Friday, 15 February 2013

New laws to help hunted hunters?

Nobody likes birds of prey being persecuted. Now, following Scotland’s introduction last year of legislation making landowners responsible for actions by their employees, including gamekeepers, the RSPB has submitted a response to the Law Commission’s review of wildlife law in England and Wales which includes strong support for the introduction of a similar criminal vicarious liability law.

The Scottish Parliament took action following a number of high profile cases where golden eagles had been poisoned. Between 1989 and 2011, the RSPB calculated, at least, 50 of these iconic birds had been shot or poisoned. The majority of deaths occurred in the central, northern and southern Highlands, where driven grouse shooting is far more commercially viable than in other regions of the country. 

Over the border, grouse shooting is also driving the hen harrier, one of England’s best-known birds of prey, towards extinction. Ornithologists have long enjoyed the sky dancing courtship displays by the male, a beautiful pearly grey with distinctive black wingtips and smaller than the rich brown coloured female with a distinctive white rump.

Yet with less than 10 pairs breeding annually its future remains uncertain. That’s despite “a 2011 report by the JNCC estimating that England’s uplands and moorlands could support 323 pairs” reports Jude Lane, the RSPB’s project officer on the United Utilities’ Forest of Bowland 24,000 acre estate near Clitheroe. On this the RSPB, the water company and their upland hill farming and grouse shooting tenants have collaborated to protect the hen harrier since 1982. 

Hen harriers have bred on the estate in varying numbers since they returned to Bowland in the late 60s. “In 2011 there were seven nesting attempts, of which four were successful and 12 birds were reared,” explains Jude.

But the 2012 breeding season turned out to be disastrous for the hen harrier, with no nesting attempts in the Forest of Bowland and only one successful nest in all of England. It was also marred by one of the twelve young that fledged the previous year being found dead on a grouse moor in North Yorkshire after the satellite tracker she was fitted with indicated something was wrong. Detailed forensic analysis concluded she had been shot.

Bowland Forest, once a royal hunting ground, is an area of deep valleys and barren gritstone fells. Its blanket bog and heather moorland habitat is perfect not only for hen harriers but also the Red Grouse. The latter are specially reared for shooting. Bags of between eighty and two hundred a day are offered for those who can afford to pay from £160 to £1,500.  

The Duke of Westminster’s 19,000-acre Abbeystead estate in Bowland Forest holds the record for a single days shoot, when 2929 grouse were shot on August 12 1915. Today, the estate organises around 30 shoots annually and visitors are helped get there by road signs depicting a hen harrier. Not that anyone would see any such bird on the Duke’s land, even though the habitat is no different to that of the nearby United Utilities estate. On Dartmoor and Exmoor in southwest England it’s a similar story, plenty of grouse but few hen harriers. 

Landowners deny killing hen harriers and the British association for shooting and conservation has promised to expel any of its members found guilty of doing so. Proving that has been the case isn’t easy. It was the RSPB’s work that helped establish wildlife crime (police) officer’s posts and they have long campaigned for more. Yet even those appointed “usually do it part-time, with cases at the edge of their desk,” says Bob Elliot, head of investigations at the RSPB, which is the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe with over one million members and 17,600 volunteers. 

As such the majority of the reported incidents - totalling 202 in 2011 - of illegal shooting, trapping and nest destruction of birds of prey are the result of initial reports from members of the organisation. Two-thirds originated in England and a quarter in Scotland. The RSPB believes the number of unreported incidents is likely to be considerably higher.

Prosecutions are relatively rare. In 2011 there were only 42 individual cases totalling 152 charges, with 137 proven. Just 13 people went to prison.  Elliot wants prosecutions to drop but “only if people change their behaviour such that we see rare species re-occupying spaces they should be in.” 

The wildlife and natural environment (Scotland) act 2011 came into operation in Scotland on January 1st last year. Elliot has seen it force a review of practices at some shooting locations, with land owners and managers required to show they did not know about a wildlife bird crime and took all reasonable steps and due diligence to prevent it. New snaring provisions mean operators are required to successfully complete a training course. Snares now require fitting with an ID tag and number. 

Elliot also reports that there has been a dramatic drop in poisoning figures in Scotland in 2012 and he hopes the new legislation is the reason for this.  As a result, whilst the RSPB is neutral on shooting, Elliot believes, “with these beautiful birds continuing to be killed it is time for the UK government to follow Scotland and adopt similar legislation.”  

Meanwhile, with the hen harrier on the brink of extinction, Elliot is also desperate to see the government implement an emergency recovery plan.  

“Birds of prey such as the Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Red Kite, Goshawk, White-tailed eagle are stunning species and part of our natural heritage. They have existed for thousands of years and have as much right as ourselves to exist” says Jude Lane.  

The Law Commission is due to report its findings from the public consultation to Defra in Spring, with the intention to publish a final report with recommendations and draft bill by mid-2014. 

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