More on that gunman filmed with a decoy owl near hen harrier nest site on Whernside

Late on Friday afternoon the RSPB published a blog detailing an incident that was witnessed by a Natural England fieldworker at a hen harrier nest site in Cumbria during this year’s breeding season.

According to that blog (here), ‘…..a Natural England fieldworker was monitoring a hen harrier nest on moorland near Whernside, Cumbria, when he saw a man wearing camouflage carrying a firearm and a live bird of prey, believed to be an eagle owl about 300m from the hen harrier nesting area. He tethered the bird and sat a short distance away with his gun. In the circumstances there seems little doubt the intention was to draw in raptors, presumably the hen harriers, to shoot them. The use of a tethered live bird as a decoy to kill or take a wild bird is in itself illegal, but a method that seems to be increasingly used for targeting raptors. This was no doubt a highly stressful situation, we understand the fieldworker took some video footage and made himself visible. This eventually had the desired effect, and the suspect, realising he was under observation, left. It was reported to the police but due to evidential issues around establishing the identity of the suspect, it was not possible to take the matter forward to court. The RSPB would like to place on record our thanks to Cumbria Constabulary and the CPS for their determined efforts to progress this investigation. We firmly consider that this incident and the video should now be put in the public domain’.

One of the main points being made in the wider RSPB blog was that Natural England had declined to publicise this incident, even though it is understood to have taken place in an area where hen harriers were being brood meddled as part of a Government-sanctioned conservation sham, optimistically called the Hen Harrier Action Plan by those involved.

[A much more realistic portrayal of the so-called Hen Harrier Action Plan. Cartoon by Gerard Hobley]

Natural England’s refusal to voluntarily disclose detailed information about its sham hen harrier conservation project or this latest allegation of attempted persecution at a hen harrier nest site shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s been following this blog for any length of time. Natural England has developed something of a reputation for its lack of transparency and accountability, especially when it comes to meddling with hen harriers, and much of this goes back further than Tony Juniper’s reign (e.g. see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here etc etc).

Since the RSPB’s blog was published on Friday afternoon, not one of the shooting organisations involved in the hen harrier brood meddling sham have published a statement on their respective websites. Remember, these are the organisations who claim to hold a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to illegal raptor persecution. You’d think they might have something to say about it, wouldn’t you? Especially given the history of raptor-killing in this area (see here).

We’ve heard, from a number of sources, an allegation that, if true, might explain Natural England’s reluctance to discuss this particular incident.

Have another look at this statement from the RSPB blog:

‘It was reported to the police but due to evidential issues around establishing the identity of the suspect, it was not possible to take the matter forward to court’

We’ve been told that the day after the Natural England fieldworker filmed the gunman with his tethered live eagle owl near the hen harrier nest, a Natural England staff member phoned the gunman and asked whether it was him who had been seen at the hen harrier site the day before.

Because Natural England is a statutory authority, its staff have to abide by the requirements of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act (PACE). This Act is primarily concerned with the behaviour of the police (or other relevant authority), the suspect’s rights and the admissibility of evidence. According to our sources, phoning a suspect and asking whether he had been present at a potential crime scene would be a breach of PACE and, even though it’s ‘just’ a technicality, this would be sufficient for a defence agent to have any potential prosecution thrown out at an early stage.

Is this what happened in this case? Did Natural England cock up a potential prosecution, albeit unintentionally? We’re unlikely to ever get a full account out of Natural England but it does raise an important issue – does Natural England have a protocol/procedure in place for how its staff should behave in these situations? And if not, it needs to get one sorted pronto because as we’re all too aware, the illegal killing of hen harriers on grouse moors is an ongoing crime wave.

UPDATE 21 September 2020: Natural England denies cocking up police investigation at Whernside hen harrier site (here)

UPDATE 20 January 2021: Confirmation that hen harrier brood meddling estate was under police investigation for suspected raptor persecution (here)

31 thoughts on “More on that gunman filmed with a decoy owl near hen harrier nest site on Whernside”

  1. Is this what happened? you ask, and as you say, we may never find out. There is an even darker possibility. That it has been “agreed” that that is what happened.

  2. When you see the way the board of Natural England is stacked with non-Scientists; accountants, media, civil servants, land owners etc, one should expect too much. Basically they are an extension of DEFRA and the UK government’s cronyism and establishment support. There are no conservation specialists, so not much hope for securing a future for our wildlife.

  3. “Did Natural England cock up a potential prosecution, albeit unintentionally?”

    Or more to the point, did Natural England cock up a potential prosecution, with full intent?

  4. What was the point of the phone call other than to make the chances of a successful prosecution much reduced?
    Did the caller really expect the person to say Yes?

  5. It would be easy to fall into the idea that this was deliberate to avoid a prosecution but I don’t usually believe in conspiracy theories. However it is clear that the Fieldworker recognised or thought he recognised the man with the owl and gun. That another ( more senior?) member of NE staff took it upon himself to ring that person presumably to play merry hell is amateurish to say the least but it does suggest there is no protocol to deal with such situations— there certainly needs to be, one hopes a lesson learnt even though it has probably cost a prosecution. What I don’t understand is why NE won’t go public with their evidence now a prosecution is impossible, that smacks of appeasement or pandering to the grouse cabal. It will of course be a decision made well up the chain of command.

  6. “If you think a crime has been committed (or in this case prepared to be committed) you must call the police” was our instruction.

    Pretty simple; man with tethered eagle owl in the viscinity of a hen harrier nest – phone the police. And in this case 999 because a crime appears to be in progress.

  7. If this allegation is true, then it demonstrates an urgency for all those agencies and organisations involved in the investigation and monitoring of raptor persecution incidents and wildlife crime to develop a robust investigation protocol which is agreed with the police, the CPS, and other bodies which have legal capability to instigate prosecutions.

    It is vital that evidence is retained, documented and then properly passed to the police or whichever other body will progress the investigation and take the matter to court.

    There must be transparency to the investigative process so that there are no technical loop holes available to the defence to exploit.

    And there should be no breaches of the legislation and procedures which govern how investigations are conducted.

    This should not be difficult to achieve, and if the police are to be the lead investigators then lets get some agreed national standards with ACPO.

    What’s at stake here are some of our nations most endangered and valuable wildlife species.
    Species which attract public funding in trying to achieve habitat protection, monitoring and conservation.

    So, it is important that the wildlife crime investigative procedure is professional, robust and reflects the importance of what is trying to be achieved as regards these species conservation status.

    1. ‘then it demonstrates an urgency for all those agencies and organisations involved in the investigation and monitoring of raptor persecution incidents and wildlife crime to develop a robust investigation protocol which is agreed with the police, the CPS, and other bodies which have legal capability to instigate prosecutions. ‘
      I find it pretty difficult to believe that they don’t already.
      Whether it was deliberate or not it shows that the person who phoned up obviously has prosecuting the criminals as a very low priority.
      To be honest as i type this i can’t believe that it wasn’t a tip off. It is just too much to think otherwise. No one could be that stupid.

  8. Things were much simpler in the days when one was either (a) pro-keeper in favour of killing birds of prey for what you believed was the greater good or (b) in favour of protecting them. This NE thing with its fieldworkers working “in partnership” with keepers is just something I can’t quite understand. They must be forever trying to second guess one another to judge who is genuine or playing games. More draining than the work itself, I would suppose.

  9. In addition to my other comment regarding this allegation.
    There is another more worrying consideration.
    If the gunman was recognised, was he in fact an employee on that shooting estate?
    I have concerns that some landowners and estates which participate in the Hen harrier Brood management process, may view their participation in much the same way that large multinationals engage in carbon credits or carbon offsetting whilst still conducting a core business which is responsible for pollution.
    Could it be that once the brood management process has been completed, and eggs or chicks have been removed from a nest, then the landowner or estate will also want the adult Hen Harriers also removed from that grouse moor, so that the adult birds don’t detract from the grouse shooting?
    Consideration, then has to be given to the possibility that the gunman had in fact gone up to the moor with the purpose of removing the adult birds?
    If this is the case, and some estates are participating in the brood management process with the misguided belief that this then justifies the removal of adult Hen Harriers from their grouse moors, then the whole brood management process is thrown into question and should be stopped, as its clearly not contributing to the Hen Harrier recovery, but is simply a relocation programme of chicks, with “ethnic cleansing” of the adult birds from grouse moors.
    Whilst, I can offer no evidence to support this claim, and I am sure there will never be an admission as to this taking place. Would such a claim offer an explanation as to why the gunman, in company with a lure bird was up on a moor where Brood Management was taking place??

  10. The admissibility of any evidence obtained and whether they were right to ask the question depends on the circumstance.

    If the person asking it believed the person they were asking, based on what they actually knew (knew – not assumed or just considered likely) was a suspect they probably shouldn’t have asked it.

    If the person asking it was not satisfied on the evidence they had at that time that the person was a suspect, my view would be they were entitled to ask the question. They might have considered it a possibility the person was the gunman but a possibility is different to knowing they were the gunman.

    The report says they phoned to ask whether or not it was them who had been seen, that doesn’t suggest to me they were sure the person was a suspect at that time they asked it.

    1. I can’t imagine any other crime where it would be OK to call up someone that could have anything to do with that crime and ask questions about the crime, particularly when organized crime is involved. You call the police. Everyone knows that. Evidence of crime; call police.

  11. Another thing which puzzles me about this case is that, unless I’ve missed something along the way, there is no indication that the NE fieldworker attempted to summon assistance, or at least report what was happening. Surely there would have been an agreed procedure to follow in the event of anything untoward arising – whether this be to call the Police or other reinforcements. I accept, of course, that there may have been no mobile phone signal which would rule out that means of communication. However, I would have thought that there would have been a mention, one way or the other, of this somewhat obvious point.

    Do we know the status of this particular nest? Is it the one which was scheduled for meddling or the one which was close enough to the other to allow meddling to take place there? Either way, the case goes to show just how brazen (or stupid) these camo guys are – taking his persecuting gear into an area which he should have realised would probably be under surveillance. It’s a prime example of what we and the Hen Harriers are up against.

  12. Simple really the grouse shooters remain above the law. Any other constant persecution of endangered species by a very small minority who have little relevance to the economy would bring a government response. Year on year this continues.

  13. As usual with everything Avery says not a single bit of evidence just a lot of waffle.
    Note yet again how he rubbishes everything and anyone involved saving hen harriers. What a sad pathetic individual you are Mr. Avery. You packham and Tingay are pure poison not genuine conservationists.

    [Ed: Thanks, Mike O’Reilly from Exford. I know it’s a tricky concept but you do realise this blog isn’t written by Mark?]

    1. Mike
      There is a mass of evidence that many of those managing the UK’s grouse moors are also not genuine conservationists, but are simply working to produce an unnatural number of grouse to be shot.
      This is not good for the environment, it is not good for many of the other species which inhabit those uplands….and it clearly isn’t good for the Hen Harrier.

      If only 60 chicks were fledged from 19 nests across the vast uplands of Northumberland, Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria and Lancashire, and 7 satellite tagged birds have already gone missing this year – then that is hardly anything to be proud of, when considered against how many birds there could be in a natural safer environment not managed for shooting.

      Even Natural England admit that prior to the introduction of large scale game bird shooting in the UK, the Hen Harrier was found across much of upland and lowland Britain.

      Let’s not forget who was, and still remains, responsible for the demise in numbers of so many of the UK raptors.

      Whilst you might not agree with Mark Avery, Chris Packham or Ruth Tingay- they have and continue to do a valuable job in exposing what is actually taking place, and offer an extremely valuable contribution to the whole debate on raptor conservation.

      Let’s also not forget its very difficult to have a proper debate on conservation, when there is so much evidence to indicate that one side is riddled with individuals who are quite prepared to break the law, and whose ambition is underpinned by the economic motivation to produce game birds to be shot.

      It was very interesting in the BBC program -Extinction – Sir David Attenborough identified the focus on economic growth and expansion as one of the root causes of extinction on this planet.
      Are you going to claim he is pure poison too?

    2. As usual, when there is another wildlife crime, and the people in the forefront of fighting this and keeping us up to date with incidents, are attacked in this way, I have sent another little donation to Wild Justice.

      [Ed: Thank you, Mairi!]

  14. The only way to deal with this is by using evidence gained by independent methods ie surveillance by retired professionals, military or police and private prosecutions. I know personally that there are many dedicated NE fieldworkers.

  15. “a Natural England staff member phoned the gunman”. I find this an odd scenario.

    It seems to me that it is a fair assumption that someone with a gun, an eagle owl and knowledge of the location of the hen harrier nest is someone with a direct or indirect professional involvement or knowledge of the project developments.

    It also seems logical to me that a NE staffer would only obtain the phone number of someone directly involved in meetings or in the fieldwork.

    Clearly, the police and RSPB were informed of the event. But when?

    Why would any NE member of staff ring up the suspect? This action would obviously tip off an alleged criminal to the allegations being levelled against him and a potential police investigation. I can’t imagine a NE staffer not being aware of the dangers such an act would pose to a criminal investigation. I also can’t image a NE staffer deliberately scuppering such an investigation. On the other hand, if there was no police investigation taking place or expected to take place, that ‘phone call might have been unorthodox and naive act but it would not have jeopardised any criminal investigation – if none was expected to take place.

    I simply can’t think of any other scenario where a NE staffer would act so recklessly – unless they felt that there was no prospect of a police report being made but such a phone call would clarify the matter and enable this ‘problem’ to be addressed in another way. Is that what might have happened?

    Surely the action of the NE member of staff ringing the alleged gunman – and the action of the gunman – have wrecked any degree of trust the partners in this project might have had and the viability of the project’s future? Unless NE have decided that keeping this incident under wraps is the way to try to recover a better working relationship and keep the public in the dark about an awkward situation for both parties?

    NE need to pull this project and explain what happened.

  16. Just to be clear …

    It is my suspicion that when the NE fieldworker reported the incident to a senior member of staff, someone higher up the pay scale decided to give the suspect a verbal warning but, unfortunately for them, the matter was later reported to the police and the RSPB and the conversation emerged during investigations.

    It seems to me that the modus operandi of NE regarding alleged crimes is to offer guidance and words of advice to alleged law breakers. I suspect that the motive to do that would be even greater in this controversial project which has been subject to judicial proceedings. Publicity and proceedings regarding wildlife crime occurring on a project that is supposed to be addressing the motive for wildlife crime and lack of hen harriers on grouse shooting moors would have been hugely embarrassing and undermining to NE. It might even be important enough to support any future action for judicial review of the project by an interested party. I imagine that that difficulty could have helped secure a decision to offer advice to the alleged culprit and to keep the matter private.

    As Mark Thomas, Head of Investigations UK, states on the RSPB blog about this incident “Transparency of information and outcomes is critically important when something is controversial because there will be increased scrutiny from the outside world. The brood management project plan states it will “evaluate the projects contribution in delivering more hen harriers in the northern uplands”. The only way to deliver more hen harriers is to ensure that enough chicks fledge and survive to contribute to the future population and to achieve that, we know there needs to be a significant reduction in persecution.” This revelation that persecution has, in fact, taken place is a huge blow to the integrity of this project.

    It seems to me that it would be helpful to know when the phone call to the gunman was made and when the alleged offence was reported to the police.

    Also it would be interesting to know when the police and RSPB found out about the phone call and who informed them of the chat.

    In addition, I’d be keen to find out who takes the lead in deciding what action should be taken where allegations of criminal wrong doing are made – the police or NE?

    Let’s hope NE come clean and drop this project.

  17. I can’t believe that the person from Natural England didn’t know that ringing the shooter would mean that they were not going to be prosecuted and I’m not surprised that they are trying to get rid of the hen-harriers it seems like everywhere you turn you hear about someone trying to change the status of area’s to allow some buildings or a runway but first of all they have to get rid of whatever is living in the area’s be it raptors or even newts in fact pretty soon there’s going to be no wildlife left anywhere in the UK that isn’t urbanised apart from on video or in books
    Come on people Think about the wildlife and in my opinion all infractions of the law should be prosecuted especially in wildlife related incidents and even more especially to the incidents involving protected areas and or wildlife

  18. “In addition, I’d be keen to find out who takes the lead in deciding what action should be taken where allegations of criminal wrong doing are made – the police or NE?..”….Exactly. In my dealings with the statutory conservation agencies from the early 1980s to 2007 I saw a culture of fear amongst the lower ranks when faced with a wildlife crime – they loved nature but were afraid of being disciplined by their superiors if they contacted the police or RSPB. Their bosses then made the decision over what to do next – which often meant that they simply contacted the estate involved or did nothing, knowing this some staff reported to contacting RSPB anonymously or at least covertly.Seems nothing has changed. I call that corruption.

  19. “albiet unintentionally” you say. Public discussion is questioning even this aspect. I keep writing another sentence here about how NE has lost credibility but it doesn’t reflect the parody of its current set up. Noé my never ending anger at them. Oh how we smiled and cheered when we thought we had a champion in charge. Seems like forever ago.

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