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Royal Immunity from crime

Royal Immunity from crime…and those Sandringham Hen Harriers

Two days ago (July 14th) The Guardian revealed the extent to which, since 1967, the Queen has legislated personal exemptions from more than 160 offences that the rest of us would be cautioned or arrested for.

In ‘Revealed: Queen’s sweeping immunity from more than 160 laws’, Severin Carrell, Rob Evans and David Pegg – ready to deliver a journalistic double-whammy it turned out – wrote:

More than 30 different laws stipulate that police are barred from entering the private Balmoral and Sandringham estates without the Queen’s permission to investigate suspected crimes, including wildlife offences and environmental pollution – a legal immunity accorded to no other private landowner in the country

All will be explained why below, but my first reaction was to tweet the following:

Yesterday (July 15th) the three journalists followed up their first report with an equally powerful article titled “Officials warned of ‘serious wildlife incidents’ at Queen’s Sandringham estate”.

Now, that particular sentence will have brought back strong memories for those of us with a longstanding interest in raptor persecution (and Hen Harriers in particular).

First though, detailing a string of ‘suspicious incidents’ (investigator’s code for ‘‘We know they did it, we just don’t have the proof’), suspected/alleged to have taken place on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk (along with Balmoral a personal and private residence owned by The Royal Family itself rather than the Crown), Carrell, Evans, and Pegg wrote:

Sandringham has been investigated for wildlife and pesticides offences against legally protected birds of prey at least six times between 2005 and 2016.

As with all tallies of wildlife crime, which depend on witnesses or discovering a crime scene or body (incredibly difficult on large private estates), that figure is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. And there have of course been incidents since 2016, including the well-reported discovery of the corpse of a Little Owl (the bird in the image below) in a Fenn trap in May 2020, which suggests that perhaps the estate’s gamekeepers may still have a somewhat loose approach when it comes to what happens to the local wildlife…

 

Gamekeepers on Sandringham?

Hang on, you might be saying as you read this. Gamekeepers, Fenn traps, on Sandringham? Indeed so, and not all that surprising when you consider that the ‘royals’ have always been keen hunting and shooting enthusiasts who have for centuries maimed and killed wildlife on their estates. It was the royals that popularised grouse shooting after all (and still like to make sure the young heirs get to see it first hand while still children), and the Boxing Day pheasant massacre at Sandringham is a tradition they have gleefully continued to the present day.

And wherever there are shoots there are traps: the National Anti-Snaring Campaign reported on their Facebook page in Dec 2020 that “On 8th Dec NASC investigators visited the Sandringham Estate and found dozens of similar Fenn Traps at ground level”.

Those traps will have been set for what is usually called ‘predator control’, which is not supposed to include a bird of prey like an owl. But then there is always a huge amount of collateral damage when ensuring that a grouse or pheasant gets taken by a shooter rather than by an animal that actually needs it…

 

The notorious killing of two Hen Harriers at Sandringham

Anyway, back to Sandringham, the year 2007, and a notoriously unsolved wildlife crime.

It involves Prince Harry (who at a young age enjoyed shooting with his brother so much his mother nicknamed them her ‘Killer Wales’), family friend Wiliam Van Cutsem (who now owns Hillsborough estate where the Hunt Investigation Team filmed estate staff illegally trapping a Goshawk with a live pigeon earlier this year), and two Hen Harriers (birds detested by many grouse moor owners) – plus some speculation on my part that will be necessarily a tad circumspect as the royals can afford an army of lawyers and I can’t…

The first three paragraphs of the ‘Officials warned of ‘serious wildlife incidents’’ article summarise the event nicely.

On a pleasant autumn evening in 2007, a wildlife warden at the Dersingham Bog nature reserve in Norfolk took a friend to see two female hen harriers returning home to roost. But as dusk descended, they were startled by the sound of shotgun blasts.

After the first shot, they saw one of the rare birds of prey “immediately fold and drop out of sight”. About 30 seconds later they heard a second blast – and another harrier fell from the sky.

The shots appeared to have come from inside Sandringham, the Queen’s rural retreat bordering the reserve – where Prince Harry, then aged 23, and a close friend were out shooting ducks that evening.

So, two Hen Harriers. one of the most persecuted of the UK’s birds of prey, are blasted out of the sky from inside Sandringham while Harry and his ‘close friend’ – William van Cutsem, of course – were out shooting ducks – which contemporary reports state weren’t even picked up until the next day.

No one has ever been charged because as a news report put it at the time, “Despite an intensive police inquiry, no charges could be brought because “the bodies of the hen harriers have not been found”. As a result, there was no forensic or ballistic evidence to study. And since all three suspects denied any knowledge of the incident, and there was no eyewitness testimony of who had fired the fatal shots, the case was closed.

 

Let’s unpick this absolute travesty.

In the breeding season, Hen Harriers are now largely confined to the uplands of England and Scotland, where – because they take grouse chicks (and were doing so long before grouse shooting existed of course) – they are routinely and illegally exterminated. It’s an open secret that everyone knows about, and considering how often he will have been to Balmoral to put holes into grouse it beggars belief to think Harry (or Van Cutsem) wouldn’t be fully aware of it too.

Away from their breeding sites, Hen Harriers often use well-established winter roosts, grouping together for safety – deeply ironic in the era of shooting estates and wildlife criminals. It’s that use of a regular wintering roost that meant the Dersingham Bog warden knew where to go to see his local birds – and, again, it beggars belief to think that the neighbouring Sandringham estate with its large pheasant shoot didn’t know about that roost as well.

The bodies of the Hen Harriers weren’t found, meaning someone collected them. Collected them from an inaccessible estate closed to the public – and closed to the police unless they politely knock on the door to ask permission – giving the privacy and time needed for, I don’t know, staff maybe, to clear up.

On top of everything, all three suspects (one of the estate’s gamekeepers was with the shooting party) denied they did it. Which – as the birds were witnessed being shot – logically has to mean that someone else did. But no one saw anyone, found anyone, or even caught a glimpse of anyone running away…

Which is just ridiculous.

I admit I don’t have first-hand experience of what happens when a firearm is discharged in the vicinity of a royal by a person unknown – but I’ve watched enough news reports and Gerard Butler films to know that it isn’t typically met with a shrug. What tends to happen is that alarms go off, orders are barked, urgent phone calls are made, an enormous police presence turns up out of nowhere, and the VIP is bundled off to a safe room until the perp has been tracked down and taken into custody.

But not at Sandringham. A gun goes off – twice – near a 23-year-old Prince and the son of an English banker, businessman, landowner and horse breeder who is one of Prince Charles’s best friends, and nothing happens. Nothing. What are the odds?

 

Royal immunity from wildlife crime: summing up

To sum up, then, we are all supposed to believe that on a shooting estate which was committing wildlife crime and owned by a Queen who rewrites English law to protect her assets, an experienced royal shooter and his friend (who grew up on one the royal’s favourite shooting estates), both of whom would have known about raptor persecution on grouse moors and must have known about a local harrier winter roost, were out killing ducks (which they didn’t even pick up but just left behind them) with an estate gamekeeper, when a gun was fired close to them – twice – killing two protected birds of prey – and they did nothing, protection officers did nothing, and nobody thought to report it or start a search for the missing shooter? Like I say, what are the odds….

There is of course no evidence that those two protected birds were deliberately targeted by two incredibly privileged young men for whom normal laws either don’t apply or aren’t applied, but the CPS tellingly stated at the time that no one else was being sought. Hmm…

There will almost certainly now never be a satisfactory conclusion to this illegal killing of two Hen Harriers, but perhaps all of the above explains why this incident in particular is so notorious and won’t be forgotten anytime soon.