Well done RSPB, and the week ahead

Well  done RSPB!

In my Birdwatch column, the political birder, for March I wrote about the e-petition started by Chrissie Harper which asks for the law in England to be brought into line with those in Scotland in respect of vicarious liability for wildlife offences.

Vicarious liability is an unfamiliar phrase for those of us who are not legally trained but it means that employers, such as landowners, would share the responsibility with their employees, such as gamekeepers, if the employees broke wildlife laws in the course of their work.  Similar responsibility exists for things like health and safety so it’s hardly a new idea without any precedent.

It is my opinion that we need such a tweak to the legal system to recognise that the poor old gamekeeper, dependent on the landowner for his wages, house and livelihood, may be the person who pulls the trigger or puts out the poison but it is the landowner who often requires these deeds to be done.  Of course, there is nothing in writing, it’s not in the keeper’s contract but that’s hardly surprising since we are talking about crimes.

All praise to Chrissie Harper, who is quite a character, for kicking off the e-petition and a further ‘well done’ to the Hawk and Owl Trust for their strong support.

There have been murmerings and rumblings about what the RSPB is doing on this subject so I was pleased to be able to report in my Birdwatch column that the RSPB were fully behind the e-petition.   Martin Harper, the RSPB Conservation Director told me that  ‘the RSPB fully supports the petition‘ that the RSPB ‘do plan to promote (it) to our members‘ and that the RSPB ‘hope and expect to exceed the 100,000 threshold to trigger a parliamentary debate‘.

Well done RSPB!  And all that is very good news as the e-petition is currently hovering at around 8000 signatures, despite Chrissie’s very good work, and so it stands 92,000 short of that magical 100,000 figure. It’s good that the RSPB has nailed its colours to the bird of prey mast – hardly surprising though – but it will require a good deal of effort to get that figure across the 100,000 finishing line by November this year.  So, please do sign the e-petition here and now so that the RSPB has a smaller task in the future.

It’s perhaps not surprising, although it is very disappointing, that the biodiversity minister, Richard Benyon, himself a landowner with a gamekeeper, is not keen on vicarious liability.  As I say, it is disappointing as I’m sure Richard himself and his keeper have nothing to fear, but it looks a little as though he is defending his fellow landowners from his Ministerial position.

When the Minister was asked about this subject in the House of Commons by Labour’s Angela Smith MP, who knows a thing or two about raptor persecution as she has some of the Peak District in her constituency, Mr Benyon said ‘this is also a good opportunity to applaud gamekeepers for the wonderful work they do in providing excellent biodiversity across our countryside.’.

It is notable that two out of four current Defra ministers, Mr Benyon and James Paice, are former trustees of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.  The GWCT itself has an impeccable record of speaking out against illegal persecution of birds of prey and yet scattered among its many supporters and funders I’d be very surprised if you didn’t find some who loathe birds of prey and a few who take that loathing as far as illegal activity.

So we might struggle to find keen supporters of vicarious liability for wildlife crimes amongst the landowners of the hunting, shooting and fishing sector of the Tory party.  If there are any large landowners out there who support this legal change then do, please, make yourselves known and I will shout your praises from this blog.

What then, of the Labour Party?  If the landed toffs are a bit reticent about a legal change that might, just might, see some of their mates facing questions in court then where is the working man’s and woman’s party on this subject?  Surely the working class gamekeeper should not take all the blame when carrying out the orders of his rich employer? I’ll try to find out and let you know.

Please sign this e-petition and get your friends to sign up too.
The week ahead!

This week is the week of the Cheltenham Festival so I have lined up some Guest Blogs to help see us through the week. It’s a bit like Roman Abramovich has ‘guest’ Chelsea managers for a day or so (without the money, glamour or football).

Tuesday – as every little helps with a week of racing you can read Matt Williams’s thoughts on the RSPB/TESCO relationship.

Wednesday – Andrew Lucas writes about climate change and travel to see wildlife

Thursday – is Ladies’ day at Cheltenham and here too, and that’s a bit of an issue according to Sue Walker

Friday – I may be running out of money and energy at the races but Leo Fisher  will be writing about renewable energy here.

Enjoy – and wish me ‘luck’!


15 Replies to “Well done RSPB, and the week ahead”

  1. There’s a useful overview of vicarious liability on the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog that discusses who might be in the firing line and under what circumstances: http://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/vicarious-liability-whats-it-all-about/

    Although I’m really pleased to see Scot Gov bring in this new legislation (because by doing so they are acknowledging that raptor persecution is still a serious problem), I’m not convinced that it will address the problem any more effectively than the current legislation. I think the new legislation still misses the crucial element – that is, identifying the individual who committed the offence in the first place (for the offence of VL, the prosecution first has to show that a specific individual was responsible for the original offence).

    All too often we are seeing cases fail even when there seems to be irrefutable evidence, because the prosecution hasn’t been able to show that it was a specific individual responsible. Quite often in poisoning cases, traces of the banned poison that was used to kill the raptor(s) have been detected on gamekeepers’ bags, knives or inside their vehicles, but the defence is always ‘Oh, we have several gamekeepers and they all share this equipment so it’s not possible to identify the individual responsible’.

    Other examples, where the identity of the individual responsible seems to be less of a mystery and yet still the cases fail include the recent Skibo and Moy cases. At Skibo, the sporting manager was convicted of being in possession of 10.5 kg of carbofuran (inside a locked shed to which only he had access), and yet he wasn’t charged with the poisoning of three dead golden eagles found on Skibo Estate. At Moy, the gamekeeper was convicted only of possession of a dead red kite (found in the back of the Landrover he was driving). This kite had two broken legs (injuries consistent with being caught in a spring trap) and had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument. Elsewhere on the estate, investigators found spring traps baited and set in the open, dismembered red kite body parts and wing tags hidden inside holes under moss, poison bait, and a live hen harrier caught by the leg in a spring trap. The gamekeeper also had four golden eagle leg rings in his possession that could be traced back to four eaglets ringed in previous years across Scotland. The gamekeeper wasn’t charged with any of these offences.

    If charges were not brought in cases like these, what chance for any other case? Even if these two individuals were found not guilty, at least the court would have had the chance to examine the evidence.

    It seems to me that Scot Gov has missed the point. It’s not the legislation that needs to be beefed up; the real problem lies with the effective enforcement of the existing legislation.

    1. Ruth
      The examples you give are extremely depressing and you are clearly correct in suggesting that a vicarious liability law will not by itself solve the problem of raptor persecution on shooting estates. I do believe that it can represent an important part of the armoury to be deployed in fighting this problem, however – at least once the problems you highlight have also been addressed.
      In the Skibo and Moy cases there seems to have been an inexplicable reluctance to prosecute anybody at all despite there apparently being a lot of evidence that would seem to have had a very good chance of persuading a court of guilt and it is hard to understand why both keeper and employer could not have been prosecuted in these cases. As with other crimes that have suffered from a historical reluctance by the authorities to investigate/prosecute we perhaps have to maintain pressure on the Police and Crown Prosecution Service to take raptor persecution much more seriously.
      More generally , I wonder if England could frame its own VL law differently to avoid the problem you highlight of having to identify the person who actually perpetrated the crime. Perhaps a legally qualified person could comment on whether the Scottish law just happens to be framed that way or whether a fundamental underlying legal principle dictates that it must be framed that way?

      1. I agree Jonathan, if the problem I’ve highlighted is addressed then VL may well prove to be a useful tool, but until that problem is addressed, VL is useless.

        I do understand, sort of, why the individual needs to be identified, because otherwise the land owner could be susceptible to malicious ‘planting of evidence’ by someone who holds a grudge against him/her. But when the evidence seems as clear cut as in the Skibo and Moy cases (and these are not exceptional cases – I just used them because they were high profile) and STILL charges are not brought against them, then the issue will never be solved. At the moment, the lack of enforcement just makes the whole thing look like an absurd pantomime.

  2. I like the idea of vicarious liability, and I think it should be extended to all who participate at any level in any activity where animals are put at risk or killed.

    Have a nice time at Cheltenham, Mark.

  3. Well done Mark,you do a really good job highlighting the petition and telling us the RSPBs promise.It will need a massive effort by them and if successful they deserve lots of praise as well as Chrissie of course
    Ruth —-a lot of what you say of course is true and we probably all recognise that even this petition will only help to prevent persecution.The actual part of catching someone in the act is almost impossible to improve without massive resources that will never be available,anything that helps must be welcomed.

    1. Dennis, there is an opportunity to increase the resources massively. SSPCA has offered to provide 70-odd trained inspectors, free of charge, to join the fight. For this to happen, their powers of investigation need to be expanded (they can and already do prosecute certain animal welfare offences, but I think they’re restricted to cases where the animal is still alive). This offer was put forward to the Scottish Parliament during the WANE Bill debate, but was rejected at that time. However, I understand that the gov is about to start a public consultation on the issue and hopefully, given diminishing police resources and the excellent reputation of the SSPCA, these extended powers will be granted. THEN we might start to see some improvement in enforcement, and THEN VL might become more relevant.

  4. Well said Ruth. Vicarious liability is only a small part in tackling this issue and there does seem to be a real reluctance (and difficulty) to bring charges and ultimately convict. Sadly the debate surrounding gamekeepers and those who perpetrate these crimes rumbles on while raptors continue to suffer.

  5. Ruth—-that is a very interesting comment.I admire the SSPCA more than I could ever explain but surely they need no ones permission to put extra inspectors on the case they just ought to get out there and do it.Of course tougher laws would help them but they could still do good work within existing laws.
    Of course any improvement in making tougher laws most welcome but particularly in England,Wales and N Ireland that this e-petition apply’s to I understand it is very difficult to get tougher laws on anything.

  6. There are several things wrong with his petition
    1/ Most people do not understand what the hell it is all about !
    2/ Most people have never heard of Chrissie harper , a higher profile personality would have drawn more votes
    3/Is it fair to prosecute a land owner/employer for something that a possibly insane employee may carry out
    4/ Organisations like the RSPB say that they support the petition , but then do not appear to do anything about it

    1. Point 3: That’s the weakness. I like the principle of VL but in practice it would be a gift to anyone with malice against the employer – so it would be bad law. Unless it extended to anyone who lobbied for it being vicariously liable for any malicious falsehood which resulted.

  7. Whilst I have signed the petition, as should we all I’m not sure that it is the great step forward we all hope and Our raptors certainly need the help. Back in the days when land owners thought something simialr was in the offing they gave their keepers and agents written leeters instructing them that the law maust be obeyed at all times but verbal instructions to carry on as normal. Would such letters now get them of the vicarious liability hook I wonder? I’ve always favoured the licenced shoot and keeper, although I recognise the greater difficulty of getting this idea anywhere near legislation. One thing that always strikes me in these debates is any other pastime or indeed business that relied on such routine and widespread criminality would have a very short life expectancy. Whaever the law we need and should expect much better enforcement so the SSPCA idea is to be hugely welcomed.

  8. Mark Vicarious Liability is only one small step in the right direction. It will be very interesting to see how the first case in Scotland is handled and how it’s defended. What we also need now as a matter of some urgency is a licensing system enforced robustly. Where evidence shows nesting attempts continue to fail un-naturally and on a regular basis, then any estate affected should loose their licence preventing shooting for a pre determined length of time (a minimum of two years to begin with), until raptors begin to breed once again in those regions without persecuted.

    Terry Pickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

  9. DavidH—your second point is obviously correct but we need to give Chrissie credit for doing what the higher profile people either did not think about,have the guts to do,or want to appear all things to all people.
    Bet Chrissie would love a high profile person(s) to give it a big boost,where are they hiding,they must know about it.

  10. Pingback: RSPB confirm their complete support for the Vicarious Liability e-petition | Raptor Politics
  11. Many of the above comments are correct but it is no good sitting on our backsides being negative, from small acorns mighty oaks grow, so I am not famous, niether do I want to be, although I am well respected in the owl world, it is because nobody wanted to go ahead with this e-petition that I decided to start it and because I care for our raptors and doing nothing is not an option. I run a rescue and have committed my life to the care and conservation of these birds and will continue to do so, Paul Irving is correct we should all sign it because if we don’t it will give out the message that we don’t care and nothing will be done so this petition is a step on the ladder. Mr. Benyon’s comments about our raptors having adequate laws to protect them would be right if these laws could be enforced but sadly in many cases they can’t because of the sheer size of the land where it happens and the lack of Wildlife Crime Officers to control the persecution, so it seems it is up to people like us to send out a message to the government that we will not tolerate these crimes.
    Yes Dennis I would love someone like Chris Packham who has spoken out with regard to this matter to help me promote my petition and there are others out there but unless they come forward then I will have to continue as best I can.
    I would like to thank Mark Avery who is working hard to help with this e-petition and also the many friends who are also posting it and sharing it, I have recieved a letter from a large school that I visited with some owls in the week who are also going to promote the petition through their web site and school newsletter and I am visiting many schools during the next few months so will continue to promote it on my visits.
    David H you don’t need to be famous to do something worth while and positive you just have to have the passion and drive to get up and help something that you believe in, I hope you are doing just that by spreading the word.

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