Moorland gamekeeper Timothy Cowin, 44, has today (28 August 2018) pleaded guilty to two charges concerning the intentional killing of two protected short-eared owls on the Whernside Estate in Cumbria, an area managed for driven grouse shooting. He also pleaded guilty to one charge relating to the possession of items capable of being used to commit offences against wild birds.
On 19 April 2017, RSPB officers visited the area following a previous incident where Cowin, 44, was believed to be illegally using an electronic calling device to lure in birds for shooting. Cowin was seen walking on the moor holding a gun. Watching through a telescope, 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 intercepted and arrested. Both owl corpses were recovered, and a post-mortem examination confirmed they had been shot.
Further items were seized by the police including a rock covered in blood near where the first owl was found. This rock was forensically examined which confirmed the presence of short eared owl DNA. A ‘Fox pro’ calling device – a type of electronic sound luring device – was also found in Cowin’s vehicle and seized. The device was later forensically examined and found to have had the calls of birds of prey added to the device. This is believed to have been done deliberately to target birds of prey by using the calls to draw in birds of prey close enough for shooting.
Like all birds of prey, short-eared owls are fully protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Anyone found to have intentionally killed or harmed one faces an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail. Bird of prey persecution is a UK government wildlife crime priority, and persecution connected with land managed for driven grouse shooting continues to have serious conservation impacts on a number of species.
Guy Shorrock, RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, was present on the day of the arrest. He 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.”
Outside court, 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.
“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, game keepers, 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.”
A spokesman for Whernside Estate said: “The estate was dismayed to learn of the fate of these owls. It was particularly disappointing given the enormous increase in the number of all species of birds witnessed across the moor over the last few years.”
“Following the allegations of a wildlife crime having been committed, the keeper in question resigned his position several months ago and is no longer employed by the estate. The estate takes its conservation responsibilities very seriously and when it learned of these allegations took immediate measures to ensure best practice in accordance with the industry.”
Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, said: “We unreservedly condemn this criminal behaviour. These actions have no place in modern-day moorland management and undermine the great work that is done by gamekeepers day in, day out on moors across the country.”
“The estate in question is, and remains, a member of the Moorland Association. When allegations of wildlife crime first emerge, we instigate our disciplinary procedure to establish whether our member has taken all appropriate measures to ensure that its staff uphold the law and embrace best practice. In this case we are satisfied that the estate has acted properly and had made it perfectly clear to the member of staff in his contract of employment, and in further written correspondence, that he should abide by the law at all times. He was also requested to attend refresher training in line with good practice. The member of staff in question has not been in the estate’s employment for a number of months.”
This case highlights the persistent targeting of birds of prey on land managed for driven grouse shooting. The RSPB is calling for the introduction of a licensing system to improve the accountability of driven grouse shooting across the UK. This would not only help protect birds of prey but could also tackle wider damaging grouse moor management practices, such as heather burning on deep peat and inappropriate drainage.
The RSPB recently launched a confidential Raptor Crime Hotline – 0300 999 0101 – encouraging those within the shooting community who have information to speak out in confidence.
Read the blog here.