Scottish ministers’ attempts to defeat wildlife crime are unraveling as gamekeepers boycott government meetings and another prosecution over dead birds of prey is abandoned.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has pulled out of meetings of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime in Scotland (PAWS) because it doesn’t trust wildlife campaigners.

The Crown Office has decided not to begin proceedings on a case involving three allegedly poisoned buzzards on a Perthshire estate. This is the fourth case of alleged raptor persecution to be dropped in the last month.

These new developments in the long and bitter battle over the illegal killing of buzzards, kites, hawks, falcons and eagles put mounting pressure on ministers to get tougher. A petition to license game bird shooting is due to be considered by MSPs at Holyrood on 23 May.

Wildlife campaigners say that licensing is now needed because the justice system is failing to protect birds of prey. Landowners, however, argue for more preventative measures and accuse campaigners of exaggerating the extent of raptor persecution.

Birds of prey are protected by law because they are seen as important and endangered. But they can prey on grouse and reduce the numbers available to be shot by paying visitors to country estates.

Between 2010-2015, 73 birds of prey were official recorded as poisoned in Scotland. In 2014-15 the police reported 18 incidents in which buzzards, red kites, peregrine falcons, hen harriers and others were shot, poisoned or otherwise illegally persecuted.

Recorded bird of prey crimes in Scotland 2014-15

datebirdpolice areacrime
April 2014buzzardDumfries and Gallowaytaking a bird
April 2014peregrineForth Valleyshooting
April 2014buzzardFifepoisoning
May 2014goshawkAberdeenshire and Morayattempt to disturb and kill
May 2014hen harrierAyrshireshooting
June 2014buzzardForth Valleyshooting
June 2014golden eagleArgyll and West Dunbartonshiredisturbance
July 2014red kiteHighlands and Islandsshooting
July 2014red kiteForth Valleypoisoning
Sept 2014peregrineLothians and Scottish Bordersshooting
Sept 2014unknownLothians and Scottish Bordersattempted trapping
Sept 2014red kiteHighlands and Islandspoisoning
Oct 2014buzzardTaysideshooting
Oct 2014buzzardLothians and Scottish Bordersshooting
Dec 2014tawny owlLothians and Scottish Bordersshooting
Jan 2015peregrineForth Valleypoisoning
Jan 2015red kiteTaysidepoisoning
March 2015buzzardTaysidepoisoning
Source: Police Scotland

PAWS was set up in its current form by Scottish ministers in 2009 to bring together stakeholders to tackle wildlife crime. But the SGA, which represents gamekeepers from estates across Scotland, has now decided to stop attending meetings.

SGA representatives say they will not turn up until methods of partnership working have been reviewed. Relations between the SGA and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) on PAWS have become increasingly strained in recent months as each accused the other of wrongdoing.

“If the trust element is lacking, it makes it hard to sit around the table in a constructive way so hopefully these matters can be resolved,” said an SGA spokesman.

“We understand there is an appetite to review how PAWS operates, and how partners work together within the group. This is what we would like to see and hope to be part of those discussions in order to move forward in trust.”

He stressed that SGA had not left PAWS, and would continue to work with the government and the police. “We are proud of the partnership’s role in reducing wildlife crime in this country and we believe it to be the best vehicle through which to tackle that issue,” he said.

“There are few largely voluntary member organisations within PAWS who have committed more time to tackling wildlife crime in recent years than ourselves. We will continue to devote that time in future years to ensure further significant reductions in such crimes.”

RSPB Scotland stressed that it had tried for years to work collaboratively with SGA to prevent crimes against birds of prey. “Regrettably, their approach has repeatedly been to deny that these crimes are taking place, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” said the group’s head of investigations, Ian Thomson.

“The SGA should consider very carefully what message their withdrawal sends out to the Scottish public about their real commitment to working with partners to stamp out the wildlife crime.”

In March the Scottish Parliament’s environment committee warned of “alarming mistrust” between SGA and RSPB Scotland. “PAWS has a crucial role to play in tackling wildlife crime,” said the committee’s convener, SNP MSP Graeme Dey.

“That’s why we must have greater partnership working between all organisations if we’re to see an end to the brutal killing and attacks against wildlife.”

The SNP’s former environment minister, Richard Lochhead MSP, pressed gamekeepers to go back to the table. “I’d urge the gamekeepers and everyone else to work with the partnership to be part of the solution,” he said.

The row comes against a background of rising concern about repeated failures to prosecute bird of prey cases. The Crown Office has recently dropped three cases, one that attempted to make a landowner vicariously liable and two because video evidence was ruled inadmissible.

Now the Crown Office has rejected a police plea for prosecution after three allegedly poisoned buzzards were found at Edradynate estate near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. “The Procurator Fiscal received a report concerning a 66-year-old man, in relation to alleged incidents between 18 March and 4 June 2015,” said a Crown Office spokesman.

“Following full and careful consideration of the facts and circumstances of the case, including the available admissible evidence, the Procurator Fiscal decided that there should be no proceedings taken at this time. The Crown reserves the right to proceed in the future should further evidence become available.”

The accused is understood to have left employment at Edradynate, but the collapse of the case has infuriated RSPB Scotland. “We are exceedingly frustrated and disappointed that again a case with substantive and first-rate evidence is not going to be tested in court,” said Thomson.

“This latest decision adds to our serious and growing concern that the justice system is failing Scotland’s birds of prey and strongly suggests that these laws are becoming impossible to enforce.”

The Crown Office stressed that it was committed to the rigorous, fair and independent prosecution of wildlife crime. It had to strike a balance between enabling justice and protecting the public from invasions of their liberties.

Discussions with RSPB Scotland about the use of covert surveillance were continuing, said the Crown Office spokesman. “The Crown has consistently made clear the limitations which the law places on the admissibility of evidence which has been obtained irregularly.”

Holyrood’s environment committee has written to the Crown Office “seeking clarity on the use of video evidence in helping to bring alleged criminals to justice.” Lochhead is also due to meet the environment minister Roseanna Cunningham on 24 May, saying that “nothing should be ruled out at this stage” in the fight against wildlife crime.

According to the retired wildlife police officer, Alan Stewart, three previous cases involving alleged offences at Edradynate had been abandoned because of the lack of evidence to identify of the culprit. “Identifying a person who sets out a poisoned bait is always extremely difficult,” he said.

“There must be another sanction against shooting estates and their employees where wildlife crime is clearly taking place. Licensing of shoots is the next clear step with licences being able to be withdrawn for a period of years.”

The Scottish Government is soon to publish a report on satellite-tagged birds of prey that have gone missing. “We will bring forward further measures to deal with wildlife crime when we judge it to be required, including, potentially, further regulation of those areas and activities that are threatening raptor species in Scotland,” said a government spokesman.

Landowners highlighted criticisms of RSPB’s “unilateral covert surveillance” and the strict penalties that already exist for wildlife crime. “These should be complemented by increased preventative measures, education and training,” said David Johnstone, the chairman of Scottish Land and Estates.

“Preventative measures adopted widely by estates – such as stricter employment contracts and training regimes – have had a significant impact on the reduction of wildlife crime. We would urge RSPB to work more closely and constructively with other industry organisations.”

Johnstone rejected an RSPB assertion that crime was endemic on sporting estates, arguing that it had declined in recent years. “We accept wildlife crime happens,” he added. “Where there is sufficient and appropriate evidence of wrongdoing people should be prosecuted.”

Birds of prey confirmed poisoned in Scotland 2010-15

birdnumber
total73
buzzards30
red kites26
golden eagles7
peregrine falcons6
sparrowhawks3
white-tailed eagle1
Source: Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA)

A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 21 May 2017.

Photo thanks to Paul Wordingham, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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