While we too often come across the bodies - birds either dead or injured containing shot, or caught in traps - it's not often we get a first-hand, eyewitness account of a bird of prey being killed.

Last summer, an individual (who understandably has asked not to be named) had the unhappy experience of seeing a Short-eared Owl shot in front of his eyes while birding on Broomhead Moor in the Peak District. His fast actions led to a police search and investigation, which he has shared below.

You can also watch it via this video: 

"It was one of the first really warm evenings of the year, so I stopped on my way back from work to do a bit of birding at I place I knew, where you get a good view of the moorland. I noticed that someone had come onto the moor in a six-wheeler, all-terrain vehicle. He was in green and on his own, and he had a shotgun and a bag. But I didn’t pay him much attention, as I was watching a barn owl which was out early, flying around hunting. That’s when I picked up the short-eared owl, way over in the distance. I started watching it through my scope. 

It was drifting towards where this guy was positioned in the heather. Whilst I was watching it, the bird burst into a cloud of feathers. I knew what had happened. And then I heard the gunshot, and realised the guy on the moor had fired the shot. I thought, woah, did I just see that happen? I carried on watching and saw the man jump up and move towards where the owl was. I immediately picked the phone up and started videoing. It was about two and a half miles distant. I watched the man settle back down into the heather and I took a bearing on where he was.

I informed a local raptor monitor I know, who told me I should call the police and report it straight away, which I did. There were high hopes that they could gather enough people to head out onto the moor that night and catch him in place. But it was getting dark by now, and I got told they were looking at doing it first thing in the morning.

I had various calls from the Wildlife Crime Officer, who asked if I’d be able to come and meet them to try and locate the area the owl had been shot at, and where the guy had been sat. I’d taken photos, so I took the Wildlife Crime Officer with me to where I’d been sat, and set up a scope again, and zeroed in and gave instructions to them while they co-ordinated their search. And it worked - they managed to pick up some owl feathers, and then the short-eared owl’s body. And they took it from there."

The body of the Short-eared Owl, found on Broomhead Moor in the Peak District

South Yorkshire Police, together with RSPB Investigations Officers, went to the location as identified by the witness. He was able to guide them to a spot where they found the owl's body was part-concealed down a rabbit hole. The body was sent for testing and confirmed to have been shot. 

The police made extensive enquiries and identified a suspect - a local gamekeeper. A number of items were seized, but despite the efforts of the police and the forensic testing that was carried out, it couldn't be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the suspect was responsible for this crime. 

RSPB and Police Officers search the area

Reflecting on what he saw, and on raptor persecution in general, the witness said:

"I believe he would have shot anything that would have come past him. That enraged me. That is wrong on every level. Knowing that harriers were out on the moor as well was really big in my heart. Watching an owl being shot in front of you is bad enough, but I knew that the owl was probably feeding dependent young, so by shooting that owl he’s put an end to the lives of those chicks as well.

I believe he’s one keeper out of many who’s doing similar things. Every time something is witnessed, or a bird is found that’s been killed by someone connected with the grouse moor industry, it’s fundamentally wrong and it’s not doing them any good either.

I’m well aware of raptor persecution. Knowing that this kind of thing goes on does cloud your experience as a birdwatcher. One evening you might stop and watch two owls together, then you go the next day or the day after and you don’t see any. And you think, ah well, they might just not be about. Then you go again and you still don’t see them... And at the back of your mind, you’re thinking, those owls might have been shot, and maybe that’s why they’re not there."

This was no isolated incident. The owl was shot close to where Octavia, a satellite tagged hen harrier, disappeared in 2018. Another tagged harrier called Anu was last recorded alive nearby in 2022 before his tag was found cut off. In the same year, two male hen harriers disappeared when paired with nesting females. The area remains a hotbed of raptor persecution

We, the RSPB, would like to thank South Yorkshire Police for their rapid response and thorough investigation, and of course the witness themselves, who did everything right in reporting this straight away and for his invaluable cooperation in guiding us to the spot where the body was. We rely on the eyes of the public, and urge anyone who sees something like this to call the police on 101 in the first instance, then contact the RSPB via this form. Additionally, if you have sensitive information about someone in your community killing raptors, you can call the RSPB’s confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.

Sadly, justice has not been served in this case. While it was not possible to identify who shot the owl, this is yet more proof that raptor persecution is continuing to happen on driven grouse moors, and that birds of prey - despite legal protection - remain at risk.