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Serious questions raised over RSPB surveillance operation

The RSPB is a very secretive organisation. Its opaque structure make it challenging for outsiders to really get much information, beyond the PR produced from its £30 million a year fundraising department which generally predicts that something terrible will happen, unless you give them even more money.

Occasionally however the mask slips a little and we can get an insight into what they are really up to. This is often via some funding application, when they have to break cover to get another few million from the EU or the Lottery Heritage Fund.

They save their best secrets for their investigations branch, run by Mark Thomas. We only hear what they are up to when they launch another shock horror story on to an unsuspecting public.

We can only draw conclusions from what they tell us and that will be a fraction of what is going on, and questions have been asked as to whether the RSPB Trustees are even aware of what is going on.

For example, it would be interesting to know how many within the RSPB were aware that in the Spring of 2020 RSPB employees carried out 72 days of surveillance on the ground, which included placing four fixed cameras on one particular moor, one of which had covert footage of a gamekeeper's cottage.

The first point to make is that everyone we know who shoots would be very happy if there was no raptor crime. The occasional confirmed incident harms no one other than them, so they have more incentive than anyone in seeing these crimes prevented.

The RSPB is fixated on raptor crime, to the extent that their annual bird crime reports now specifically exclude incidents that involve non-raptor species.

Not long ago, when this was not the case, the reports were far more balanced and informative. It is widely believed that the change was made because the old format showed that crimes involving non-raptor species were actually more frequently brought to court, the cases were more often successful, were generally prosecuted by other agencies, such as Local Authorities and the RSPCA, and, worst of all, were nothing to do with gamekeepers or shooting.

By applying the Orwellian Rule, that, “All birds are equal, but raptors are more equal than others”, RSPB, at a stroke, did away with the twin dangers of distracting from the key message, and demonstrating to the world that other people were better at law enforcement than they were.

But at least we can all unite behind the need to prevent raptor crime, can't we? Well, judged on what we are told, we can't. On the basis of the limited evidence that the RSPB has made available, they are clearly interested in trying to catch people who commit these crimes, or if they fail to successfully prosecute the alleged perpetrator, exploiting the incident for political and publicity gain. What is less clear is any enthusiasm for preventing them happening in the first place.

This might seem ridiculous but remember that the RSPB is not a statutory agency, like the police or NatureScot or a local authority, who have to abide by the regulators code and the rules of evidence or face the consequences. It is a campaigning organisation. It is free to direct its enforcement activity to anywhere it wishes and is subject to no external control.

It is obsessed with gamekeepers and grouse shooting and can put vast resources into trying to show that they are up to no good, with the now clearly stated public intent to get the law changed to require people who run grouse shooting estates to be licenced.

We also know that many of the key players see licencing as merely a step along the road to banning the way of life enjoyed by the upland communities they seem to loath and persistently demonise.

In such circumstances it is fair to ask where the greatest benefit lies. The RSPB employs intelligent people; they could not have grown from a respected, overachieving organisation, running on a million pounds a year, to the massive multi-million global business they now are, if they were stupid.

So if they wish to change the law on the basis of raptor persecution what is best?

(a) Prevent someone killing a raptor.

(b) Allow someone to kill a raptor and then successfully prosecuting the person responsible.

(c) Allow someone to kill a raptor and then fail to successfully prosecute, and therefore be able to claim that the existing law does not work.

Obviously it is (c), with (b) coming second, (a) only gets a bronze medal because there were only three runners.

If you are campaigning to change the law, on the basis that the present law is unworkable, what you need are lots of failed cases. What you don't need is people being prevented from committing the crimes in the first place. That gets you nowhere.

Another factor in this is where responsibility stops. If you know someone is drunk and you do nothing to stop them driving, when you could have done, you obviously share a moral responsibility. Depending on the circumstances you may even have criminal responsibility. Does the same apply to raptor crime?

This was brought to mind by the recent publicity by the RSPB's Jack Ashton-Booth about the alleged killing of two buzzards. They tell us that they had formed the view that someone was intent on killing raptors in the spring of 2019 and mounted surveillance to try to catch him.

When this failed, they carried on until the spring of 2020, when they claim they watched him shoot a buzzard, then watched while he shot another buzzard, and then continued to watch while he tried to shoot a third buzzard.

It is unclear how many they would have let him kill before they intervened, but they were clearly comfortable with three, but we will never know as the alleged person, allegedly stopped of his own volition and left.

According to their statement, “The chances of a police interception here were remote and, with no bodies and identification evidence not quite there, the best decision was to keep watching and hoping to film better evidence”.

They go on, “Once again, from a new observation point, we played a waiting game to prove the identity of the suspect. On numerous occasions we saw the same distinctive ATV” and finally, “We decided to draw a line...and passed our evidence to the North Yorkshire Police.”

When they say that 'they hoped to film better evidence' what they actually mean is that they hoped he would kill more raptors, perhaps something a bit more newsworthy than a common old buzzard, maybe a hen harrier or short-eared owl. They sat out there on, to quote them, numerous occasions. Hoping against hope that another protected raptor would be killed.

So, based solely on the words of the RSPB investigators they were convinced in the spring of 2019 that someone was intent on killing raptors, and they did absolutely nothing to prevent it occurring. According to them, in the spring of 2020 they saw a buzzard killed and then did nothing, according to them, to prevent a second being killed in plain sight or an attempt to kill a third.

This is despite the fact that they were carrying out surveillance from a pre-planned position where they knew, again to quote them, that the chances of police interception were remote. They then, again according to them, did nothing to prevent further crimes occurring, but continued to go out on numerous occasions, hoping that another raptor would be killed.

It is also interesting that after all this they passed the evidence to the much misused North Yorkshire Police, and when they, and presumably the CPS, found the RSPB's evidence inadequate, RSPB and their fellow travellers went off the outrage scale. Why go mad about the police and CPS, when you have already decided that the evidence that you have provided them with is not up to the job? When RSPB handed it to the police, they had long before decided that it was inadequate. If it wasn't, why did they continue their covert surveillance? If they thought the evidence was sufficient, why did they go out on numerous occasions hoping the alleged perpetrator would kill more raptors?

Furthermore, when they say that, “The chances of a police interception here were remote”, did the police even know that there was covert surveillance taking place? Did the police even know that they might be required to make such an interception? Did the police know anything about any of this prior to our heroes deciding that, disappointingly, they would see no more raptors killed, and passed their evidence to the police? We can't tell from the RSPB statement but it seems unlikely that professional law enforcers would have gone along with something as dubious as this.

Perhaps we are wrong, perhaps they told the police of their suspicions, in the spring of 2019. Perhaps they approached, with the police or without them, the owner of the estate, or the shooting tenant, or even the head keeper.

Perhaps they asked BASC or CA or MA or NGO or anybody, for help in preventing the alleged crime, sharing any evidence supporting their suspicions and taking common cause with people who want this to stop, probably more than they do.

It seems they did none of these things. They waited and hoped that a raptor would be killed. In the event, they claim to have got two for the price of one and nearly got three in a row. If we have got any of this wrong, we will be happy to print the precise account of what went on, if RSPB want to provide it. In the absence of any alternative explanation, it is difficult to find a different interpretation than they hoped a raptor would be killed. If they didn't why were they happy to spend months sitting in the heather with a long lens camera, instead of doing something about it?

To return to the drink driving analogy. What they did is akin to finding out that some young person is habitually driving drunk and then deciding to not tell his parents, not tell his friends and not even to talk to him, but simply following him home from the pub every night in the hope of getting some dash-cam footage to give to the police when he eventually has a crash.

When you see yet another case fail because the way the evidence was collected, it is difficult not to be frustrated. But that frustration should be directed, not at the police, who are often involved after the mistakes are made, but at the hugely intelligent and brilliantly equipped private force of RSPB raptor police who continue to get it wrong. This is now occurring with such regularity that it is starting to look suspicious.

If one tenth of the resources and effort that are put into demonstrating that the law doesn't work, were put into preventing the problems occurring in the first place, there might be more progress and less crime, but that might not suit the strategic objectives of the usual suspects.


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