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Archie Watson copyright Guy Shorrock RSPB

Gamekeeper Archie Watson charged with raptor persecution

Archie Watson: yet another gamekeeper charged with raptor persecution.

Yet another gamekeeper has been charged with being a prolific raptor serial killer. Archie James Watson from Manningford Bruce in Pewsey (Wiltshire) faces six charges under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and three firearms offences and will be appearing before Swindon Magistrates Court on Wednesday, May 25. Wiltshire Police are saying this could be ‘potentially the largest English raptor persecution case in terms of numbers of victims.’

That’s quite the statement to make given that in the last decade alone gamekeepers have been involved in several high-profile cases with a high victim count. Nine poisoned buzzards, for example, killed on Norfolk’s Stody shooting estate by former gamekeeper Allen Lambert in 2014. Or Scots gamekeeper Alan Wilson (pictured above with his ‘kill list’) convicted in 2019 of illegally killing dozens of animals – including shooting two goshawks, four buzzards, and a peregrine falcon – between March 2016 and May 2017 on Longformacus Estate in the Scottish Borders

Lambert and Wilson had been slaughtering wildlife (illegally and legally) for many years before they were convicted. Is Watson yet another grizzled old-timer doing things the old-fashioned way? Not a bit of it. He is just twenty-one – and it’s taken two years to get the case to court. You do the maths…

 

Why did he do it?

For those of us reading this that have never even thought about killing a bird of prey, one of the questions we might be asking ourselves is, ‘Why did he do it’?

I don’t know Watson but it could just be that he likes killing things. That would align with the findings of a 2020 PhD research paper which looked at the prevailing view that gamekeepers are out to tally up as many dead ‘predators’ as possible ‘partly because they enjoy it’ and found that might indeed be correct.

That wouldn’t surprise anyone surely? No-one can possibly go into gamekeeping under any illusions that killing isn’t part of the job. It’s obvious enough from the job description. A cursory glance at Wikipedia will tell any prospective applicant that a gamekeeper is “a person who manages an area of countryside to make sure there is enough game for shooting and stalking”. Any online search will turn up pages of information on how that’s achieved. And if you spend your working life breaking the backs of stoats in traps or strangling and clubbing foxes just so that your employer can sell tame birds to shooters for target practice you’d better enjoy it. It would be an unbearable way to pick up a wage otherwise, surely.

No, of course gamekeepers know exactly what the job entails. You don’t become a gamekeeper without first being steeped in shooting or speaking with other gamekeepers about what they do. You will know that the role of a gamekeeper on a shooting estate is to keep the ‘game’ bird population up, to maximise the profits gained from shooting parties (as a Times newspaper sub heading once put it, “Gamekeepers say their livelihoods depend on there being enough birds to shoot“). That means doing the dirty work of shooting, trapping and snaring animals which might eat grouse, pheasants, or their eggs, killing vast numbers of animals to protect those profits.

It’s always been so. In fact it’s been going on so long that the mass destruction of native wildlife has been normalised by the shooting industry and packaged as ‘countryside management’ and ‘keeping balance’ (the latter a hilarious thought given that gamekeepers facilitate the release of 40 million+ non-native pheasants into an already stressed countryside every year).

Social media has responded en masse and is rightly condemning Watson for illegally persecuting birds of prey (and he has no excuse for breaking the law) but if we are asking ‘why?’ there is a bigger point than ‘because he enjoys it’. And that’s surely, ‘Because he could’.

And that’s down to the shooting estates that employ people like him and Lambert and Wilson.

Shooting will be shaking its collective head right now. They rarely comment on the crimes their employees commit on their behalf, but mumble the ‘few bad apples’ narrative when they do. The facts are, though, that for decades they have employed people who have gone on to break the law. We know it, and they know it. It’s even detailed online. Year after year the RSPB Bird Crime Report lays it all out, their last report in 2020 stating that “almost two-thirds of all incidents [of raptor persecution] were in connection with land managed for or connected to gamebird shooting”. (That our conservation organisations are still prepared to work with shooting estates is another question that needs answering, but I’ll leave that to another post.)

Campaigners like me are constantly told that not all gamekeepers break the law. But that’s missing the point. When we ask ‘why?’ the Wilsons, Lamberts, and Watsons of this world do what they do, we should remember that, yes, it’s individuals that commit the crimes (and should be punished), but it’s shooting and shooting estates that hire them. It’s shooting and shooting estates that put people like this in a position of ‘authority’ and let them loose on the countryside and our wildlife. It’s shooting and shooting estates that have looked the other way for decades. To answer the question I posed right at the top of this blog, through their silence and wilful blindness it’s shooting and shooting estates that have enabled these killing sprees.

There is a clear pattern of gamekeeping and wildlife crime here that is undeniable. As I say in my tweet above, let’s not tiptoe around this anymore: shooting and shooting estates have created the conditions for wildlife crime and are complicit when it takes place – even if it’s their blunt tools that carry it out.