Last November I was reading an online article on the Teeside Live website about the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in North Yorkshire being dubbed ‘the bird poisoning capital of the UK‘ (here).
The article was illustrated with various photographs, including this image of a poisoned red kite that was reportedly found dead at Roundhill Reservoir, near Masham in 2021:
The given location caught my eye as I understand the Roundhill Reservoir is surrounded by the Swinton Estate, a notorious grouse-shooting estate that has been at the centre of police investigations into confirmed and alleged raptor persecution for years.
For example, this is the estate where hen harrier ‘Bowland Betty’ was found dead in 2012, later confirmed to have been shot (here & here) although it has never been established whether she was shot on or off the estate. It’s also where a Swinton Estate gamekeeper was convicted for twice setting an illegal pole trap in 2013 (here) and where another hen harrier, ‘River’, was found shot dead in 2019 (here). Around the same time as River’s demise, an unidentified gunman had been filmed with two dogs walking through a hen harrier roost on the estate (here). There have also been reports from local raptor workers of the ‘mysterious disappearances’ of many raptors on this estate for over a decade.
The owner of Swinton Estate is Mark Cunliffe-Lister, Earl of Swinton, who in 2020 became the new Chairman of the grouse moor owners’ lobby group, the Moorland Association (here). This is a high profile position and in recent years Mr Cunliffe-Lister’s estate has become somewhat of a poster child for DEFRA’s ludicrous hen harrier brood meddling trial, where the estate has championed the removal of some hen harrier chicks in return for permitting others to remain and to be diversionary fed by estate staff, although this hasn’t been without controversy either after it emerged that Natural England had appeared to ‘bend the rules’ in favour of estate activities (e.g. see here). Controversially, in 2021 a Guardian journalist described Swinton Estate as the ‘hen harrier’s friend’ (here), supported by a statement from Stephen Murphy (Natural England) about the estate’s head gamekeeper, “What he’s done for harriers, word’s can’t describe“. Murphy also claimed that hen harrier Bowland Betty had definitely been shot elsewhere and merely flew on to the estate to die – an unevidenced claim that was later amended in the article. Last year the estate won what was described as ‘a prestigious conservation award’ for its involvement in the hen harrier brood meddling trial (here).
So, back to that article I was reading in November 2022. I didn’t recall hearing about a poisoned red kite being found on the Swinton Estate in 2021 and I’m pretty sure I would have remembered, given the location, so I did some digging to make sure the poisoning had been confirmed and the location verified, just in case the journalist had cocked up (she’d already mistakenly described Nidderdale as a ‘village’ instead of a region so I couldn’t rely on her account of the poisoned red kite to be accurate).
I found details about this crime on the HSE’s Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme spreadsheet, which confirmed the kite had been found poisoned on a Right of Way footpath in November 2021. The poisons found in the kite’s stomach included Bendiocarb, Carbofuran, Chloralose and Isofenphos – this highly toxic combination has become known as the ‘Nidderdale Cocktail’ as it’s so frequently used to kill birds of prey in this region, especially red kites (e.g. see here, here, here).
However, I couldn’t find any media coverage of this crime, nor any police appeals for information, nor any warnings to the public about the continued use of poisons so dangerous that some of them have been banned for years. Given that a year had already passed since the poisoned kite was discovered, I found this puzzling. So I contacted North Yorkshire Police’s rural crime team and asked them about the status of the investigation:
Here’s the astonishing response I received:
This North Yorkshire Police Inspector admitted that this poisoned red kite “unfortunately slipped through the net” but then went on to justify the police’s decision not to investigate by accusing the RSPB of failing to notify the police about this incident when the poisoned kite was first picked up. He claimed the police only found out about it five months later, in April 2022, whilst chasing the lab for the results of another investigation.
His allegations about the RSPB aside (and which I’ll come to, below), I was still stunned that he thought that launching an investigation, and issuing a public appeal for information, let alone issue a warning to the public about the use of poisons in the countryside, wasn’t worthwhile due to the ‘passage of time’ (five months), especially given the location where the poisoned kite had been found.
A couple of years ago a previous North Yorkshire Police Inspector had issued a public appeal/warning, ten months after the discovery of another poisoned red kite in Nidderdale (see here), so it seemed to me that there was no reason not to issue one after a five month delay.
I wrote back to North Yorkshire Police asking for an explanation:
Apparently, it wasn’t up for debate. Here’s the response I received:
Meanwhile, I contacted the RSPB and put to them the allegations this Inspector had made, that the RSPB hadn’t notified the police about the discovery of this red kite. It turns out those allegations were utterly unfounded/untrue. The RSPB DID contact North Yorkshire Police, on the day the poisoned kite was discovered, and took instruction from the police about submitting the corpse for toxicology analysis. Furthermore, they had the email correspondence to prove it:
So what are we to make of North Yorkshire Police’s refusal to investigate a confirmed poisoning incident (a so-called national wildlife crime priority), on an estate with a long history of alleged wildlife crime, that has enjoyed recent adulation from Natural England staff and the media, that has played a significant role in the hen harrier brood meddling trial, and whose owner is a high profile representative of the grouse-shooting industry?
Does Mr Cunliffe-Lister even know about this poisoned kite being found on his estate? Given the Moorland Association’s claimed ‘zero tolerance’ of raptor persecution, and Mr Cunliffe-Lister’s widely-reported apparent welcoming of birds of prey on his estate, I’d have expected him to speak out and condemn this disgraceful poisoning incident, as any decent landowner would. It’d be interesting to know whether North Yorkshire Police have informed him, or not.
Whatever, North Yorkshire Police’s refusal to investigate this crime is wholly unacceptable. In the first instance, I’ll be writing a letter of complaint to the North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, Zoe Metcalfe.
In her Police and Crime Plan 2022-2025 (here), she details an objective of ‘an improved [police] response to crime in rural areas, especially wildlife crime...’ as this had been identified as a major concern for North Yorkshire residents in the recent PCC consultation.
I would urge blog readers who reside in North Yorkshire to also submit a complaint and to request she conducts an inquiry into why North Yorkshire Police refused to investigate this serious crime.
Please send your (polite and respectful) emails to: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ll provide an update on this blog when a response has been received.
UPDATE 23.30hrs: Natural England’s senior management team has a lovely day out…on Swinton Estate!! (see here).