Police officers recover the body of one of the shot birds. Photo: RSPB

Police officers recover the body of one of the shot birds. Photo: RSPB

A gamekeeper who shot two protected owls on a Cumbrian grouse moor has been convicted and ordered to pay more than £1,200 in fines and other costs.

Timothy Cowin killed the short-eared owls on the Whernside Estate in the Yorkshire Dales national park.

The area has gained an unenviable reputation as a blackspot for raptor persecution.

The offences took place on an area used for driven grouse shooting.

Cowin, 44, pleaded guilty of two offences of intentionally killing the two birds, which are protected by law, and to possessing an item capable of being used to commit offences against wild birds.

He was fined £400 on each count of the killings and £200 for possessing the calling device. He was ordered to pay costs of £170 and a £40 surcharge. The bench at Lancaster Magistrates Court ordered that the calling device be forfeited.

On 19 April 2017, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds officers visited the area and Cowin was seen walking on the moor holding a gun.

An RSPB officer saw Cowin shoot and kill two short-eared owls before disposing of their bodies on the moor.

The police were called immediately and, after a pursuit on foot, Cowin was arrested. Both owl corpses were recovered, and a post-mortem examination confirmed they had been shot.

A ‘FoxPro’ calling device – a type of electronic sound luring device – was also found in Cowin’s vehicle and seized. The device was later examined and found to have had the calls of birds of prey added to the device.

After the hearing, Sergeant Kevin Kelly, from North Yorkshire Police’s rural taskforce, who worked on the investigation with the RSPB, said: “Following this conviction, I feel like we have taken another step forward addressing bird crime.

“This is the first courtroom conviction for a raptor persecution case in a number of years and I’m proud of my officers who have persevered through this investigation.

“On the face of things it looks fairly straightforward. However, I can assure you that this case was not. It was extremely complicated with acute matters of law and procedure at the highest scrutiny.”

In February this year, North Yorkshire Police launched a campaign with the RSPB to counter raptor persecution in its area, ironically named Operation Owl.

Guy Shorrock, RSPB senior investigations officer, said: “Over the years we have had a number of very disturbing reports from people within the shooting industry alleging widespread and systematic killing of short-eared owls on grouse moors in the north of England.

“The premeditated way these beautiful birds were flushed, shot and hidden was truly shocking. We are immensely grateful for the response of the police to this remote location.”

Sgt Kelly added: “I appreciate there will be varying degrees of frustration levelled at this case and the outcome. None more so than myself as this undermines the excellent work we have been doing with Operation Owl whereby police and investigators are bringing landowners, land managers, gamekeepers, around the table to help eradicate persecution.

“This whole situation could have been avoided by good practice and accountability – something that was clearly devoid with Cowin in April 2017.

“Cowin has not only let himself down, he has tarnished his former profession and no doubt his actions will have a lasting impact. We will continue to take positive action, to enforce when opportunities arise and keep up engagement.”

Members of the public who have information or concerns about raptor persecution or any other types of rural crime are urged to contact North Yorkshire Police on 101. The RSPB recently launched a confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.

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