Buzzards are protected by law. Photo: David Dixon CC-BY-SA-2.0

Buzzards are protected by law. Photo: David Dixon CC-BY-SA-2.0

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority said it was shocked but not surprised at details of the shooting of two buzzards revealed by investigators.

A team from the Royal Society for the Protection of birds witnessed the incident in which an eagle owl was used to lure the buzzards to their deaths.

The crime took place on a North Yorkshire grouse moor. The county, along with the Yorkshire Dales national park, has reputation as a hotspot for raptor persecution.

Neil Heseltine, chair of the national park authority said: “This shows a callous disregard for the law and birds of prey that is all too familiar from some within the community.

“The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority condemns raptor persecution in the strongest possible terms and continues to work closely with partners and others to stamp out this crime once and for all.

“This incident, and the continuing issue of bird of prey persecution in the county, demands maximum exposure. People need to know what is happening here and the devastating impact this is having on our protected species.

“All birds of prey are protected by law and killing them is a criminal offence. If this activity continues it is difficult to see how the government in England will not be forced to examine other ways in which to prevent this criminality.

Authority chair Neil Heseltine

Authority chair Neil Heseltine

“Certainly, the actions of the individual involved in this case can only be assisting those who wish to see the end of driven grouse shooting. For that reason, if no other, you would hope someone in the community might expose their obnoxious criminal activity.

“Finally, I would encourage anyone, local or visitor, who witnesses any suspicious activity while they’re out and about in the countryside, or anyone who is made aware of it through their networks, to contact the police.”

Footage of the incidents was released by the RSPB. It shows a person at sites on the moorland with an all-terrain vehicle and tethering an eagle owl to rocks and a stake. In one of the occasions the person is witnessed shooting two buzzards that flew to the site.

Howard Jones, investigations officer with the charity, detailed how a team put the site under surveillance during 2019 and 2020.

“Lockdown last spring was an anxious time and, for us, brought added concerns that it would lead to a surge in raptor persecution as criminals took advantage. Unfortunately, those fears were well founded and resulted in a spate of incidents.

“One place we had been monitoring was a driven grouse moor estate in the Yorkshire Dales national park. Our investigation had begun here a year earlier, following a tip-off through our confidential raptor crime hotline number that a live tethered eagle owl was being used as a decoy to draw in birds of prey for shooting. Armed with our video cameras, we set out to uncover the truth.”

He said eagle owls are huge, top predators. “A buzzard, for instance, which spots an eagle owl in its territory will mob it in an attempt to drive it away.

“We are increasingly getting reports of eagle owls being used on grouse moors to deliberately draw in wild birds of prey, close enough so they can be shot by anyone waiting nearby with a gun.

“We have already had plenty of information about the illegal use of plastic raptor decoys to kill raptors and other protected birds. But using a live eagle owl is a step up and is said to be unbelievably effective. Using a tethered decoy is completely illegal, as of course is killing a wild bird of prey.”

In May 2019, while keeping a watch on the site, the team saw an ATV drive to the site, take an eagle owl out of a large box on the vehicle and tether it to a stone cairn. The driver sat close by, but no raptors appeared, and he left the scene with the owl.

In April the following year, on a different part of the moor, one of the team witnessed a buzzard being shot after an eagle owl had been tethered to a post. A short time later another buzzard was seen falling from the sky after it was shot.

A third buzzard that flew to the site escaped without being shot.

The RSPB team passed on its footage and information to police.

The charity released video of the incident.

Inspector Matt Hagen of North Yorkshire Police said: “We conducted a search warrant and interviewed an individual in relation to this incident. Ultimately, however, the identity of the suspect on the film could not be proved, and it was not possible to bring about a prosecution.

“However, this does not mean the event didn’t happen. We know that a gamekeeper on a grouse moor has been shooting buzzards, using a live eagle owl decoy to bring those buzzards into a position where they could be shot.

“We urge the public to report incidents like this to the police, and to come forward if they have information about this or any other incident involving the illegal killing of birds of prey.”

Mr Jones said: “It hurts when someone is clearly killing birds of prey and avoids justice.

“The system is failing to protect our birds of prey and getting convictions remains hugely challenging for all involved. It is another clear reason that the RSPB is urging for a system of licensing for grouse moors to be put in place, to bring more accountability to estate owners and managers. We believe that, had licensing been in place, the events we witnessed on this moor would be more than enough to revoke the estate’s licence to operate.

“We understand that North Yorkshire Police intend to write to the estate expressing their concerns. Hopefully this will have some influence on the future conduct of our suspect, his work colleagues and neighbouring estates.”

The national park authority said, for concerns about a possible wildlife crime, people should call 101. “If you witness a suspected wildlife crime in action, call 999 immediately and ask for the police,” it added. “Finally, you can speak in confidence about raptor persecution directly with the RSPB on 0300 9990101.”

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