Prince Harry dodges the bullet as suspect in harrier shootings

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2007:
LONDON–Prince Harry of Britain and two
companions on November 6, 2007 escaped
prosecution for allegedly killing two hen
harriers, but the shotgun blasts suspected to
have been fired by the royal hunting party helped
to blow the cover off the pretense by shooting
estate operators that they practice wildlife
“Norfolk Crown Prosecution Service has
advised Norfolk Police there is insufficient
evidence to prosecute anyone over the shooting of
two hen harrier birds, a protected species, at
Sandringham on October 24, 2007,” a Crown
Prosecution Service spokesperson said in a
prepared statement.
“The bodies of the hen harriers have not
been found and there is no forensic or ballistic
evidence. Witnesses also heard unexplained
shooting in the area before the three suspects
said they were present at the scene, so other
people cannot be ruled out,” the CPS
spokesperson added. “The three suspects, who
were interviewed by police, all denied that the
birds were killed by them.”

Reported Jack Malvern of The Times of
London, “The Royal Society for the Protection of
Birds,” whose royal patron is Prince Harry’s
grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, “said the
shooting was reported by a conservation warden
monitoring harriers. The unnamed warden saw the
birds being hit but did not see the shooter, the
society said.”
Elaborated Severin Carrell, Scotland
correspondent for The Guardian, “The Crown
Prosecution Service confirmed that Prince Harry,
third in line to the throne, had been interviewed
as an official suspect by police, along with
William van Cutsem, 28, a family friend, and
David Clarke, 58, a Sandringham gamekeeper.
The investigation was launched after a warden at
Dersingham Bog nature reserve, which is run by
the conservation agency Natural England on the
edge of Sandringham estate, and two members of
the public, said they saw the hen harriers shot.
“Sandringham officials later admitted to
the Guardian that the prince and his two
companions were the only people out shooting on
the 20,000-acre estate, hunting duck and pigeon
close to the Natural England wildlife reserve.
But Marcus O’Lone, the Queen’s estate manager,
claimed the failure to find the birds’ bodies
suggested they had never actually been shot.”
Sandringham is actually much closer to
London than to Scotland, but The Guardian
assigned Carrell to cover the case because of his
past experience in covering related topics.
“A conviction for killing a hen harrier
carries a six-month prison sentence or a £5,000
fine,” Carrell wrote. “There have been 35
confirmed persecution incidents against birds of
prey in England this year, compared with 25 last
year,” and 19 in 2005.
Said Royal Society for the Protection of
Birds representatives, “We regard the
persecution of hen harriers as one of the most
serious wildlife crimes. There are 20 pairs in
England and it is one of the country’s rarest
birds of prey. We do obviously appreciate the
efforts Norfolk Constabulary has gone to in this
very difficult case, but we remain concerned
that no one has been prosecuted. We have no
doubt that a crime was committed. That no bodies
could be found is extremely disappointing. We are
concerned, but not surprised, that no evidence
could be found.”
Natural England chair Sir Martin Doughty
called shooting hen harriers “the greatest
threat” to their survival in Britain as a
species. “Every year hen harriers are killed
illegally,” Doughty told Carrell, “but
successful prosecutions are incredibly rare.”
But Doughty stopped short of actually
criticizing shooting estate management practices,
which seek to inflate populations of “game” birds
well beyond the natural carrying capacity of the
habitat–a goal which can only be achieved by
suppressing predation.
“We want to try to find ways to bring
back hen harriers while having viable countryside
pursuits,” Doughty said.
Dersingham Bog site manager Ash Murray told The
Times that the incident was the first shooting of
hen harriers in the vicinity since his tenure
began in 1998. But other birds of prey have been
killed under questionable circumstances at
Sandringham. In November 2006, for instance,
Sandringham gamekeeper Dean Wright, 26, was
fined £500 for allegedly setting a rat trap
almost a year earlier, in December 2005, that
snared a tawny owl.
Wright’s explanation that the owl was
caught by accident reportedly did not fully
convince King’s Lynn Magistrates’ Court district
judge Philip Browning. As Browning pointed out
while pronouncing sentence, a trap baited for
rats would normally not be placed where birds of
prey might interfere with it, or would be
covered, in part so that rats could take the
bait without fear of being swooped upon by
raptors while feeding.
“O’Lone said Wright had been internally
disciplined,” reported Carrell, “and insisted
the estate followed rigorous environmental
The hunting practices of the British
royal family, especially at Sandringham, have
stirred controversy for more than 40 years.
Prince Harry’s grandfather, Prince Philip,
reportedly killed 15,500 captive-raised birds at
Sandringham in a five-week spree coinciding with
the distribution of one of the first fundraising
appeals that he signed as a founding patron of
the World Wildlife Fund.
During a six-week spree at Christmas
1987, after Philip became titular head of the
World Wildlife Fund, he and his sons Charles
[father of Harry], Andrew, and Edward broke
Philip’s previous record for sustained bloodshed
by shooting nearly 18,000 captive-raised pigeons,
pheasants, partridges, ducks, geese, and
rabbits at Sandringham.
Introducing Harry and his brother William
to hunting at the ages of seven and 10,
respectively, against the wishes of their late
mother Princess Diana, Prince Charles and
friends reportedly shot 12,000 pheasants at
Sandringham at Christmas 1991.
In October 2001 the royals began offering
bagged partridge and pheasant shot by family
members for sale at the Windsor Castle gift shop.
The Queen herself was photographed in the
act of clubbing a wounded pheasant to death with
her walking stick at a Sandringham shoot in
January 2004. Later in the year Philip and
several friends blasted birds at Sandringham in
front of children from a nearby school, many of
whom belonged to the school bird-watching club.
Members of the royal family and their
retinue have been investigated many times for
cruelty in connection with hunting and
maintaining animals to be hunted. The Scottish
SPCA, for example, in February 1996 questioned
staff at the Queen’s Balmoral and Dalnadamph
estates about allegations that they illegally
culled deer by chasing them into pens with
off-road vehicles.
The Royal SPCA in January 2007 reportedly
investigated an incident at Sandringham in which
members of a hunting party that Philip led first
shot and then bludgeoned a fox.
While that case filled the Fleet Street
tabloids, Prince Harry’s then-girlfriend Chelsea
Davy promoted her father’s Zimbabwean hunting
concession at the annual convention of Safari
Club International in Las Vegas.
Other members of the royal entourage have
demonstrated cavalier attitudes toward wildlife,
including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of
the Queen’s Music, who in March 2005 offered a
dish of cooked swan to two police officers who
visited his home to question him about the death
of the swan. Davies got off with a warning after
claiming that the swan was killed by flying into
a power line.

Plebians use poison

The case of Prince Harry and the
allegedly shot hen harriers varied from the usual
in that raptors killed in the vicinity of
shooting estates are most often poisoned.
For instance, the pesticide carbofuran,
banned in Britain since 2001, was used to kill a
female golden eagle in the Scottish Borders in
early August 2007. Her remains were found on the
opening day of the grouse shooting season.
“Scotland has lost half of the only
breeding pair in the Borders,” said Mike Flynn
of the Scottish SPCA. “This could ultimately
result in a second tragedy, as it is unclear if
the chick will survive.”
Carbofuran has been the poison preferred
by gamekeepers in recent years, used in 22 of
the 24 cases of poisoned raptors that police
investigated in Scotland in 2005.
The August 2007 poisoning came two months
after gamekeeper George Aitken, 56, of Blythe
Farm near Lauder, “admitted using live pigeons
as bait and lacing pheasant carcasses with
poison,” according to the BBC, and was
sentenced to serve 220 hours of community
service. “The gamekeeper was caught in a joint
operation,” the BBC said, which “involved the
Scottish SPCA, the Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds, and Lothian and Borders
Aitken was at least the fifth gamekeeper
in six months to be prosecuted for killing
raptors, and the seventh in a year. Most
prominently, the Aberdeen Sheriff Court in June
2006 won a guilty plea from Hector McNeil, 56,
a 30-year gamekeeper at the Glenbuchat Estate in
Strathdon for 30 years. McNeil admitted
poisoning a raven, of whom only two breeding
pair remained in the region, and keeping 118
common gull’s eggs [apparently used as bait] plus
carbufuran. But McNeil was fined just £350.
“Ornithologists fear that up to 40% of
Scotland’s red kites have been poisoned,”
summarized Carrell of The Guardian, “victims of
a concerted campaign by gamekeepers and grouse
moor owners.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of
Birds estimated that “more than 300 of the 395
red kites that bred in Scot-land between 1999 and
2003 have disappeared,” Carrell continued. “Up
to 185 of those, the RSPB alleges, were
probably illegally poisoned with controlled
pesticides, snared, or shot.
“Ironically,” explained Carrell, “red
kites are rarely targeted by gamekeepers because,
unlike birds such as the hen harrier, they do
not prey directly on grouse. But as voracious
scavengers the birds are at high risk of eating
poisoned meat. The RSPB says the scale of the
problem is underscored by unpublished data which
shows that the number of proven poisoning cases
in Scotland rose from 19 in 2005 to nearly 40 in
2006, the highest total since the late 1990s.
The victims included two golden eagles, hen
harriers, peregrines, buzzards and tawny owls.”
From 1995 through 2006, the Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds documented
1,113 cases of birds of prey being poisoned,
mostly in the vicinity of hunting estates in
Scotland, and mostly in officially unsolved
Setting out poisoned baits for game predators has
been illegal in Britain since 1912, but the
first conviction for poisoning a raptor
reportedly was not won until 2001, when the RSPB
videotaped a Scottish gamekeeper in the act of
putting out poison that killed a hen harrier.
The present penalty for poisoning predators is up
to six months in prison and a fine of £5,000,
but the law essentially requires catching
poisoners in the act. “If landowners or shooting
syndicate members risked prison sentences if
their gamekeepers are found to even be in the
possession of banned poisons or traps, I am sure
there would be a great reduction in the
persecution of birds of prey,” observes Animal
Concern Scotland secretary John F. Robins.
The royals and other “old money” shooting estate
proprietors have traditionally sought to hush up
scandals about their activities, but Oxfordshire
land agent Mark Osborne, 54, counterattacked
after police raids in June and September 2006 on
some of his 130,000 acres of grouse moor in
Britain and Scotland.
“Osborne is at the centre of a police
investigation of unprecedented scale into the
illegal poisoning of protected birds of prey,”
reported London Times Scotland correspondent
David Lister in November 2006. “Osborne told The
Times that he is considering legal action against
police over anti-terrorist-style dawn raids on
his estates and alleged behaviour that bordered
on ‘harassment.’
“Some 14 of his gamekeepers have been
arrested and questioned by police on suspicion of
poisoning rare birds of prey,” Lister recounted.
“More than 150 officers, some drafted in from
drug squads, searched the grounds and buildings
of his estates at Angus and Leadhills for illegal
poisons after arriving in dozens of vehicles.
They sifted through filing cabinets, children’s
toy boxes, and even women’s underwear drawers.
“One of his keepers has been charged over
the alleged use of illegal traps,” Lister wrote,
but Osborne insists that these are commonly used
on estates to catch small predators such as
stoats. No other charges have been brought.”
Said Osborne, “If I found evidence that
any of my keepers were killing birds of prey,
they would be dismissed.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE has found no published
follow-up about either the investigation or
Osborne’s threatened legal response.
The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association has
argued for relaxing protection of raptors to keep
grouse plentiful, citing an experiment at
Langholm Moor, Dumfriesshire, in which all bird
shooting was stopped from 1992 to 1997.
First the hen harrier population boomed,
then grouse vanished, and then the harrier
population crashed as well, possibly because the
harriers had become abnormally dependent on
The Royal Society for the Protection of
Birds and Scottish Natural Heritage in September
2007 initiated a 10-year study at Langholm Moor,
expected to cost £8 million, hoping for
different results.
“The project will manage Langholm for
grouse, for hen harriers, and for the heather
habitat,” Colin Galbreath of Scottish Natural
Heritage told BBC News.
“We will try to feed the harriers so that
they don’t take grouse chicks all the time, and
we believe that may work. We will look at the
overall management of the moor to make sure we
get a viable grouse harvest alongside the
Operating under royal patronage via the
RSPBA, project representatives have not
questioned whether a “viable grouse harvest” is
either an ethical or ecological goal.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.