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)