The RSPB Investigations team assists the statutory agencies to investigate crimes against wild birds in the UK.
Staff are based at the UK headquarters, Scottish headquarters and the Northern England Regional Office.
This blog will be used to keep you informed on key issues and court case results on a regular basis, but for legal reasons, we may only be able to report on certain aspects of our work.
If you witness a crime against a wild bird and wish to report this to the RSPB, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or use the online form at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reportacrime
31 May 2007. Headkeeper James Shuttlewood (front) with a North Yorkshire Police officer at one of the cage traps containing a live pigeon on the Snilesworth Estate (there was no conviction in respect of this trap)
Bird of prey persecution remains a serious problem on upland sporting estates across much of Britain with birds being shot, trapped and poisoned to try to reduce predation on grouse and other game birds. The absence or low numbers of birds of prey across large parts of the uplands is testament to the problem.
Despite over 50 years of legal protection, there is little sign of these Victorian attitudes changing in many places. In North Yorkshire, rare and charismatic species such as hen harriers and peregrines continue to be persecuted.
In May 2007, a local farmer reported finding three cage traps baited with live pigeons in secluded woodland areas in the Scugdale Valley, on the Snilesworth Estate on the North York Moors.
A cage trap is typically a wooden frame covered with wire mesh with an access point on the top to allow the target birds to enter. Cage traps can be used legally to control magpies and crows, however, the use of live pigeons as baits, clearly indicated they were being set to catch birds of prey.
Sparrowhawks, or the much rarer goshawks, are the typical victims of such traps. Having entered to kill the pigeon, they find that they are unable to escape and they in turn can be killed by the trap user. The North Yorkshire Police had been contacted about this and we decided it would be worth making further enquiries on the rest of the estate.
On Saturday 26 May, in company with my colleague Guy Shorrock, we spent eight hours walking around the estate looking for cage traps and checking secluded woodland areas. Incredibly, we came across three further cage traps baited with live pigeons, and a further cage trap with a dead pigeon, which appeared to have been plucked by a bird of prey.
Only 20 metres from this trap, I found the body of a sparrowhawk pushed down a rabbit hole and it seemed this was a likely victim of the trap. It was abundantly clear that there was a campaign of illegal trapping taking place on the estate. However, from previous experience we knew we had to link any culprits with the traps to obtain sufficient evidence for a prosecution.
This was to be my first covert surveillance operation with the RSPB and on the Sunday we spent our time preparing our equipment. We awoke at an uncomfortable 2.20 am on the Monday morning, left our accommodation and drove to a location on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors.
We walked several miles across the moors in the dark and went to one of the cage traps in the Coal Rigg plantation. The same pigeon was still present and we installed a small automatic camera system to monitor the trap.
We continued to another cage trap at Skelbeast Wood, again the same pigeon was still present. Here we concealed ourselves nearby overlooking the cage trap. Despite being May, the weather was atrocious with a biting wind and long periods of rain. In the late afternoon, nobody had arrived, so we decided to leave.
That evening, we met up with two of our Scottish colleagues, who agreed to travel down and help us. After a late evening briefing and equipment check, we snatched a few hours sleep before another 2.20 am start.
It was raining heavily as we left our colleagues to walk to the Coal Rigg plantation. We also made our way through the pouring rain back to Skelbeast Wood. We were both drenched to the skin and so cold we wondered if we could undertake the surveillance. Not wanting to lose face in front of our Scottish colleagues, we decided to stick it out.
29 May 2007. Junior underkeeper David Cook caught on camera feeding the captive pigeon in one of the illegal cage traps on the Snilesworth Estate
At 9.45 am, I was half-comatose trying to keep the video camera dry, when I was aware somebody was throwing pine cones at me. I looked round to Guy a few metres away, who was watching the approach track, and from his gestures it was clear people were arriving. I then got ready with the video camera and within a minute, the young underkeeper, David Cook, arrived and spent a few minutes feeding and watering the pigeon in the trap.
My heart was pounding as I tried to keep the video camera steady. Barely daring to breathe, I stayed as still as possible whilst he left the wood, wandering through the trees a short distance away.
A few minutes later, we heard him and his colleague leaving the area on a quad bike. We let our colleagues know what had happened, and within 10 minutes they had also successfully filmed Cook visiting the cage trap in Coal Rigg plantation, again feeding and watering the pigeon.
We all left the area, and our colleagues returned to Scotland for some much-needed rest. We contacted PC Mark Rasbeary, an experienced Wildlife Crime Officer (WCO) with the North Yorkshire Police, and outlined our evidence.
31 May 2007. PC Jeremy Walmsley quizzes gamekeeper Charles Woof (left) about the presence of a live pigeon in a cage trap on the Snilesworth Estate.
On 31 May, a number of police officers, an RSPCA officer and ourselves returned to the estate. With some five gamekeepers working on the estate we suspected it would be difficult to visit all the traps without the pigeons being released before we got there. Sure enough, only two of the six cage traps still contained live pigeons.
The hidden camera at Coal Rigg plantation later told a revealing story - a young man could be seen clearly releasing the pigeon from the cage trap just a few minutes before the police arrived at that location.
The RSPB supplied a comprehensive file of evidence to WCO PC Jeremy Walmsley, the officer in charge of the investigation, complete with photographs and our surveillance footage. A number of gamekeepers from the estate were subsequently interviewed by the Police and reported for offences.
A day in court
On 8 February 2008 at Scarborough Magistrates Court, three of the Snilesworth Estate gamekeepers pleaded guilty to a number of offences.
The head gamekeeper, James Shuttlewood (40), an experienced gamekeeper of over 20 years, pleaded guilty to five offences of permitting the use of five of the illegal traps by his staff. He was fined £1,250.
Charles Woof (22), the gamekeeper covering the Scugdale valley, pleaded guilty to using one of the traps and was fined £100.
David Cook (18), a trainee underkeeper, pleaded guilty to using the two traps where he had been filmed. In view of his age and inexperience, he received a 12 month conditional discharge.
It was clear the court took a particularly serious view of Mr Shuttlewood’s involvement, outlining that his staff were carrying out his instructions and that his reputation had been tarnished.
The illegal killing goes on
Unfortunately, the war being waged against birds of prey in our uplands will continue, and already this year we have had reports of persecution. Whilst gamekeepers, like those on the Snilesworth Estate, may be on the front line of this conflict, it is the shooting industry, the managers and employers who need to get their house in order. There needs to be a serious change in attitude if we are to see an improvement for the fortunes of many of our birds of prey.