Farm worker who poisoned 406 wedge-tailed eagles in east Gippsland jailed and fined
A New Zealand man has been jailed for 14 days and fined $2,500 for poisoning 406 wedge-tailed eagles at three remote properties in Victoria’s east.
- It’s the first time in Victorian history a person has been jailed for wildlife destruction
- The farm worker said he poisoned the birds under the direction of his employer
- A retired wildlife officer says such culling of eagles is common on farms
Farm worker Murray James Silvester, 59, pleaded guilty to killing the protected birds at Tubbut in east Gippsland between October 2016 and April 2018.
The eagle carcasses were found hidden in bush and scrub on three separate farms spanning 2,000 hectares.
Other protected species including a kookaburra, ravens and a raptor were also found dead
Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) prosecutor Chrisanthi Paganis told the Sale Magistrates’ Court Silvester first alerted authorities to his actions in May 2018 after an argument with his boss, landowner John Auer.
Silvester provided investigators with two diaries detailing the methods used and a hand-drawn map showing where the eagle carcasses were hidden and where the chemicals were stored.
Silvester also named others involved.
The prosecutor told the court other people were being investigated over the killings but had not been charged.
Chemicals injected into necks of sheep to lure eagles
Ms Paganis told the court three different chemicals were used to kill the eagles, but most of the eagle deaths were caused by the chemical Lannate (Methomyl).
“John Auer showed him how to do it by injecting the substances into the necks of lambs,” Ms Paganis told the court.
Lannate caused the eagles to die within 30 minutes of feeding on the sheep and lamb carcasses, the court heard.
Over the 18-month period, Silvester experimented with other chemicals, including a blue phosphorous which made the eagles severely sick but did not kill them straight away.
Sale Magistrates’ Court heard Silvester admitted to killing 366 eagles during 2017 and another 40 in early 2018 at the properties at 2742, 2744 and 2789 McKillops Road, Tubbut.
Orders, court hears
A report for DELWP estimated it would take two and a half years before breeding recovered to its pre-kill levels.
“This is our first custodial sentence for the destruction of wildlife in Victoria, so it’s a significant statement to make by the courts, that this is a very, very serious matter and this is how it will be dealt with,” said Iain Bruce, the manager of DELWP’s investigations and intelligence unit.
Defence lawyer Keith Borthwick told the court Silvester’s employer played a role in the eagle deaths.
“It was under the instruction of his employer,” Mr Borthwick said.
He said Silvester was under pressure to increase lamb survival rates.
The court was told the maximum penalty for killing that many eagles was more than $350,000 or six months’ jail.
“You brought this to the attention of authorities because you had an argument with your boss,” Magistrate Rodney Higgins told Mr Silvester.
Silvester pleaded guilty to two charges under the Wildlife Act and was sentenced to 14 days in prison and fined $2,500.
“You’ll be back home in New Zealand in a month,” Magistrate Higgins told Silvester.
Eagle culls ‘widespread’ on farms
Retired wildlife officer Roger Bilney said the illegal killing of wedge-tailed eagles was not isolated to the Tubbut case.
“It’s a multiple state issue, a national issue, which needs further research,” Mr Bilney said.
“This is threatening the whole species and it’s an iconic bird. People will stop and watch as they soar past. The wedge-tailed eagle is an iconic bird, a part of the Australian landscape,” he said.
He said eagles were also targeted as predators to lambs in New South Wales and Queensland.
“Especially with the value of wool and lambs increasing, a lot of farmers see the wedge-tailed eagles as a threat to their profitability,” Mr Bilney said.
“They’re certainly capable of killing newborn lambs, and we know that they do that at times and they will team up and do it, but in terms of the overall losses on a sheep farm, research shows it’s irrelevant to the overall property,” Mr Bilney said.
“Especially with the drought, and so many lambs dying due to the ewes being in poor condition, there’d be a higher mortality due to poor farming practices, or things like drought that are beyond their control,” Mr Bilney said.
‘Bloody well done’: Texts and emails reveal scheme to poison eagles
November 14 2019
The messages from a Gippsland land owner congratulating his employee for killing dozens of wedge-tailed eagles have been revealed after the businessman admitted to his part in the scheme.
John Franz Auer’s farm manager Murray Silvester injected the carcasses of lambs, sheep and kangaroos with insecticide to use as bait to kill eagles over about two years.
Environment Department officers discovered at least 134 dead wedge-tailed eagles, along with the carcasses of four other protected bird species on Auer’s properties in May and June last year.
“I just wouldn’t have dreamed of those numbers. Bloody well done,” Auer said in messages to his farm manager.
The emails and text messages, in which the pair secretly referred to eagles as “foxes”, were revealed at Bairnsdale Magistrates Court on Wednesday as Auer, 57, pleaded guilty to the misuse of agricultural chemicals.
Auer also admitted to his involvement in offences carried out by Silvester, who was last year found guilty of injecting animal carcasses with insecticide to use as bait.
On October 5, 2016, Auer messaged Silvester asking: “Seen any eagles?”
“6 more = 24 in 2 days,” Silvester replied.
“Gee that’s amazing, they just keep coming? I just wouldn’t have dreamed of those numbers. Bloody well done,” Auer replied a few days later.
In late October of 2016, Auer messaged Silvester saying he had picked up a “different chem to try”, later adding he had “looked up that poison and it is deadly to birds apparently so should work”.
At some stage, Auer told Silvester to refer to eagles within email communication as “foxes”, court documents show.
In January 2017, Silvester wrote to Auer: “3 more foxs [sic] = 52, crazy”.
In August that year, after Silvester said he had “got” five foxes, Auer replied: “Well done on foxes, I wonder where a group of 7 come from hey. Gee your [sic] good at getting straight onto them now.”
Then, in November 2017, Auer wrote: “The eagles just keep coming, it continues to astound me, but your [sic] doing a good job on them”.
Court documents show Auer hired Silvester as a farm manager in 2016 in Tubbut, near the Snowy River National Park, where he operates a sheep grazing business on several thousand acres of land.
Silvester, a New Zealand national, was charged by the Environment Department and found guilty in September last year of killing 420 wedge-tailed eagles in East Gippsland over a two-year period and sentenced to 14 days in jail and fined $2500.
Auer was then charged by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions in June for the misuse and incorrect storage of agricultural chemicals, including poisons and pesticides.
In March 2017, the court documents show, Auer supplied Silvester with a quantity of Lannate, an insecticide that contains a substance toxic to humans and animals called methomyl.
Eagles have historically been blamed by farmers for the deaths of lambs.
Auer was also convicted on Wednesday of failing to comply with the conditions of an Agricultural Chemical User Permit by storing and using Lannate incorrectly and for failing to comply with storage instructions relating to 1080 wild dog bait.
On two charges, Auer was convicted, given a 12-month good behaviour bond and ordered to pay $25,000 to a court fund to be distributed among wildlife groups in Gippsland. He was also ordered to pay department costs of $3870.
On four remaining charges, Auer was convicted and sentenced to a community corrections order for a period of 12 months, under which he must perform 100 hours of community service.