At the BAWC conference I read out some accounts of illegal persecution that had not resulted in court cases, let alone convictions. They illustrate what is apparently happening, and also how difficult it is to get a conviction because of the circumstances of these crimes.
This is the first of four such accounts I’ll publish over the next few days. They are all in the public domain, but you might not have seen all of them, and I think it is worth reminding ourselves, and organisations such as the Moorland Association, Countryside Alliance, Scottish Lands and Estates etc how much wildlife crime is going on out there, and how difficult it is to gain a conviction (or even a court case).
This account is from my book, Inglorious, although most of these words are those of Guy Shorrock, a senior RSPB Investigations Officer, whom I interviewed for my book:
Mark writes in Inglorious: Guy was involved in investigations work at the Geltsdale RSPB nature reserve, on the border of Cumbria and Northumberland, in the late 1990s. Each year there were several pairs of Hen Harriers attempting to breed on the nature reserve and on the neighbouring grouse moors, but the nests had a high rate of failure. A few shot birds of prey were picked up and the occasional poisoned Raven was recovered. Guy told me:
‘We had received this information, so in 2000 we employed contract staff to watch Hen Harrier nests. As you know, it’s a huge area. One Saturday in April one of the contract staff was watching a Hen Harrier nest just off the reserve. He saw a man arrive and try to shoot the male Hen Harrier. We decided to keep a watch on it. So basically I did a few watches on the nest early in the morning. This involved setting off at about 03:30 in the morning; it was a 50-minute walk to the site, creeping in in the dark, hunkering down in the heather and waiting for light to see what happened. It all kicked off one weekend in mid-April when I was there and it was just getting light. I was hidden on the side of a small valley and on the other side of the valley there was a line of shooting butts about 400 metres away from where I was. The Hen Harriers were prospecting and starting to build a nest in this valley.
Just as it was getting light I saw this crouched figure creeping through the heather and into the last in the line of shooting butts. He wore a full-face balaclava, and had a telescope and a firearm. He spent quite a long time scanning the RSPB land, presumably making sure that there weren’t any RSPB staff there – but he didn’t spot me. Then he was creeping along the line of the shooting butts trying to get an opportunity to shoot a Hen Harrier but neither of the birds came close enough to him. It was now getting quite late in the morning, relatively speaking, about 06:30, and he walked across the hillside, got into his Land Rover and drove away. That set the scene.
We thought that because the reserve was manned during the week it was more likely that something would happen at the weekend. So I was back there next weekend, and this time I had a colleague on the hill as back-up. I had crept in, in the dark, and settled down, but what I didn’t know was that two other men had crept in in the dark too, and we had all settled down to wait and watch, completely unaware of the others’ presence.
I’m sat there minding my own business when at 0537, Bang! a shotgun goes off. Not too far away but not desperately close. So – I’m not alone! So I’m scanning the heather and eventually I see the man in one of the shooting butts, again with a full-face balaclava, crouched down in an olive Barbour jacket.
He eventually walked 30 or 40 metres down the hill, had a quick scan over our reserve and then picked up a dead bird and I thought ‘that’s got to be a harrier.’ He continued across the hillside and then disappeared into a ditch. So, I’m sat there and 40 minutes pass and I see his head bobbing up and down in the ditch. And then another shotgun blast goes off and this time it’s really close to me on the other side of a dry-stone wall – and that really did make me jump.
A short while later the two men left – my ‘eyes on the hill’ spotted them both leaving – so I guided my colleague into the ditch where the first man had disappeared and he tells me, over the radio, that he can see a feather and some blood, so I join him and sure enough there’s a broken Hen Harrier tail feather and some drops of blood.
We looked around the ditch to see what we could see and there were plenty of footprints but I noticed two little circular plastic discs about a centimetre across and for a minute we were wondering ‘What the hell are they?’ but then we realised that they were studs from wing-tags and the female Hen Harrier had been wing-tagged. So we looked around more carefully and saw, down a hole, a wing tip, reached in and pulled out the corpse of a recently killed female Hen Harrier that had been hidden in the ditch.‘
Mark writes: But even all that evidence didn’t lead to a conviction, although the police did investigate and plaster casts were taken of the footprints at the scene of the crime. Local gamekeepers’ houses were searched but no evidence strong enough to secure a court case was found, even though RSPB staff had all but witnessed the killing of the Hen Harrier and had her body. That’s how difficult it is. And of course, there was nobody else up in the hills that Saturday morning before 06:00, so if Guy and his colleague hadn’t been there this would have been just another unexplained disappearance of a pair of Hen Harriers that had apparently been prospecting but were not known to have nested.
Today we’ll have three more examples of observed wildlife crimes which didn’t lead to court cases or convictions.
- Posted in: Grouse and harriers