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RSPB Investigations Officer: Reflections on a poisoning

RSPB Investigations Officer: Reflections on a poisoning

Another issue that keeps rearing its head is the lack of any consequences for Stroud’s employers.”

On 5 October 2022 gamekeeper Matthew Stroud was convicted of a long list of offences at Norwich Magistrates Court including killing protected birds – yet he escaped a prison sentence. Now Tom Grose, the RSPB Investigations Officer that helped convict Stroud, has written about the case.

In court, Stroud pleaded guilty to the illegal killing of six buzzards and a goshawk (the latter a Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) Schedule 1 species, theoretically the highest level of legal protection), placing poisoned baits, possession of the banned poison strychnine hydrochloride (strychnine was banned in the UK in 2006), and the illegal release of pheasants onto a Special Protection Area (made illegal when pheasants and partridges were listed as WCA Schedule 9 species), along with sundry other offences.

Similar cases involving gamekeepers and wildlife crimes have crossed what is known as the custody threshold, so it was at least expected that Stroud would be given a suspended prison sentence. He wasn’t. While the court ordered the forfeiture and destruction of all Stroud’s firearms, mobile phones and any chemicals, the 200-hour community work order and financial penalties totalling £1220 he was given caused understandable uproar on social media.

 

Just what has to happen for the court to punish crimes like these?

As Tom points out in his article, after huge (and presumably very expensive) efforts made by agencies including the RSPB, the National Wildlife Crime Unit, Norfolk Police, and even the CPS, the court had all the facts they needed to convict and sentence Stroud. In 2022 a man was jailed for 16 weeks for killing two gulls. So why, he asks, did Stroud receive far less?

One factor he highlights is “the lack of sentencing guidelines available to the courts“. Tom describes a “sentencing lottery” where even in cases that clearly merit a jail term, magistrates and judges are “left without clear principles to follow when deciding how to sentence these relatively rare and complex cases”.

After so much hard work that must be incredibly frustrating. Perhaps as importantly gamekeepers know that if they are caught (which in the first place is unlikely given that crimes take place on private shooting estates), if the evidence can be gathered in such a way that satisfies the court (defence solicitors are very used to finding ways to get clients off the hook), and a date can be found in our broken-down legal system to actually take them into court, the chances are good that they’ll receive a slap on the wrist, a fine that shooting estates probably factor into the cost of doing business, and their job will be unaffected. Hardly a disincentive.

 

shot buzzard matthew stroud norfolk
One of the buzzards Stroud shot. Copyright Norfolk Constabulary

 

Tom also pointed out the “lack of any consequences for Stroud’s employers”. Stroud was employed to rear and protect pheasants so his employer could sell them on to clients to be shot. It may seem simplistic to say, but gamekeepers should be treated as any other employee in a business (and shooting is nothing more than a business of profit and loss like any other) and their actions should have consequences for the people paying their wages.

Landowners and shooting estates (many of them well-connected to legislators in Parliament of course) have successfully rejected all attempts to bring ‘vicarious liabilityinto effect in England and Wales. Scotland brought in vicarious liability in 2011, and the first conviction came in 2014 (Ninian Stewart, the landowner of Glasserton & Physgill Estates, was fined after pleading guilty to being vicariously liable for his gamekeeper’s crime of poisoning and killing a wild bird).

 

There is only one answer to raptor persecution

However there have been few vicarious liability prosecutions in Scotland even with legislation in place. Much like with the Hunting Act 2004, landowners are ‘protected’ by the way laws are written which allow far too much leeway and escape routes defence solicitors can easily take advantage of.

While an RSPB Investigations Officer won’t say it (and Protect the Wild hasn’t spoken to Tom Grose so won’t speculate on whether or not he shares this view), the truth is that if there were no shooting industry crimes like these simply wouldn’t take place. Estates wouldn’t be seeing native wildlife as threats to their business model of raising a massive number of birds so that shooters can kill at least a hundred a day each, and protected wildlife would be far, far safer.

Relying on a ‘sentencing lottery’ and inadequate punishment clearly isn’t putting off gamekeepers, and a lack of employer liability allows estates to simply look the other way while laws are broken and protected wildlife is killed. It leads to a situation we have referred to many times on Protect the Wild where the shooting industry is attempting to determine how many birds of prey there are in the countryside and where they will be ‘allowed’ to survive.

Tom concludes his piece saying that “the RSPB is now calling for greater regulation of large-scale pheasant and partridge shoots. Clearly, self-regulation is not working, and current legislation is not enough.

That sounds reasonable enough until you understand that whatever the regulation and whatever the legislation, the shooting industry will always break the law because a) the rules are virtually unenforceable and b) their business model demands it anyway. The industry is always looking to raise and sell more birds to their clients, and birds of prey (and the foxes, stoats, weasels, and corvids that the industry traps and snares in their hundreds of thousands) will always take advantage of this unnatural surplus of food are seen as negatively impacting that model.

The plain truth is that if we really want to protect birds of prey, then the only answer is to go after the root cause of what threatens them: and that is gamekeepers and the industry that employs them.

 

  • For Tom Grose’s article please go to “Reflections on a poisoning”. Header image (strychnine-baited pheasant) from RSPB press release. Shot Buzzard image from Norfolk Constabulary press release.