Today another conviction at court for the illegal keeping of pesticides (along with firearms offences) once again highlights the problems of trying to establish who was actually responsible for the poisoning of a bird of prey.
The laying of poison baits in the open countryside has been illegal for over 100 years yet here in the 21st century this pernicious practice continues. Whilst shooting raptors is of course illegal, it is focused on the unfortunate creature at hand. Poisoning on the other hand is very different. It is lazy, indecscriminate and in addition to the target species, poses obvious risks to other wildlife, domestic animals and even people. In the 1980’s a Scottish gamekeeper accidentally killed himself with a pesticide he had been using to prepare poison baits.
There have since been several incidents where children have come into close proximity with poison baits and victims. The most unsettling picture I’ve seen during my career was of a very young child crouched next to a pheasant carcase laced with bendiocarb. This had been laid close to a public footpath when a mother and young child came across it, and the dead buzzard lying next to it. Thankfully the child didn’t handle anything, and the matter was reported to us. Following a prolonged surveillance operation, followed by a multi-agency investigation, a young gamekeeper pleaded guilty to 15 charges of laying baits and poisoning multiple buzzards and ravens. The result? A fine of £1000 – hardly reflective of the seriousness of what had taken place.
Imagine how the mother felt when she later learned this bait had been laced with a very toxic pesticide
These cases of getting the actual poisoner in court are however the rare exception. During the last three decades I’ve been with the police and other agencies to the door of many individuals, usually gamekeepers, following the discovery of yet another poisoned raptor. The pesticide responsible for the death of the bird may be in their possession, it may be banned, irresponsibly decanted into an unmarked container and a product which they could never have had a legitimate use. Alongside the means, they may have also had the motive and opportunity to put out poisoned baits. Whilst the circumstantial evidence in these cases may be very strong, it is usually not the smoking gun needed to allow the prosecutors to meet the evidential test and put a case in front of the court for the original poisoning offence.
This recent case was a fairly typical story. In September last year I attended some farmland near Lakenheath to collect the carcasses of a common buzzard and a wood pigeon. From the circumstances described, and the body posture of the buzzard, I had little doubt it had been poisoned. Toxicology tests confirmed the pesticide bendiocarb, which has increasingly become the poisoner’s weapon of choice.
This buzzard was poisoned near Lakenheath with the pesticide bendiocarb. The identity of the poisoner has not been established
The incident had been discovered only a stone’s throw from a small-scale pheasant rearing operation on adjoining farmland. Enquiries by Suffolk Constabulary enquiries, led by WCO Sgt Brian Calver, took us to the home of the part-time gamekeeper who ran the shoot in his spare time. In an insecure garden outbuilding was over four kilos of the pesticide Ficam D which had been purchased online. The active ingredient is the pesticide bendiocarb. This is a professional product intended for the indoor control of certain insects such as ants and wasps. Professional pesticides should only be used by people who are suitably trained with the correct equipment, and who have properly assessed the risks and taken the necessary measures to minimise them. Despite the clear labelling, the defendant had stored it next to items intended for human consumption. He claimed he had not realised it was a professional product and had used it outdoors at home and on his pheasant shoot to control ants. He denied any involvement in the poisoning of the buzzard. A number of breaches of his firearms certificates relating to storage of shotguns and rifle ammunition were also uncovered during the search and encouragingly the police removed all of his firearms.
Ultimately, the court can only deal with what is in front of them. In this case the defendant had clearly failed to properly and safely store pesticides, two firearms and some ammunition. So the sentence of a Community Order with 80 hours unpaid work is a good result (these orders are usually for offences that are considered serious but don’t warrant custody). The District Judge stated he hoped this would be a significant lesson for him. The police will now consider his suitability to hold firearms. What has been particularly encouraging, in line with many others this year, was the work of police and the CPS with support from other agencies, in this case Natural England (NE) and ourselves.
Looking back, I first came across Ficam in 2004 during the search of a grouse moor keeper in West Yorkshire. It was in an unlocked garage and, though I’d never heard of it before, I remember the two Inspectors from NE commenting on how toxic it was. Despite having no apparent legitimate use for the product, plus the fact it was stored unlawfully, for reasons not explained, neither the police nor HSE were prepared to take a prosecution. A few years later a contact within the shooting industry told me this was becoming the product of choice amongst Yorkshire keepers, with a quote of ‘a fox doesn’t get two paces’ as an indication of its apparent toxicity. Unfortunately, it has been increasingly abused. Despite the most toxic brand of Ficam being withdrawn from use last December, as other banned products have shown, it will undoubtedly stay in circulation for many years to come, with a continuing grim catalogue of victims.
The shooting industry have failed to prevent this criminality for over 100 years, additionally putting their own staff at personal risk. However, there has also been a failure by successive governments to put robust legislative and enforcement mechanisms in place to create a meaningful deterrent to stop those managers and employers from allowing and orchestrating these offences. Whilst multi-agency enforcement against raptor crime has been really encouraging this year, it is still not getting to the root cause of the problem, as gamekeepers are the ones left in the spotlight.
As people continue to keep laying poison baits, with all the attendant risks, what will it actually take for the necessary action to bring this issue under control? The death or serious injury of a child? Hopefully, it will never come to this, but it is clear from the recent 2020 Birdcrime report we are still a long way from removing the cancer of illegal poisoning from our countryside.
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