Gamekeeper Archie Watson convicted of raptor persecution & firearms offences on Wiltshire pheasant shoot

On 1 June 2022 at Swindon Magistrates Court gamekeeper Archie Watson (21) of Dragon Lane, Manningford Bruce, Pewsey received a 12-month community order to carry out 180 hours unpaid work and was ordered to pay £393 costs and £95 surcharge for pleading guilty to raptor persecution offences relating to the discovery in 2020 of at least 11 buzzards, four red kites and one gull species that had been dumped down a well on Galteemore Farm, a pheasant-shooting venue in Wiltshire.

[Gamekeeper Watson caught on camera dumping a buzzard in the well. Photo by Guy Shorrock/RSPB]

Watson was caught on camera 13 times after the RSPB installed a covert video recorder following a tip off by a member of the public. He denied killing the birds but pleaded guilty to possession of dead birds – three red kites, five buzzards and a herring or black-backed gull – contrary to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. He claimed in court that he had ‘found’ the dead birds on the estate.

He also pleaded guilty to firearms offences after a loaded shotgun was discovered on the seat of his unlocked vehicle. Following a search at Watson’s home, several firearms were discovered that had been left unlocked and next to unsecured ammunition.

There has been significant media coverage of this latest conviction and I’d encourage you to read the following articles and watch the Channel 4 video, which reveals the extent of the multi-agency investigation that brought Watson to court:

RSPB Investigations blog here

Wiltshire Police statement here

Crown Prosecution Service statement here

Channel 4 News video here

ITV News coverage here

One of this blog’s readers attended court yesterday and has provided this excellent commentary on what went on:

[Court documents showing the charges faced by gamekeeper Archie Watson]

Charges 1 to 3 were dropped by the CPS as they couldn’t present sufficient evidence that Watson was the person who actually did the killing. It appears that he did not admit to killing them under questioning prior to the case and continued to maintain that in court that he had merely ‘found’ the carcasses as part of his duties out and about on the estate. He then disposed of them in a well estimated to be 8m deep with no water apparent and covered by a manhole cover. 

Having been alerted to the suspected disappearance of raptors (I couldn’t hear who by) the RSPB and possibly others (Wildlife Crime Unit?) set up camera surveillance at the site of the well. After an initial inspection of the contents of the well (by lowering a GoPro camera into it) it was found to contain remains of various birds including Common Buzzards, Red Kites and a Herring or Lesser Black Backed Gull). Following this the number of surveillance cameras was increased.

Watson was identified in the recordings on more than one occasion depositing bird carcasses into the well and on one occasion was recorded on audio in conversation with another person (not named) indicating that he knew ‘gulls were protected’. The evidence was passed to the police (Wiltshire Constabulary) who obtained warrants to search two addresses linked to Watson who was then arrested while staying at the address of a relative in Beckhampton (Nr Avebury, Wiltshire).

Searches of Watson’s home address in Dragons Lane, Manningford Bruce Nr Pewsey, Wilts turned up no evidence relating to raptor persecution however a glass jar containing white powder (later identified as Bendiocarb) was found in his vehicle. Watson claimed this was used as an insecticide against wasps and ants while the prosecution stated that it was also known to have been used in other recorded raptor poisoning incidents.

However at this site there was found evidence of multiple firearms offences concerning the safe storage of weapons and ammunition. In particular a Benelli M2 automatic (pump action) shotgun was found to be left unattended and unsecured in his Toyota pickup vehicle, still loaded with 11 shotgun cartridges. Watson was also found to be in possession of two BTO leg rings [from a buzzard and a red kite] which were attached to a keyring. Prosecution stated that to remove these rings from any bird it would have been necessary to break its legs. Watson claimed he had found these rings whilst metal detecting at his Uncle’s farm near Pewsey.

A search of Galteemore Farm in Beckhampton where the well was located found no further evidence of raptor persecution other than the contents of the well. A detailed inspection of the well was conducted under the supervision of the Fire Brigade and in conjunction with the Hampshire Confined Spaces team. It was found to contain the remains of a sheep, 9 bird skulls, multiple bird carcasses and an unidentified mammal skull’. 

[Examination of the carcasses as they were exhumed from the well. Photo by Guy Shorrock/RSPB]

Watson maintained at interview that he had not killed the birds but had simply used the well to dispose of carcasses he had ‘found’ whilst conducting his duties as gamekeeper. One of those function was to “keep the site clear” of such remains. He claimed to have found one of the buzzards on the A4 main road but had for some unspecified reason seen fit to dispose of it in the well. 

The prosecution provided witness testimony from a local wildlife expert that suggested it was highly unlikely to find such a high number of dead raptors over a relatively small area of open farmland where the birds had died of natural causes. Starvation was cited as one reason such birds may die and possibly only two such cases could be expected per annum. An impact statement was read out from a Mr Shorrock from the RSPB who said that there had been a serious problem with raptor persecution in the area. Forensic analysis of several of the bird carcasses found evidence of metal fragments.

As the charges for killing the birds had already been dropped due to lack of direct evidence Watson was the person responsible, it was also agreed that there was no case to answer on animal cruelty by Watson, which could have incurred an 18 week custodial sentence.

The defence argued for leniency on the grounds of it being Watson’s first (indicted) offence, previous ‘good character’ and that the length of time between the offences (2 years) had given him time to reflect on his actions and that he had “learnt his lesson”. It was stated that Watson had left school at 16 and been apprenticed as a gamekeeper sometime thereafter. He was 19 at the time of the offences and accepts that he had become ‘complacent’ around the proper use and care of the firearms. His firearms certificates had been revoked and whilst the court could apply for the destruction of the weapons it had not done so.

It was stated that clearly others had been using the well to dispose of carcasses and had been caught on video but were not identified in this case. The defence suggested that the custodial threshold had not been met because of these factors. The defence suggested that the risk of reoffending was “low” and that there was no evidence of further offending.

The Magistrates asked for clarifications on whether there was public access to the farmland? Watson suggested it was accessible only by a private driveway and was fenced but it was clear he was referring only to the immediate environs of the farm buildings and later stated that the entire holding was c.1000 acres. On a further supplementary question from the magistrates it was revealed that there is public access to the land and that it is adjacent to the historic monument of Avebury which attracts up to a quarter of a million visitors a year. These questions related specifically to the issue of firearms safety.

It was also asked why Watson had not reported finding the BTO leg rings to the appropriate authorities or even the BTO themselves to which the defence only replied that there was “no statutory obligation to report” this. It was also made clear that the number of birds Watson was being charged with being in possession of was reduced to 5 buzzards, 3 Red Kites and the Gull. No explanation was given for this.

At sentencing the Magistrates gave Watson credit for pleading guilty at the earliest opportunity and had therefore spared the public the time and cost of a trial. They regarded the firearms offences as being particularly serious and a combined sentence for all the offences combined was given as 180 hour unpaid community service plus costs of £393 plus a £95 surcharge for the forensic analysis of the bird carcasses. Watson was then referred to the Probation officer within the court before being allowed to leave the premises’.

ENDS

There’s so much to say about this case. First of all, full credit is due to the multi-agency investigation team who had to go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve the evidence. Their level of commitment was exemplary.

Second, this case illustrates in grim detail the lengths that those who kill birds of prey will go to hide the evidence of their crimes. Had it not been for a tip off by a member of the public, raptor-killing on this pheasant shoot would no doubt still be continuing, at huge cost to local raptor populations.

The defendant’s explanation for what was uncovered was so implausible that it’s laughable, but it’s no laughing matter and again, goes to highlight how difficult it is to secure a conviction, even with the level of evidence amassed in this case.

Watson’s sentence was derisory. It’s what we’ve come to expect, even though the number of corpses involved in this case make it the biggest raptor persecution investigation in England to date.

It’s not known whether Archie Watson was a member of the National Gamekeepers Organisation or BASC, as other recently-convicted gamekeepers have been, but to date neither organisation has bothered to issue a statement to condemn Watson’s crimes. How telling.

The blog reader who attended court also said this:

Also, I think he pleaded guilty on advice because they knew he’d have to answer difficult questions under oath on the stand that may have led to identifying who else was involved. And who was paying for his defence costs and the fine?

I asked him some of these questions outside the court with my GoPro on but the b@stard SD card wasn’t in properly and no recordings came through. He didn’t answer anyway but he was smirking and laughing with his mates as they went to their pickup’.

Some of the forensics work in this case, undertaken by the Natural History Museum at Tring, was funded by Wild Justice’s Raptor Forensics Fund, established in 2020 to help support police investigations into alleged raptor persecution crime. Thank you to all those who have contributed to this fund. The court ordered Watson to pay back the costs (£288).

46 thoughts on “Gamekeeper Archie Watson convicted of raptor persecution & firearms offences on Wiltshire pheasant shoot”

  1. ….guys a xxxxx xxxxx….and there are far too many offences committed for most peoples liking in any of this!!
    Whether he got a punishment that fitted his activities…I’m not quite sure…but he will certainly be a marked man in any future game keeping work he tries to obtain!!

  2. Let off the hook big time or what?
    It is a truly pathetic sentence and does not reflect his crimes in any way, shape or form.
    Derisory for sure. What are our courts there for: certainly not to hand a out a very soft slap on the wrist for what was the biggest raptor persecution investigation in England to date..
    No wonder he was seen laughing and smirking with his mates. Of to the pub to celebrate no doubt.

    1. To be fair to the court, there are sentencing guidelines that are set by government, which they cannot exceed. Also, the only possibility of a custodial sentence was if the CPS could prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Watson had killed the birds. You’ll see from the court papers (pics above) that the prosecution were expecting him to plead not guilty, which would have led to a full trial. That was where they would have had the chance to try to prove under cross examination that he killed them. In the end, because they couldn’t do that BRD they dropped the killing charges. I suspect his counsel indicated just before the hearing began that he was going to plead guilty to charges 4 to 9. As I’ve said elsewhere, I suspect he was persuaded to do this to stop him revealing who had killed the birds in a full trial. All very difficult for the outsider to fathom but essentially we need much stiffer penalties for being in possession of the carcasses and a law on vicarious liability for the employer (as in Scotland). Only that way will a full deterrent exist or proper punishment if the law is broken. The answer is to elect a government that will implement these changes to the law. Over to you, voters…

      1. “and a law on vicarious liability for the employer (as in Scotland)”

        When has any vicarious liability case been successful in Scotland since the law was introduced?

          1. Exactly. Once in ten years. It is a law which has made no difference whatsoever, for the same reasons which make successful prosecutions for shooting, trapping and poisoning so difficult.

  3. So yet another xxxxx xxxxx gets off after committing vile and dangerous crimes. Those involved in the investigation must be thinking it was all a waste of time.

    1. I guess they would be of the opinion that the co-operative action worked, they have established contacts, it will all work better another time, and they proved the case. That the law and judiciary might be improved by a new Parliament is for the voting public to determine. Meanwhile they will continue to work as best they can with the laws as they are.

      A family member is a cop, this is their opinion elsewhere.

  4. He’s unlikely to stop, although at least he’s now on the radar of various organisations for a variety of reasons. A very big thank you to everyone who was involved in this investigation.

    1. Yes, his firearms certificates have been revoked. Not clear whether he still has a job. I asked him outside the court but he said it was, “None of your business.”

      What was clear from his demeanour in court was that he did not appear overly worried by what was happening to him. He had two supporters in the public gallery who were equally relaxed and who made frequent eye contact with Watson. They chatted away about various jobs they were doing within the shooting industry so I’m fairly sure Watson is still employed in the business. I was struck by how immature they were but then I’ve also monitored hunts and it seems to be the way these kind of people are.

      I also asked Watson whether he minded taking the rap (getting a criminal record) for the other people involved in the persecution? He did not respond and, again, I got the impression he hadn’t even thought of this. In a way I felt it was a sad state of affairs that the wealthy owners of shooting businesses employ immature and not very intelligent people to do their dirty work and to take what’s coming to them on their own if they are caught. It was clear his costs were being paid but the owner of the shoot wasn’t there and I overheard his two mates saying they thought this was poor form. xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx

      These people are disposable to their employers but seem not to realise it themselves. I don’t suppose Watson will have trouble finding employment in the shooting industry if he’s a) prepared to commit offences xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx and b) prepared to take the consequences if caught. One can only speculate but I doubt this is the last time we’ll hear of Archie Watson.

      1. What was the name of the shoot? Who are its owners? Shame these businesses aren’t licensed as this is the sort of incident that would lead to a suspension. The casual use and storage of firearms is another thing – so much for the stricter laws that were brought in, I bet many in countryside pursuits don’t think they apply to them. Well done for attending court and all your monitoring work, thanks

        1. The farm in question has a website here https://www.thefarmatavebury.co.uk/ but there is no mention of shooting other than recommending a shoot some 10 miles away. The land around Beckhampton (which I know well) is not really suitable for shooting but there is an area to the south of the farm buildings marked on the map as ‘Beckhampton Penning’, which is suitable for rearing pheasants. I suspect the family running the farm have given up with the shooting but there are plenty of other places in that part of Wiltshire where it is happening and Watson is probably employed…

      2. Great report Oldlongdog, top marks for getting up close and writing so well about it. As you and I know he is just one of hundreds perhaps thousands in the same mould. Since the big grouse moors started investing heavily 25 to 30 years ago it is a bit of a laugh they have all ended up with the same regimes! The big name moors all like an experienced but still relatively young Headkeeper, and for underkeepers/beatkeepers they like a couple of steady married family men for continuity, plus a couple of young buck “Archie Watsons” to do most of the mundane day to day killing while trying to earn their names.

    2. I have it on good authority he has NOT been sacked and will be out “Lamping” tonight… on land controlled by Galteemore Farm. (The second time this week)

      Licence revoked? I guess he could be using a catapult?

      N51.459254 E-1.8797714

      Sorry Archie but you’re giving the law abiding shooters a bad name…

  5. I agree with most that the punishment does not fit the crime. What a paltry fine. From a mathematical point of view the 16 – and that is a minimum – of our birds works out at £30:50 each. Is that what the law thinks about the murder of our beloved wildlife??? Less than a Waitrose Turkey. Probably less than a couple of days pay for the murder. Wow real punishment……..NOT

      1. What’s your point here? The definition of murder (apart from being a group of crows) is “to kill (someone) unlawfully and with premeditation”. As more and more creatures are being declared sentient there is a growing recognition in civilised society that to kill other creatures “unlawfully and with premeditation” is just as offensive as doing the same to a human. These birds were undoubtedly killed ‘unlawfully and with premeditation’ (hence the concealment of carcasses). I think most normal people regard trying to draw a ‘legal’ distinction between different acts of gratuitous killing is disingenuous and rather missing the point.

        1. “there is a growing recognition in civilised society that to kill other creatures “unlawfully and with premeditation” is just as offensive as doing the same to a human.”

          I do not believe you. ‘Other creatures’ is all encompassing, and is ridiculous.

          “The definition of murder (apart from being a group of crows) is “to kill (someone) unlawfully and with premeditation”.”

          The definition is specifically about the unlawful killing of another human being. Poachers are never charged with murder, for good reason.

            1. Are gratuitous insults all you have to offer?

              People who equate the killing of all animals to the killing of human beings are in grave danger of being classed as marginalised extremist fanatics by civilised society

              1. I think a majority might consider raptor killers as ‘marginalised extremist fanatics’.

                There is, perhaps, a gradient here, the deliberate and savage killing of a horse or dog, for instance, might call for a long sentence even if not for commercial gain. Less so other mammals and birds, but legally-protected raptors merit extra legal protection from the shooting business. This, I would guess, may be the attitude of the voting public were they to be asked, having been kept informed of events.

                Roadkill is unpleasant but not deliberate, or mostly not. As is bird strike by aircraft. Though the numbers of pheasant on my local lanes make me wonder about the Duty of Care of local landowners and gamekeepers towards both the birds and to the travelling public.

                If it will need a change in the law, we may yet hope for a change in government.

                1. “I think a majority might consider raptor killers as ‘marginalised extremist fanatics’.”

                  I agree entirely. But we do not need to join them.

                  “…but legally-protected raptors merit extra legal protection from the shooting business. This, I would guess, may be the attitude of the voting public were they to be asked, having been kept informed of events.” and “If it will need a change in the law, we may yet hope for a change in government”

                  There is a route open to us short of that. Sentencing for wildlife crime is one of the few criminal categories in which the public are NOT allowed to officially complain about leniency.

                  If you complain about leniency – within the ‘approved’ list of criminal categories – the Attorney General’s Office is bound to consider the case.

                  I have complained about this situation (wildlife crimes not being on the approved list) to the Attorney General, with a copy to my MP (whilst complaining about an overly lenient sentence in yet another notorious wildlife case).

                  I read that the legal profession ‘believe it only a matter of time’ before all (or, at least more) cases will be included in the list of crimes where the public can officially complain about leniency. It does not make any sense to omit other crimes.

                  If blog readers feel justifiably angry about this latest lenient sentence, then the very least they can do is to complain about it to the Attorney General’s Office, with copies to you MP and your local press, and demand that wildlife sentencing be included in the list of crimes over which the public can officially complain.

                  We have to keep increasing the pressure, and win over public opinion via the press.

                  See this ‘How to Complain’ Government web page:

                  https://www.gov.uk/ask-crown-court-sentence-review

                  Complain about the leniency, and don’t forget to demand that wildlife crimes be included in the list! Make sure your MP and local press get a copy. Give the case background, and your reasons for being outraged.

                  If we don’t complain…

            1. No, I have not.

              “I think most normal people regard trying to draw a ‘legal’ distinction between different acts of gratuitous killing is disingenuous and rather missing the point.”

              No, they would not. Only a few fanatics – perhaps yourself included – would try to equate, say, the killing of Sarah Everard and the killing of G461. ‘Most normal people’ understand there is, and there has to be, a legal distinction between the two (and, of course, if you read my posts you would know that I think Dorset Police have acted corruptly in G461’s case.)

              In fact, I suspect that ‘most normal people’ would be very seriously offended by your suggestion. No wonder you hide behind a pseudonym.

              For another example, are you seriously trying to claim that ‘most normal people’ would like to see the same effort put in by the Police in tracing the perpetrator’s of fatal ‘hit-and-run’ incidents, to the situation of Badger, Fox, Squirrel, Hedgehog, Pheasant, Cat, Dog etc etc etc road-kills?

              Maybe we could take the case of vaccine development, because all the vaccines employed in protecting against Sars-Cov-2 virus (not to mention other vaccines) were initially tested on animals: mostly mice, hamsters and macaque monkeys.

              Did you refuse your Covid-19 vaccine?

  6. Very lenient sentence, should have been treble that, and guns destroyed and an order that he could not have a gun licence for 10 years. Poor poor birds, Human waster.

  7. Left a loaded pump-action shotgun unattended in his pick-up: I hope that’s grounds for loss of licence. I beleve it’s down to the CC’s decision.

  8. The pathetic sentence illustrates yet again that the UK is not serious about tackling these crimes

  9. I sent the link to your article to my local MP for Wiltshire North asking: “Your Party claims to be the Party of Law & Order: how about addressing the pathetically inadequate sentences for wildlife crime that lets psychopathic killers off with a slap on the wrist?”

    This was his reply: “Thank you, Simon, but it would be quite wrong for me to comment in any way on the Judiciary.”
    Mind, he was present at the event when the Avon Vale Hunt thugs attacked the hunt sabs at New Year, but claims to have left before it started and to have seen nothing. See no evil, hear no evil, speak drivel if it involves wildlife crime seems to be his mantra.

  10. Another villainous gamekeeper. The gamekeeping occupation is ingrained with criminals plying their evil, barbaric medieval practices. Despite the evidence he receives a gentle tap on the wrist, no wonder the dispicable destruction of our wildlife continues so sick folk can shoot alien species like pheasants for fun. Sad & sick.

  11. And full marks too to the young lady who went down the Old King Cole to retrieve its gruesome contents (see Channel 4 video).. Must have been a bit cramped down there. Pity that they couldn’t have sent Watson down to do the job – head first – Whoops.

  12. The “well” in which the dead animals are dumped is actually called a “stink pit” and is a purpose built hole dug into the ground+concreted and metal doors or lids are then fitted, often locked to keep prying eyes out!! Many shooting estates will have them to dispose of and hide any birds+animals that have been trapped, poisoned or shot. The smell of rotting animals in the “stink pit”also attracts other animals such as foxes which are then often killed in traps set nearby!! So while we only get to hear about the birds of prey that have been found dead, just imagine how many are secretly killed and dumped in these “stink pits” on shooting estates all over the country

    1. In this instance it actually is an abandoned well as the area around Beckhampton used to have a lot of surface water before the water companies started extracting huge quantities from the source of Kennet river (a massively contentious issue in the Marlborough area) and the water table has dropped far below the level of the bottom of this well. There are some semi-abandoned old buildings nearby and springs in the area. I think the fact the well had a manhole cover was significant as it is fairly innocuous looking and most casual passers by wouldn’t normally lift the cover. Also, I suspect putting dead raptors on an open stink pit would have attracted the attention of the law fairly quickly. The point about stink pits more generally is well made and the more the public know about them the more pressure can be put on the shooters.

      1. Stink pits are usually hidden well away from anyone, normally deep in a forest or woodland and away from any tracks or footpaths and normally do have metal lids/doors on them which can be locked so very unlikely to draw attention to members of the public or law enforcement. A very convenient way of hiding and disposing evidence of illegal raptor killings and any other wildlife crime.

      2. Still surely the Evironment Agency must have something to say about the continuous dumping of animal carcases (some of which may have been contaminated by toxins) into the well which is leaching into the water table 8m down?

    1. Yep the trad english gamekeeper (along the lines of Seth from Emmerdale Farm)…doing his rounds in his wax jacket and tweeds with his old side-by-side under the crook of his arm is all but gone. Today we have the “Archies” swaggering about with their 8-shot (these come in 10-shot as well, but can’t remember if 10 is legal in UK) Benelli’s which can take 50g cartridges. Enough firepower to down several elephants! Both pathetic and dangerous – it is only a matter of time…

    2. Yes, it sure looks that way.
      I do not think the day is too far away when one of these gun-toting low life buffoons takes a pot shot at someone.

  13. Leave aside the raptor crime. After all, it is the establishment position to do so. But leaving loaded firearms lying about? That punishment is grossly inadequate without aggravating factors

  14. [Ed: First part of comment deleted as libellous]. Putting aside the wildlife crime, I am shocked that the penalties for having a loaded, unsecured gun in his vehicle are so light.

  15. If the NGO have kicked this 19 year old time served professional out of their morally perfect organisation….. what are they going to do about the genius who supervised him through his apprenticeship ? A malign influence surely worthy of discipline?

    On a different tack, the case suggests that this estate was home to some seriously dangerously practices. How will this be reflected in their insurance costs? I wonder if there is an industry body that could tell us how they would react re business insurance and PLI costs?

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