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Is this why the rare hen harrier is facing ‘extinction by persecution’ in England?

Conservationists have expressed outrage after a man who set “barbaric” traps for birds of prey on land owned by close friends of the royal family was let off with a police caution.

RSPB wildlife crime investigators expected the 23-year-old to be taken to court and at the very least fined for an offence that can carry a six-month jail sentence – especially as he had set his traps near where a hen harrier, one of England’s rarest birds of prey, had recently been spotted.

Instead, they were “absolutely gobsmacked” to learn that North Yorkshire Police let him off with a caution.

The Independent understands that the man, who has not been named by police, had been doing gamekeeping work on the 4,500-acre Mossdale estate, owned by the Van Cutsem family.  

The Van Cutsems have been close friends of the royal family since the late Hugh van Cutsem met Prince Charles at Cambridge University in the 1960s.  

And in 2007 Prince Harry and the youngest Van Cutsem son, William, were both interviewed by police in connection with the fate of two hen harriers that allegedly disappeared from view at the same time as shotgun blasts were heard coming from the Queen’s estate at Sandringham, Norfolk.

Both men denied any knowledge of the incident, no hen harrier bodies were ever found, and the police took no action.

There is no suggestion that any member of the Van Cutsem family had any involvement in or knowledge of the attempt to trap birds of prey on the Mossdale estate.  It was also not clear whether the 23-year-old man was directly employed by the estate. 

RSPB investigators were called on 6 May after a member of the public spotted three pole traps on posts in a remote area of the Mossdale grouse moor, shortly after seeing a female hen harrier hunting nearby.

Although the hen harrier may not have been the intended target of the pole traps, the birds of prey are known to be vulnerable to such devices, which can snap shut and crush their legs.

Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer for the RSPB and part of a team that used hidden cameras to collect evidence against the trapper, told The Independent: “They are barbaric devices from the Dark Ages of the countryside. They have been banned for catching birds of prey since 1904. They can shatter a bird’s leg, causing horrific injuries and hours and hours of suffering.”

After the RSPB presented its evidence to the police, the trapper attended a police station voluntarily on 22 May and made a “full and frank admission”. North Yorkshire Police has now said: “It was decided the most appropriate course of action was to give him an adult caution.”

The RSPB has said it will write to North Yorkshire Police demanding an explanation. Mr Shorrock said: “I was absolutely gobsmacked. It was the last thing I would have expected.”

The decision came just weeks after Amanda Oliver, the temporary assistant chief constable for North Yorkshire, was made the national police lead for wildlife crime. 

Watch the RSPB’s video of its investigation

Mr Shorrock said he was particularly outraged at the apparently lenient treatment because the traps were set so close to where a hen harrier had been seen. Despite research showing that the habitat in upland areas of north England could support 300 pairs of hen harriers, there are currently only about 12 breeding pairs in England.

Illegal persecution, Mr Shorrock said, was “absolutely the key driver” in keeping numbers so low, “And for the past 25 years, North Yorkshire has had the worst raptor persecution record of any police force area in England Wales.”

Despite vast swathes of suitable habitat in the county, Mr Shorrock said, the last time hen harriers bred successfully in North Yorkshire was in 2007. 

The link between grouse shooting moors and the absence of hen harriers, which can eat red grouse chicks, was Mr Shorrock said, “Quite clear.”

He said: “Quite clearly these [grouse moors] are areas where birds should be breeding and they’re not.  And we have a number of incidents on or adjacent to grouse moors – and this incident was bang in the middle of a grouse moor.”

 

Speaking more generally about crimes that were “almost unpoliceable” because of the vast and remote areas in which they occurred, Mr Shorrock said: “The problem is the shooting industry, the managers and employers and the climate they create. On some estates, the gamekeepers are acting on their own initiative to make sure the boss has plenty of birds to shoot. But we have clear information that in some areas, some managers are actively supplying poisons for gamekeepers to use and actively telling them to kill hen harriers.

“In some cases, estates pay the fines if gamekeepers get caught.  I’ve heard one gamekeeper actually say that in court.

“If you are a gamekeeper, your part of the deal is to kill raptors, and their part of the deal is to look after you, pay for good defence solicitors and pay your fine.  It’s almost a feudal relationship.

“I am sure the good gamekeepers and sporting estates are tearing their hair out at what happens in the bad places.”

Calling for Scottish-style “vicarious liability” legislation that would call English landowners to account for their gamekeepers’ actions, he added: “Unless you make the estates accountable, then how can you possibly expect working class gamekeepers not to break the law?”

He was backed by the conservation writer Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s former director of conservation, who told The Independent that letting the trapper off with a caution would send the message that “It seems to be killing as normal”.

“The Yorkshire Dales,” he added, “Are a massive wildlife crime scene. Grouse shooting is a hobby for the establishment, the rich and posh who wield quite a lot of power in the countryside.”

The Independent was unable to contact representatives of the Mossdale estate or the Van Cutsem family.

Temporary assistant chief constable Oliver, who is not thought to have been involved in the decision to issue a caution, has now ordered a full review.

A North Yorkshire Police spokesman insisted that the force “takes all aspects of rural policing extremely seriously.”

A spokesman for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust said gamekeepers contributed “an enormous amount” to conservation, and could benefit hen harriers, by controlling foxes and weasels that can predate on the young of the ground nesting birds.

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