The RSPB Investigations Team have just posted a graphic blog called ‘Old Habits Die Hard’ looking at a wildlife crime that apparently – er, isn’t…
The blog details the horrific killing of a Red Kite in an illegal trap on a pheasant shoot. As it explains:
On Saturday 15 August this year a member of the public was out for a country walk and got slightly lost on an estate to the south east of Newbury in Berkshire. They came across a pheasant release pen and the shocking site of a dead red kite hanging upside down in a spring trap attached to the pen fenceRSPB Investigations Team, Old habits die hard, 11 Dec 2020
Looks clear-cut doesn’t it? Guy Shorrock, the blog’s author, does say that in all cases the RSPB needs to keep an open mind, but was clear that the image appeared genuine (as did the member of the public he spoke with who had found the Kite hanging by its legs in the illegal trap) and the “damage to the wing feathers and injuries to the head and legs, plus the state of the bird’s lungs, was consistent with the bird dying while suspended upside down“.
However, he then goes to on to say:
The gamekeeper was later interviewed by the police but denied any involvement, maintaining that the matter was a set-up. Despite the strong circumstantial evidence, this incident once again highlights the problem of getting such cases to court. It also shows the value of covert surveillance evidence gathered by the RSPB and others, and why such evidence is so unpopular with the raptor killers and those who represent them. There are currently three ongoing investigations in England into raptor crime based on RSPB covert surveillance footage.RSPB Investigations Team, Old habits die hard, 11 Dec 2020
The difficulties of obtaining prosecutions have been discussed many times before. Without anyone witnessing and recording an individual committing a crime, lawyers will typically fall back on the ‘not enough evidence’ defence. They don’t need to do much more than that. It may be bleeding obvious that an illegal trap used to catch raptors set on the fence of a pheasant shoot is going to have been placed by the gamekeeper (or an employee of the shooting estate) but that’s not enough – no matter how often it happens in exactly the same circumstances. Without video evidence – like the recording of the Goshawk killing on the Duchy of Lancaster’s estate in July – perpetrators of wildlife crime just keep getting away with it.
What is particularly striking about this case, though, is that the gamekeeper involved didn’t just retreat into silence, he claimed that he was ‘set up’, saying that “the spring trap would not fit on the post next to where the dead kite was hanging“.
Why bother to do that? He had already escaped prosecution, was free to go about the ghoulish business of exterminating wildlife, so why make such an obviously false claim? He is trying to suggest, remember, that someone opposed to shooting went to a huge effort to frame him or the estate. But he knows as well as we do that no-one in conservation, pro-wildlife activism or campaigning, is going to a) risk harming a bird of prey (or themselves) by trying to catch a Red Kite, b) risk holding it somewhere with no-one noticing, c) risk being seen placing a trap on a pheasant shoot’s fence, d) try to get the raptor onto the trap – all of which if ‘caught in the act’ would hand such a monumental victory to the shooting lobbyists that it would set back the campaigns against raptor persecution for years – and finally e) assume that a member of the public would find the bird before the gamekeeper/estate did. You don’t have to be especially bright to know that it makes absolutely no sense at all.
So could it be that the upcoming licencing of Scottish grouse moors (see Scotland | Licencing sends Grouse industry into meltdown) is unsettling pheasant shooting too, because early reports of how licencing might look suggest that the levels of evidence required to lose a licence may not be as unobtainable as those needed to convict rogue gamekeepers now. Are they perhaps already working on their excuses to avoid being closed down when the inevitable happens and pheasant shooting becomes licenced too?
Could this then be a form of pre-emptive strike, shooting’s lobbyists desperate efforts to try to embed a four-word mantra for the dull and unimaginative to learn and cling to?
The bedrock of propaganda for centuries has, of course, been ‘repeat something often enough and hopefully people will start to believe it’, no matter how unlikely it seems. Oh, and keep the message simple. Really simple.
Fox hunters, for example, have tried the ‘vermin’ card, the ‘class war’ hail-mary, and is now down to endlessly claiming that efforts to get them to obey the law ‘risks dividing the countryside’ (yes, it does, but into the law-abiding and the law-breaking) and – after numerous images proving the exact opposite – they are ‘covid-secure’ (the country’s foxes must be delighted to hear that).
Ahead of licencing in Scotland, grouse shooting, having given up on pretending that it’s ‘glorious’ or has anything to with conservation, is trying to re-write its messaging and decided that as nothing else seems to be working they’ll go with weak claims of ‘importance to the Scottish economy’ (it’s actually worth a paltry 0.04% and there are no guarantees where even that small amount ends up).
Perhaps we’re indulging in our own conspiracy theory here, but if industry insiders keep pushing the ‘I was set up’ message now then maybe a handful of politicians or onside media ‘spokespeople’ will begin repeating it too. Maybe some people will even believe it. So why wouldn’t pheasant shooting try to implant the ‘Not me Guv’ lie ahead of whatever changes might be coming down the track?
The problem is of course that just as with fox hunting’s grubby history of ‘smokescreens’ and illegal hunting, shooting’s long-documented history of raptor persecution means there’s absolutely no hope that anyone with even half a brain is ever going to believe them. But then again, as the ‘Old habits die hard‘ title of the RSPB’s blog suggests, shooting has perhaps concluded that if it’s just too difficult to get gamekeepers to stop lawbreaking perhaps with enough training they can get them to remember four little words…’I was set up’.
Frankly, they need to do much, much better, but given the material they have to work with, perhaps that’s just the best they can do…