Last week, RSPB Scotland released a shocking video. It shows a hen harrier flushed from her nest and shot in mid-air.
The perpetrator then seeks to hide any evidence of the crime. This is as strong as evidence ever can be in the case of wildlife crimes, which usually take place in remote areas and far from watching eyes. In this case, the grisly scene was, unusually, caught by a camera that the RSPB had set up to monitor the nesting attempt.
Yet this crime did not even go to Court. It was dropped because the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) considered that the video evidence was inadmissible because it had been collected by RSPB investigators who “entered the land in question and embarked upon evidence gathering for the purpose of prosecution”. The RSPB claim otherwise, but even if this was the case the COPFS should be thanking the diligent RSPB for collecting vital evidence that could lead to a successful prosecution.
And this is by no means the first time this has happened, to RSPB, to OneKind and to other NGOs working to protect wild animals by upholding the law. If anything, a clear pattern is emerging in wildlife cases, and it goes beyond raptor persecution.
In 2012, OneKind reported a case involving the beating to death of crows in a cage trap. Video evidence had been collected by our field officer who came on the incident while he was out looking at the use of legal snares in the countryside. COPFS made many erroneous assumptions as to the purpose of our visit to the estate in question, applied case law that we believed to be out of date and refused to let the case get into court so that a Sheriff could decide on the issues of admissibility. Sound familiar?
More recently, a similar judgment was made last year on evidence collected by a OneKind investigator of alleged illegal snaring on the Glenogil estate. The video evidence clearly shows animals suffering and dying in snares, suggesting that the snares were not being checked in accordance with the law. Yet again the case was dropped, apparently because the Crown Office considered some of the evidence inadmissible.
Following this decision we wrote to the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit at COPFS asking for an explanation of the decision. At least, I thought, we should seek to learn as much as possible about what is and isn’t admissible to guide future investigative work. A reply came three months later repeating their original press release about the case and concluding with these words:
“Finally, may I refer you to the COPFS contact arrangements which are available of the COPFS website. Any request for information should be sent to the departmental email address and not to individual employees.”
The message was clear: do not contact me again.
Well, my message is equally clear. The Scottish legal system is failing to protect wildlife and is failing to serve the public interest.
NGOs and the public are losing faith in the system and that can only be bad for our wildlife and our community. We hope that this latest incident will lead to a substantive change so that everyone who is opposed to wildlife crime can work together and put an end to these illegal practices that are blighting our countryside, threatening species, and causing inexcusable suffering to wild animals.