A man who kicked a gull to death was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail last week. But it raises the question: Is the killing of birds of prey such as buzzards, goshawks and owls not a crime worthy of jail, too?

The dead gull, credit RSPCA

The event, which took place in May 2019 in the Welsh town of Tonypandy, was caught on CCTV camera. On 30 October 2019 Andrew Lee Jones admitted to killing the lesser black-backed gull contrary to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

We are aware of three cases since 2008 involving the killing of herring gulls which resulted in jail. And there have been numerous cases of people being jailed for killing mute swans. These invariably involve unplanned and spontaneous acts of violence against wildlife by members of the public.

Credit is due to the RSPCA and South Wales Police for their investigation. It’s good to see the Wildlife and Countryside Act being enforced. This covers all wild birds, to offer them protection and act as a deterrent to those who might wish to do them harm. Breaking it can result in an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail.

However Mr Jones’ sentencing, and others for similar crimes against gulls and swans, seems quite different when compared to some other recent cases involving birds of prey.

In July this year, Alan Wilson pleaded guilty to shooting and trapping badgers, an otter, goshawks and buzzards, possessing a banned poison and installing 23 illegal snares in a small wood on a Scottish shooting estate. Despite the severity and multitude of offences he was not jailed. He was ordered to carry out 225 hours of unpaid work, to forfeit his equipment and given a 10-month curfew.

In 2018, Timothy Cowin pleaded guilty to two charges concerning the intentional killing of two short-eared owls on the Whernside Estate in Cumbria. He had been seen shooting the birds by RSPB officers and filmed hiding the bodies. Police arrested him at the scene. He was not sentenced to jail, but received a fine of just £400 per owl.

Tim Cowin being arrested after shooting two short-eared owls, credit RSPB

Alan Wilson and Timothy Cowin were both gamekeepers by profession. This job involves carrying out legal moorland management practices, including professional pest control, and demands a thorough knowledge of the law. However we are regularly seeing a shocking contempt for the laws protecting wildlife, especially birds of prey, and especially on grouse moors, with little or no repercussions.

Men like Wilson and Cowin should know the law inside and out and have no excuse for not following it. These men were also put in a position of trust with firearms, which they abused to kill protected wildlife. Their actions were not random acts of violence but calculated and premeditated. What’s more, raptor persecution is supposed to be a UK National Wildlife Crime Priority

Over the years have been some very serious raptor persecution convictions involving gamekeepers. Six people have received jail sentences, however five were suspended, meaning just one person has actually been put in jail. This was George Mutch, a Scottish gamekeeper who in 2015 became the first – and last – person jailed for a raptor persecution offence.

These examples, we feel, show that the laws in place to protect upland wildlife are not fit for purpose and that, among those who own and manage these vast and important landscapes, many are showing a disregard for the law and for our spectacular wildlife. And the people committing these crimes, in particular those who employ and manage them, are simply not being held properly accountable.

In August this year, we revealed 87 confirmed incidents of bird of prey persecution had taken place in the UK in 2018, in our annual RSPB Birdcrime report. There’s no doubt this is a tiny fraction of the crimes that will have taken place and gone undetected. However Cowin’s fairly gentle fine was the only raptor persecution-related conviction that year.

We, the RSPB, have long been calling for the introduction of a licensing system for driven grouse moors, whereby an estate could lose its license to operate if illegal activity was identified. We also believe that vicarious liability could serve as a similar deterrent for would-be lawbreakers, by holding the owners and managers of estates criminally responsible for their actions of their staff.

What’s clear is that the law, as it currently stands, is not fit for purpose and that greater legislation, and stronger enforcement, is needed to tackle the serious problem of illegal raptor killing on our moors. 

This, in part, is why the RSPB is about to start reviewing its policy on gamebird shooting. More on this to follow.