Three gamekeepers suspended over killing of goshawk on Queen's land

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Three men have been questioned by police over the death of a protected bird of prey on a shoot in the North York Moors that is owned by the Queen.

The head gamekeeper and two underkeepers on the Goathland estate were interviewed under caution by North Yorkshire Police on suspicion of being involved in the goshawk's death in May, with their solicitors present. They voluntarily attended the interviews, but would have been arrested had they not done so.

The crime took place on one of the two managed grouse shoots that make up the Goathland estate. The land is part of the Duchy of Lancaster, which provides a private income to the Queen as ruling sovereign.

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The area is leased to a commercial shooting company called W&G LLP, who in turn have appointed Scottish agents BH Sporting to manage the moor.

The monarch's Duchy of Lancaster estate owns 10,000 acres of land in and around Goathland, including the village car park, which is rented to the North York Moors National Park AuthorityThe monarch's Duchy of Lancaster estate owns 10,000 acres of land in and around Goathland, including the village car park, which is rented to the North York Moors National Park Authority
The monarch's Duchy of Lancaster estate owns 10,000 acres of land in and around Goathland, including the village car park, which is rented to the North York Moors National Park Authority

The three gamekeepers were subsequently suspended from their duties by their employers BH Sporting and one has since resigned. Police investigations are ongoing, and officers who visited the moor in June found that the shoot appeared to be operating as normal, with two of the keepers having been reinstated following their colleague's resignation and ahead of the start of the grouse season on August 12.

Police also believe the third worked his notice period before leaving the role.

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All three men live in tied properties owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. Search warrants have been executed and the police have sent forensic samples for analysis, a process that was delayed during lockdown when laboratories were only dealing with the most serious criminal cases.

The man is seen entering the cage trap with the goshawk insideThe man is seen entering the cage trap with the goshawk inside
The man is seen entering the cage trap with the goshawk inside

The killing of the goshawk was captured on a secret camera set up by an anti-blood sports campaign group. In the covert footage, a man with his face covered can be seen approaching a cage trap with the bird inside. He then kills it and puts the body in a bag. Although cage traps are legal in some circumstances, they can only be used under licence to catch certain species and any protected birds must be released unharmed.

A number of jackdaws were used as bait to tempt the goshawk into the trap, and five of them were killed by the raptor before the suspect returned to the cage. He was caught disposing of one of their bodies in a nearby brook before leaving, but the goshawk's remains have not been recovered.

Species such as goshawk, merlin, peregrine falcon and hen harrier are traditionally targeted by shoots because they feed on game birds. Raptors are trapped, poisoned or shot.

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The action group Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire's Moors have now released footage of the incident after a police appeal was issued only last week, over two months after the crime took place.

Its members launched an undercover investigation between April 27 and May 2 following a local tip-off about illicit activity on Goathland Moor.

Goshawks were persecuted to the extent that they almost became extinct in the 19th century, and their numbers have only slowly recovered. There are only around 600 left in the UK.

The group's spokesman Luke Steele said:

“It is a clear illustration of how deeply ingrained bird of prey persecution is on grouse moors when not even the Queen’s wildlife is safe from criminals illegally destroying it to boost game bird populations for shooting.

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“Grouse moors continue to be implicated in a salvo of wildlife crimes. How many more birds of prey have to suffer and die before the government introduces regulatory reform of grouse moors to end the wave of wildlife crime?”

Local tensions

The Duchy of Lancaster owns 10,000 acres of land around Goathland, which includes the grouse shoots and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The duchy was set up to provide an income for the sovereign independent of the Crown estate (which includes the royal palaces) and encompasses farmland, commercial property and other assets. The Stray in Harrogate is also part of the Duchy of Lancaster.

A spokesperson for the Duchy said: “The Duchy expects all shoots operated by tenants on Duchy-owned land to be professionally run and managed using skilled and experienced game-keepers. Our tenancy agreements make it clear that we require the highest standards of professional behaviour and compliance with national standards and codes of practice.”

BH Sporting did not respond to a request for comment.

The incident has led to tensions in the village of Goathland, where residents have long complained about issues with the management of the Duchy-owned moorland and the persecution of raptors by shoots in the North York Moors. The intensive burning of peat moorland by the gamekeepers - a process that used to be undertaken by local farmers in a sustainable manner - has also caused controversy. Two years ago, a residents' association called the Goathland East Moors Regeneration Group was formed to tackle disputes over land use and conservation, and several meetings involving all parties were held to discuss subjects such as drainage and heather burning.

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"It was the first time the village had had a voice, and there has been an effect - some decisions have been reversed and others implemented. But while the eyes were on the east moor, this (the persecution) was happening on the west moor," one local source said.

A new drive to end wildlife crime

The killing of birds of prey has been illegal for more than 60 years. The shooting industry has pledged to regulate the activities of its employees, but there have still been numerous persecution incidents, including the shooting of four buzzards found hidden in a hole near Bransdale Moor in April and a buzzard poisoned in Nidderdale in March.

Eight people were interviewed under caution over the Bransdale incident - which again was investigated after local intelligence was passed to police - but nobody has been charged.

The Pateley Bridge buzzard death was only discovered after a witness saw the bird fall from a tree and an examination found it had ingested pesticides.

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The North York Moors, Nidderdale and the Peak District have been described as 'black holes' for raptors by conservationists, and in some areas close to grouse shoots their populations have become locally extinct.

North Yorkshire Police has committed to tackling wildlife crime and a Rural Task Force has been set up, with raptor persecution one of its key priorities.

PC Jeremy Walmsley said: “The goshawk is one of the most protected species of bird in the UK and it is extremely distressing that an individual would choose to kill any bird of prey. I appeal to anybody with information about this horrific crime to get in touch with the police and help us find the person responsible for the death of this magnificent bird.

“We see far too many incidents of birds of prey killed or injured in North Yorkshire and as a police force we are doing all we can to put a stop to this inhumane and callous crime.”

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Around 10 per cent of raptor killings since 2007 occurred in North Yorkshire, according to the RSPB.

Scotland will introduce mandatory licensing of grouse moors within the next five years, and it is hoped that England and Wales will follow. This legislation would mean that landowners and shoot leaseholders would be responsible for the conduct of their staff and liable to face prosecution, rather than individuals themselves.

There are other ecological concerns associated with countryside management by shoots, including the 'decimation' of peat moors caused by heather burning to create habitats for grouse, which can also lead to wildfires starting during dry weather.

Why is it so difficult to convict those who persecute raptors?

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The Goathland case has received so much police attention and resource simply because of the quality of the evidence available.

Although North Yorkshire Police often issue appeals for information when birds are found dead, usually the only evidence is the carcass itself.

Witnesses or video footage are extremely rare, and are invaluable in securing a conviction in court.

These crimes take place in isolated locations with little or no CCTV coverage and in sparsely populated areas.

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Investigations are complicated by the fact that killing a bird of prey is treated by the courts as a summary offence - meaning it can only be tried by magistrates. More serious offences can be sent to a Crown hearing, where prison sentences can be handed out, but if summarily convicted, an offender will only be fined.

Police cannot justify undercover operations - such as setting up their own camera traps, rather than relying on footage from campaign groups - for summary offences. There is also a shorter time limit - a case usually needs to be submitted to the CPS within six months. For more serious crimes, more time is allowed.

Yet a police officer with experience of investigating wildlife crime said that often, a conviction is only the means to a greater end.

"It's about more than the sentencing. If we get a conviction, we can then justify looking into that individual's suitability to hold a firearms licence. If their licence is revoked, they will lose their job. If they lose their job, they will lose their tied house and they will end up leaving the shoot. That is more impactful than an £800 fine.

"But we know that within the industry, gamekeepers who are convicted of this offence and resign are often quietly found new jobs at other shoots in other areas."