands.
ROLL UP, ROLL UP, READ ALL ABOUT IT!!
The latest edition of LEGAL EAGLE - the RSPB Investigations team newsletter is out!
A round up of stories and features from the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime – a collaboration of the organisations involved in wildlife law enforcement across the UK.
Check out the latest top stories such as:
The new vicarious liability laws introduced to Scotland and Northern Ireland to help protect birds of prey
Gamekeeper caught red handed with poison bait on the Leadhills Estate
Horrific numbers of songbirds trapped for the restaurant trade in Sardina
Fox found dead in illegal drag snare in Scottish woodland
Bird keepers warned “You must have your documents!”
Falcon smuggler Jeffrey Lendrum jailed last August has his sentence cut
Operation Seal cages animal fight organizers in Northumberland
Jail for Merseyside gull killer
Meet our new intelligence manager Helen Mason & Lancashire Polices new Wildlife Crime Officer Mark Thomas…no not that one!
The full document is available HERE - Please forward to friends and spread the word.
After a steep climb through dense forest, the stark reality was that we were face to face with a hawk trap, calculated to catch one of the most magnificent bird of prey on the planet, the goshawk. And all within a stone's throw of thousands of tourists, enjoying the splendour of the most popular national park in the world.
Our pre-dawn arrival was full of stealth and purpose: a covert camera was quickly deployed and we watched from the shadows.
Shortly after eight, we heard the distinctive snapping of branches underfoot and a figure began moving through the trees towards the trap. Once in full view, a combination of his distinctive appearance and the fact he was carrying a gun gave away his identity and motive. It was Glenn Brown, a gamekeeper on National Trust land since 2006.
The cage trap was the size of a garden shed, made of wood and mesh and containing a funnel entrance through which the target species could enter on a one-way ticket. The trap is legal when used with a live crow or magpie decoy, but most certainly not when the sacrificial prey is a live domestic white pigeon - the equivalent of Christmas dinner for a goshawk.
We watched him approach the cage, immediately checking for the pigeon which at once radiated life and blissful ignorance. The disappointment on Brown's face was clearly visible - no raptors today.
He returned the next day, same time: status quo, the pigeon was still alive, the raptor count was nil. The evidence of a previous day's campaign was all around, hundreds of white pigeon feathers strewn the bottom of the trap and the bodies of a white pigeon and a sparrowhawk lurking nearby. The underside of the sparrowhawk's tail was caked in faeces, a clear sign of its recent confinement in the trap.
On Saturday morning the situation changed suddenly. The covert camera caught the usual arrival, just after 8 am, but this time it was a camouflaged man wearing a full-face balaclava. His actions were deliberate and decisive, the white pigeon was released and the trap skilfully disarmed. Weekends are manic in this valley - tourists delve in to even the most unlikely places - and it was just too much of a risk.
At that moment, the white pigeon was the most important bird in the valley; it was the transporter of vital evidence, as its wings had been marked in a unique way by the RSPB.
The satisfaction was audible when three days later it was discovered in the pigeon loft of nearby gamekeeper Glenn Brown during a Derbyshire Police search warrant. Its homing instincts were as primeval as the glint in the eye of the goshawk we had just saved.
What happened in court?
Yesterday, after a 10-day trial, gamekeeper Glenn Brown was found guilty on all seven counts relating to this incident.
District Judge Goulbourn said: 'This was a serious offence against wildlife' and handed down a one-year community sentence and ordered Brown to pay costs of £10,000.
This has been one of the longest trials RSPB have ever been involved in and we thank Derbyshire Police, the CPS and barrister Rod Chapman for their support.
There is history in this the Upper Derwent Valley. A previous gamekeeper was prosecuted for destroying the eggs within an active goshawk nest in 2002.
Since 2006, goshawk and peregrine productivity has collapsed. There has been only one successful goshawk nest from 20 attempts, pointing to undoubted systematic and relentless persecution.
Our work here needs to continue. We need your support.