The one thing I really like about my job is the unexpected. It can be a bit inconvenient at times – but when certain jobs come in, you’ve got to drop everything if you’re to have a chance of securing that all-essential piece of evidence to bring a wildlife case to court. During my career, this has involved some really memorable moments and some long adrenaline-fuelled days. But few can top one particularly unexpected day that happened just last April, involving two owls, and a dramatic chase across a moor. This is a bit of a tale, so a cup of tea might be in order…
Back in 2015 we had a report of a live pigeon in a crow cage trap on the Whernside estate in Cumbria and inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park. We had a good response from the Cumbria Constabulary but ultimately it was not possible to show that anyone had deliberately placed the pigeon inside the trap. We had little doubt about what was taking place, and continued to monitor the area
Events on Whernside Moor in April 2017So on 13 April 2017, my colleagues Howard and Tim paid a visit. As they followed a track across the moor towards a shooting lodge they bumped into local gamekeeper Tim Cowin in his Mitsubishi pickup. After exchanging pleasantries, they continued on their way and started a long loop around the moor and back towards their vehicle. At one point they thought they could hear a repeated call of a corvid: it didn’t sound natural and aroused their curiosity. Then, looking down from the footpath, they saw a plastic owl decoy on a fencepost by a small plantation. Closer scrutiny revealed a smaller white object on top of the adjacent fence post and eventually a camouflaged and masked person hidden a few metres away in the edge of the plantation with a firearm. The vehicle they had seen earlier was parked nearby. It was all becoming clear – the white object was probably a speaker unit and had been playing the corvid call heard earlier – these are typically operated by a remote control unit.
Now, plastic decoys can lawfully be used to draw in corvids for shooting, but we know they are also being used to draw in raptors and ravens for shooting – which is very much illegal. I’ve seen a raven shot using such decoys. What was particularly worrying was that, over the nearby skyline, they had seen a hen harrier skydancing and a buzzard, though out of shotgun range, also seemed to be paying some unwelcome attention to the decoy. So whilst the hidden gunman’s intended targets were unknown, the use of an electronic calling devices to draw in birds, even corvids, was very much illegal. Eventually, the gunman left the area, collected the speaker unit and concealed the plastic owl decoy in the edge of the plantation before returning to his vehicle. There was little doubt it was Mr Cowin who they had met earlier that day.
The masked gunman recovering his speaker unit and plastic eagle owl decoy (Tim Jones)
On 18 April, Howard and Tim returned to install a covert camera to monitor the decoy spot. They returned the following day to install a second camera and I made a last minute decision to go with them and stretch my ageing legs. I wasn’t expecting to be out in the field, but as usual had brought my field rucksack just in case. On the day in question we walked to a position on a public footpath overlooking the plantation. I was to act as lookout whilst Howard and Tim attended to the covert cameras. Presently, the Mitsubishi pickup arrived on a track to the north and made its way towards the moor. It reached a parking and turning area where the driver, we presumed to be Mr Cowin, alighted to open the gate so he could drive onto the moor. On the other side the gate he parked up for about 45 minutes before continuing and disappearing from view. Howard and Tim kept their heads down for a while before rejoining me on the footpath. Whilst the vehicle has disappeared from view, what we presumed was the driver was now out on the moor with his firearm. With his usual enthusiasm Howard suggested we wait and watch for a while so we all settled down next to the remains of a building by the footpath.
Tim was watching intently through his telescope at the distant figure some 2.4 kilometres away when he dramatically announced: “He’s shot a short-eared owl!” Tim continued to describe events as the man fired a second shot at the bird before picking up the body and walking across to a broken down drystone wall. I was fumbling frantically in my rucksack for my video camera as Tim described that the man was stamping on something at the base of the wall – presumably despatching the owl. As I started to film the man he was now hiding the body inside the wall. He then continued further out on to the moor.
After shooting the first short-eared owl, Cowin was filmed hiding the body in a wall (Guy Shorrock)
I had imagined on many occasions what I might do in such circumstances, but it takes a few moments to get your thoughts in order in such an intense situation. A plan was quickly formed. Tim would continue to observe, Howard would call the police (fortunately we just had mobile reception) then rendezvous with them in the bottom of Dentdale valley near the viaduct. It was absolutely crucial to confirm the identity of the gunman, so I would go down to the access track and walk towards the moor. If I met our suspect leaving the scene I would try and stall him whilst the police attended. I had not met Mr Cowin before, so any encounter should be a lot less suspicious than meeting Howard and Tim again. If I reached the parking area, I would try to find a spot to hide and film him as he would have to leave his vehicle to negotiate the gate. We all had a radio, so would hopefully be able to keep in touch and adapt our plan as circumstances dictated.
Howard called 999 and despite assuring them the incident really was in Cumbria was put through to the North Yorkshire 101 general enquiry number – not really the response we were hoping for! Howard then called Sergeant Kevin Kelly of the North Yorkshire Police Rural Taskforce, who we have an excellent working relationship with. Thankfully he was on duty and immediately started to arrange a police response to this fairly remote location. Tim continued watching, and now at 2.7 kilometres, saw the man flush and shoot a second short-eared owl. Howard got some distant video footage of the body being unceremoniously stamped into the ground. Howard then set off down to the valley to meet the police. I got this news shortly after reaching the parking area - things were really hotting up.
On the edge of the parking area, about 20 metres from the gate, I found a wall to hide behind and positioned the video camera so it was trained on the gate. The vehicle duly arrived and the tension was definitely building as events started to come together. Tim was still up on the footpath watching events unfold and taking video footage himself. As the vehicle arrived I switched on the video camera: I had good clear footage of one Tim Cowin negotiating the gate.
Cowin filmed leaving Whernside Moor after shooting two short-eared owls (Guy Shorrock)
Cowin brought his vehicle through and closed the gate. As he moved out of shot I assumed he was getting back in his vehicle to drive down the access track towards our hastily arranged police ambush. What we hadn’t accounted for was that from the access gate Cowin could see the police vehicles in the valley a kilometre below. Having just shot two owls he was no doubt understandably suspicious. Howard was with the police and, looking up the hill, realised the problem and they set off in haste up the forestry access track.
The chaseI was completely unaware of this and suddenly realised he was walking across the parking area towards me. I assumed he may have seen my video camera which I quickly hid. At the edge of the parking area Cowin stood looking down at the police vehicles. Though he was just the other side of the wall from me I was completely out of sight and, with my radio turned off, thought I might get away with it. However, with apparent burning curiosity, Cowin stepped over the wire fence to get a slightly better view of events in the valley below. I was crouched down by the wall, almost at his feet, looking up at him and decided I had better take the bull by the horns. I stood up and my greeting of ‘Hello, Tim’ was met with an expression of utmost surprise. He was struggling to speak and clearly didn’t want to engage in conversation. He climbed back over the wire fence, and started back towards his vehicle, but then climbed over the gate towards the moor. I assumed he was going back to the moor to perhaps try and dispose of evidence and, having radioed an update, climbed over the gate. He was now about 40 metres away and had started to run – I had little choice but to set off in pursuit. In my youth as a police officer I had chased plenty of criminals on foot, but never during 25 years with the RSPB, so this was all incredibly bizarre to say the least! Meanwhile Tim (Jones) was up on the hill capturing these surreal events on video.
On top of a 40 metre head start, Mr Cowin was a good 12 years younger than me, I was also wearing a full set of waterproofs, plus carrying binoculars, radio and a video camera so I knew it was not going to be a fun bit of exercise. The boggy moorland track had been overlaid with a long series of wooden railway sleepers and whilst fairly firm was treacherously slippery and how we both stayed upright was something of a mystery. I twice shouted for him to stop and that the police were coming. He initially increased his distance to about 60 metres, but as I got my second wind I encouragingly realised he wasn’t getting further away. About 400 metres along the track he suddenly turned right over a gate and started running downhill towards Dentdale valley. He disappeared over a rise ahead of me and when I reached this he had vanished. The next rise seemed too far for him to have reached – but I continued downhill rather perplexed. I then spotted him over 200 metres away, above me and heading back across the moor towards his vehicle. He must have hidden and I had run past him. So I set off huffing and puffing back up the moor. However, he was now walking rather than running. As we both got back to the track where the chase had started, I was not far behind him and in the distance, like every good film, the cavalry had arrived and running towards him were WCO Sergeant Stuart Grainger (who had just had an epic 25-mile drive from Leyburn), PC Michael Carr and young Howard bringing up the rear. I raised the video camera and filmed a scene now indelibly seared into my memory as Mr Cowin, now seemingly accepting there was no escape, walked back up the track towards the on rushing trio.
Cowin about to be arrested by two North Yorkshire Police officers (Guy Shorrock)
He was promptly detained, arrested and searched. As I walked up to join them, I stood on a slightly boggy spot and literally disappeared up to my waist. Hoping this had not been noticed I extracted myself I joined the others. I have to say I have never seen a more bemused looking person than Mr Cowin, not surprisingly it seemed his brain just couldn’t really comprehend what had just happened.
What happened nextBack at his insecure vehicle we saw a Foxpro electronic calling device in the rear passenger area, along with his shotgun. Cowin was taken away for interview and his vehicle moved to a secure pound. It was getting late now and we were keen to try and recover the bodies of the two owls. So, joined by WCO PC Rob Davies, and with Tim giving direction from his lofty, albeit distant, view on the hill, we began our search for the first owl. The broken down drystone wall provided a good reference point. We initially found a large rock with an obvious bloodstain and a few feathers: no doubt where the stamping incident had taken place. Tim, our eyes on the hill, gave us fantastic directions and PC Carr pulled back the stonework a short distance away to reveal the talons of a very well hidden corpse. I watched as the pitiful body of a short-eared owl was produced from the drystone wall.
North Yorkshire Police recovering the body of the first shot short-eared owl from a wall (Guy Shorrock)
I had my Wildlife DNA forensic kit in my bag so swabbed the suspected blood stain on the rock then we set off to join the search for the second corpse. This was a fairly featureless bit of moor with no reference points, and Tim was relying purely on memory to try and guide us to a spot around 2.7 kilometres away where he thought the owl might be. In fading light we eventually gave up and resolved to return the next day.
At Kendal Police Station Tim (Jones) provided an initial statement. We sorted out our notebooks and I handed over the swabs and feathers from the site of the owl recovery. We booked into a Travelodge and finally got to our room around 1am. Having been up over 18 hours we were understandably ready for bed, but decided to review the video footage ready for the search the next day. What I hadn’t realised was that Tim had filmed my less than dignified decent into the bog and, like three naughty schoolboys up well past bedtime, the three of us ended up in hysterics. Mirth aside, we also realised that as Cowin had negotiated the access gate he could be seen crouched down next to a piece of broken wall by the gatepost and was possibly hiding something. We didn’t know precisely what he was doing but thought it could be significant, and that we had better get there first before he had chance to return. So I reluctantly called Cumbria Constabulary and arranged to meet officers in the valley before dawn. At 4 am, after a couple of hours’ kip, we dragged ourselves out of our room and had a very foggy drive to meet the police. In the darkness by torchlight I took the remains of the wall apart, but other than a spring trap could not find anything of note. While we were there we walked over to the small plantation and recovered the plastic owl decoy concealed in the edge of the trees.
After breakfast at a truckstop, and another couple of hours sleep, we later joined Sgt Kevin Kelly and PC Michael Carr and headed back to Whernside Moor. Michael wasn’t overly confident about finding the second body in such difficult terrain but from experience I thought we had a reasonable chance. This time with Howard and Sgt Kelly on the hill and with the video footage from the previous day, they were able to guide us to the right area. We located a few owl feathers and Tim spotted indistinct footprints going across a boggy area of sphagnum – it’s amazing how quickly the moss recovers its shape leaving very little sign. The footprints came to an apparent halt and we guessed this was probably where the second body had been stamped into the ground. Sure enough, with the video camera rolling, PC Carr unearthed the second, sad body.
PC Michael Carr recovering the body of the second shot short-eared owl on Whernside Moor (Guy Shorrock)
We also went to recover the blood stained rock from the previous day. It was a fairly large rock but having just squeezed it into a paper evidence sack, I delegated Tim to stagger manfully across the moor back to the vehicle.
Post mortem examinations confirmed both birds were shot along with bone fractures, no doubt from being stamped on. The bloodstain on the seized rock was confirmed by the Wildlife DNA Unit at SASA as containing short-eared owl DNA. When the Foxpro calling device was examined by the police, we were not surprised to find a number of raptor calls including peregrine, goshawk, buzzard and sparrowhawk were on the device. These are not included with the calls that come with this US piece of equipment and had obviously been added. There could only be one logical reason for this – to draw in raptors to a close distance whereby they could be shot. The highly experienced raptor worker David Anderson from the Forestry Commission in Scotland provided an expert witness statement in relation to the effectiveness of electronic calling devices to bring in raptors. WCO PC Roy Williams from Cumbria Constabulary worked with North Yorkshire officers to prepare the file for the CPS. Again, we had an excellent response from them, and after a few legal ups and down finally on 28 August 2018 at Lancaster Magistrates Court Mr Cowin pleased guilty to killing the two owls and possessing the Foxpro calling device. He was fined £400 for killing each owl and £200 for possessing the calling device, which was forfeited by the court. He was ordered to pay £170 costs and a £40 victim surcharge. A total of £1,210. The defence solicitor told the court that Mr Cowin had shot the owls to protect curlew but as a result had now lost his job on the estate. Delivering the sentence the bench of Magistrates said that Mr Cowin's actions had been pre-meditated and his character had been stained.
A ten minute video showing all the dramatic events on Whernside Moor, including the pursuit and arrest of Mr Cowin, followed by the recovery of both shot owls can be seen here.
The short eared owl - how worried should we be?
The short-eared owl is a beautiful and enigmatic bird of our uplands. I still recall the first one I saw as a young boy with my father one winter in Cheshire. It is also a scarce breeding bird, rarer than some species included on Schedule 1 of the WCA. Depending on vole availability, the UK population fluctuates between 600 to 2200 pairs.Unlike hen harriers and peregrines, there seems no obvious conflict with grouse shooting. However, I have no doubt hundreds of these owls are being shot every year on driven grouse moors in England and Scotland – yes hundreds! Over the years I have spoken in detail, and in confidence, to several people, mainly gamekeepers, involved with grouse shooting in the north of England. Though a small mammal specialist, I am assured they occasionally take grouse chicks but also they can potentially disrupt drives of grouse when the shooting season starts in August. As a result short-eared owls are apparently routinely shot on driven grouse moors, with claims of 30 birds being shot annually on many estates. In good vole years these numbers can apparently be two or three times higher. The birds are apparently easy to shoot if you know what you are doing, and it seems likely our chance encounter at Whernside is just a snapshot of what is probably going on every spring in our uplands.
The RSPB has received detailed allegations of the intensive persecution of short-eared owls on grouse moors in the north of England (Tim Melling)
In light of the claimed intensity of persecution, and general reports from Raptor Workers of less birds around, I was not surprised to see the results of the most recent British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Bird Atlas for 2007 to 2011. This indicates the breeding range has almost halved since the first Atlas survey from 1968 to 1972. As a result of this decline the species in now ‘Amber-listed’ in the UK. Owing to uncertainty over the number of breeding pairs of short-eared owl, and indications that numbers are in decline, the Rare Breeding Birds Panel started reporting the status of this from 2010. This is a notoriously difficult bird to survey and there is no confirmed reason for this decline. However, based on my 26 years’ experience, I believe there is a realistic likelihood that breeding numbers are being significantly suppressed in some areas by relentless persecution.
And finallyYet again, the disturbingly events at Whernside call in to question the seemingly never ending problems associated with land intensively managed for driven grouse shooting. It could not be clearer that the industry cannot self-police. Without some meaningful accountability for owners and managers, there seems little doubt that the likes of Mr Cowin will continue to do what they are told or expected to do. Quite why the government will not step up and be more decisive speaks volumes of their lack of commitment in this area of crime. To bring more accountability for the management of these remote places, the government urgently needs to bring in some licensing controls for driven grouse shooting. The RSPB would also like to see the vicarious liability legislation in Scotland, which makes managers and employers criminally responsible for their staff, extended to the rest of the UK.
RSPB recently supported 'Operation Owl' – a fantastic public awareness-raising initiative in relation to raptor persecution in North Yorkshire. The public are our 'eyes & ears' in the countryside and report from walkers etc are vitally important. We also believe there are people within the shooting industry itself who are very unhappy about what is taking place in our uplands and continuing to sully the reputation of the shooting industry. The updated Raptor Crime Hotline - 0300 9990101 - gives these people a completely confidential and secure way to pass on any important information. We hope the various bodies who represent shooting and rural interests will give this the hotline their full support.
Finally, we would like to thank the amazing response from officers of the North Yorkshire Police and Cumbria Constabulary to this remote location - I never thought I would see a person arrested in these circumstances on a grouse moor. Furthermore, thanks to the subsequent work and help of both police forces, scientists, witnesses and the excellent support from the CPS.
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