Animal Liberation activists use drones to spy on farms

September 3, 2013 |

On 1 April 201 3 in Drones to be used by environmental group for surveillance on private properties I posted on the acquisition of a drone by animal liberationists to spy on farmers.  It was a story well covered by the Australian press at the time.  I had no doubt that they would use the drones for that purpose.  Hardly surprising given the use to which drones have been put overseas and the lack of controls in place against such behaviour.

The ABC Landline program in Sky Wars  and Animal Liberation activists launch spy drone to test free-range claims reports that the animal liberationists have done just what they said they would do.  The focus of the story is on treatement of livestock but it is clear from the reportage that the issue of a landowners privacy is a key concern.  The lack of protections are clear.  There are competing rights involved but use of advanced technology has led to a mismatch of rights.  Common law remedies do not satisfactorily deal with the use of drones photographing over someone’s land.

The transcript of Sky Wars  provides:

PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: Hello, I’m Pip Courtney, welcome to Landline.

First up, a story that’s going to cause a great deal of controversy. Landline can reveal that for the first time in Australia, Animal Liberation activists have used a drone aircraft to spy on farms. The animal rights charity now says aerial footage taken from the remote-controlled aircraft will become a key element of its ongoing campaign against intensive livestock production. And it warns the spy camera will be used this summer to test the legality of cattle feedlots. Sean Murphy investigates.

(TITLE: SKY WARS)

SEAN MURPHY, REPORTER: They call it Hector and it’s a new weapon in Animal Liberation’s campaign for their demands for fairer and more humane farming. It’s a $17,000 hexacopter drone, fitted with high-definition video camera with special stabilisers and a 10x zoom lens.

MARK PEARSON, ANIMAL LIBERATION: So it gives the opportunity to be able to document from high above 10 metres and below 30 metres, and it is lawful. So the key to the remote-controlled device is that it’s actually vision that’s obtained without trespass, it’s obtained lawfully in our air space and so what it documents is something that can be used by all the authorities, police, and the courts.

(Flying the hexacopter)

Good, good. Just go nice and slow.

SEAN MURPHY: Today the animal rights charity is gathering evidence at a free-range egg farm at Dora Creek on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

VOX POP: See, that’s all really lush green.

VOX POP I: Yeah, there’s no evidence at all.

VOX POP: No evidence that the chooks have been scratching in any of that.

SEAN MURPHY: Animal Liberation has provided these pictures to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for an investigation into whether this farm, and another further north at Maitland, are really free-range.

MARK PEARSON: If it’s a free-range operation the birds must have access to outside palatable vegetation, shade, light, dust, etc to fulfil their needs. Which is what consumers expect to be the case if they’re paying the premium for free-range eggs.

We flew the craft over the operation alongside all the sheds, around the whole complex, not one bird was out of those sheds.

SEAN MURPHY: Animal Liberation is hoping the investigation will highlight the confusion in Australia’s egg market and the lack of consistent standards on what is free-range.

The consumer rights magazine Choice, says labelling standards are a mess.

ANGELA MCDOUGALL, CHOICE: Look there’s a range of approaches in different States. Queensland, for example, recently had a standard that was 1,500 birds per hectare. They’ve increased that to 10,000 birds per hectare. In other States there’s no requirements at all, but what Choice wants to see is the States and Territories getting together and getting behind what’s called the Model Code of Practice, which sets a limit of 1,500 birds per hectare.

We think that’s the best thing we’ve got going at the moment. It is a voluntary standard, but it’s the best thing we’ve got at the moment.

SEAN MURPHY: Back at Dora Creek, the hexacopter mission was over in minutes, but it was long enough to attract the attention of one of the farm owners, Glenn Moncrieff.

MARK PEARSON: My name’s Mark.

GLENN MONCRIEFF, FREE RANGE EGG PRODUCER: Glenn.

MARK PEARSON: Glenn?

GLENN MONCRIEFF: Yeah.

MARK PEARSON: We’re just filming in the area, that’s all.

GLENN MONCRIEFF: Why?

MARK PEARSON: Sorry?

GLENN MONCRIEFF: Why? I just got a phone call to say that somebody was flying something over our farm.

MARK PEARSON: Oh, right, right. Yeah. Well, that’s just some of the things we do, we document things, we film things around the area that are of interest to us.

GLENN MONCRIEFF: Where are you from?

MARK PEARSON: And that’s probably pretty much all I’m going to say.

SEAN MURPHY: Why didn’t you just tell him what you were doing and put your allegations to him?

MARK PEARSON: Well, because I gave him the opportunity to ask – to tell me what was going…

SEAN MURPHY: He asked you first, though.

MARK PEARSON: Yes. Well, the reason is, we’re not an authority. We’re not a regulator. We document information, we gather information, and it’s up to the regulatory authorities to make a decision as to whether it’s he’s doing the wrong thing or not. So I don’t think I’m in a position, or nor do I have the authority, to intimidate somebody by starting to take them to task on what I think they may or may not be doing.

SEAN MURPHY: Later Mr Moncrieff told Landline that his 65,000 hens were just confined on this day because they were being de-wormed. This is an allowable welfare practice under Australia’s Model Code for Poultry.

GLENN MONCRIEFF: We are going through, systemically de-worming that flock. So that’s why they’re not out today. You can’t do that. You can’t de-worm and have birds out at the same time.

SEAN MURPHY: How often do your birds get outside?

GLENN MONCRIEFF: Every day from about 12 o’clock till – they go back in at dark, actually, or a little bit after.

SEAN MURPHY: How do you feel about being spied on with a drone camera?

GLENN MONCRIEFF: I find it extremely intrusive. I don’t believe these people should have the right to do what they’ve just done. If they come and knock on me door and want to talk to me about – and ask questions, happy to help. If they want to fly things over my fence, I just don’t agree with it.

SEAN MURPHY: Mr Moncrieff would not give Landline permission to film on his property, but we shot these pictures from the roadside later on the same day showing hens grazing outside.

Animal Liberation claims it has more evidence captured on a camera secretly installed inside this farm, as well as vision shot by its operatives inside the premises without permission.

We’ve decided not to broadcast those images because of legal issues, but Animal Liberation says it’s confident the public’s right to know would protect its members from any prosecution.

MARK PEARSON: I have been charged numerous times, arrested and charged for trespass, numerous times, about 12 times. I have no conviction as a consequence of those, because the judge and the courts look at the situation – ‘OK, a person has gone and filmed and documented something, but look at what they’ve documented.’

SEAN MURPHY: NSW Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson, says the law is failing to deal with what she calls agriterrorism.

KATRINA HODGKINSON, NSW MINISTER FOR PRIMARY INDUSTRIES: I have had correspondence and personal conversations with some of the people that have been victims of this type of thing and they have been terrified as a result of this.

You’ve got people living in houses, these are family properties, and they have been terrified as a result of these break-ins and you could actually call it a form of agriterrorism.

SEAN MURPHY: So in this case, where they’ve admitted trespass, should the police investigate?

KATRINA HODGKINSON: Look, I think that anybody that breaks into somebody’s business and risks biosecurity, absolutely, they should be investigated by the police, there’s no doubt about that.

MARK PEARSON: Hello, there, I’m standing for the Animal Justice Party in the Senate. A voice for animals in politics.

SHOPPER: Thank you. OK, I’ll read it.

MARK PEARSON: Good on you. Thanks.

SEAN MURPHY: Mark Pearson admits the timing of the free-range egg investigation is designed to aid his bid to become a NSW Senator next week.

MARK PEARSON: I think people are interested to see the truth and to see what’s behind closed doors. The Animal Justice Party is very much about, and supports, the exposing of what is being kept hidden from people in the treatment of animals.

SEAN MURPHY: The National Farmers’ Federation says its members will be angered by the use of drones.

DUNCAN FRASER, NFF PRESIDENT: I think every farmer would feel it’s an infringement on their privacy, and especially when they have no understanding or idea that this is going on until they see the drones coming over.

SEAN MURPHY: Would you be concerned if your members took the law into their own hands and dealt with this hexacopter with their guns, for example?

DUNCAN FRASER: Well, I think that would be counterproductive. I know the temptation is there, but they would be breaking the law themselves, so they don’t really achieve anything in the end, so I think cool heads are required here and hopefully we can talk some reason to these animal rights groups and – to better understand their motives.

SEAN MURPHY: Animal Liberation has trained three operators to fly the hexacopter and says it will now be conducting a range of new investigations into other intensive animal industries.

MARK PEARSON: So wherever we’re suspicious, or where we get intelligence that there are situations where animals are being abused, then we will use, deploy, the hexacopter to fly over that area and document the evidence – legally.

So that’s the beauty of this instrument, is that it is a way of legally obtaining information, which will be admissible to court, and so that the people who are breaking the law will be taken to task by the police or whatever.

SEAN MURPHY: This summer, it says, its key target will be cattle feedlots.

MARK PEARSON: We believe that we have enough veterinary experts who will support the fact that to allow cattle to be suffering from heat stress – just so you want to you know, load them up quickly with weight and not have to spend a lot of money on, you know, space for grazing – that to put them through that day in and day out, in a very hot period of a heatwave, that itself – we’re going to take a test case and ask the police to run a test case that that itself – that that itself, that act of allowing those animals to suffer heat stress for three, four or five days, is an offence every day they do it, to every animal. That is a goal for this summer.

DUNCAN FRASER: If they believe there is a – they suspect there might be breaches of animal welfare, then surely they should be talking, rather than taking this sort of action straight away.

And I just say to the general public, would they want these sorts of machines hovering over their backyard or their house or whatever, infringing on their privacy on the suspicion that you might be kicking your dog out the back of the yard? I mean, where do you end up with these sort of things?

So I’d be very concerned if that’s the way they’re going to extend it and, again, the way they use the footage out of it.

While the transcript of Animal Liberation provides:

Animal Liberation activists have dramatically stepped up their campaign against intensive livestock production, with their first official investigation using a hexacopter drone to capture aerial footage. 

The animal rights charity purchased a $14,000 aircraft earlier this year and had it fitted with a $3,000 high-definition video camera, stabilisers and a 10-times zoom lens.

“It gives the opportunity to document from above 10 metres and below 30 metres, and it is lawful,” said Animal Liberation NSW executive director Mark Pearson.

“So the key to the remote-controlled device is that it’s actually vision that’s obtained without trespass, it’s obtained lawfully in our airspace so what it documents is something that can be used by all the authorities, police and the courts.”

It was recently used to film a free-range egg farm at Dora Creek on the Central Coast of New South Wales and another at Maitland, north of Newcastle.

Animal Liberation says it is providing the pictures to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate whether the farms are really free range.

“If it’s free range, the birds must have access to outside vegetation, palatable vegetation, shade, light, dust, etc, to fulfil their needs, which is what consumers expect to be the case if consumers are paying the premium for free-range eggs,” Mr Pearson said.

The ABC’s Landline program filmed part of the operation at the Dora Creek farm.

According to one of its owners, Glenn Moncrieff, his 65,000 hens are let out every afternoon and were simply confined to their sheds on the day Animal Liberation filmed because they were being treated for worms.

This is an approved husbandry practice under Australia’s Model Code for Poultry.

Mr Moncrieff would not let Landline inspect his sheds, but we observed hens outside later that day. 

Drone amounts to ‘shoot first, ask later’

Mr Moncrieff is unhappy about being spied on by the Animal Liberation drone.

“I find it extremely intrusive, I don’t believe these people should have the right to do what they’ve just done,” Mr Moncrieff said.

“If they come and knock on my door and ask questions, [I am] happy to help, if they want to fly things over my fence, I just don’t agree with it.”

The National Farmers Federation president Duncan Fraser says it is clear Animal Liberation would rather shoot first and ask questions later.

“There’s an element of grandstanding there, that they’re seeking to use shock tactics themselves and we don’t know if they get hold of all this footage how it’s used or edited,” Mr Fraser said. 

“So there’s a lot of hidden issues there that need to be worked through.”

He says some farmers have vowed to shoot the drone if it flies over their property but he urges caution.

“Well I think that’d be counter-productive. I know the temptation is there but they would be breaking the law themselves so they don’t really achieve anything in the end.

“So I think cool heads are required here and hopefully we can talk reason with these animal rights groups and to better understand their motives.”

Campaigners unlikely to be prosecuted

The timing of Animal Liberation’s investigation is intended to promote Mark Pearson’s campaign for the Australian Senate next week. He is the lead candidate in NSW for the Animal Justice Party.

“I think people are interested to see the truth, to see what’s behind closed doors,” Mr Pearson said.

“The Animal Justice Party is very much about and supports the exposing of what has been kept hidden from people in the treatment of animals.”

Mr Pearson says Animal Liberation also obtained vision inside the Dora Creek farm from a secretly-installed camera and additional vision, which he shot himself.

This was done without permission, but Mr Pearson is confident he and other Animal Liberation operatives will not be prosecuted.

“I have been arrested and charged for trespass numerous times – about 12 times,” he said.

“I have no conviction as a consequence of those because the judge and the courts look at the situation, okay a person has gone and filmed and documented something, but look at what they’ve documented.”

The NSW Minister For Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, says the police should investigate the case and that she has already spoken with the state Attorney-General about what she calls “agri-terrorism”. 

“I have had correspondence and personal correspondence from some of the people that have been victims of this type of thing and they have been terrified as a result of this,” Ms Hodgkinson said.

“You’ve got people living in houses, these are family properties, they have been terrified as a result of these break-ins and you could actually call it a form of agri-terrorism.” 

Next target: live exports

Animal Liberation has now trained three operators to fly the hexacopter and is planning to use it to film anywhere in Australia. It says its future targets will include live export facilities and cattle feedlots.

Mr Pearson says the group wants police to investigate if feedlots are breaking the law when cattle are kept, often unsheltered, in heat wave conditions.

“To be able to put all these cattle and feed them this high energy diet, no exercise, often no shelter, is supposed to be an acceptable practise by the Australian Lot Feeders Association and acceptable in law according to them and some veterinarians. We want to test that,” Mr Pearson said.

The National Farmers Federation’s Duncan Fraser says farmers take animal welfare seriously and welcome public scrutiny, but he believes the community will agree that using drones to film their farms is a breach of privacy.

“I just say to the general public, would they want this sort of machine hovering over their backyard or their house or whatever infringing on their privacy on the suspicion that you might be kicking your dog in the back yard, where do you end up with these sort of things?”

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