Guest blog – Calling it for what it is by Ian Parsons

Ian Parsons spent twenty years as a ranger before running his own wildlife tour business. He now writes books and articles on wildlife.  He has contributed many articles to this blog (see here).

His book A Vulture Landscape (reviewed here) was published by Whittles Publishing in 2020, this was followed by Seasonality in 2022 (reviewed here).

A forthcoming book, entitled Of the Trees and the Birds will be out later this year.

You can follow Ian on Twitter @Birder_Griffon

 

The recent shooting of five Goshawks and the subsequent dumping of them in Kings Forest in Suffolk has, rightly, upset and outraged many, many people. I am one of those people. I spent twenty years as a ranger with the Forestry Commission, and in that time I had the privilege of monitoring these amazing birds of prey, watching with satisfaction how, with protection, they have come back to so many parts of the country.

I started my time with the FC in what was then Thetford Forest District, a district that included Kings Forest. I can remember very clearly the excitement of being taken into an active Goshawk site by my manager, hearing the adult female shouting at us as we got near and seeing fleeting glances as she circled the canopy above us. It was by necessity a brief visit, a licenced check on the nest, but those brief moments are still as clear to me today, thirty one years later, as they were that evening when I relived my first ever Gos encounter in a phone conversation with a very jealous friend.

It was 1992, the Goshawk was extremely rare in England, a television program was in the production stages documenting these bird’s gradual recolonisation (I believe it was a Survival Special, I know it was entitled The Phantom of the Forest), people were beginning to publicly talk about these birds again. But it was a hushed talk. The secrecy surrounding the nest sites of these birds was incredible, it was a need to know basis within the district office and it had been determined that most people didn’t need to know. But as well as the secrecy, I also remember the pride. Everyone that knew about those birds felt enormous pride that they were where they were.

It is an all too common experience to read the brilliant blogs of Raptor Persecution UK and learn of yet more persecution of our natural heritage, shockingly it is no longer a shock to read them, such is the frequency of these crimes, but the recent blog detailing the five dead Goshawks in Kings was particularly galling for me, their bodies being dumped just a handful of miles away from where I first saw these magnificent birds. I monitored Goshawk elsewhere in my twenty years, I felt that same pride and the tremendous high of seeing nests I kept an eye on fledging young. I also felt the lows too. Losing birds to the moronic miniscule minority that feel they have the right to deprive the vast majority of us from experiencing the thrill of seeing these predators.

It is depressing, but I console myself with the truth. The morons have lost, Goshawks are back and their population is booming, from small numbers in 1992 to much larger ones now. Yes, the persecution of these birds still continues, but their overall population continues to recover. So in the last few days I have tried to ensure that I am thinking about that, thinking about the positives, but I have also been thinking about this, the main topic of this blog…

Those Goshawks were killed illegally, it was a crime. Those Goshawks were shot by a gun. Therefore, by a very straightforward process of logic and understanding of the English language, we can call what happened to those birds a gun crime. Except it wasn’t. Because in Britain, carrying out crimes with guns doesn’t necessarily make those crimes gun crime.

The Home Office is very careful about how it defines what makes a crime carried out with a gun a gun crime. They use a definition that limits what crimes, carried out with a gun, can actually be classed as gun crime, a definition that is useful if, say, you wanted to manage statistics that show crime levels. Now you might think I am being pedantic here, after all a crime is a crime no matter how it is labelled, but it does matter. Because how that crime is labelled dictates how it will be investigated and how it will be punished.

If I walked up the main road that runs through the village where I live carrying a loaded gun, that I legally own, and then discharged it into the air I would run the risk of a large police response, a well resourced investigation and charges laid against me under the Firearms Act. Charges that could result in a minimum jail term of five years. If I walked through a public open space (eg.moorland, forestry etc.), with the same legally owned loaded gun and then used it to kill a protected species of raptor, I may or may not get a police response, and if I did, the subsequent investigation would most likely be poorly resourced. If by some chance charges were laid against me, they would be under the various Wildlife Acts and the sentence I could receive would most likely be a small fine or even a conditional discharge.

One of the above crimes would be classed as gun crime, the other one not. Five years in prison is a deterrent. A small fine and a conditional discharge is not.

Maybe my grasp of the English language is not what I thought it was, but for me, a crime carried out with a gun is a gun crime. Simple.

Gun crime, as defined by the Home Office, is an absolute national police priority (and so it should be). Tremendous resources are thrown at combatting it, at ensuring that it is always thoroughly investigated and that appropriate punishments are handed down by the courts. If the Home Office’s grasp of the English language suddenly improved, and all crimes carried out with a gun were defined as gun crime, it would be a game changer in the protection of our natural heritage.

Whilst I think it would be great if everyone reading this contacted their MP to ask them to explain why a crime carried out with a gun isn’t a gun crime, I’m too cynical to believe that the Home Office’s definition will change any time soon. They are not going to want it to. Various Home Secretaries have always prided themselves in keeping gun crime at low levels – which is easier to do if you’re careful with your definitions. They don’t want the definition to change on their watch because if it did, the number of gun crimes officially recorded per year would suddenly shoot up. There would be questions raised in the House, the media would have a field day, reputations might get damaged etc. etc. But it is not just the politicians that would feel the heat, the police forces would too. Suddenly Chief Constables would find themselves under pressure from their Police Commissioners, from their MPs, from us, to explain this sudden rise in gun crime. Maybe I am being cynical, but I think that for the powers that be, it is far more comfortable to not record all crimes carried out with guns as gun crime.

But just because the Home Office employs a somewhat illogical definition of what constitutes a gun crime, it doesn’t mean that we have to. It is time for us to call these crimes what they are, they are wildlife crime, but they are also gun crime, they are crimes carried out with a gun.

On social media, in press releases, in interviews with the media, in articles we write, on blogs, in fact everywhere, we should call it as it is. A crime carried out with a gun is a gun crime. Calling it what it is will draw attention to the fact that criminal elements living amongst us are knowingly and wilfully using guns to commit crimes and then getting away with it (or ending up with mere judicial slaps of the wrist). Calling it what it is will no doubt provoke responses from certain sectors saying that it isn’t gun crime, but the simple answer to those remarks is ‘It is a crime committed with a gun, ergo it is a gun crime.’ If these people continue with their denial of this very easy to understand definition, then we should be publicly asking them why it is they don’t want these crimes committed with guns classified as gun crime. Are they afraid of the implications for themselves, or the people they represent, if crimes carried out with guns are called gun crime? Of course they are.

It is important for me to state that this is by no means a blog against the legal ownership of firearms or their legal use. It is a blog about us calling it for what it is, we mustn’t shy away from the very simple fact that a crime carried out with a gun is, by simple logic, a gun crime.

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16 Replies to “Guest blog – Calling it for what it is by Ian Parsons”

  1. Thanks Mark, a good read.

    Very evocative lines about your first experiences.

    Let’s hope the person(s) responsible for this horrid episode are found (and quickly) and receive punishment befitting of their crime. If they are found guilty of gun crime and serve a proper time in jail it might finally serve as deterrent to others.

    1. But that’s the thing Stu, this won’t be treated as gun crime, even though the crime was blatantly carried out with a gun. The offender if caught could face a maximum sentence of 6 months, but that won’t happen. Perhaps a suspended sentence and a fine at most is my bet. It should be a gun crime, but it isn’t because of how the Home Office defines gun crime.

  2. I read recently that in France a ‘hunter’ who kills a person in the course of hunting can end up with a minuscule sentence. And as for the USA …
    This whole thing goes deeper than just shooting morons who label themselves ‘conservationists’. It goes to deeply toxic masculinity.
    Just look at the Met.

  3. A very well argued and persuasive piece by Ian Parsons. I too recall the early days when goshawks were few and far between and the locations of nests on FC lands were shrouded in secrecy. If I recall correctly goshawks were reintroduced from N. Europe to Britain by a handful of falconers….. in those days a much maligned group of birding enthusiasts!

    1. Absolutely. Falconers’ escapees started the re-introduction which was then quasi-formalised in the Kielder Forest. If I remember correctly, the author of The Goshawk, Dr Robert Kenward was party to it, along with others. I also know that Dr Nick Fox had a great deal to do with the red kite project in Wales; both were or are practising falconers. It is also worth noting that the peregrine eggs confiscated from Lendrum were hatched, reared and returned to the wild by falconers; there are many other similar examples of how we help native birds of prey. Of course, in the USA the Peregrine Fund was founded by falconers and has saved many species in addition to the peregrine. We do have some good eggs, no pun intended, in our ranks. All falconers will be outraged by what has happened.

  4. This goshawk case is a weird one. But having scratched my head over all the likely and unlikely scenarios as to who caused their deaths and why they did it – I would still say that the short odds are on keepers or on persons who are game shooting supporters wrongly believing they are “doing the right thing for the countryside” , etc, etc.
    The shooting world (at least on Twitter – I made a rare visit to the site just to see) are seeming to demand “no speculation until proof” (but themselves are then hell bent on coming up with the most far fetched scenarios*** they can dream up). But what a load of bollocks anyway – it’s a free country (just about), it’s our supposedly protected wildlife (mainly, on paper anyway) and people are entitled to speculate on the likely ‘winner’ of this or any other grim wildlife crime who-dunnit, and to revisit recent reports, court cases and convictions, etc to inform themselves about related crimes where the facts were eventually proven and made clear for the world to see.

    *** My own fave far fetched scenario that remains possible…An individual disillusioned by the rampant killing of raptors across the UK somehow accumulates some naturally deceased falconry goshawks and saved them up. This person then gets access to / has a sympathetic friend shotgun licence holder who agrees to shoot these already dead birds laid against a hillside 30 ish yards away with a load and choke that would give a realistic shot pattern for future X-Ray. I admit its a bit of an outsider but I thought it useful to write this crap down – to show that there ought to be no fear “of giving people ideas / excuses to use”. They can have ’em for free from me – I’ve got a plenty more.

    However, if shooting journalists want to pin all their hopes on the fact that some people coming “virgin” to this issue (but initially horrified by alighting on this case) are then going to say to themselves “mmm okay then, that scenario might reasonably be what happened, maybe the lovely shooting people are being demonised, maybe there is nothing in this whole silly ‘raptor persecution thing’ after all” …

    Then, (if this is considered by them a good day of water-muddying), may I suggest those shooting journalists who do know better are in fact in the business of investing the last of their dwindling stake on the longest-shot mug-punter games in the entire casino. Okay, the daft 5000 to 1 shot might come off one time, they must do sometimes – maybe even this time…but next time, or the time after that it will inevitably end up with another ordinary case in court and another humbled keeper collecting the usual booby prize = pay a naff little fine and a few quid costs.

  5. I hadn’t thought of this horrible crime like this before but Ian’s logic cannot be faulted. Of course were the police persuaded to treat these and other wildlife crimes involving guns as gun crime we might have a better chance of both solving them and the penalties for the criminals more appropriate too rather than the usual slap on the wrist they get now.
    Goshawks are fantastic birds to watch and I am lucky i see them fairly regularly, more so than Sparrowhawk or Peregrine here in this bit of mid Wales. Yet we too suffer from the low life Rsoles who kill them, two females were shot relatively locally last spring. My guess would be that all culprits will be wearing estate tweeds or their equivalent on shoot days. How though have these birds been shot, using a tethered Eagle Owl decoy perhaps, I know they respond to this or at a bait because they are hard enough to see singly close enough for the moronic to shoot them. Whoever, where ever and however if caught they deserve serious jail time, although I don’t think it will stop , raptor persecution that is, until canned commercial driven shooting has gone.

    1. Hi Paul, I’m not qualified on young goshawk territorial behaviour at all so theorising from my knowledge of other raptors and of more than a few keepers dirty tricks I have seen and heard of 100% reliably…
      Do you think this would this be realistic? A big crow type / letterbox cage baited with pigeons or small corvids (see Goathland goshawk case footage as example) in clearing or junction of rides in a big wood. After a few days you get one young goshawk in, but you know there’s plenty other juveniles in the area. So you leave it in, top up the water and chuck in some more pigeons / jackdaws. Couple of days later you have another goshawk in. And then maybe another…etc. At some point you shoot a couple of them, but you always leave one live one in to attract others and you keep topping up the cage with live pigeons / jackdaws. Sooner or later you draw in and clear up all the young birds circulating in that area.
      This works for other species. But I honestly don’t know how well this method holds regards goshawk territorial/dispersal behaviour, what do you think?

  6. I’ve just been on the BASC FB page and the comments are deeply deeply stupid. This is a set up by Wild justice or the police are biased in the request etc, hard to believe sane ” normal ” folk can think like this even a friend! its a huge missed opportunity by BASC and the other shooting organisations to join the good guys add to the reward etc but no they do the predictable false horror at the very suggestion they may just may be able to help a police enquiry. Confirming the negative opinion many of us raptor enthusiasts have of them and their apologist ways for wildlife criminals, you couldn’t be clearer about their attitudes after this. You couldn’t make their stupidity and arrogance up and be believed!

  7. Ian, I share your absolute outrage at this latest slaughter of birds of prey, but I am not sure I agree with your argument about ‘gun crime’. Rare birds of prey are illegally killed using a variety of methods including shooting, poisoning , trapping and nest/egg destruction. I don’t believe that it is any less serious an offence if a clutch of hen harrier eggs is stamped on, say, than if an adult raptor is shot but your proposal would seem to make it so, legally speaking. I wholeheartedly agree that it is important that the criminals who kill raptors (and those at whose behest they do it) should be severely punished so that there is a genuine deterrent but this should be the case whatever method of persecution has been used.

    1. Jonathan,
      I would agree with you, but this was about crimes carried out with guns and how a rather specific definition of it means that some people that carry out crime with guns gets treated very differently to others. These birds were shot, so my point is why isn’t this treated as gun crime – I know the investigation is ongoing, but it won’t be treated as such, I am sure.
      One thing to note, for a crime to be classified as gun crime under the current definition, it doesn’t have to be fired, if someone is just carrying a gun when committing a crime it can potentially be treated as gun crime…
      There is also the fact that people who hold firearms certificates and shotgun certificates can have them taken away if they are convicted, the return of these certificates to these convicted criminals at a later date is about to become a hot topic. If people couldn’t get their certificates back after, say, being convicted of wildlife poisoning it would be quite a deterrent i think.

  8. I am shocked by this latest raptor killing, but I don’t quite understand the logistics of it.
    How can someone locate, track and successfully kill five birds of the same elusive and rare species in such a short space of time? Surely no gamekeeper is going to obsessively devote the time and effort required to to this, even if they did have the requisite skills?
    This seems to be a very skillful and rather obsessively determined person, perpetrating what must surely be an act of deliberate and malicious provocation.

  9. BASC, along with other concerned parties, are quite correct in stating that more clarification, on many aspects of this case, would be helpful.
    BASC also state, quite correctly, that the use of a gun to commit a crime is not necessarily correlated with legitimate ownership ( and therefore would not come under their remit).
    This is fine if you are a bank robber, but to imply that an individual (?) ,undetected, and probably on numerous occasions, could freely wander on private ( for firearms purposes) property, shooting protected birds is foolish.
    The type of person who might hold a shotgun without a licence would have no inclination to commit this crime, this is not shooting Pheasants out of a car window, or at roost. It takes time and fieldcraft and leaves the perpetrator liable to detection.
    As others have commented, it is a head scratcher at present as to how these birds met their end, but were probably shot ( as opposed to being trapped first ), over a fairly short timespan ( a freezer may have been employed), to some type of decoy. Maybe.
    In my experience, young gos will certainly consort, on and off, into the autumn, thus increasing the terror inflicted on released game, but i dont recall noting this after September.

    1. “Terror inflicted on released game”?
      Oh please- I don’t think this sort of language, like the hoary old ‘murdering, thieving Mr. Fox’, holds any meaning. Birds are killed by raptors for food, that’s how the world works- “inflicting terror” is a silly anthropomorphism, especially given the fact that these ‘game’ birds are intensively bred solely to be shot for amusement.

      1. Without being anthropormorphic, having a couple of gos hunt a release area, back and forth, with Pheasant poults flinging themselves into piles of brash, wire netting, and so far into dry stone walls they have to be pulled out, seems like terror to me !.
        On the other hand, a Fox obviously can’t commit murder.

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