Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The PAW(S) Seminar at Battleby, Scotland

Last Wednesday I attended a seminar of the Partnership against Wildlife Crime (Scotland) at Battleby Conference Centre near Perth.

The meeting had been organised by the police and was introduced by the Scottish Government's Minister for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham. The minister was followed by a senior policeman, Deputy Chief Constable Ian MacLeod. The gist of what these two senior people said was that Wildlife Crime was high up on the agenda of crimes and that, far from being the work of people who led an otherwise blameless existence, it was often carried out by the same people who stole diesel and vehicles from farms and carried out other acts of criminality.

After the introductory talks, Alan Stewart, well known for his pursuit of poisoners of birds of prey took the stand and spoke very ably. He was followed by Tom Dysart, the Regional Fiscal for Tayside. In Scotland we have a system whereby the police investigate and then present their evidence to the Procurator Fiscal, who has to decide if the evidence provided warrants a prosecution. The Fiscal was very clear in his account of what his profession did and was followed by Sheriff Kevin Drummond QC.

Sheriffs in Scotland are judges and sit in particular sheriffdoms. Sheriff Drummond sits in the Borders. He spoke most interestingly about his work, describing the questions that arose when it came to sentencing someone, particularly a middle-aged first offender (e.g. a game keeper of otherwise respectable career, for whom the consequences of conviction could be terrible, leading even to suicide). He also talked about changing values in society and gave the example of driving under the influence of alcohol. Forty years ago to be drunk when driving was not thought to be a terrible offence, but now society in this country, at least, sees 'drunk driving' as a serious offence. Similarly, in the past destroying birds of prey was thought little of, but now this is seen in a different light altogether. Badger baiting, hare coursing and various forms of salmon poaching are among other kinds of wildlife crime, as are destroying the nests of protected birds, bats and so forth. Alan Stewart, himself a retired policeman, has written a couple of very readable books ('Wildlife Detective' and another published this year) about his pursuit of wildlife criminals (www.argyllpublishing.com)

I sat through all this with great interest so, when it came to the time for questions I felt comfortable and relaxed. My comfortable state, however, was short-lived because Malcolm Strang Steel, a retired partner of the law firm Turcan Connell, boomed out a question. It went something like this:'We have heard a lot about a particular kind of wildlife crime but, and I say this in the presence of Mr Beaver Ramsay, who I see is in the audience, what about the case of a beaver that has been released into the Tay, has landed in Fife and has then done considerable damage in blocking a farmer's ditches?' And so on.

Sheriff Drummond replied to this saying something to the effect that 'As he had said earlier, different people felt very strongly about different things. He quite understood this, but it was a matter of priorities. In this instance one beaver had escaped from somewhere and had been recovered. How much time and money should be devoted to this? Should the police employ ten people to investigate this 'crime'? It was a matter of resources.

That is what the Sheriff said, so far as I recollect and I was much relieved.

Here is a photograph, if a little blurred, of Malcolm Strang Steel. No, I should not have said blurred: it is in soft focus.

I had signed on for the workshop about Release of or allowing non-native species to escape. Angela Robinson of the Scottish Government spoke about this.

Here are some of her slides.

My feeling about this presentation was that Government, as too often was seeking draconian measures that might well prove difficult to impose, even if most of the proposals seemed well intentioned.

As the majority of invasive non-aliens are that reach these shores are intended to be garden plants we should surely be planning to close down the garden centres!

A recent article about non-native species of plants and animals suggested that very few
became seriously invasive, though it is true that those that do can become a real problem - Japanese knotweed that Himalayan balsam that is now everywhere. But there is, it seems to me, an element of hysteria about all this non-nativeness and invasiveness. Angela Robinson didn't agree with me when I suggested that.

Of course, the fact is that the kind of criminalisation that all this 'Reform' will cause is one that I have been sensitive to ever since Alan Stewart came to visit me in February 2007 as a result of a report that a beaver had escaped from one of my enclosures. He pointed out the relevant section of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and took down my name, date of birth and other details in his note book.

Then, in the autumn of 2007 Colin Castle, someone who works for Scottish Natural Heritage, felt impelled to report me to the police for allowing beavers to expand beyond their enclosure onto new ground.

In the afternoon there were more workshops, so I attended one about badgers. The main things that I learned from this were the confirmation that there is almost no TB among cattle in Scotland and that there is no TB among badgers in Scotland. Sadly, gangs drive up to the north of Scotland from England in pursuit of their lust to bait badgers.

The meeting was very well attended. There were police people, representatives from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. There were gamekeepers, water bailiffs, people from the Tayside Badger Group, rangers from the Loch Lomond National Park and Atholl Estate. Simon Blackett, the factor of Invercauld was there and Louise Batchelor, the journalist, and Philippa Revill from the Forestry Commission, last seen at the beaver symposium in Lithuania. The Chief Executive Officer of the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association was there, but hardly a landowner. Libby Anderson of Advocates for Animals was there and, of course, Malcolm Strang Steel was there to represent the old and bold, who think that there are far too many buzzards and hen harriers.

In short it was a very well organised event.

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