Another sorry tale of a grouse moor, a bird of prey and a gamekeeper

Another ‘custodian of the countryside’, has been found guilty of killing birds of prey on a grouse moor. Perhaps it should read that it was another poor harvest in the ‘grouse moor orchard’ as another bad apple cropped up.

On this occasion it was two Short-eared Owls that were quietly going about their business, looking for food, when they had the misfortune to cross the gun sights of Timothy Cowin, the gamekeeper on the Whernside Estate in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Having said misfortune, perhaps it was only a matter of time before they were shot to death on this particular grouse moor. The Whernside Estate had been on the radar of the RSPB Investigations Team for a couple of years following a Police investigation in to a report that a pigeon had been found in a crow cage trap on the moor. This is a common practice on shooting estates, used to lure raptors into crow cage traps and is illegal. Unfortunately there was insufficient evidence to pursue this case.

In April 2017 the RSPB returned to the estate to monitor the situation on the ground. At that time two of the Investigations Team bumped into Mr Cowin and exchanged pleasantries before continuing on their way. A little later they saw a masked man dressed in camouflaged clothing sitting a few metres from a plastic decoy and what appeared to be a speaker box on a fence post.

A few days later the RSPB Team returned to install a covert camera but before they had the opportunity to do so Mr Cowin turned up, wandered over the moor and shot two Short-eared Owls to death before concealing their bodies. The incident was filmed and the Police were called. The response time of the Police was exceptionally quick and they arrested Mr Cowin at the scene.

Mr Cowin eventually appeared before the court on 28th August 2018 and pleaded guilty to killing the two owls and to the possession of a device that is capable of being used to lure birds of prey within killing range. He was fined a total of £1,210, including costs and a victim’s surcharge. Many commentators have since derided this amount as far too lenient for this type offence and vented their anger on the courts when it would have been more appropriate to concentrate on the sentencing guidelines that sets out the punishment levels that are available to the magistrates.

There we have it; another case of birds of prey being killed on a grouse moor in the North of England and we only know about it because of the hard work of the RSPB Investigations Team. It wasn’t luck that put them on the Whernside Estate on that day; it was hard, intelligence led graft and it paid off. Of course you don’t have to be a statistical genius to work out that the chances of catching 100% of the raptor persecutors in the act of killing birds of prey will be close to zero. That leaves the obvious question; how many more birds are killed in similar circumstances that go undetected? Information received by the RSPB Investigations Team suggests that the numbers are very high.

Mr Cowin faced trial and was rightly convicted and since he pleaded guilty there is no right of appeal against his conviction and that is the end of it. But this cannot be right. Grouse moor owners are not, under the current legislation, culpable in any way what-so-ever for the actions of their staff. There are so many of these cases of raptor persecution on grouse moors that it is clear that the law requires updating immediately. Grouse moor owners and managers must be held accountable for the unlawful actions of their staff and it is high time that the offence of ‘vicarious liability’ is enacted. Vicarious liability is common place across many other industries and is already in place in Scotland for cases such as this. Once again English legislation is, lamentably, out of touch with reality.

When these offences took place Whernside Estate was, and in fact still remains, a member of the Moorland Association [MA]. We are told constantly, ad nauseam, by the MA that grouse moor owners and managers are capable of self-regulation and legislative intervention is not necessary but this is self-evidently not the case and a system of licensing game shooting is long overdue.

The Moorland Association condemned the actions of Mr Cowin but in reality they were faced with Hobson’s Choice; unable to do anything else but condemn raptor persecution in general and him in particular. The Moorland Association is a member of the Government’s Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG]; as are the RSPB, the Police and for that matter NERF. Why didn’t the Moorland Association’s press release contain a sentence along the lines of ‘Thanks to the hard work of the RSPB’s Investigations Team and North Yorkshire Police another raptor persecutor has been successfully prosecuted and we are grateful to them for ridding our industry of yet one more criminal, please continue your excellent work’. Could it be that they are more used to criticising the RSPB rather than supporting them and consequently felt unable to support them?

Another interesting fact about this case is that the RSPB were on the Whernside Estate to install a covert camera in an attempt to film potentially criminal activity. Although they didn’t have the opportunity to do so before Mr Cowin committed the offences that was their intent. We also know that they did indeed film Mr Cowin, without the consent of the landowner. In this case the Moorland Association haven’t condemned the RSPB for covertly filming the defendant as they did following the recent court case involving the killing of two Peregrines in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire. Does this signal a change of heart by the MA?  Do they now support the RSPB installing covert cameras to catch criminals on grouse moors? Alternatively was the MA left unable to criticise the RSPB in this case because Mr Cowin pleaded guilty? We will find out the answer to that question when the next case involving evidence obtained by the RSPB, using covert filming, comes before the courts; and there will no doubt be many more than one, and probably sooner rather than later.

NERF would like to thank the North Yorkshire Police, the CPS and the RSPB Investigations Team for their hard work in bringing this case to a successful conclusion.


August 2018