Wildlife criminals could face tougher sanctions

NEW penalties for people who commit crimes against wildlife could include the removal of firearms licences and cutting of farm aid payments, it was announced last week.

The measures are being considered as part of tougher approach by the Scottish Government on bird poisoners and other wildlife criminals.

Speaking while shadowing two of Scotland's dedicated wildlife crime officers in the Borders, Environment Minister Michael Russell condemned a recent spate of poisonings.

He said: "Birds of prey are magnificent creatures and wonderful assets for Scotland's biodiversity and tourism industry. Their welfare is the responsibility of all of us.

"Like everyone else in Scotland I was absolutely appalled by the recent spate of poisonings, especially that of the golden eagle in the Borders recently.

"These kind of incidents are horrifying and while I acknowledge that much good work is already going on to counter the actions of a few criminals, I am determined that we must do more.

"Building on that good work, I will be speaking to chief constables to discuss how we can further support wildlife crime officers.

"That may include exploring the automatic loss of a firearms licence for anyone who has poisoned an animal, a potentially huge disincentive to anyone working in the countryside.

"I will also look, with the Justice Secretary, at how best to use the new offence of knowingly causing or permitting the unlawful killing or injuring of a bird.

"Another sanction which I would like looked at is cutting the Single Farm Payment for estates implicated in bird poisonings.

"The Scottish government will not hesitate to use this measure if appropriate.

"There are also a number of other options including the tightening up the licensing scheme and ways in which we can encourage good practice.

"There should be no doubt that the Scottish government is determined to stamp out this shameful and barbaric practice which has no place in a modern, civilised and environmentally friendly country."

The average single farm payment is worth approximately 20,000. If the landowner or farmer is found to be implicated in wildlife crime and in breach of Cross Compliance his payments can be reduced by 1-5 per cent where they are shown to be negligent and the action or omission leading to the breach is directly attributable to them. If the action or omission was intentional the penalty can be up to 100 per cent.

Unlike criminal prosecutions, the lower civil standard of proof is used to decide whether or not Cross Compliance requirements have been breached. In other words, even if there is no criminal prosecution, Cross Compliance penalties can still be applied. Civil standard of proof relates to the balance of probability.

If an inspector can provide evidence to show that on the balance of probability a breach has been committed then this is enough to allow a Cross Compliance penalty to be applied. Farmers who dispute the findings can lodge an appeal under the existing EU Appeals procedure.

The Scottish Countryside Alliance has welcomed the Scottish Executive's pledge to crack down on wildlife crime, but urged ministers and the police to work with land managers - who can play a pivotal role in tackling this problem.

Tony Andrews, SCA chief executive, said: "There is no question that those convicted of wildlife crime should face the loss of their firearms licence and indeed, in the case of employees, also their job. Nowadays, many gamekeepers have such a clause in their contract of employment."

"What concerns the SCA is the revoking of licences, or a withdrawal of Single Farm Payments without a criminal conviction.

"All too often groups, such as the RSPB, seem desperate to link any incident involving the killing of a raptor to the protection of grouse and therefore to gamekeepers and land owners. Revocation of licences, or subsidy reduction cannot be based on such wild allegations or, even civil proof, we believe that only the courts should settle such matters.

"The vast majority of gamekeepers are responsible wildlife managers but they are facing a smear campaign which is not only unfair but threatens to undermine game shooting and the huge benefits it brings to the rural economy.

"Instead of attempting to turn public opinion against gamekeepers and shooting, all the relevant parties, including the RSPB, should be working alongside land managers to beat wildlife crime and enhance biodiversity.

"The SCA will continue to support the police wholeheartedly in their efforts to stamp out wildlife crime and ask our members to do likewise."

John Lamont, MSP for Roxburgh and Berwickshire also expressed his concern at whgat he described as "potentially heavy handed measures".

He said: "Wildlife crime is an extremely serious matter and recent events in the Borders have confirmed this. The Minister is quite right that tough action must be taken both to discourage it and indeed to punish those found guilty of such crimes.

"At this stage the Minister has listed a range of possible new measures and sanctions, and at first reading we would have concerns about the potentially heavy-handed nature of some of them. In particular, the proposition that Single Farm Payments might be cut is not one that we could agree to, although we accept that all these suggested measures are to form the basis for further discussion and are not necessarily definite commitments."