VEGA News Item

Landowner’s EU Grant Cut - 11/01/2008
Gamekeeper Tried to Kill Birds of Prey
Environment Minister calls for More Action

Hard upon our call for urgency in augmenting the powers given in anti-hunting legislation with bans on game-shooting...
Hard upon our call for urgency in augmenting the powers given in anti-hunting legislation with bans on game-shooting and disquiet that these activities contribute less for the pot than a cruel release of disabled birds unequal for the stresses of wildlife and certainly for the amusement of the shoots on estates and farmers’ diversifications comes confirmation in information released to the Guardian (07/01/08, EU grant cut for landowner whose gamekeeper tried to kill birds of prey and Ministers failing to act on wildlife crime, conservationists say) under Freedom of Information legislation.

In “a landmark punishment” for Scottish farmers that has prompted an Environment Minister to call “for more action” the Scottish executive said it had docked £7,919 from last year’s single farm payment and beef calf scheme payments to James McDougal, “who runs a large cattle- and sheep-farming business near Lauder”, Berwickshire, which is “more than the £5,000 maximum for a wildlife crime offence”. The fine is the first time ministers have used wide-ranging powers under European law to dock a farmer’s subsidies for environmental crimes, “even though the legislation came into force 4 years ago”.

The punishment comes after the landowner’s gamekeeper, George Aitken, was convicted of trying to kill protected birds of prey. He had set traps holding live pigeons and placed dead pheasants laced with poisons on moorland close to the Southern Upland Way, a route popular with walkers. Aitken arrived in court last June “wearing a paramilitary-style full-face balaclava to avoid identification”. He was sentenced to 220 hours’ community service. Now the Scottish Executive has cut £8,000 form his employer’s European farming grants “for failing to protect local wildlife”.

Wildlife groups are pleased with the trend these developments indicate, saying that “landowners and shooting estates need to be directly penalized if their gamekeepers are persecuting birds of prey or other wildlife on their behalf”. McDougal, one of Scotland’s highest EU subsidy recipients, employs Aitken as a gamekeeper on a small pheasant shoot that he runs for friends on his land. Lothian and Borders police, the RSPB, and the Scottish Society for the Protection of Animals found 2 “butterfly cage traps” near McDougal’s farm, each baited with a live pigeon. Pheasant carcases were found beside nearby woods. They were dosed with carbofuran – a banned agricultural chemical – and a similar but legal pesticide called carbosulfan, “the first time it had been used to kill wildlife. Highly toxic sodium cyanide was also seized”. The investigation was launched after 2 poisoned ravens were found near the Southern Upland Way, one with significant residues of toxic chemicals in its stomach and liver.

McDougal had initially appealed against the fine, claiming that it was “excessive”. He said that he had been unfairly singled out “because, unlike grouse moors, his pheasant shoot was a small-scale, private affair”. He said that “he had never authorized Aitken to use illegal poison or traps, and had since warned him that he would be sacked for a repeat offence. I think they wanted to make an example and do a landowner at the same time”, he said.

The RSPB found a record 367 cases of deliberate persecution of birds of prey in the UK in 2006. Early figures for 2007 show at least 48 confirmed and suspected cases in which birds such as eagles, hen harriers, and red kites were “deliberately persecuted in Scotland and more than 100 in England and Wales. The Scottish environment minister, Mike Russell, has asked his officials to use their powers more often. “It’s absolutely wrong for individuals to have money from the public purse and to commit, or allow to be committed, illegal acts”, he said.

All this evidence reinforces our impatience with anti-hunting organizations ignoring the warnings in a context in which claims for food-production may be advanced. The environment is being contaminated and some of the poisons implicated, notably dimetridazole, have been finding their way into commercial supplies of poultry and eggs, so the Veterinary Medicines surveillances have had to report routine tests in the “MAVIS” announcements which, in turn, must attract the attentions of the Food Standards Agency.

Game shoots are offered as corporate entertainments and outings in the countryside, accompanied by luxurious trappings on estates and on farms enjoying the CAP benefits of diversification. City gents and foreign visitors are “easy prey” for these activities, which compete with seats at the opera or theatre or lewd activities to relieve the vicissitudes of commercial life. Such attractions compete also with places in the stand for professional sports involving only human harriers in pursuit of the bouncing ball – even if these entertainments may descend to the level of blood sports. Finally, if harrying foxes can be replaced by draghunting, shooting for game has its replacement in clay pigeon shooting, which avoids the animal welfare problems and problems with poor shots and retrieval of injured and downed prey in distress in inaccessible and dangerous areas where, we are told, only mutilated dogs (by tail-docking) can be employed.

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