A gamekeeper was convicted at Lancaster Magistrates Court this morning for the killing of two short-eared owls on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Timothy David Cowin, 44, pleaded guilty to shooting the owls on the Whernside Estate in Cumbria (inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park boundary) and to being in possession of a calling device that held the calls of several raptor species.
[Gamekeeper Cowin trying to leave the moor after shooting two short-eared owls. Photo by Guy Shorrock, RSPB]
His sentence? A pathetic £1,210, broken down as £400 for killing each short-eared owl, £200 for possessing the calling device, £170 costs and a £40 victim surcharge. The court heard that Cowin was suspended by the Whernside Estate pending the prosecution but then he later resigned and now apparently works as a joiner in Sedburgh.
Cowin committed these offences in April 2017 and was witnessed doing so by three members of the RSPB’s Investigations Team who just happened to be on the moor. The crimes were videoed (from a distance), and Cowin was observed shooting the owls, then stamping on them, and then disposing of the bodies – one hidden inside a stone wall and one stamped in to the peat. The quick-thinking RSPB team called the police, carried on filming, and one of them made his presence known to Cowin as Cowin tried to leave the moor, resulting in a chase across the hills before the police arrived to arrest him and retrieve the corpses.
For full details, have a read of this RSPB blog here.
And then watch this remarkable RSPB video:
We’ve blogged about this case previously (here), as it’s been dragged around five courts in north west England over a six-month period. At several stages it looked as though it was going to be abandoned on a legal technicality (paperwork issues this time, instead of contesting the admissibility of video evidence), as we’ve seen so often with other cases in recent years, and it is testament to the dedication of all those involved in the prosecution (RSPB, North Yorkshire Police Rural Taskforce, and the Crown Prosecution Service, who all put in extra hours) that it stayed on track and resulted in a conviction.
Of course it wouldn’t have got to court in the first place if it hadn’t been for the RSPB’s Investigations Team being on that grouse moor to install a covert camera for what had looked to them like previous suspicious activity. But just being there wouldn’t have been enough. The team was also skilled enough to recognise what Cowin was up to, quick-witted enough to film him, sharp enough to call the Police as the crime was in progress, and fit enough to chase Cowin across the moor when he was trying to escape. Added to their outstanding efforts was the swift response from North Yorkshire Police to get up to the grouse moor in time to arrest him. And then the dedicated, committed efforts of both the RSPB and the police to return early the next day to search for the second owl corpse before Cowin had an opportunity to get back on the moor and remove the evidence. In court, CPS prosecutor Rachel Parker was forensic in rebutting the attempts by the defence solicitor to have the case thrown out.
The actions of all involved in this successful prosecution were exemplary. Will the grouse shooting industry praise their efforts and encourage them to continue routing out the criminal gamekeepers known to be routinely committing these offences?
We’ll no doubt hear the disingenuous bleating of the Moorland Association, GWCT, National Gamekeepers Organisation, Countryside Alliance etc, all condemning wildlife crime before swiftly returning to their usual criticism of the RSPB and its efforts to fight the continuing illegal persecution of raptors on driven grouse moors.
There are plenty more ‘Cowins’ out there, and despite the efforts of the grouse shooting industry to deny the extent of these crimes and pay for expensive lawyers to defend the criminals responsible, the public is becoming increasingly aware of how big a problem this is, through the efforts of the RSPB and its genuine conservation partners.
Today’s verdict doesn’t help those two short-eared owls; it’s too late for them, but Cowin’s conviction is yet another nail in the coffin of the driven grouse shooting industry. Kudos to all involved.
UPDATE 29 August 2018: Whernside Estate retains membership of Moorland Association (here)
UPDATE 31 August 2018: Whernside Estate: more reaction to gamekeeper’s conviction for shooting owls (here)
[PC Carr retrieving the pitiful corpse of the second short-eared owl that had been shot then stamped in to the ground. Photo by Guy Shorrock]