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
Recent information on social media has expressed concerns about a possible police ‘cover up’ in relation to some serious wildlife poisoning incidents in Powys during 2012 and 2013. The police have responded with a short statement. Having been involved from the outset with this investigation, I thought it would be helpful to provide a bit more information to allay concerns.
In October 2012, in company with colleagues from RSPB Investigations, I visited an estate inside the Brecon Beacons National Park in Powys, Wales. Near to two pheasant release pens we located the remains of some pheasant carcases. They had obviously been there a while and alongside one of them was the decomposed corpse of a red kite. The pheasant carcases also had many dead insects and the circumstances clearly suggested they were poison baits laid out earlier in the year. We documented the scenes and safely collected the items with appropriate equipment. The red kite was not able to be tested, but toxicology tests organised by Welsh Government under the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme confirmed the presence of the pesticide bendiocarb in four pheasant carcases – so they had clearly been laid out as poison baits, and undoubtedly led to the death of the kite. Bendiocarb is a highly toxic product which can be used legally as an insecticide, but unfortunately has featured in a number of wildlife poisoning cases. Dyfed Powys Police were informed but there was insufficient evidence to make further enquiries into any potential suspects at this stage.
In August 2013, I had been working with a colleague on an unrelated raptor persecution enquiry in Shropshire. We decided to make an evening visit to the area in Powys and as we reached a field, where we had found a poison bait and the dead kite the previous year, we saw a fairly fresh vehicle track through the rushes and grass. Within a few metres of this track was a fairly fresh looking corpse of a pheasant with the breast muscle exposed and a number of dead insects.
A pheasant carcase laced with the pesticide bendiocarb and laid out as a poison bait
This was about 25 metres from where the red kite had been found the year before. It clearly looked like another poison bait had been placed in the same field, this item was documented and collected. We waited for two individuals to leave a nearby pheasant release pen and then searched an adjacent field, finding a further suspicious pheasant carcase which was also collected.
We returned about a week later, to find additional vehicle tracks in the first field and sure enough the suspected poisoned bait we had removed appeared to have been replaced by another. We collected this and as there was activity at the nearby pheasant release pen we left the area as it was getting dark. Over the next few days we recovered another possible pheasant bait and sadly the corpse of a red kite a short distance away inside woodland adjacent to the field. Toxicology tests later confirmed the kite had indeed been poisoned by bendiocarb and there were traces of this pesticide on the four pheasant carcases we had collected.
A poisoned red kite - one of 15 victims found during the investigation
During this period we also undertook some surveillance and recorded an individual visiting the field on a few occasions in what looked like very suspicious circumstances.
We took our new evidence to the Dyfed Powys Police and were pleased with how seriously they took the matter. Following a planning meeting, in early October a multi-agency operation led by Dyfed Powys Police and assisted by Welsh Government and RSPB visited the Estate. Search warrants were executed at two addresses and an extensive field search was undertaken around the areas we had found pheasant carcases and dead birds, plus the vicinity of other pheasant release pens. At one address, in a dustbin at the rear of the premises, a plastic bag was found with what appeared to be vacuum cleaner contents and a pair of protective gloves. Subsequent analysis confirmed the presence of a small trace of bendiocarb. So it seemed somebody had been doing some interesting cleaning! Bendiocarb is also found in some domestic insecticides so it was not possible to establish where these traces had originated.
However, it was the extensive field search that really came up with the most shocking discoveries. Inside some vehicle tyres stacked by a pheasant pen a number plastic feed bags were found which contained a number of raptor carcases. In total, these held the corpses of seven buzzards and three red kites. Toxicology tests found material in the gizzards of eight of these birds (seven buzzards and one red kite) which tested positive for bendiocarb. From the remaining two red kites, which were more decomposed, a surface wash of the carcases also found traces of bendiocarb. The circumstances strongly indicated that these poisoned birds had been collected and placed into plastic feed bags ready for disposal.
A poisoned buzzard - one of ten raptors found hidden in feed sacks
A search of the remaining land found a red kite, a common buzzard, two ravens and a pheasant carcase all of which tested positive for bendiocarb. In light of recent concerns about the case, it may have been helpful for the police to have put out a short media release on the day of the raid just to provide a brief outline of what had been found and that enquiries were continuing, but ultimately that is an operational decision for the police.
So during 2013 from within a small area of the Welsh countryside, in addition to the four poison baits in 2012, we had recovered the following which had tested positive for bendiocarb: -· Two ravens · Five red kites · Eight common buzzards· Five poisoned pheasant carcases used as baits
A truly dreadful catalogue of wildlife poisoning. We believe this is the most significant wildlife poisoning case ever recorded from Wales, and the second highest recovery of poisoned birds of prey in any UK investigation during the last 40 years. We believe there would undoubtedly have been other victims and baits during 2012 and 2013 which were simply never found. Unfortunately, raptor persecution seems set to remain for the foreseeable future as one of the UK government's top wildlife crime priorities.
So we had plenty of evidence of criminality, but linking that to any individual is often the really difficult part in many wildlife crimes cases. The stark reality is that the vast majority of wildlife poisoning cases do not result in anyone being prosecuted. The response from the Dyfed Powys Police and Welsh Government was terrific and they chased down a number of lines of enquiry and interviewed potential suspects. There was also extensive toxicology work undertaken by the Fera laboratory near York, and once again they showed the value of their detailed analytical work on the wide range of samples that were supplied to them. This sort of work is the bedrock on which these enquiries are built.
A file of evidence was eventually supplied to the CPS and they ultimately decided it would not be possible to bring charges again any individual. We have no complaints about this, this was a complex case and the file was reviewed by a very experienced wildlife prosecutor who we have worked successfully with on numerous other cases. Whilst I personally have my own views about who was responsible, it is just the reality of criminal investigations that the prosecutor has to consider how things will ultimately stack up inside a court room.
Other potential lines of enquiries were looked at as late as 2015, but ultimately it could go no further. The RSPB is entirely happy with the response from the Dyfed Powys Police, Welsh Government and the CPS and that this was actually a really good example of partnership working. So no ‘cover up’, just a difficult enquiry and, once again, illustrating the real difficulties of trying to prosecute people for these types of crime. In relation to raptor persecution, much of the focus is understandably on the upland driven grouse moors and serious conservation problems for species such as hen harriers and golden eagles. However, whilst things do appear to be improving in lowland areas, and the expansion of buzzard and red kite populations is probably a reflection of this, it is clear there are still serious problems on some sporting estates. A number of confirmed raptor persecution incidents and prosecutions in recent years are testament to this. The shooting industry needs to work far harder to promote legal and good practice to try to prevent awful events like those uncovered in Powys.
So whilst a disappointing outcome, hopefully this enquiry will have been a shot across the bows of anyone involved and will have deterred the widespread use of poison baits in this area - encouragingly there have been no more reported cases in this area since 2013. So the raptors and ravens in some of the Welsh valleys should now be a lot safer. That, at least, is some consolation.