Four interesting cases – #1

AnnieAt 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.

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  1. Paul V Irving says:

    I have the utmost respect for people like Guy and utter contempt for the criminals (or their employers) as described in this incident. The law has to be seen to be fair but I know how frustrating that it can be trying to get these bastards in court or in most cases even catching them at it.

    Here in the crime scene that is the Yorkshire Dales of the fifteen or so Hen Harrier nesting attempts 1993 to 2007 in ONE area 60% of breeding adults "disappeared."
    The same area that"Bowland Betty" was found shot in.
    Where successful Short Eared Owl nests are as rare as hen's teeth and grouse moor Peregrines were last successful over 20 years ago.

    Sickening, Frustrating, Anger inducing but one day we will win!

  2. Giles Bradshaw says:

    I committed a wildlife crime on Tuesday at about 10.00 am down on the farm in North Devon if that helps.

    It would be interesting to know where wildlife crime ranks in convictions rates compared to other classes of crime. Quote a hard thing to measure I should think as of course a lot of crime goes unreported.

    • Mike says:

      Bit of a worthless comment then Giles, a complete waste of space!

      • Giles Bradshaw says:

        Mike it's a blog about wildlife crime that doesn't reach the courts or result in a conviction.

        There are obviously various reasons for that but if we want to combat wildlife crime it's surely worth looking at examples of it and asking how either the law could be changed, enforcement improved or peoples culture changed to both reduce wildlife crime and successfully prosecute it when it does occur.

        Mark is giving some examples of such wildlife crime so it seemed appropriate to add to them.

        My view is that as the law stands some wildlife crime is an inherently good thing. Where that is the case rather than the police prosecuting the crime the politicians should change the law to stop it being illegal.

  3. Hugh Webster says:

    In parts of Africa they take poaching quite seriously and have instigated a shoot-to-kill policy with rangers targeting criminal poachers. African governments operating on budgets only a fraction the size of the UK's manage to fund and man anti-poaching patrols by armed rangers in their National Parks, often supported by UAVs, helicopters and 4WDs and praised by the likes of Prince William. In some places individual rhinos have their own armed guards. But then in Africa the designation of a National Park more often means something.

    It strikes me that if Guy Shorrock had been part of an armed ranger patrol he might have felt safe and confident enough to confront and arrest this balaclava'd criminal, having caught him red-handed. As it was I can hardly blame him for being reticent about approaching a man he has just witnessed carry out a criminal act with a firearm whilst wearing a balaclava!

    Perhaps we could request that Tanzania, Kenya, or better yet, Botswana (with their highly trained and capable BDF), sends over some anti-poaching personnel to train up our own ranger force in a capacity building exercise? Staking out the hills covertly seems like an excellent training opportunity for our Special Forces as well. Imagine our Balaclava clad friend confronted by a ring of similarly attired SAS troopers emerging suddenly from the heather?!

    In the absence of properly equipped and resourced ranger patrols I can only see that a ban on all driven grouse shooting that then gets these criminal individuals off the hills holds any hope for the hen harrier.

    • Giles Bradshaw says:

      So your suggesting that the maybe RSPB should start tooling up?

    • Filbert Cobb says:

      IR night vision scopes, cameras and recording devices are affordable especially at DIY level. Professional equipment could be within the budgets of organisations. Faces, vehicles, licence plates ... and they can't see you

      • Giles Bradshaw says:

        Not against night vision scopes - just not mounted on high powered weaponry. A shoot to kill policy for wildlife criminals would be a bad thing. Let's stick to the rule of law.

        • Jim Clarke says:

          And the hypocrisy award goes to Giles. To quote;

          'My view is that as the law stands some wildlife crime is an inherently good thing'.

          What was that you were saying about sticking to the rule of law? Silly boy.

  4. john Miles says:

    Amazing the man you are talking about has just [Note from Mark: I didn't name a man and I don't know whether you really know who 'he' is or not so I can't post that bit of your comment, can I John? In fact i probably couildn't post it even if I did, could I John?].
    There is also a law which is called 'Aiding and a betting'
    This must point to the owners of the moors or agents as well as the guns that buy their way onto the moor because to gain enough Red Grouse to create 'Driven Red Grouse' shooting the law has to be broken!
    You then do not have to see them doing the crime. All you have to prove in court is that so many territories of birds of prey have gone missing.
    Fortunately in England most of these territories have been mapped!

  5. Steve Jennings says:

    I first heard about this case through an acquaintance who regularly beats on this particular moor. His version of events differs slightly in that the case was given a preliminary hearing and was dismissed through lack of evidence, namely a boot cast and some feathers. I cannot say for certain if this is the truth, the person in question was irate that I had been one of the sodden 570! But my first thought was did the judge shoot? Good old boys network and all of that?? We probably will never know.

  6. Jim Clarke says:

    Nah Giles, no need for that I should think. Here's a couple of suggestions for fun alternative activities.
    A) Greet every grouse shoot possible with a mass happening. Why wait until the next financial crisis to see a started banker?
    B) Spend the day (and where needed the night) trailing grouse moor keepers. After all we are clearly ignorant of their traditional way of life so it should prove enlightening to see what they get up to on a daily basis. The local police may also not appreciate the sterling efforts in the field of wildlife conservation they are making so, of course, don't be reticent in sharing what you learn with them. If all that walking sounds like hard work buy yourself a drone and learn all about it from the comfort of a deck chair.


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