Raptor persecution: if we think ‘shooting’ first who can blame us?

The recent discovery of the bodies of five dead young Goshawks dumped in a wood in Suffolk drew an instant response that shooting estates and their gamekeeper employees were likely to be involved. That feeling was compounded by x-rays that showed shotgun pellets in all five birds.

Shooting lobbyists like BASC (the British Association of Shooting and Conservation) reacted with typical indignation. Imagine Catherine Tate’s ‘How very dare you‘ line spluttered by the sort of people who just can’t understand why us dimwits can’t grasp that killing millions of birds is perfectly acceptable in the 21st century and you’ll get the picture.

They’re right in one way of course: at the moment there is no evidence that ‘shooting’ had anything to do with this crime, but even the most committed shooters must secretly admit it’s hardly surprising that the public is now almost automatically linking raptor persecution with an industry that is all about taking life – and especially the lives of birds of prey.

After all, it has plenty of form.


shot buzzard matthew stroud norfolk

History: past and present

Shooting’s past history of massacring birds of prey is undeniable. It was once legal for gamekeepers to simply eradicate birds of prey, and estates used to keep very detailed records of the eagles, hawks, and owls killed every year.

While all species have been fully protected by law for half a century, the old Victorian belief that anything with ‘hooked beak or claw’ must die is still clearly locked into the shooting mindset in far too many areas.

Recent convictions prove that little has changed.

Gamekeeper Matthew Stroud appeared at Norwich Magistrates’ Court in October 2022 and admitted to the intentional killing of six Common Buzzards and a single Northern Goshawk (police found photos of the dead raptors, including the image above, on his mobile phone). In July 2022 twenty-one-year-old Wiltshire gamekeeper Archie Watson was recorded dumping a dead bird of prey into a well on the shooting estate he worked on which was later found to contain the bodies of five dead buzzards and three Red Kites. Scots gamekeeper Alan Wilson was convicted in 2019 of illegally killing dozens of animals – including shooting two Goshawks, four Common Buzzards, and a Peregrine falcon – on Longformacus Estate in the Scottish Borders. Nine poisoned buzzards were found on Norfolk’s Stody shooting estate in 2014, killed by former gamekeeper Allen Lambert

In December 2022 news broke of the stamping to death of four Hen Harrier chicks in a nest in North Yorkshire – a ‘black hole for raptors‘, according to the Yorkshire Post, because of its grouse moors and shooting estates.

The latest RSPB Birdcrime Report confirmed that the shooting industry continued to drive the illegal persecution of birds of prey, listing 108 confirmed incidents across Britain in 2021. The tally of dead birds includes 50 Common Buzzards, 16 Red Kites, seven Peregrines and three Goshawks.

And research found that Hen Harriers are ten times more likely to die or disappear in an area managed for grouse than any other, and scientists concluded that illegal killing was the most likely explanation.


Poisoned Red Kite Nidderdale RSPB

Why do estates kill birds of prey?

Shooting estates kill birds of prey because they might have an impact on their profits (made from selling the birds they rear to shooters). Which is where motive comes in. Even the notoriously slippery shooting industry will find it difficult to provide a reason why anyone else would want to kill a bird of prey. Retailers? Can’t see why. Hikers, cyclists, DIYers, or tanker drivers? Nope. Journos, artists, cake-sellers, shelf-pickers, designers working from home, mums, dads, the retired or sick? Just not seeing it. Farmers perhaps, but that’s not what high-profile convictions for raptor persecution suggest.

Besides, who else but employees of the shooting industry are wandering around the countryside with specific instructions to kill wildlife? This isn’t America, most of us don’t have access to a gun let alone have ever fired one at a bird or a fox (or young goshawks), and on a scale from 1 to 10 just how impossible is it that these instructions might (how can I put this, m’lud) be ‘misinterpreted’ to include killing a bird of prey setting up a nesting territory in a parcel of land that shooting has fenced off as its own?

Roll your eyes all you like

The industry and lobbyists will be rolling their eyes at all of the above and perhaps lining up to dismiss it as the biased speculation of an anti. If by ‘biased and anti’ you mean pro-wildlife and anti-law breaking and cruelty then, yes, I’m biased . Nevertheless, nothing I’ve written here is disputable. It’s really not. And as I asked in the title at the top of this page, if mine and many other observers (including renowned author Gill Lewis, who has included storylines based around raptor persecution in a number of her books) first reaction on hearing of yet another case of raptor persecution is to think ‘shooting’, whose fault is that?

I’m really not interested in telling the shooting industry how to sort itself out – I’d rather see it shut down entirely – but you don’t need a brains trust to work out that the industry needs to admit that given its history it is unsurprising that we the public almost automatically now link raptor persecution with shooting estates. It needs to stop its blather about ‘a few rotten apples’ because the rot goes far, far deeper, stop protecting the criminals in its midst, and work proactively with law enforcement to root them out. And it needs to be honest and admit that if it’s not profitable to run shooting without the mass killing of native predators then the industry is not fit to exist in a country where so much of our biodiversity has already been wiped out.

As I said (and will repeat again), there is no evidence right now that the shooting industry was involved in the illegal shooting of five young Goshawks, but even its most determined lobbyists must understand why people like me will be thinking that it probably is.