The RSPB Investigations team assists the statutory agencies to investigate crimes against wild birds in the UK.
Staff are based at the UK headquarters, Scottish headquarters and the Northern England Regional Office.
This blog will be used to keep you informed on key issues and court case results on a regular basis, but for legal reasons, we may only be able to report on certain aspects of our work.
If you witness a crime against a wild bird and wish to report this to the RSPB, please e-mail: email@example.com or use the online form at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reportacrime
For the past three summers, the RSPB has become increasingly concerned about razorbill and guillemot deaths reportedly caused by the birds drowning in fishing nets set for salmon and sea trout in Filey Bay, North Yorkshire.
If left unchecked, this has the potential to be a huge conservation issue, particularly considering the dying birds are most likely coming from the nearby, internationally important RSPB Bempton Cliffs seabird colony, so in early 2008 we engaged in discussions with Natural England and the Environment Agency (EA), who license the fishery.
Encouragingly, a threshold system was adopted whereby when a certain number of birds were being caught per week, a voluntary ban would come into force and fishing would stop for 14 days. The fishermen at Filey, who in total operate six licensed nets, all agreed to report seabird bycatch to a co-ordinator employed by the EA.
Faced with concerns of cruelty and that the true level of bycatch was not being fully reported, RSPB Investigations undertook covert evidence gathering at Filey on 13 and 17 June 2008. Investigations Officer Mark Thomas takes up the account of what he uncovered.
“It was a cold, grey 4 am dawn. The smell of yesterday’s fish and chips spiralled around the seafront in the onshore breeze, while a single dog walker cut a lonely figure on the beach.
Binoculars slowly lifted to the eyes brought a truth to last night’s dreams. There, barely offshore, was a thin, snaking line marking the top of an otherwise invisible fishing net below the water. Either side of this line, I could make out numerous black objects floating on the surface. Each object lifted gracefully every few seconds with the incoming waves.
In detail, there was nothing at all graceful about these blobs. They were the sharp, pointed wingtips of dead razorbills, which only a matter of hours before had been at their nests on Yorkshire’s highest sea cliffs.
In their lifetime, they had survived the worst nature could throw at them, including storm-force seas and food shortages. On the cliffs, their appealing antics had been admired by thousands of visitors and holidaymakers from afar - some so inspired by these little birds that they became lifelong supporters of conservation.
What a totally pointless and avoidable way to die, trapped in a nylon net left unattended overnight. On this scale, I find 'bycatch' is too short a word and sadly slips off the tongue far too easily to reflect its true implication."
Similarly, three days later, continuing observations from a hidden location on the seafront revealed large numbers of live birds struggling to avoid drowning within the same net just off the beach. We believe the fishermen could easily have released the birds earlier, but instead they chose to collect their haul of fish and return to the shore, ignoring up to 40 birds floundering for several hours.
During the two days, over 100 auks were recorded caught in the net, mostly razorbills. Significantly, at this time of year it is highly likely that the drowned birds were part of breeding pairs in the local area and that their nests and chicks are likley to have also died as a consequence, making this a conservation as well as a welfare problem.
The video evidence was immediately shown to the Environment Agency and Natural England, who jointly agreed that fishing activity should be suspended at Filey for 14 days.
When fishing resumed, it was operated under a stricter regime in which nets were not set overnight - this, together with the fact that most of the birds had by now completed their breeding and had headed out to open sea, resulted in much lower numbers of birds being caught accidentally.
We also sent the footage to North Yorkshire Police. As a result of this, a fishermen was charged with causing unnecessary suffering to seabirds, mainly razorbills, on the dates on which evidence was gathered.
Unfortunately, the case had to be discontinued by the Crown Prosecution Service (after much consultation with both the RSPB and RSPCA) when it became apparent that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 does not apply to incidents taking place offshore.
It is important to make it clear that we are not trying to stop the fishery, but that we, like many others, believe it is unacceptable that hundreds of seabirds are dying avoidable deaths in these nets every year.
We are calling on the Environment Agency to introduce better practices and a new bylaw to underpin this with enforcement action. Simply preventing nets being left out at night and instigating a short period of closure during the peak ‘bycatch’ period could prevent the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of birds.
We await the 2009 season with fear and hope but most of all determination - determination to make it work for everybody, including the fishermen and of course the birds.
In June 2007, I took a call in the RSPB Investigations office. Although we routinely receive information about the persecution of birds of prey, this was no ordinary call. It was from a man who had a very powerful story to tell.
This man was no fool, he had been a game keeper for 25 years. He knew the way of the countryside and the stark implications of the information he was about to divulge. He told me he had been badly let down. Firstly by his former manager, a head keeper on the Kempton Estate in Shropshire, and then, more surprisingly, by one of the gamekeeper organisations that represented his trade.
A couple of days later I met him in an anonymous motorway services. You could not fail to be impressed by this man’s physical and moral stature. If he had been let down, then more fool the people who had crossed him.
Slowly the story came out. On his first few days of employment on the Kempton Estate he witnessed the shooting of buzzards and the clubbing to death of live Badgers caught in snares. All the work of the 18 year old under keeper.
From that very first moment he witnessed criminal activity he felt trapped. He and his wife needed the money from his new job, a job which also provided a house – what would you do? He told me he did the only thing he could do, he kept his head down and didn’t get involved in the organised slaughter. Instead, he got on with his normal duties of looking after pheasants and ignored the calls of the head keeper to ‘do his share’.
Even after only a matter of days, the under keeper thought he had the confidence of the new man and showed him his ‘vermin’ diary boasting about coded entries relating to protected wildlife. This included the season’s tally for buzzards, which was already in the eighties. This was a mistake the underkeeper would later repeat.
The witness informed me that after three weeks he was sacked by the head keeper, as a result of ‘failing to perform his duties’. Thanks to a friendly and guiding voice from British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) he was put in touch with the RSPB, and I was now sat starring at him with an open mouth.
However, it didn’t end there. In an incredible twist of fate, the man employed to replace him also contacted the RSPB. He had started work on the Kempton Estate in July 2008, but left in disgust after only a week having witnessed further acts of killing and trapping. He had also been shown the ‘vermin diary’ by the over confident underkeeper. The buzzard tally had now reached 90. More specifically, he gave us the locations of active pole traps being used to kill raptors.
Amazingly, and quite independently, the two gamekeepers had come forward with corroborating accounts. Whilst we had received information from gamekeepers before, what made this case so unique was that both men were prepared to put their heads above the parapet and provide witness statements for the police.
We visited the estate and kept constant watch over a 48 hour period, sleeping rough in order to gain the evidence. We successfully filmed the headkeeper visiting one of his pheasant pens and casually passing with a few metres of a set pole-trap. In the middle of the night we visited the pole-trap, confirmed it was set and then disarmed it to prevent further deaths. The police were contacted and a raid followed. In the glovebox of the underkeeper’s vehicle the damming coded diary described by the two witnesses was found. This now stood at 102 buzzards, 40 ravens, 37 badgers and a number of other raptors. This raid set in motion the chain of events that eventually led to the two Kempton Estate gamekeepers appearing in court.
At Telford Magistrates Court in September 2008, under keeper Kyle Burden pleaded guilty to a number of charges of killing buzzards and badgers and setting traps. Despite his age and no previous convictions, the court viewed the matter so seriously that they imposed a six month suspended jail sentence.
Head keeper Roger Venton, chose to go not guilty to using a pole-trap and permitting Burden to set illegal traps. On the 3 December he appeared at court for trial. However, when faced with the stark reality that both gamekeeper witnesses had arrived and were prepared to stand up and be counted, at the very last moment he pleaded guilty to two charges. We await Venton’s sentencing on January 2nd - he recieved a 6 months suspended jail sentence, 260 hours community order and costs of £2000.
The persecution of birds of prey in the UK remains a widespread and persistent problem. It is particularly serious for species of high conservation concern such as hen harriers and golden eagles. The link between these criminal acts and land managed for game shooting in clear, despite denials from many in the shooting industry. Not surprisingly it is usually the gamekeeper, the man with ‘his finger on the trigger’, who shoulders most of the blame. However, that perception barely scratches the surface of a problem ingrained deep into the shooting industry.
This case has highlighted the division that exists in the gamekeeping world. There are many who are law abiding, but understandably reluctant to come forward when colleagues break the law or their own job is at risk. Then there are the law breakers, many of whom are no doubt put in that position because of pressure from managers and employers to kill birds of prey and other wildlife. It is these managers and employers within the shooting industry who are the real problem. People who have been orchestrating these offences for decades and hiding behind the criminal actions of their staff. We need the government and the police to start bringing real pressure on these people so that all estates are run within the law.
On the back of this case, the RSPB launched a confidential hotline for gamekeepers and others to pass on informations in confidence about the illegal killing of raptors. We have seen two good men who were prepared to stand up together for what is right. Sadly, Shooting Times, one of the most commonly read shooting magazines, has refused to carry our hotline advert. We push on regardless - raptors depend upon our actions.
Now the telephone has begun ringing, let’s hope 2009 brings the dawn of a new era of cooperation.
If you are appalled by this case then please do not forget to visit our Bird of Prey campaign pages where you can see a video clip of the investigation and most importantly sign the bird of prey pledge calling for an end to the illegal killing. Visit http://www.rspb.org.uk/supporting/campaigns/birdsofprey
BBC coverage of the case can be found here http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/shropshire/7808839.stm