By Howard Jones, RSPB Investigations Officer
Throughout 2019 and 2020 the RSPB Investigations team were watching a grouse moor in North Yorkshire where a live, tethered eagle owl was being set out in the open as a gunman waited nearby. What was he doing? Our suspicions were confirmed when we caught a shocking crime on camera at the height of lockdown last spring.
Lockdown last spring was an anxious time and, for us, brought added concerns that it would lead to a surge in raptor persecution as criminals took advantage. Unfortunately, those fears were well-founded and resulted in a spate of incidents.
After ensuring we could work safely for ourselves and the wider general public, the RSPB Investigations team continued working to investigate raptor persecution (one of the government’s seven national wildlife crime priorities) and supporting police at a critical time when their resources were stretched.
One place we had been monitoring was a driven grouse moor estate in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Our investigation had begun here a year earlier, following a tip-off through our confidential raptor crime hotline number (0300 999 0101) that a live tethered eagle owl was being used as a decoy to draw in birds of prey for shooting. Armed with our video cameras, we set out to uncover the truth.
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The use of live decoys
Eagle owls are huge, top predators. A buzzard, for instance, which spots an eagle owl in its territory will mob it in an attempt to drive it away. We are increasingly getting reports of eagle owls being used on grouse moors to deliberately draw in wild birds of prey (see this episode on a Cumbrian grouse moor), close enough so they can be shot by anyone waiting nearby with a gun. We have already had plenty of information about the illegal use of plastic raptor decoys to kill raptors and other protected birds. But using a live eagle owl is a step up, and is said to be unbelievably effective. Using a tethered decoy is completely illegal, as of course is killing a wild bird of prey.
There have also been welfare concerns about the keeping of eagle owls, as shown by this conviction of a Scottish gamekeeper concluding in 2019, following a joint agency search.
Eagle owls are top apex predators
After many hours of watching and waiting, on 21 May 2019 we had a breakthrough. We saw an ATV (all-terrain vehicle), with a large distinctive wooden box on the rear, being driven to a spot on the moor nearly two kilometres from where we were watching. The driver took out a live eagle owl from the rear box and tethered it to a small stone cairn. He then sat nearby with his gun, but no birds of prey appeared on this occasion, and so they left. This confirmed our original information was accurate. Whilst confident this was the local underkeeper, we needed to secure the crucial identification of the suspect.
We continued our surveillance effort, however despite seeing the distinctive ATV on numerous occasions we had no further luck, so we decided to try again the following spring in 2020.
On 27 April 2020, we decided to walk in from a different direction. En route, my colleague Jack - sharp as ever - spotted an ATV about five kilometres away going up to a different part of the moor. We settled down and through a telescope Jack could make out an ‘object’ on a post near a grouse butt with the ATV driver sat nearby. The ‘object’ then flapped, and it seemed the eagle owl was back in use. I set the video camera into record mode, and left Jack to look for a better observation position. A few moments later Jack called out that a buzzard had been shot. I rushed back and watched intently through the camcorder screen. Minutes later, a second buzzard was shot: I could just make out the bird dropping out the sky and landing near the decoy owl. Two buzzards gunned down in the space of 10 minutes tells you just how horrifically effective this eagle owl decoy technique can be. A third buzzard appeared, but narrowly got away. The offender collected the body of the second buzzard and started to leave the scene on his ATV with the owl back in the box on the back. Our luck was out as we could not be confident on the final disposal location of the buzzard they had picked up.
You can just about make out the eagle owl, which is tethered to a post. The gunman is waiting nearby.
These moments are very intense, and my mind was racing as to the best approach and also aware of the standard of evidence required in court from years of experience. I have been through this situation before and contemplated it many times more in my head. I was present with two colleagues in 2017 when two short-eared owls were shot on a grouse moor in Cumbria. On that occasion we were closer, had filmed where both bodies were hidden and there was only one way that the gamekeeper’s pickup could leave the moor. North Yorkshire Police arrested the suspect on the moor, the owls were recovered and a conviction followed. None of those conditions were in our favour this time unfortunately. The chances of a police interception here were remote and, with no bodies and the identification evidence not quite there, the best decision was to keep watching and hoping to film better evidence.
Once again, from a new observation position, we played the waiting game to prove the identity of the suspect. On numerous occasions we saw the same distinctive ATV on the moor, and in the distance saw it coming and going from the local gamekeeper’s home and could now tie the vehicle to a person and address. We decided to draw a line confident in the identification of the suspect and passed our evidence to North Yorkshire Police. We are grateful for the support from WCO PC Mark Wood and his colleagues.
North Yorkshire Police visited the gamekeeper’s home and undertook a search of the locations on the moor identified in 2019 and 2020. This was the fourth known raid on a grouse moor estate in North Yorkshire in 2020. On the search, the suspect arrived home with the eagle owl in the rear box on his ATV. Despite the highly incriminating evidence we had gathered, ultimately with no admission, the identification of the male in question did not cross the evidential threshold needed by the CPS. Unfortunately, that is the harsh reality of trying to investigate these cases: justice is rarely done.
Inspector Matt Hagen, North Yorkshire Police, said:
“We conducted a search warrant and interviewed an individual in relation to this incident. Ultimately, however, the identity of the suspect on the film could not be proved, and it was not possible to bring about a prosecution. However this does not mean the event didn’t happen. We know that a gamekeeper on a grouse moor has been shooting buzzards, using a live eagle owl decoy to bring those buzzards into a position where they could be shot. We urge the public to report incidents like this to the police, and to come forward if they have information about this or any other incident involving the illegal killing of birds of prey.”
It hurts when someone is clearly killing birds of prey and avoids justice. The system is failing to protect our birds of prey and getting convictions remains hugely challenging for all involved. It is another clear reason that the RSPB is urging for a system of licensing for grouse moors to be put in place, to bring more accountability to estate owners and managers. We believe that, had licensing been in place, the events we witnessed on this moor would be more than enough to revoke the estate’s licence to operate.
We understand that North Yorkshire Police intend to write to the estate expressing their concerns. Hopefully this will have some influence on the future conduct of our suspect, his work colleagues and neighbouring estates.
I have no doubt there will be plenty of gamekeepers out there right now with a live eagle housed and ready for future dark deeds on some remote grouse moor. If you see this type of incident or know it is happening, then please report it to the RSPB’s confidential raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101. We will be doing everything to make sure that the next raptor killer is not so lucky.
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