Archive for the '2017 persecution incidents' Category

16
Oct
18

2017 raptor persecution stats show criminals getting better at hiding evidence

The Scottish Government’s annual raptor persecution maps have just been released showing the number of reported crimes in 2017.

A five-year map showing the number of reported raptor persecution crimes between 2013-2017 has also been published:

An accompanying press release is as follows:

Recorded cases of bird of prey poisonings at record low

2017 saw only one recorded incident of illegal bird of prey poisoning in Scotland, according to new maps published by the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) Scotland.
This is the lowest total in a single year since PAW Scotland began compiling data for 2004 onwards.
Despite the drop in recorded incidents, data from satellite tagged raptors continues to show birds disappearing in unexplained circumstances, with persecution strongly suspected in many cases.
There was a further 36% fall in all recorded bird of prey crimes during 2017. The new figures show 9 confirmed crimes compared to 14 the previous year.
Species illegally killed in 2017 incidents included buzzards, owls, and a hen harrier, while the golden eagle, osprey and merlin were victims of disturbance cases. In addition to the poisoning incident, there were two shootings, two illegal trappings and three cases of disturbance.
Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said:
While I welcome this further reduction in recorded bird of prey crimes, including our lowest ever total for poisoning incidents, reports from early 2018 indicate that this remains a problem in some parts of Scotland.
It is extremely frustrating that some criminals continue to undermine the good work that has been done by conservationists and land managers in recent years, with much of that work being done through the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime (PAW Scotland).
We have recently provided additional resources to Police Scotland for the detection and investigation of wildlife crime, and set up a review group to look at grouse moor management, including the potential for licensing this type of business.
ENDS
The maps are available on the Scottish Government website here
It’s interesting that the Government’s headline refers only to poisoning incidents, and of course this is the line that will be picked up by the press (e.g. BBC news here). A drop to only one reported poisoning incident in 2017 does look like progress has been made, but we are well aware that the criminals have switched tactics in recent years, favouring shooting over poisoned baits, presumably because a shot bird can be swiftly removed from the crime scene to avoid detection whereas a poisoned bait (and any poisoned victim) is more likely to be accidentally discovered by walkers before the poisoner has had the time to return and remove the evidence.
However, as pointed out by Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham in the press release, this reduction to only one reported poisoning incident in 2017 appears to just be a temporary hiatus; we know that in 2018 there have been at least five reported raptor poisoning crimes (of which we’re aware), including four red kites and buzzards that were poisoned in Dumfries & Galloway between Jan-May this year (see here) and a poisoned peregrine found in the Pentland Hills in May this year (see here). There may well be further cases that Police Scotland are keeping quiet about, as they did with the Pentland peregrine. It’ll be interesting to see whether the headline accompanying the 2018 persecution maps highlight an upturn in illegal raptor poisoning.
The Government maps no longer just focus on poisoning  – they now include other types of raptor persecution such as illegal trapping, shooting, disturbance, nest destruction etc. However, what they don’t include are the suspicious disappearances of satellite-tagged golden eagles, hen harriers and white-tailed eagles. Again, it’s good to see this point being highlighted in the Scottish Government’s press statement but it’s about time these incidents were also included in the official data.
The 2017 report on the fate of satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland was unequivocal, showing clear evidence of deliberate and sustained illegal raptor persecution over a number of years.
[Stars indicate last known location of satellite-tagged golden eagles that have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circustances, 2004-2016. Data from golden eagle satellite tag review]
Since the research was completed in January 2017, the findings of which the Scottish Government accepted as strong evidence of ongoing illegal persecution, at least eight more satellite-tagged raptors have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances in Scotland (3 x golden eagles, 2 x white-tailed eagles, 3 x hen harriers), and seven of these vanished on land managed for driven grouse shooting. None of these incidents are included in the Government’s raptor persecution maps, even though the pattern of disappearance is damning.
There is further evidence of continued raptor persecution crimes, again not included in the Government’s maps. This evidence is provided by the national and regional surveys of several raptor species, which show another clear pattern of criminality with golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines noticeably absent from many areas managed for driven grouse shooting and illegal persecution identifed yet again as the main factor limiting these populations.
Until all the available evidence is compiled together to show an overall picture of the continued criminal killing of birds of prey, these annual persecution maps should be considered as an under-representation of what is actually going on.
Hiding the evidence of raptor crime is definitely on the increase, and the next blog will provide a good example of how this is achieved….
UPDATE 3pm: Great to see The Scotsman journalist Jane Bradley recognising the limitations of the Govt’s ‘official’ raptor crime stats (here).
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14
Oct
18

Songwriter Holly Lamar pleads guilty to possessing wild peregrine in Derbyshire

US grammy nominee Holly Lamar (real name Mary Holladay Lamar), 51, pleaded guilty at Chesterfield Magistrates Court on Friday to two offences relating to the illegal possession of a wild peregrine falcon.

[Lamar arriving at Chesterfield Magistrates Court, photo by BBC]

Derbyshire Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit raided her home in Ashover Road, Old Tupton, Chesterfield last December where they found a juvenile peregrine wearing an identification leg ring that, according to official records, should have been worn by a captive adult peregrine.

[Officers photographing the leg ring on the juvenile peregrine, photo by Derbyshire Police]

Officers found the body of an adult peregrine in the freezer whose leg had been cleanly cut off. It’s head was also detatched and apparently this bird had died in a fight with a female peregrine:

Lamar was interviewed and told officers the juvenile peregrine (believed to be a wild bird) had come from someone else and she was just looking after it.

In court, District Judge Leo Pyle said: “You are a long-standing and accomplished keeper of birds of prey. You know a juvenile Peregrine Falcon from an adult bird. How you acquired that bird I don’t know.

Anyone who flouts the regulations should expect the suitable punishment. Had you not pleaded guilty today I would have no doubt sentenced you immediately to imprisonment“.

Lamar was given an 18 weeks’ sentence for each offence, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to carry out 120 hours’ unpaid community work. The peregrine was confiscated, she was banned from keeping any Schedule 4 birds for five years and ordered to pay £1,020 costs plus a £115 surcharge.

The court heard that Lamar had lived in Derbyshire for two and a half years but intends to move back to the US imminently. Her defence lawyer said she’d recently been the victim of a £600k fraud and lost everything, currently living on benefits. She denied she had ever been involved selling birds to the Middle East.

Lamar’s company, ‘Raptor Rapture Ltd’ was established in Lincolnshire in 2015 but according to records at Companies House it was dissolved via compulsory strike-off in 2016.

The BBC News Website ran a story on Friday’s court hearing (here).

11
Oct
18

Merlin nest shot out in the Pentland Hills

Following Tuesday’s news that a peregrine had been illegally killed with a highly toxic banned poison in the Pentland Hills Regional Park earlier this year (see here), we’d also blogged yesterday (here) about other recorded wildlife crime in this area, including the shooting out of a merlin’s nest in 2017:

We’ve been asked some questions about the merlin case so here are some background details about that crime.

A breeding pair had taken over an abandoned crow nest at the top of a tree on the edge of a small copse. The immediate land was being used for sheep farming but the site was close to an area being managed for driven grouse shooting (as you can see from the above map). The sheep-farming landowner (believed to be Alastair Cowan of Eastside Estate, according to Andy Wightman’s brilliant Who Owns Scotland website) was known to be very supportive of raptors having previously given permission to local Raptor Study Group members to erect nest boxes for kestrels and nest baskets for merlin.

[Merlin nest tree, photo SSPCA]

The merlins had laid four eggs and were at the incubation stage when a routine monitoring visit by licensed Raptor Study Group fieldworkers led to suspicions that the breeding attempt had failed. Climbing to the nest to investigate, they found smashed eggs and feathers from the adult female congealed together. They also found residual bits of bark in the nest cup and fresh damage marks on the surrounding tree branches that were suspected to have been caused by shotgun pellets. Given that the eggs were on the point of hatch, the fieldworkers were concerned the incubating female had been shot on the nest, although there was no sign of her body but had she been shot it’s possible her body had been scavenged by corvids.

[Merlin nest contents, photo SSPCA]

The incident was reported to the SSPCA who also notified the police. Typically in a case such as this that’s as far as things would have gone. It would have been recorded as a ‘probable’ wildlife crime but without witnesses or video evidence it would have been virtually impossible to progress the case.

However, although the prospects of solving the case were slim to zero, the SSPCA investigator wanted to do everything possible to at least demonstrate that this was a crime, so after securing the landowner’s permission, the top of the tree was cut off and sent for digital x-ray. The results were clear, the nest and the branches around the nest were peppered with shotgun pellets:

[X-rays from SSPCA]

It could be argued that the nest had been blasted by a shotgun prior to the merlins taking it over for their breeding attempt; if the nest had previously been occupied by corvids then destroying the nest, eggs and adults of specified corvid species is a legal activity under the terms of a General Licence. It’s a fairly barbaric thing to do but nevertheless it is a lawful activity, routinely undertaken by gamekeepers up and down the country who only require a shotgun certificate and the landowner’s permission.

However, in this case the fresh damage marks to the tree branches and the presence of pieces of bark in the nest cup were indicative that this nest had been blasted with a shotgun while the nest was being used by a protected species, the merlin.

The shooting of a nearby raven’s nest the previous year (see map above) where the corpse of a raven riddled with holes was found on the nest is also suggestive that someone with access to a shotgun is waging a determined campaign against protected species in this area. Perhaps the same person using a dangerous toxic poison to kill peregrines?

Full credit to the SSPCA for the extraordinary and creative lengths they were prepared to go to to secure the evidence that would see this incident recorded as a confirmed crime. We’re not aware of any other case where a tree top has been removed and x-rayed.

Although nobody has been charged, the details of this case, along with the other recorded wildlife crimes in the Pentlands, are all building a picture of yet another raptor persecution hotspot in south Scotland, right under the noses of the Scottish Government (who, incidentally, still haven’t responded to the news that a peregrine was illegally killed in this area with a highly toxic banned poison).

10
Oct
18

Armed criminals running amok in the Pentland Hills nr Edinburgh

The northern edge of the Pentland Hills is a familiar sight to residents of Edinburgh and can be seen from the Scottish Parliament building.

[View of the Pentlands from Edinburgh, photo by Ruth Tingay]

Designated as “a place for the peaceful enjoyment of the countryside“, the Pentland Hills Regional Park hosts over 600,000 visitors per year.

We suspect many of those visitors looking for a bit of ‘peaceful enjoyment’ would be outraged to discover that this area is actually a wildlife crime hotspot and the armed criminals involved are running amok without being brought to justice.

In the last two years, a raven was found shot dead on its nest, a merlin’s nest was shot out, a golden eagle ‘disappeared‘ in highly suspicious circumstances and a peregrine has been poisoned with a deadly toxin so powerful that it could kill a human.

These are blatant wildlife crimes and nobody has been charged, let alone prosecuted or convicted. That’s not a criticism of the police – collecting sufficient evidence to charge an individual is almost impossible without the help of witnesses and/or camera footage – but it is a criticism of the Scottish Government’s continuing failure to deal with this issue.

It’s interesting to note that the majority of these crimes occured very close to land managed for driven grouse shooting. The tell-tale rectangular strips of burned heather on this map are quite striking:

Large areas of the Pentland Hills Regional Park are privately owned estates and are managed for grouse shooting and farming. The wildlife crimes have been committed across several estate boundaries and we understand that at least until recently, some estates ‘shared’ gamekeepers.

It is not unusual for the police to be unable to identify the individual(s) committing crimes on driven grouse moors – and again, that’s not a criticism of the police, although withholding information from the public for months on end, especially when there is a risk to public safety, certainly doesn’t help. In fact escaping prosecution was such a common problem that in 2013 the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP introduced another sanction – he instructed Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to withdraw the use of the General Licence on shooting estates where there was sufficient evidence to indicate a raptor persecution crime but insufficient evidence to identify the individual culprit(s).

This power has been available to SNH since 1 January 2014 but so far only four restrictions have been imposed: one on Raeshaw Estate/Corsehope Estate in the Scottish Borders; one on Burnfoot Estate/Wester Cringate Estate in Stirlingshire; one on Edradynate Estate in Perthshire; and one on an unnamed individual who had worked on the Tillypronie Estate in Aberdeenshire. We’ve blogged a lot about this sanction and particularly SNH’s failure to impose General Licence restrictions in at least nine other cases where raptor persecution has been detected. When asked about these failures, SNH responded that it “wasn’t in the public interest” to explain (see here).

We’d like to know whether SNH is considering withdrawing the use of the General Licence on any of the shooting/farming estates in the Pentland Hills where raptor persecution crimes have been confirmed. And if not, why not?

Without sanctions being imposed, and importantly, being seen to be imposed, the armed criminals, whoever they may be, running around the Pentland Hills laying poisoned baits and shooting out nests and killing protected birds are going to think they’re untouchable and the wildlife-loving general public is going to know that the Scottish Government has lost all control over this disgraceful issue, happening right on its doorstep.

Ps. Great to see the BBC News website is running with the peregrine poisoning news today (see here).

UPDATE 11 Oct 2018: Merlin nest shot out in the Pentland Hills (here)

31
Aug
18

Whernside Estate: more reaction to gamekeeper’s conviction for shooting owls

On Tuesday gamekeeper Tim Cowin was convicted for shooting, and then stamping on, two short-eared owls before then hiding the corpses on a grouse moor on the Whernside Estate in the Yorkshire Dales National Park (see here).

[Gamekeeper Cowin being arrested on the Whernside Estate shortly after shooting and then stamping on two short-eared owls and hiding their corpses on the moor. Photo by Guy Shorrock, RSPB]

Cowin’s conviction was widely welcomed by the public, and there was also comprehensive revulsion at his criminal and sadistic behaviour after people were able to watch the extraordinary video footage captured on scene by the RSPB’s Investigations Team.

Several organisations involved in the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG – the PAW Raptor Group) have since published statements on their respective websites:

North Yorkshire Police Rural Task Force’s statement can be read here, and it mentions how this conviction ‘should serve as a warning’ to others committing wildlife crime in North Yorkshire.

North Yorkshire Police Crime Commissioner Julia Muligan, who had the foresight to establish the Rural Task Force in response to N Yorkshire’s reputation as a wildlife crime hotspot, has also issued a statement, here. Julia’s statement focuses on the value of the police working in partnership with the RSPB to catch the raptor killers.

The Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) has also published a long statement (here), also praising the efforts of the RSPB and North Yorkshire Police (and the CPS) and takes a justified side swipe at fellow RPPDG member, the Moorland Association, for its failure to do likewise.

And what about the other members of the RPPDG ‘partnership’? Three days on, what statements have been issued by the game-shooting industry’s RPPDG representatives about this successful conviction and the outstanding efforts of the RSPB, North Yorkshire Police and the CPS to expose yet another criminal gamekeeper? (Don’t forget, part of the RPPDG’s role is to provide publicity about illegal raptor persecution to ‘build trust and transparency’).

Moorland Association – we blogged about the Moorland Association’s statement on Wednesday (here) which was fully supportive of the Whernside Estate (allowing it to retain its membership of the MA) and didn’t mention the RSPB, Police or CPS at all.

National Gamekeepers Organisation – no statement

British Association for Shooting & Conservation – no statement

Country Land & Business Association – no statement

Countryside Alliance – no statement

Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust – no statement (GWCT isn’t a member of the RPPDG but we include them here because they have a prominent role in the game-shooting world).

This deafening silence comes as no surprise. We’ve seen it time and time again from these so-called ‘partners’ – we either get silence, or a demented attack on the RSPB.

For example, not one of them issued a statement after a gamekeeper was filmed with a poisons cache on the East ArkengarthDale Estate (here), nor after men dressed as gamekeepers were filmed shooting at nesting marsh harriers and then removing their eggs on Denton Moor (here).

We did get statements from the Moorland Association, BASC and the Countryside Alliance after the collapse of a prosecution against a gamekeeper who was alleged to have been filmed trapping a peregrine on its nest ledge on the Bleasdale Estate (here). BASC’s statement was pretty good (here) but the statements from the Moorland Association and Countryside Alliance were appalling.

We blogged about the Moorland Association’s statement on the Bleasdale case (here), which focused on trying to undermine the integrity and credibility of the RSPB.

The Countryside Alliance didn’t issue a statement on its website when the RSPB eventually published its Bleasdale video nasty, but what it did do was have an article published in the Shooting Times earlier in the year, when the Bleasdale prosecution case had collapsed. The article, attributed to Countryside Alliance CEO Tim Bonner, was basically a re-hash of an article the CA had published on its website the previous year, attacking the RSPB for its use of covert filming in Scotland (and incorrectly asserting that the RSPB and police should seek authorisation under the RIPA legislation for such filming, even though RIPA authorisation will not be approved as raptor persecution is not considered ‘serious crime’ by the Sentencing Council).

The title of Bonner’s re-hashed article published by the Shooting Times (June 2018) tells its own story of the game-shooting industry’s attitude to tackling illegal raptor persecution – smug, sniggering and sneering:

These aren’t ‘partners’, genuinely interested in stopping raptor crimes on land managed for game shooting. If they were, they’d all be falling over themselves to heap praise on the actions of the RSPB and North Yorkshire Police that resulted in Cowin’s conviction. None of them have.

They’d all have promoted the RSPB’s raptor crime hotline which allows people to report suspected raptor killers in confidence (here). None of them have.

They’d all be publicly blacklisting the estates and sporting agents known to be involved with the illegal killing of raptors. None of them have.

And they’d all be queuing up to ask the police and RSPB to install covert cameras to monitor the security of any Schedule 1 raptor species nesting on their land. None of them have, although they’re quite happy to install stealth cameras to film the visiting public.

[Photo by Ruth Tingay]

29
Aug
18

Whernside Estate retains membership of Moorland Association

Following on from yesterday’s news that gamekeeper Timothy Cowin had been convicted for shooting and then sadistically stamping to death two protected short-eared owls on a grouse moor on the Whernside Estate in the Yorkshire Dales National Park (see here), public anger has been justifiably prominent.

Many have commented on Cowin’s pathetic sentence (a £1,210 fine) but there has also been considerable commentary on social media about why the landowner hasn’t also been prosecuted.

If these crimes had taken place in Scotland, there would have been an opportunity to prosecute the landowner and/or shooting agent for alleged vicarious liability, following the introduction of the WANE Act 2011. Although in Scotland a prosecution may not have followed automatically, especially if the landowner and/or agent was able to show due diligence, or if the landowner couldn’t be identified, or if the prosecutors deemed it wasn’t in the public interest to proceed. Since the legislation was enacted on 1 January 2012, six and a half years ago, there have only been two successful prosecutions for vicarious liability in relation to raptor persecution (here and here); two others have failed (here and here) and others simply haven’t been considered for reasons that haven’t been made clear to us (e.g. see here).

However, as Whernside Estate is in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, not in Scotland, there is no hope that a prosecution for alleged vicarious liability will follow in this case.

[RPUK Map showing location of Whernside Estate, which is located in the county of Cumbria but also lies within the boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park]

So with no prospect of a further prosecution, the least that could be expected would be for the grouse moor owners’ lobby group, the Moorland Association, to expel the Whernside Estate from the ranks of its membership, right?

Well, no. The Moorland Association has done the exact opposite and has instead chosen to publish a statement in support of Whernside Estate and confirmed the estate’s continued membership in the Moorland Association:

Amanda Anderson’s justification for not expelling Whernside Estate rests with the Moorland Association’s “satisfaction” that the estate had taken “all appropriate measures” to ensure its staff acted within the law and this included written correspondence between the estate and gamekeeper Cowin. Without seeing this correspondence it’s impossible to know whether this evidence would have been sufficient to meet the standards of due diligence required as a defence against vicarious liability in Scotland. It’s our understanding that in Scotland, this correspondence may not be enough to demonstrate due diligence, and other measures may also be required such as the landowner and/or agent undertaking spot checks on their employees and having a written record of those checks.

It’s fairly apparent from the detail we do know about Cowin’s case that had adequate spot checks been undertaken, questions would have been raised about Cowin being in possession of a plastic peregrine decoy, and importantly, his possession of a calling device that had been loaded with the calls of several raptor species, presumably to be used to entice raptors, perhaps towards a plastic decoy, where they could then be shot at close range.

Unfortunately we’ll never get to hear about the details of the estate’s claimed supervision of Cowin because, as there’s no provision for a potential prosecution for alleged vicarious liability in relation to raptor persecution in England, the estate doesn’t have to present this information to the authorities for scrutiny. We only have the word of the Moorland Association, which, of course, has a long track record of denying the bleedin’ obvious.

But let’s take the word of the Moorland Association, and the Whernside Estate, at face value and assume that Cowin’s crimes were as abhorrent to them as they are to the rest of us. That leads to a very interesting question. Two questions, in fact.

Firstly, no matter what claims the Moorland Association makes in all these so-called ‘partnership’ meetings trying to combat illegal raptor persecution, the Moorland Association, and its members, have absolutely no control or influence over gamekeepers working on grouse moors. Cowin is a perfect example of this. If, as the MA and the Whernside Estate claims, Cowin had undergone training, refresher training, and had signed an employment contract undertaking to work within the law, he STILL went on to commit these crimes. So what, exactly, is the point of the Moorland Association attending these ‘partnership’ meetings if it can’t offer any guarantees that gamekeepers won’t kill raptors on grouse moors?

[Gamekeeper Cowin, leaving Whernside Moor after shooting and stamping on two short-eared owls and hiding their corpses. Photo by Guy Shorrock]

Secondly, if the Whernside Estate was “dismayed” at Cowin’s actions of shooting and then stamping on those two short-eared owls, and being in possession of a calling device with raptor calls loaded on to it, did the Whernside Estate pay for Cowin’s legal representation?

Cowin’s solicitor was Michael Kenyon. Mr Kenyon was unlikely to have been a random duty solicitor called in to the police station to represent Cowin when he was questioned and later charged. Mr Kenyon is a well known figure in the game shooting world and is considered a ‘leading expert’ in firearms law and wildlife crime and once served as the legal advisor to the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (see here) so it seems likely that he was chosen specifically to defend Cowin based on his expertise.

We had thought that perhaps Cowin’s legal representation costs had been covered by his presumed membership of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, especially given Mr Kenyon’s links, but according to a tweet from the NGO this morning, Cowin “was not and never has been a member of the NGO“. So it would seem unlikely the NGO paid.

Did Cowin himself pay for Mr Kenyon’s legal services? Perhaps, but this seems unlikely given what the court heard yesterday about Cowin’s financial means.

Was Cowin a member of another ‘professional’ group whose membership dues include the cost of legal representation if faced with a prosecution in relation to gamekeeping activities? We don’t know.

Did the Whernside Estate pay for Cowin’s legal representation? We don’t know that either, but we do know that somebody accompanied Cowin to several court appearances and although we cannot identify that person, it was suggested to us that it was Cowin’s boss. It may well have been, as he was certainly chatty with Mr Kenyon, heard discussing the number of grouse available to shoot on Mossdale Estate (remember them?), but equally as plausible is an explanation that it may have been a member of Cowin’s family attending court to support him.

Unfortunately we’ll never get to find out who paid for Cowin’s defence.

We were also interested in what the other ‘countryside’ organisations had to say about Cowin’s conviction. Would they all be condemning his actions and saluting the efforts of the RSPB et al in securing a successful outcome? Here’s what we found, at the time of writing this blog:

GWCT – silence

BASC – silence

NGO – silence, apart from responding to a tweet to confirm Cowin was never a member.

Countryside Alliance – silence on Cowin’s conviction but leading with the news that the prosecution of three hunting group members for alleged hunting and wildlife crime offences had been dropped, and focusing on the “wasted public resources” by “animal rights extremists” in bringing this case to trial. Interesting – we could argue the same point about the amount of wasted public resources spent in Cowin’s case as it was dragged around five different courts in NW England before his eventual guilty plea.

During our searches for commentary from the grouse shooting industry we did stumble across an article about grouse shooting on Whernside Estate that had been published in The Field magazine in 2012. Strangely, the article seems to have been removed from The Field’s website archives but fortunately we were able to find a cached version elsewhere. It makes for an interesting read, especially the bit about Headkeeper Tim Cowin working as a joiner!

UPDATE 31 August 2018: Whernside Estate: more reaction to gamekeeper’s conviction for shooting owls (here)

28
Aug
18

Gamekeeper convicted for killing two short-eared owls on grouse moor in Yorkshire Dales National Park

A gamekeeper was convicted at Lancaster Magistrates Court this morning for the killing of two short-eared owls on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Timothy David Cowin, 44, pleaded guilty to shooting the owls on the Whernside Estate in Cumbria (inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park boundary) and to being in possession of a calling device that held the calls of several raptor species.

[Gamekeeper Cowin trying to leave the moor after shooting two short-eared owls. Photo by Guy Shorrock, RSPB]

His sentence? A pathetic £1,210, broken down as £400 for killing each short-eared owl, £200 for possessing the calling device, £170 costs and a £40 victim surcharge. The court heard that Cowin was suspended by the Whernside Estate pending the prosecution but then he later resigned and now apparently works as a joiner in Sedburgh.

Cowin committed these offences in April 2017 and was witnessed doing so by three members of the RSPB’s Investigations Team who just happened to be on the moor. The crimes were videoed (from a distance), and Cowin was observed shooting the owls, then stamping on them, and then disposing of the bodies – one hidden inside a stone wall and one stamped in to the peat. The quick-thinking RSPB team called the police, carried on filming, and one of them made his presence known to Cowin as Cowin tried to leave the moor, resulting in a chase across the hills before the police arrived to arrest him and retrieve the corpses.

For full details, have a read of this RSPB blog here.

And then watch this remarkable RSPB video:

We’ve blogged about this case previously (here), as it’s been dragged around five courts in north west England over a six-month period. At several stages it looked as though it was going to be abandoned on a legal technicality (paperwork issues this time, instead of contesting the admissibility of video evidence), as we’ve seen so often with other cases in recent years, and it is testament to the dedication of all those involved in the prosecution (RSPB, North Yorkshire Police Rural Taskforce, and the Crown Prosecution Service, who all put in extra hours) that it stayed on track and resulted in a conviction.

Of course it wouldn’t have got to court in the first place if it hadn’t been for the RSPB’s Investigations Team being on that grouse moor to install a covert camera for what had looked to them like previous suspicious activity. But just being there wouldn’t have been enough. The team was also skilled enough to recognise what Cowin was up to, quick-witted enough to film him, sharp enough to call the Police as the crime was in progress, and fit enough to chase Cowin across the moor when he was trying to escape. Added to their outstanding efforts was the swift response from North Yorkshire Police to get up to the grouse moor in time to arrest him. And then the dedicated, committed efforts of both the RSPB and the police to return early the next day to search for the second owl corpse before Cowin had an opportunity to get back on the moor and remove the evidence. In court, CPS prosecutor Rachel Parker was forensic in rebutting the attempts by the defence solicitor to have the case thrown out.

The actions of all involved in this successful prosecution were exemplary. Will the grouse shooting industry praise their efforts and encourage them to continue routing out the criminal gamekeepers known to be routinely committing these offences?

Unlikely.

We’ll no doubt hear the disingenuous bleating of the Moorland Association, GWCT, National Gamekeepers Organisation, Countryside Alliance etc, all condemning wildlife crime before swiftly returning to their usual criticism of the RSPB and its efforts to fight the continuing illegal persecution of raptors on driven grouse moors.

There are plenty more ‘Cowins’ out there, and despite the efforts of the grouse shooting industry to deny the extent of these crimes and pay for expensive lawyers to defend the criminals responsible, the public is becoming increasingly aware of how big a problem this is, through the efforts of the RSPB and its genuine conservation partners.

Today’s verdict doesn’t help those two short-eared owls; it’s too late for them, but Cowin’s conviction is yet another nail in the coffin of the driven grouse shooting industry. Kudos to all involved.

UPDATE 29 August 2018: Whernside Estate retains membership of Moorland Association (here)

UPDATE 31 August 2018: Whernside Estate: more reaction to gamekeeper’s conviction for shooting owls (here)

[PC Carr retrieving the pitiful corpse of the second short-eared owl that had been shot then stamped in to the ground. Photo by Guy Shorrock]




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