Blog post written by Bob Elliot, RSPB's Head of Investigations

Carbofuran, aldicarb, mevinphos, strychnine and alphachloralose.

That is a pretty horrific list of pesticides for those in the know. The first four have all been unapproved (i.e. banned) for many years and are highly toxic for anyone who could potentially come into contact them, whether it is human or animal.

For the RSPB Investigations team, over the years, these pesticides have become all too familiar.  These have been amongst the most regularly abused products to illegally poison wildlife during the last 20 years and have generated a torrid catalogue of raptor victims.  Carbofuran and alphachloralose alone, account for well over half of all cases of raptor poisoning during this period. 

On the 28 May 2014, Derek Sanderson, a former gamekeeper who worked as the head gamekeeper for a shooting syndicate on the Sledmere Estate in Humberside, pled guilty at Beverley Magistrates Court to the storage of five unapproved pesticides - namely  carbofuran, aldicarb, mevinphos, strychnine and alphachloralose.  For this offence, he received a six month conditional discharge* and was ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge.  Four other charges were discontinued.

In November 2012, a dead buzzard was found on the Sledmere Estate and toxicology tests confirmed it had been poisoned by aldicarb.  As a result, in March 2013 the Humberside police raided the home address of Sanderson, who had just retired a few weeks earlier.  The police search discovered the storage of the five unapproved pesticides, four stored in a cupboard inside his house the other in an unlocked outbuilding.

It must be made clear that Sanderson was not found guilty of the killing any birds or laying any poison baits and it was accepted in court there was no causal link to the death of the buzzard. 

However, it must be asked why such a highly experienced former gamekeeper, apparently with 46 years in his trade, had these pesticides at his home in the first place.  Three of them are former agricultural products and have never had any place in legitimate game keeping activities.  Certainly none of them should ever have been kept inside a dwelling house and any professional pest controller should be fully aware of the requirements for the safe and secure storage of pesticides.

We do not know how this case was presented by the CPS to the court and they can only sentence based on the information presented to them.  However, the outcome, on the face of it, does seem extraordinarily lenient.

In additional to the long catalogue of pesticide abuse against wildlife, the risks to human health are also significant.  One gamekeeper has already died after accidentally poisoning himself with mevinphos, which he had illegally held for wildlife poisoning.  Over the years, searches have found a whole range of potentially lethal pesticides in highly dangerous situation.  Pesticides in unmarked and fragile containers, sometimes within reach of innocent people and even children.  There are approved schemes for disposal of such products and government have even run projects to allow these products to be handed in at minimal costs.  Why after all this times are these banned pesticides still being found during search warrants?  This type of sentence does not suggest it will form any real deterrent for others who may hold similar products.

In 2006, legislation was introduced in England and Wales under the Natural England and Rural Communities Act to try and make people more accountable for the possession of pesticides commonly used in wildlife poisoning.  Despite regular prosecutions in Scotland under similar legislation, the government has repeatedly failed to answer calls to provide the relevant list of pesticides to make the 2006 offence active.

In March 2013, the Environmental Audit Committee published the Government response and rejection of a number of recommendations to improve the investigation of wildlife crime, see here.  This again included a refusal to tighten up on controls on the possession of pesticides.

A long and depressing catalogue of poisoning incidents and continuing prosecutions show that serious problems remain with the use and storage of pesticides within the shooting industry.  The situation for eagles and red kites in many parts of the UK, as highlighted by recent events on the Black Isle in Scotland, demonstrate just how much more still needs to be done to have these birds occupying their proper place in our environment. The government needs to do far more to make those involved accountable and create a meaningful deterrent.  Tighter regulation and the introduction of vicarious liability controls across the whole of the UK, rather than just those now in place in Scotland, are the sorts of things the government need to be urgently looking at.

Unfortunately, one thing is in no doubt, that raptors and other wildlife will continue to be poisoned whilst those involved with the illegal storage or use of pesticides feel the risks of being caught pose little real deterrent.

*A conditional discharge is a sentence in the finding of guilt in which the offender receives no punishment provided that in a period set by the court no further offence is committed. If an offence is committed in that time, then the offender may also be re-sentenced for the offence for which a conditional discharge was given.