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


Raptor Persecution Raising Awareness Day – Grassington Saturday 11 August 20

Birds of prey including Hen Harriers, Goshawks, Peregrine Falcons, Red Kites, Short-eared Owls and Ravens are very heavily and routinely persecuted, killed, in the North of England. Hen Harriers have been pushed to the point of extinction as a breeding species in England for decades. In 2018 the number of breeding pairs in England increased from 3 to 9 pairs and this has been flagged a good year for Hen Harriers, but is it really? No it is not; 2018 was another disastrous years for Hen Harriers and the spin doctors from the grouse shooting industry who claim otherwise are just that, spin doctors. What is true is that the only two females attempting to breed on a private driven grouse moor in England, laying 4 and 6 eggs with a polygamous male, failed in unexplained circumstance.

There is sufficient habitat to accommodate more than 300 breeding pairs of Hen Harriers so 9 pairs are a blip. A positive blip but hardly a reason to break out the champagne. The question is what causes the discrepancy between the scientifically projected figures for the Hen Harrier population and reality? The answer is both simple and obvious. All of the published research, including research published by Natural England, shows that the primary cause for this problem is persecution, birds being killed, predominately killed on land managed for driven grouse shooting; the preferred habitat for Hen Harriers. The connection between low Hen Harrier numbers and their dependency on heather moor is irrefutable and yet the grouse moor managers and their representatives, cry foul, fake news, we are good for managing land for waders. Waders? What about Hen Harriers? What about other birds of prey?

It is not just Hen Harriers that are severely and systematically killed on grouse moors. Every predatory bird species that uses heather moor habitat for breeding, feeding or over-flying suffers the same fate. Goshawks, Red Kites, Peregrine Falcons, Raven and Short-eared Owls are all under-represented, a euphemism for killed, in the uplands of the North of England. The common denominator of all of this under representation is that they all are in some way dependent on heather moorland. For several years North Yorkshire had been at the head of the bird of prey crime statistics, followed closely by the Peak District National Park.

To bring this tragic information to the attention of general public the Northern England Raptor Forum [NERF], a coalition of 10 Raptor Study Groups monitoring birds of prey along the Pennine Chain from the South Peak District to the Scottish border together with Cheshire, Greater Manchester, the Forest of Bowland and the North York Moors, organised a Raptor Persecution Awareness Day. The event, held at the Grassington Institute on Saturday 11 August, was supported by 100 plus attendees. Presentations in support of the event were made by Chief Inspector Louise Hubble, the head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, Sgt Grainger, North Yorkshire Police Wildlife Crime Unit, James Bray, RSPB Project Officer for Bowland, Guy Shorrock, RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, Rhodri Thomas, Peak District National Park Authority and Ian Court, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. Consensus amongst all of the speakers was that bird of prey persecution was having a serious, negative impact in the North of England and that the criminals, for that is what they are, must be held to account for their actions. It is gratifying to learn that all of the organisations present are working towards a positive outcome.

Steve Downing, NERF Chairman said,

“The persecution of birds of prey in the 21st century is a national disgrace which is prosecuted by individuals predominately involved in the grouse shooting industry. It is clear that the industry is incapable of regulating itself and NERF is demanding that Government introduces a system licensing for grouse shooting. Additionally NERF believes that grouse moor owners should be held accountable for the actions of their staff if they persecute birds of prey and that the Government should introduce vicarious liability legislation”


Sgt Grainger – North Yorkshire Police

Rhodri Thomas – Peak District National Park Authority

James Bray – RSPB Bowland Project Officer

Well attended throughout the day

Ian Court – Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

Guy Shorrock – Senior Investigations Officer, RSPB

Chief Inspector Louise Hubble – National Wildlife Crime Unit


Hen Harriers – the English cohort of 2018

In recent days there has been a great deal of positive publicity surrounding the breeding success of Hen Harriers in the North of England during 2018. There is no doubt that the increase in both the numbers of chicks fledging and the distribution of the successful nests is very welcome news indeed.

NERF members in the Dark Peak, the Forest of Bowland and Northumberland were involved in locating the nests, then helping to monitor them throughout the breeding season before ringing and fitting satellite tags to the young. Working in various essential partnerships with the National Trust, United Utilities, the Forestry Commission and the RSPB the long hours, on the hills over many months, certainly paid dividends and everyone involved should be congratulated.

Interestingly it comes as no surprise to read that the Moorland Association tells a different story, claiming that the success is solely down to their members and those of the GWCT stating that the ‘Key to this success has been an unprecedented 21 chicks fledged from land managed for grouse shooting; over 60% of this year’s young (34)’. The question here is, ‘what has changed in 2018’? Is the Moorland Association suggesting that the numbers have increased because fewer of their members killed Hen Harriers this year than in previous years?

The phrase ‘land managed for grouse shooting’ is an interesting one. Dealing only with the nests monitored by NERF members; it is a fact that there are shooting tenants on the land where both the Derbyshire and Lancashire nests, 4 and 13 chicks respectively, were situated. However, it would be more accurate to describe the nest in Derbyshire as being ‘on land owned by the National Trust, managed as a public amenity’ and the 3 Lancashire nests as being ‘on land owned by United Utilities, managed to produce water resources for the north-west and as an upland nature reserve in partnership with the RSPB’.

Having claimed the credit for this year’s ‘unprecedented’ number of Hen Harrier fledglings they fail to mention that two nests, containing 4 and 6 eggs respectively, failed in unexplained circumstances on what is unquestionably a grouse moor in West Yorkshire.

Readers will no doubt separate spin from reality and come to their own conclusions about the contribution that the Moorland Association actually made to this year’s success.

2018 has been announced as a great year for the Hen Harriers in the North of England, but was it? That depends on how the ‘success’ is measured:

  • if the number of chicks fledging this year is compared to the numbers fledging in recent years then it is a good year
  • if the number of pairs breeding in the North of England, 9 pairs – 2 of which had polygamous males, is measured against the SPA designations, 11 in the North Pennine Moors and 13 in the Bowland Fells the situation doesn’t look so good after all. We should have seen 24 pairs, not 9, and if they produced an average of 4 chicks per nest then we would have seen 96 chicks not 34 the situation looks disastrous if the 9 pairs are measured against the projected carrying capacity of 332 pairs across the North of England moors

NERF both recognises and celebrates this year’s first steps in the improved fortunes of English Hen Harriers but it is too soon to break out the champagne. Twenty-eight of 34 English chicks fledged from the nests were monitored by NERF in 2018 and many of these chicks were fitted with satellite tags as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE + Project. These chicks are already flying free and some have dispersed from their natal areas. If future trends can be predicted by past events then regrettably many of the cohort of 2018 will have joined the ranks of the ‘disappeared’ by Christmas, never to be heard of again. Unfortunately it is not just the satellite tagged birds that will die in unexplained circumstances; logic would suggest that many more birds will join the ‘disappeared’ and history teaches us that they will be predominantly lost on land dedicated to driven grouse shooting.

It is understandable that the recent publicity about birds of prey has focussed on the good news about Hen Harriers but we must not lose sight of the fact that it is not just Hen Harriers that are persecuted on grouse moors. Marsh Harriers, Peregrine Falcons, Short-eared Owls, Goshawks and Red Kites are also under-represented in the same areas and there is no doubt that persecution continues to play a significant part in suppressing these populations.

With the Moorland Association claiming that they have full commitment to securing a healthy population of Hen Harriers NERF expects the same commitment, not spin or rhetoric, to be shown towards reducing persecution of all Birds of Prey on grouse moors in the northern uplands. Time will tell!

To highlight the plight of raptors across the North of England NERF is holding a Raptor Persecution Awareness Day at The Devonshire Institute, Grassington, North Yorkshire on 11th August. Further information is available on the NERF website. Speakers at the event include the Head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, a North Yorkshire Police Wildlife Crime Office, a RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, and representatives from the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Peak District National Park and the RSPB Bowland Project Officer.


5th August 2018

Raptor Persecution Awareness Open-Day – updated speaker list

The Northern England Raptor Forum is hosting this event to help raise public awareness of the levels of illegal persecution faced by raptors in northern England and the threats posed to our wildlife heritage.

Admission is free and open to all.  Why not come along and show your support with the added bonus of being able to enjoy a day in the Yorkshire Dales?

Venue:- Grassington Devonshire Institute, Grassington Village, North Yorks, BD23 5 AZ

Date & time:- Saturday 11th August 2018,    1000 – 1400 hrs

Access:- The  Institute can be found at the top of Main Street in Grassington.  There is a medium sized carpark 50 metres distant with wheelchair access to the building from the Moor Lane entrance. However the recommended main car Park  is at the Yorkshire Dales National Park site just off the B6265, Hebden Road in the lower part of the village (5-10 mins walk). 

The indoor meeting room will hold display stands with representatives on hand to answer questions and there will be a rolling series of short presentations (10-15 minutes) from expert speakers.  The aim is to raise awareness of how the continued illegal persecution of raptors in the uplands of northern England is significantly suppressing the number of breeding birds and their productivity and impacts on the opportunities for us all to experience these wonderful birds in their natural habitat. Speakers will highlight the current evidence of persecution and draw attention to initiatives in place, or still needed, to combat the problem.

The event is open to all on a ‘drop-by-any-time-and-stay-as-long-as-you-wish’ basis.

This is not a day of ‘protest’ needing placards or banners.  It is a day where the focus will be on the presentation of evidence-based data from long-term, detailed studies which will demonstrate the threats faced by birds of prey in the region’s uplands and the actions now required.

About The Northern England Raptor Forum

The Northern England Raptor Forum [NERF] represents volunteer Raptor Study Groups committed to the long-term monitoring of the populations of key raptor species across the region.  Our study areas cover the Pennine Chain from Northumberland to the South Peak district and extend to Cheshire, Manchester, the Forest of Bowland and the North York Moors. Species studied include Hen Harrier, Marsh Harrier, Goshawk, Red Kite, Peregrine, Merlin, Short-eared Owl and Raven in addition to sample populations of commoner species.

Extensive annual monitoring of bird of prey species by NERF members has served to highlight the sad plight of some iconic raptors in the uplands of northern England.  Species such as Hen Harrier, Red Kite, Goshawk, Peregrine, Short-eared Owl and Raven are substantially under-represented in eminently suitable breeding habitat across the region, even within our designated Special Protection Areas [SPAs], National Parks and AONBs.  Whilst there are a number of causes for this it is widely accepted that illegal persecution, especially on land managed for driven grouse shooting, is a significant factor.  North Yorkshire has the unfortunate reputation of topping the RSPB’s Birdcrime tables, followed closely by the Peak District but the problem really extends throughout the region.  The number of confirmed persecution reports undoubtedly only represents the ‘tip of an iceberg’, with the majority of crimes going unreported

The information collected by members provides the most comprehensive data-set available based wholly on the evidence of extensive fieldwork and is published in the NERF Annual Review.  The data on breeding outcomes is used to inform species’ conservation and protection measures through its provision to the BTO, the national Rare Breeding Birds Panel, Natural England and the RSPB.

NERF is a member of the Police / Defra led Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime [PAW] under the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group [RPPDG] and is a past recipient of the prestigious PAW ‘Partner of the Year’ award.  NERF acts as a specialist consultant for the RSPB’s Hen Harrier, (EU) LIFE+ Project.

NERF has also co-authored several published scientific papers relating to birds of prey including the results of the BTO’s 2014 National Peregrine Survey and the RSPB’s 2016 National Hen Harrier Survey.

See our website for more information 

_    _   _   _   _   _

NERF believes that:-

# People must speak out clearly against raptor persecution

# RPPDG members must demonstrate how their organisation is delivering the aims of the Group or consider their position on the Group

# More police resources are needed to fulfil the investigative and prosecution expectations of the public and the RPPDG [an essential part of Defra’s Hen Harrier Emergency Recovery Plan]

# Defra and Natural England should abandon any plans for Hen Harrier brood management

# Defra and Natural England should instead focus on restoring species’ populations within formally designated Special Protection Areas to at least those originally cited

# Responsible shooting estates should have nothing to fear from the idea of introducing a licensing system for driven grouse shoots, a policy supported by NERF

Raptor Persecution Awareness Raising Day

Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) will be hosting a raptor persecution awareness day on Saturday 11th August 2018, in support of Hen Harrier day.

Raptor persecution takes place in all of the NERF study areas and involves a wide variety of species.  For this reason, NERF have chosen to highlight the problem as a whole rather than focus solely on Hen Harriers.

There will be presentations from Chief Inspector Louise Hubble, Head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and North Yorkshire Police Operation Owl, the RSPB Investigations Team and James Bray – RSPB Bowland Project Officer with more to be confirmed. 

Raptor Persecution Awareness Raising Day
Grassington Institute, Grassington, North Yorkshire. BD23 5AZ
Saturday 11th August 2018, 10:00 and 14:00 hours.

NERF supports the petition to license driven grouse shooting

The 2014 National Peregrine Falcon Breeding Survey

The results of the 2014 national Peregrine Falcon breeding survey have been published in the BTO’s journal, Bird Study, providing an up to date population estimate for the country.

The breeding population of Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus in the United Kingdom, Isle of Man and  Channel Islands in 2014  M. W. Wilson, D E Balmer et al


Members of the Northern England Raptor Forum made a significant contribution to the original survey through voluntary time spent monitoring specific sites and being allocated “random squares”.

The report estimates the overall population in 2014 to be 1769 pairs, an increase of 22% from the last major survey in 2002.  This outwardly encouraging result does however mask an unwelcome but not unexpected contrast in fortunes.  Populations in lowland regions in England have shown a dramatic recovery which is indeed a real success story in the post-pesticides era.   Sadly those in several upland regions have exhibited worrying declines.

This gap is stark and continues to grow.  The report attributes the demise of upland populations to possible decreases in prey availability in some regions and to known, illegal killing and deliberate disturbance especially in upland areas where the land use is predominantly for driven grouse shooting.  The results support earlier published studies including Amar et al (Ref 1) which demonstrated a reduction in site occupancy and breeding success from eyries close to managed grouse moors. Click here to read the abstract.

The situation in the uplands of northern England is perhaps best demonstrated by summarising those results from the survey which specifically covered the EU designated Special Protection Areas (SPAs).


In these 3 major SPAs only 4 nests from at least 24 pairs holding territory were known to be successful. This position falls well short of the levels expected from the citations when the SPAs were originally designated. It is clear that the present provisions for Peregrine within our SPAs are wholly insufficient.   SPAs are protected under EU Directives and the survey results expose serious infractions.  The UK government needs to take urgent action to restore the populations of Peregrine and other threatened raptors to a favourable status within our supposedly most protected landscape areas.  The situation of course extends to most upland areas in northern England.

The NERF Annual Reports have documented examples of Peregrines having been the direct target of illegal shootings and poisonings in recent years.

9th March 2018

REF 1 Amar et al . “Linking nest histories, remotely sensed land use data and wildlife crime records to explore the impact of grouse moor management on peregrine falcon populations”. Journal of Biol. Conservation . 145: 86–94.

The Current Status of the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative

Recent social media publications have referred to the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative which is in disarray after the members failed to agree a joint statement following the publication of their latest report. The Peak District, including the National Park, has a justified reputation as a raptor persecution hotspot. The laudable aim of the Initiative was to find a new way of parties working together to increase the number of raptors breeding within the National Park. Unfortunately, the Initiative has failed spectacularly with the numbers of breeding pairs of key species falling and not increasing as planned.

NERF members, the Peak District Raptor Monitoring Group, have worked tirelessly within this Initiative and we fully support their frustration both with the Initiative in general and with the response of the Moorland Association in particular. Once again the Moorland Association has nailed its colours to the mast by refusing to acknowledge the true extent of the problem and at the same time continuing their tactics of discrediting the RSPB, volunteer raptor workers and now they have turned their attention to the Police.  According to FOI responses the Moorland Association are refusing to accept that an osprey found in the area with two fractured legs was not the subject of a crime and want the incident expunging from the record. This incident was thoroughly and professionally investigated by Derbyshire Police, the post-mortem results concluded that the osprey had suffered injuries that were consistent with being caught in an illegal spring trap.

What will it take for those in authority, including the Government, to wake up to the fact that the Moorland Association is a lobbying organisation committed only to benefitting their members’ interests?  Of course it is not just within this group where they seek to spread their influence, they are members of PAW and use the same tactics in that forum. It is NERF´s opinion that unless they demonstrate a change in attitude towards species’ protection they should no longer be treated as equals in Bird of Prey protection fora.

NERF fully understands the reasons why the RSPB has withdrawn from the Initiative and we look forward to working together on their Upland Skies project. As for the Peak District Bird of Prey Initiative, 2018 is likely to be the make or break year. Further failure to achieve its stated goals will inevitably lead to a withdrawal of co-operation from NERF members. Whilst this would be regrettable, continuing with the status quo is no longer acceptable.

1st Feb 2018