On Monday Cumbria Constabulary released the news that many suspected, that the satellite tagged hen harrier Rowan appears to have been shot.  So it looks like yet another victim in the unending catalogue of crimes perpetrated against hen harriers and other birds of prey in the uplands of the UK. One wonders what hope there is for the Defra Hen Harrier plan whilst persecution appears to continue unabated.

The last week or so has been a period of reflection for myself. Friday the 28 October was something of a personal milestone for me – 25 years to the day since I started work in the RSPB Investigations Section. More on that in a moment.

My next day at work was the Monday when I attended as an observer at the Westminster Hall debate following the e-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting. This had been initiated by author and campaigner (and former RSPB employee) Mark Avery and had generated over 123,000 signatures; a clear indication of the strength of feeling over some of the concerns related to driven grouse shooting.

RSPB had previously called for regulatory reforms rather than a ban and we were hopeful this forum would at least present an opportunity to discuss much needed change. We firmly believe the government need to consider options such as vicarious liability and a robust system of licensing to make sporting estates more accountable for what takes place on their land. There had already been an earlier evidence session on the 18 October in front of the House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. This sought to gather evidence to help inform MPs taking part in the subsequent debate. The RSPB were invited to take part and my colleague Jeff Knott outlined very clearly at this hearing, that the status quo simply cannot continue. In addition to oral evidence, there were over 500 written submissions, including a comprehensive one from the RSPB plus supplementary evidence.

Sitting at the debate, I already knew the nature of Rowan’s recent demise and wondered whether Thérèse Coffey, present as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was also aware. Against that, I listened with some disbelief at the nature of the debate that unfolded. To be frank, I wasn’t hopeful for a great deal to come out from the process. However, I thought at least this was an opportunity for some serious environmental concerns to be properly aired. Hopefully this would lead to a commitment from the government to at least look at options to tackle the pernicious problem of raptor persecution and a range of others environmental problems in our uplands. This was supposed to be a forum for debating the evidence, much of it supported by peer-reviewed science, that had already been supplied. Unfortunately, I found the standard of debating by many to be extremely disappointing. The personal nature of some of the comments towards some who had raised concerns I felt was unwarranted and undignified. To me this was hardly what democracy should be about and, whatever an individual views on driven grouse shooting, the process seemed inherently disrespectful to the many people who had taken the trouble to sign the e-petition.

At the end of the debate Therese Coffey read out a prepared statement that basically it would be business as usual. We know what has gone before is not working, so I simply don’t understand this response. With just three pairs of hen harriers breeding in England this year, just how bad do things have to get? I do wonder how history will look back on the quality of this debate and whether future society will judge us for failing to take meaningful action.

                            Just three pairs of hen harriers bred in England in 2016

So what of my 25 years. Having left a police career of over seven years, I still remember the slightly nervous anticipation whilst driving to The Lodge on my first day at work. It is easy to forget there was no internet, email or digital cameras; however it was clear from the outset just how important the work of the RSPB was in getting cases to court. In some ways the last quarter of a century seems the blink of an eye, and at times I can’t really work out where the time went! However, on reflection, plenty has happened during my time, some good and some bad. When I started there were less than 100 pairs of red kites and just a handful of pairs of white-tailed eagles breeding in the UK. These species have had a remarkable upturn in fortune. Against this we have seen the dramatic expansion of the common buzzard population; when I started if a buzzard flew over The Lodge, many of us would leave our offices to look at this ‘rare’ bird. They now breed in the grounds, and I have these, along with red kites and ravens, gracing the skies over my home. The conservation status of species like ospreys and marsh harriers have also significantly improved and all this is a testament to what can be achieved.

So plenty of good news, particularly across much of lowland UK. Unfortunately, there is also a much darker side to this story. Firstly, there were more hen harriers breeding in England when I started than now. Golden eagles, peregrines, red kites and goshawks are still not faring well in large parts of our uplands where driven grouse shooting forms a dominant part of the land management. We now have a compelling range of peer-reviewed science about the continuing negative impacts that illegal persecution poses for such species. The problem is simply not going away.

In closing the debate, Thérèse Coffey explained how reliance on existing regulation and enforcement would tackle the problem of raptor persecution . Now this is a subject I like to think I know something about, and I feel the current levels of enforcement are woefully inadequate and not making any real impact. During the last 25 years, I have had extensive involvement with the investigation and prosecution of raptor persecution offences across the UK. I have dealt with thousands of reported incidents, and assisted police and other agencies with hundreds of criminal enquiries. I lost track a long time ago of the number of illegally shot, poisoned and trapped raptors I have picked up from our countryside. I suspect I am one of the few people who have been present on grouse moors watching people trying to shoot hen harriers. One of these incidents ended with a female being shot, and I had the sobering experience of unearthing the body from where it had been hidden. Watching these events, which have gone on for generations, play out before me was utterly surreal. Rather like watching a play in a theatre and being the only person in the audience. The reality of just how difficult it is to catch the raptor killers is graphically clear to me.

Up close and personal - a female hen harrier shot on a grouse moor in the north of England

Perhaps most revealing have been the extremely disturbing discussions with several individuals within the shooting world, typically gamekeepers, about the way many grouse shooting estates are actually operating. These people allege that the majority of driven grouse shooting estates are involved in some level of raptor persecution, though the scale of this can vary significantly. At the very worst end of the scale, some estates are reportedly killing in excess of 200 raptors per year, akin to the horrific accounts traditionally linked to the Victorian period.

From the wealth of evidence available, I have no doubt this is organised crime and, despite raptor persecution becoming one of the government UK wildlife crime priorities in 2009, I have not seen any meaningful improvement in the levels of enforcement.

Since I started, around 150 individuals (approximately two thirds of which were gamekeepers) have been prosecuted for raptor persecution related offences, an average of about six cases a year. I have been involved in over 25% of these cases and know that gathering hard evidence of offences committed in private and remote places by individuals with an intimate knowledge of the land, often operating on the edge of darkness, remains incredibly difficult. The risks of detection for those involved is extremely low, and the risk of actually being prosecuted even lower. The RSPB Investigations Section remains at this coalface, and its work gathering evidence and undertaking covert surveillance has been essential to the success of many cases.

This Scottish gamekeeper was the first individual convicted for shooting a hen harrier following a lengthy RSPB surveillance operation. Another case is due in court soon.

Despite thousands of people within the statutory law enforcement agencies, the fact remains that over half of all convictions have been initiated by a few individuals within RSPB Investigations. Without this specialist support far fewer cases would ever reach court. The shooting industry is fully aware of this and, not surprisingly, many would much prefer the statutory agencies to reject our help.

Even when gamekeepers are prosecuted, they are very often well represented in court by specialist defence firms, invariably retain their employment and will be supplied suitable references for future employment. This ‘relationship’ allows managers and employers to remain very distant from the criminal actions of their staff . A single day’s grouse shooting may cost an individual over £2,000 – so fining the odd gamekeeper a few hundred pounds is an ineffective deterrent. In Spain, recent huge fines following wildlife poisoning incidents suggest that matters in the UK could be taken more seriously. Interestingly a Scottish prosecution in December 2014 resulted, for the first time, a gamekeeper being actually jailed for raptor persecution. More results of this type may start to change the minds of others in this profession who are expected to break the law. However, the cold body of Rowan suggests there is still a very long way to go.

For myself, the absolute key problem is one of accountability. Whilst it is invariably individuals like gamekeepers committing most of the crimes, in my view this does not even begin to touch upon the real nature of the problem. From my experience, I have absolutely no doubt that it is the shooting industry itself, the managers and employers of gamekeepers, who are at the fundamental root of this problem. They create the environment for their staff to operate within and are ultimately orchestrating the widespread illegal practices taking place. The desire to produce artificially (and in some cases, incredibly) high numbers of birds for driven grouse shooting, and now well beyond what was considered necessary when I started at the RSPB, will continue to provide the motivation for widespread illegal predator control.

Compared with elsewhere in Europe and North America, game shooting in the UK is almost uniquely unregulated even though it is far more intensive in nature than almost anywhere else. To the best of my knowledge, no other industry in the UK has to rely on killing rare protected birds. Driven grouse moor management should be no different and simply has to adapt its business model to a more sustainable form of land management to conform to modern day conservation and the wishes of wider society. The industry has shown no signs of being able to self-police so I fail to see how any type of voluntary approach could be effective. I cannot see progress happening without meaningful government intervention. Whilst I believe enforcement has an incredibly important role, unless there is a legislative system that allows the statutory agencies to exert pressure on those controlling events in our countryside, I fail to see how the situation can really change.

Unless those in charge are held to account, I believe there is absolutely no chance of a significant change in some of the serious environmental problems associated with grouse moor management. Scotland has made some progress with the introduction of vicarious liability and this should be put in place across the rest of the UK as soon as possible. This is valuable not just for the deterrent effect of convictions, but also encourages estates to take proactive steps estates to prevent wildlife crime. I don’t think this will be a magic fix but should feature as part of a range of measures. The RSPB thinks that a system of licensing could help, with an option to withdraw the ‘right’ to shoot game, or businesses to supply shooting services, for a fixed period following conviction for a wildlife or environmental offence. This could start to bring meaningful pressure in the right places and force reform.

When I started at the RSPB the debate about grouse moor management, and friction between conservation agencies and parts of the shooting industry, was almost totally dominated by raptor persecution. However, in recent years a wide range of serious environmental concerns have been raised about the potential impacts of driven grouse moor management. These include concerns about loss of carbon contributing to climate change; concerns about water quality and aquatic biodiversity; the poor condition of many upland SSSI (under 15% in favourable condition) and the negative impacts of over burning and grazing; the dangers of consuming lead from shot game; whether society is getting value from payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); and potential effects on flood risk for some downstream areas. So a wide range of really significant environmental and social issues.

More upland restoration work, such as that taking place at the RSPB Abernethy reserve, is badly needed.

As highlighted at Westminster Hall, it seems economics plays a very large part in this debate. However, the government do not appear to have done the sums to assess how the benefits from employment and income generation to local communities from grouse shooting compare with counteracting the cost of any environmental damage, loss of wildlife tourism opportunities or the huge sums of agricultural subsides paid into the uplands. A clear picture of the true costs and benefits of current upland management to society would help inform the debate. Money aside, the government needs to explore progressive ways to bring the necessary accountability and ultimately to bring the UK uplands into good environmental condition. For raptors, at the very minimum, vicarious liability and a range of strong legal mechanisms, such as licensing , are needed urgently.

The RSPB will continue to fight for raptors and the uplands and push for much needed change. Initiatives such as current the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, including a revealing program of satellite tagging young hen harriers, will continue to help maintain the profile of this beleaguered species but it is our government that needs to take the lead.

The death of hen harrier Rowan, those before, and those undoubtedly to come, paint a sorry and dark shadow on our uplands. Whilst I will not be at the RSPB a quarter of a century from now, I would hope to still be here and to have witnessed a real change in the condition of our uplands and for the shame of raptor persecution to finally end. However, for these hopes to become a reality I believe this government needs to start taking take meaningful action now, and not just watch from the sidelines hoping it will all sort itself out. Our society deserves better.