By Howard Jones, RSPB Investigations Officer
You’ll probably know as well as we do that helping to catch those responsible for killing raptors is no easy task. We might have a body, we might find an illegally set trap, but all too often the person responsible walks free.
At the end of last year (2019), we became aware of an incident in the Forest of Bowland: a reliable witness gave an account of seeing someone shoot a hen harrier. But despite fast action by the police, the investigation was ultimately closed.
In our recent blog, we talked about the surge in potential raptor persecution offences committed during lockdown. The Investigations Team has been inundated with reports, and we’re currently working with police on a number of ongoing investigations. We are strict when it comes to categorising something as a ‘confirmed’ incident as set out in our annual Birdcrime reports and Raptor Crime Maps. Even though we, and the police, were very confident that a hen harrier had been illegally killed, we have classified this particular incident as a ‘probable’ crime.
In October 2019, I received a call from someone who was watching out for hen harriers over an upland area near Bowland Knotts in the Forest of Bowland – a known raptor persecution hotspot. They had just witnessed the shooting of a grey male hen harrier and described what they had seen to me over the phone.
I have known this person for some time, they have extensive knowledge of these birds, their account was extremely credible and I was confident in what they saw. They later gave the police a comprehensive statement of events and were prepared to go to court. However, as the suspect has not been identified, they have asked not to be named in this blog. From the outset I knew this was a serious raptor persecution incident involving a species whose national population is faring very badly, primarily as a result of illegal killing.
This is their account, in their own words, followed by a description of what happened next:
‘I am a keen birdwatcher and I enjoy being alone with nature as much as seeing birds. I was aware of raptor persecution, particularly living reasonably close to driven grouse moors, but witnessing it in the flesh is rather different from reading about it online. I would describe myself as an enthusiast who particularly likes all birds of prey, but in particular the hen harrier and long-eared owl. I recently saw a comment on a blog which talked about how empty a day was if you visited a moorland with suitable habitat and did not see a hen harrier. I could not agree more.
Six months prior to this eventful afternoon I had the good fortune and indeed privilege to be alone watching an adult male ‘skydance’ with a breathtaking mixture of energy, grace and beauty. Such sightings need to be treasured as there are dark forces out there who would seek to condemn them to history as a breeding bird on our grouse moors. I had the misfortune to see one of these dark forces at work on 18 October last year.
The Friday began uneventfully, but on a fine autumnal afternoon I decided to visit the White Syke Hill area in the Forest of Bowland AONB, somewhere I had not been bird watching before. My ‘target bird’ was a faint hope of seeing a short-eared owl given, having not seen one that year. After 30 minutes or so as the afternoon drew on my haul was only a few species, but I enjoyed the solitude. At 4.45pm hours my attention was drawn to a vehicle some way off. Through my telescope I saw a Mule all terrain-type vehicle with one male occupant travelling towards a stretch of woodland. I thought little of it, but a short while later the vehicle parked up and the male walked purposefully with a firearm in his hand and disappeared through a gap in a stone wall. Seeing the gun in his hand, rather than slung over his shoulder, immediately heightened my interest.
About 30 minutes later, he appeared in view and briefly looked through binoculars before dashing out without his gun. After searching on the ground, he picked something up, looked at it, and took it back through the gap in the wall. What on earth was he doing? He remained behind the wall, but I could just see the top of his head and watched curious to see what materialised.
Then at 5.29pm, directly between me and him and in full view of my telescope, I saw a hen harrier flutter and fall. I can only describe it as ‘exploding.’ The bird raised its wings for a second showing its distinctive markings and I knew instantly that I was looking at an adult male hen harrier. I will never know of course, but I wonder to this day if it was the bird I witnessed skydancing in spring. My blood was boiling and my heart racing.
The man immediately jumped over the wall dashing the short distance to the bird. I assumed it was dead as he appeared to pick something up and returned behind the wall, now walking in almost a casual fashion.
The shock hit me and my heart was thumping through my chest and my hands were shaking almost uncontrollably. I knew I needed help and remembered a couple of years ago I listened to a talk from one of the RSPB Investigators and put their number in my contacts, never expecting to use it. Answering immediately, Howard Jones advised me to make detailed notes and that he would call the police. I scribbled notes while watching the head of the chap still motionless behind the wall. I know from experience how the light can change the view of the landscape during the day so I ensured that I had my sight lines written down to enable me to clearly direct the police on a follow up visit. Some sixteen minutes after the harrier fell, the man walked unhurriedly with his gun back to his vehicle and left the area as the light and visibility faded. I made an unsuccessful attempt to record his vehicle leaving the moor before returning home’.
A shocking account, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Having received the phone call from the witness, I immediately called up an officer from Lancashire police (it later became apparent that the incident was in the small bit of Bowland in North Yorkshire). Their response was excellent and they got to the scene immediately, but by this point darkness had just fallen and there was no sign of any person or vehicles on the moor.
When it became clear that the incident was in North Yorkshire, I reported it to their force control room and then contacted Inspector Matt Hagen, who leads their Rural Taskforce. A police search in daylight with the witness guiding us in from their watch point was the next vital step to try and find evidence of the crime. So, the next day, colleagues and I met the witness and officers went to the area, the witness guiding us from the watch point via police radio.
First we went to a point where they had seen the person park up. There were fresh vehicle tracks, which added up to what the witness had seen. We were then guided on to a break in a nearby dry stone wall where the witness had observed the person with the gun. We moved further along to a lowered part of the wall where the witness believed the person had been standing when the hen harrier was shot down, and we noticed the vegetation was well trampled in this place.
PCSO Sally Breen of the North Yorkshire Police at the spot from where it is believed the hen harrier was shot
The witness then guided us to the exact area where the hen harrier had fallen. We searched hard but unfortunately no sign of the bird remained, though there were possible signs of hen harriers having roosted there. (I have walked through many hen harrier roosts sadly looking for downed satellite-tagged birds that have gone ‘missing’.) A thorough search was conducted but any evidence had gone. We did find a couple of spring traps and a ‘stink pit’ (animal carcases surrounding by set snares designed to lure and catch predators) confirming that predator control was taking place in this area. The witness had done an excellent job noting key locations and no doubt we were in the right place, but it was not meant to be.
North Yorkshire Police took up the investigation and later issued an appeal for information after a person had been interviewed.
Insp. Matt Hagen said: “This case is an all too familiar scenario where we have information from a credible source, but unfortunately the evidence is not strong enough to meet the threshold where we would ask the Crown Prosecution Service to make a charging decision, even after the arrest and interview of a suspect.
“I would like to take this opportunity to encourage anyone with any information regarding any individuals who are involved in raptor persecution to come forward and report it to the police and assure them they will be taken seriously and the matter will be investigated.”
Inspector Matt Hagen, head of the North Yorkshire Police Rural Taskforce, assisting with the search for the body of the hen harrier.
The news that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone and that the investigation has now been closed is hugely disappointing. However, we would like to place our thanks to the officers of Lancashire and North Yorkshire for their swift response, which is often key in these cases, and of course, to the witness who acquitted themselves very well in what would have been a very stressful situation.
The fact that the another incident of raptor persecution has not been able to progress towards prosecution is deeply frustrating. This is particularly so when it involves a hen harrier, which remain in a perilous state in the English uplands due to relentless persecution on land associated with driven grouse shooting. Incidents involving hen harriers like this one are unbelievably hard to come across given the remote locations they occur in and the odds all being in favour of the perpetrator. A recent study of satellite tagged hen harriers indicates just how routinely this occurs on grouse moors.
Having a witness to a hen harrier shooting is extremely rare so it is significant that a second police enquiry remains live in North Yorkshire involving an alleged hen harrier shooting on Threshfield Moor near Grassington. The police also recently appealed here. We await the outcome of this case and continue to encourage the public to be vigilant when out and about: you play a vital part as our eyes and ears. Without your calls, most incidents would go unnoticed and unreported. If in doubt, report it.
It’s becoming clear that the current restrictions in movement due to Covid-19 are not stopping people from killing raptors (LINK). It’s possible these people are even more confident of avoiding being caught with fewer people able to get out into the countryside to witness their actions. However, with reports currently coming in at an alarming rate, it would seem that this is not so – and we’re thankful for everyone who has called.
The RSPB’s confidential raptor crime hotline 0300 999 0101 remains open and we rely on people telling us what is happening out there. The RSPB Investigations team will continue to support the police with raptor persecution investigations during the current challenging times.
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