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: firstname.lastname@example.org or use the online form at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reportacrime
On the 1 October 2014, at Norwich Magistrates Court, Allen Lambert, a gamekeeper formerly on the Stody Estate in Norfolk, was found guilty of two charges relating to the killing of 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk and possession of pesticides and other items to prepare poisoned baits. He had earlier pleaded guilty to five charges relating to the possession of nine dead buzzards, possession and use of banned pesticides (mevinphos and aldicarb) and breach of a firearms certificate. This was a really good team effort with Norfolk Constabulary supported by Natural England, HSE, Fera, NWCU, CPS, RSPB, RSPCA, BTO and local ornithologist Richard Porter..
Today he was sentenced for those crimes. He received 10 weeks jail (suspended for a year) for poisoning 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk and 6 weeks jail (also suspended for a year) for possessing 9 dead buzzards and firearms offences. Lambert was ordered to pay £930 costs and a victim surcharge of £80. In sentencing, the District Judge Peter Veits criticised the running of shooting estates. He said, “Those who employ gamekeepers have a strict duty to know what is being done in their name and on their property. They also have a duty to ensure that their gamekeepers are properly trained and capable of keeping abreast of the complex laws relating to the use of poisons. “In other industries, employers as well as the employee could be facing prosecution in such cases and I hope therefore that this case can serve as a wakeup call to all who run estates as to their duties.” He added, “It is clear that the buzzard population in Norfolk is increasing and this is something to be applauded and not seen an inconvenience by those who choose to run shoots.”
The case came to light in April 2013. Every year the RSPB receive hundreds of reports from the public about possible crimes against wild birds. Assessing these is not always easy and some well intentioned reports, such as a pile of dead raptors, turn out to be something quite innocent, like a pile of lawfully shot pheasants. However, on the 3 April 2013 a report of some 'dead buzzards' in a wood on the Stody Estate, near Holt in Norfolk sounded worth following up. On the following bitterly cold morning I left home just after 6.00 am and drove to Norfolk.
Dead raptors found on the Stody Estate, Norfolk in April 2013 (G Shorrock RSPB)
I went to a wood on the Stody estate and discovered the corpses of four buzzards, a sparrowhawk and a tawny owl. All but one appeared to have been left at one spot and things were looking very suspicious. It was clear pheasant rearing was taking place in the area. I collected all the carcases, carefully bagging and labeling them. My next stop was the at RSPCA centre at East Winch. I was very lucky that the staff were able to squeeze my unannounced visit into their busy schedule. Their x-rays showed no obvious signs of the birds being shot. However, one of the fresher buzzard carcases clearly had food in it crop. Birds don’t normally die in the middle of a meal! I was immediately concerned that illegal poisoning may be involved.
At least one of the x-rayed buzzards showed signs of food in the crop (G Shorrock RSPB)
I contacted Dr Ed Blane at Natural England (NE). NE are involved with the HSE Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme which is set up to assess whether wild animals, pets and beneficial insects have been poisoned. This can range from the improper use of legal products through to the deliberate and indiscriminate placing of poison baits in the open countryside. Ed, with years of experience in this area, leapt into action and quickly contacted Norfolk Constabulary to arrange a follow up search on the Stody estate. In these sorts of case, there is often considerable benefit in prompt action and sometimes cases languish far too long without any meaningful action. I had a mad dash to drop off the corpses at the post-mortem laboratory in Bury St Edmunds then back up to Holt Police station where Ed had a small posse of eager police officers already assembled and briefed. Local enquiries had established that gamekeeper Charles Lambert was the gamekeeper on the Stody Estate.
On arrival at Lambert’s home near Hunworth, he was not home, but arrived in his Landrover a few minutes later. The police and Natural England carefully outlined the process of the search that would take place. In his Landrover we soon found a small pesticide container. Ed, as usual, was suspicious and tipped out a small quantity for examination. It certainly wasn’t what it said on the tin, and we both immediately thought we had hit the jackpot as the product looked like a banned product which contained the highly toxic pesticide aldicarb. This was confirmed by later analysis by the government Fera laboratory. This agricultural product was withdrawn in 2007, though continues to feature in a number of wildlife poisoning cases. We also found between the front seats, and immediately to hand, a metal container of Phosdrin. This highly toxic insecticide contains the active ingredient mevinphos. This substance was banned way back in 1993 and was historically regularly abused for poisoning wildlife. Nearly two decades on, and despite government funded schemes to encourage the handing over of such unapproved products, this substance still turns up nearly every year in wildlife poisoning cases. We found two further containers of Phosdrin in his unlocked garage. Particularly significant was the presence of a syringe and a number of needles with one container; in the trade this is known as a ‘poisoner’s kit’ and typically used to inject a pesticide into a suitable bait such as eggs or carrion.
Container of the banned pesticide mevinphos with a syringe and needles (G Shorrock RSPB)
However, without doubt the most shocking find was the contents of a plastic bag on top of Lambert’s quad bike parked next to his Landrover. A quick peek inside was enough to know this was significant. So with the video camera rolling, Ed carefully emptied the contents onto polythene sheeting laid out on the ground. In total, the pitiful corpses of nine buzzards were laid out in a row. In all my years I had never seen anything like this, and was fully expecting the result that came back from the laboratory. All nine birds had been poisoned and tested positive for the banned pesticide mevinphos. I suspect these birds had been poisoned on the estate and cleared up by Lambert. The Fera laboratory also confirmed that at least one buzzard and one sparrowhawk I had picked up from the wood that morning also had been poisoned by mevinphos. The forensic work done by Fera toxicologists , quietly tucked away in a laboratory near York, is absolutely essential and their rigorous attention to detail is the bedrock of all wildlife poisoning convictions and it is vital the government continue to support this work.
RSPB Investigations Officer with nine illegally poisoned buzzards found at Lambert's home (E Blane NE)
Mr Lambert was interviewed and whilst admitting possession of the pesticides and the occasional illegal use for ‘a tricky fox’ or wasps, he denied poisoning any of the birds of prey we had recovered that day. My day finally finished at 04.15 am, some 22 hours since I had left home. A police Sergeant kindly lent me some blankets. In the old days I could probably have used an empty cell, however modern police stations don’t really cater for guests. So I grabbed a couple of hours under a desk in an empty office until some rather bemused cleaning staff found me. As I returned home the following morning I reflected on a comment that Lambert had made during his interview when he suggested that 9 out of 10 gamekeepers in Norfolk would have Phosdrin (mevinphos) in their shed. Whilst I have no doubt this was a clear exaggeration, what is abundantly clear is that far too many gamekeepers, on far too many shooting estates, are still illegally keeping and using these sorts of products. It has been illegal to place poisoned baits in the countryside for just over 100 years, but the shooting industry has not really shown much signs of getting its house in order.
The RSPB Birdcrime report for 2013 came out last week with the usual depressing catalogue of illegally poisoned, shot and trapped raptors. These are of course only the reported incidents, forming the tip of an undoubtedly very large iceberg. As usual it was not well received by parts of the shooting industry, who would no doubt prefer such information to be swept under the carpet. I believe it would be far more helpful if they expended their energies in trying to clean up the problems within their own industry. What about the enthusiastic fresh faced 16 years old trainee gamekeeper who arrives on an estate, simply wanting to do his job, and then placed in an impossible position where he feels he has no choice but to break the law or have no future employment? It is these people, at the start of what could be a very long career, who need to be set the right example and allowed to go about their lawful work.
What Mr Lambert did was undoubtedly bad, but I believe he, and many others, are simply the product of an industry that has failed to give our wildlife and countryside the respect it deserves. How long do we have to suffer these antiquated, dangerous and inexcusable practices in our countryside? Another 100 years?
The start of 2012 saw the introduction of vicarious liability in Scotland in an attempt to try to make managers and employers more accountable for the actions of their staff. Whilst far too early to know if this will be effective, it is a step in the right direction. Disappointingly, the government have failed to show any enthusiasm for bringing in similar legislation outside Scotland. We have seen the hen harrier become nearly extinct as a breeding species in England, despite habitat for over 300 pairs. Golden eagles, red kites and peregrines are still significantly affected by illegal persecution. What I would really like to know is just how bad do things have to get before the government will actually start standing up for nature. When will they start to create a climate, using suitable legislative and financial pressure, to make errant sporting estates start getting into line and really start making raptor persecution a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, despite the insightful comments of the judge, I suspect we still have a very long way to go, and the deaths of many more raptors and other protected wildlife, before we turn a meaningful corner.
Video of the discovery of the dead buzzards can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL8-1cyH3QY