Landowners face jail threat over bird deaths

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LANDOWNERS could be jailed for the illegal killing of wild birds by their employees under new legislation that comes into force today.

The landmark “vicarious liability” legislation allows the prosecution of landowners or managers who fail to take steps to ensure staff and contractors act within the law.

The legislation applies to the unlawful killing of wild birds and the possession of banned pesticides. The maximum penalty is six months in prison or a £5,000 fine, or both.

Landowners will be entitled to argue they did not know about the crime and took all reasonable steps to prevent it, as a defence.

Detective Inspector Brian Stuart, head of the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit, said vicarious liability will serve as a deterrent to owners and managers who turn a blind eye to “questionable practices” on their land.

“It will also provide law enforcement with much needed powers to target the minority of landowners and managers who are content to benefit from offences committed by their employee rather than acting as custodians of our natural environment.”

The latest RSPB Scotland annual report shows that 29 birds of prey were illegally poisoned in 2010. A further eight birds of prey were also confirmed as victims of shooting, trapping or nest destruction.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, the charity’s head of species and land management, said: “Criminal activity against our vulnerable birds of prey populations is deeply ingrained in some parts of rural Scotland. The introduction of vicarious liability, targeting those who are still killing birds of prey illegally, is a welcome and proportionate response.”

Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson said the legislation highlights the importance of landowners and managers who run shooting businesses taking a proactive role in ensuring employees and contractors are aware of the law.

“Most such businesses already do act responsibly, but the small minority of managers and owners who don’t will be at risk of prosecution.”

Luke Borwick, chairman of Scottish Land and Estates, said: “We have made clear our reservations about the necessity for a statutory approach, but it is now important that there is absolute clarity for landowners, managers and gamekeepers on how the legislation will be enforced.”