Gamekeeper Archie Watson 

On 1 June 2022 at Swindon Magistrates’ Court gamekeeper Archie Watson (21) received a 12-month community order to carry out 180 hours unpaid work and told to pay £393 costs for pleading guilty to offences relating to the possession of five buzzards and three red kites. This conviction was the conclusion to a complex multi-agency raptor persecution investigation involving the largest number of dead birds of prey ever found in England.

Perhaps more than most, this case graphically illustrates the horrors of raptor persecution in connection with gamebird shooting, and the urgent need for action.

In August 2020, RSPB Investigations Officers made a shocking discovery near Beckhampton in Wiltshire. Following a tip-off, they came across an innocuous-looking manhole cover on the edge of a field. They installed a remote, covert video camera to monitor the site.

Three days later, they returned under the cover of darkness and lowered an action camera and light down into the well – to discover a sight that would have turned even the strongest stomach.

Investigations Officer Jack Ashton-Booth was at the scene.

“Part of me knew what to expect given the intelligence we had received, but I wasn’t at all prepared for the scale of what was at the bottom of these rumours. After lifting the cover to the well, I was hit by a gut-wrenching warm air flow and the overriding smell of death. My colleague lowered the camera into the well shaft and a few long seconds passed before the severity of this investigation struck me. There at the bottom was a lifeless mass of raptor corpses and parts. It was a horrific sight.”

A review of the covert camera footage revealed that a man – later identified as gamekeeper Archie Watson – dropped a dead buzzard down the well. He made 13 visits in total, on some occasions preceded by the sound of gunshots.

“At this point we had enough evidence to contact Wiltshire Police. On 23 September a large-scale multi-agency operation took place with Dorset and Wiltshire Fire & Rescue, Hampshire Constabulary Specialist Search Team, National Wildlife Crime Unit, Natural England and the RSPB.

“We had no idea exactly how many dead birds of prey were down the well, and it needed some serious thought as to how we were going to recover the contents. Soon it became clear that someone would have to physically go into the well to bring up the bodies, so we could see the extent of what we were dealing with.”

A winch was set up and the well was ventilated as two specialist police officers from Hampshire Constabulary were carefully lowered into the narrow well shaft. Twice the toxic gas alarms went off, and they had to be winched out again. But eventually they retrieved two full bags of fetid animal remains to be sorted through and identified. Further liquefied contents deeper down the well were unable to be extracted or identified.

“My colleague Tom then had the unpleasant job of sorting through the mass of bones and feathers. The summer temperatures had been a catalyst for decomposition and he had to work meticulously through the putrefied layers to identify individual animals and birds.”

Photo comparisons of the corpses, detailed feather analysis and skull examination by the Natural History Museum, along with the video evidence, confirmed the body-count as at least four red kites, 11 buzzards and one large gull. 

This makes it the largest number of birds of prey ever involved in an English raptor persecution investigation.

A search of Watson’s vehicle revealed three firearms offences and a small container labelled ‘Ant powder’. Toxicology tests confirmed this to contain bendiocarb, which is regularly associated with poisoning raptors. Also in his possession were two British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) rings which had been originally fitted to a buzzard and a red kite.

In court Watson said he had found the dead birds of prey on the estate, a point questioned by Magistrates.

It’s becoming clearer that raptor persecution isn’t just an uplands issue. The RSPB’s Birdcrime report for 2020 showed there were even more incidents of raptor persecution in connection with pheasant and partridge shooting (46 of 137 confirmed incidents) than grouse shooting in the uplands (38 of 137).

With more than 60 million non-native gamebirds being released into the UK countryside every year, this industry has reached unsustainable levels.  The RSPB believes that regulation of the larger intensive shoots increasingly looks like the only way to drive up environmental standards and limit overall release numbers.

We are also calling for stronger sentences to be handed out to better protect birds of prey from persistent illegal killing.

Jack concluded: “The sight of those corpses at the bottom of the well, then laid out ‘en masse’ on the tarpaulin as rain beat down, is something that will be etched on our minds for a long time. For something as dignified as a bird of prey to end up in a subterranean mass grave is a sign of something deeply wrong. We are grateful to the person who alerted us to this activity, and the incredible support received from partners in bringing this case to court.”

The RSPB would like to publicly acknowledge all the work from Wiltshire Police, Hampshire Constabulary Specialist Search Team, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, CPS, NWCU, NE, Health and Safety Executive, Fera and the NHM. A special thanks is due to the members of the public (you know who you are) who provided essential information. The eyes and ears of the public continues to be key in reporting cases and getting cases to court.