The Scottish Gamekeepers Association has called on politicians not to bring campaign charities into wildlife crime policing as a knee-jerk reaction to pressure.
Scottish government will shortly announce whether to extend the investigative powers of SSPCA in wildlife crime cases, with a public consultation on the subject closed.
The idea was mooted back in 2010 during deliberations over the WANE Bill but was dismissed by MSPs and legal advisors.
Then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham, while supportive of SSPCA’s involvement in wildlife crime enforcement, stressed further powers raised ‘significant issues of accountability’ and noted that SSPCA could not be viewed as a ‘neutral organisation’.
However, the unexplained death of 24 raptors in Conon Bridge in March has led to campaign groups exerting pressure upon MSPs to push for new SSPCA powers.
It has also led to public criticism of Police handling of the case and assertions officers are too stretched to tackle wildlife crime adequately.
However, Scotland’s gamekeepers believe politicians should make the decision on evidence rather than events in Ross-shire.
They feel conservation groups have used the incident as a campaigning tool when little is yet known about the case.
“There is no doubt Conon Bridge was an appalling crime. All partners and stakeholders in this case hope to get to a situation where there is closure, ultimately a prosecution and appropriate sentencing,” said SGA Chairman, Alex Hogg.
“However, we feel it has also become a campaigning tool by certain groups eager to achieve their own objectives.
“RSPB Scotland, for example, pushed to make Conon Bridge a case for licensing of grouse moors even though there was no suggestion it was ever anything to do with grouse or shooting of any kind.
“We hope, therefore, that politicians manage to separate Conon Bridge from what the possible implications are of having two campaigning charities, SSPCA and RSPB, neither of whom have the same accountability as Police, involved in the delivery of justice. The two issues should not be conflated.
“There is certainly no argument to suggest having SSPCA inspectors, with the same evidence to work with as the Police, would have made any difference in Ross-shire.
“If more resources are to be put towards wildlife crime, they should go to Police Scotland or another body accountable to the state which has no campaigning objectives.”
SSPCA has a stated campaigning aspiration of trying to have legal traps and snares banned; essential tools in the control of pests and predators for many who work legitimately in the countryside.
However, new powers proposed would enable their inspectors to investigate, amongst other things, cases involving traps and snares.
Recently, the SGA highlighted the case of a Perthshire gamekeeper and his family who were put through 18 months of ‘hell’ after a case involving an un-set crow trap brought by the SSPCA.
The case was thrown out by the Procurator Fiscal on the eve of trial due to lack of evidence.
“Extending SSPCA powers in these areas is opening up the possibility of legal breaches because the SSPCA inspectors can not be seen to be impartial when dealing with these cases. Indeed, there is already concern about the use of the powers they currently hold.
“Since 2010, when this issue about powers was first debated, there has been a significant reduction in confirmed raptor poisoning cases, from 28 to 6 in 2013. While more still requires to be done, we believe it could be a backwards step to risk what has been achieved as a reaction to events in Ross-shire.”