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Short-eared Owl shot and killed on Peak District grouse moor

The RSPB has released news of the shooting of a Short-eared Owl on  Broomhead Estate, a notorious grouse moor in the Peak District National Park. The incident took place last summer but wasn’t publicised until police investigations had concluded.

The shooting was witnessed and recorded on a mobile phone by an individual birding on the moor (he, understandably given the intimidation and harassment common to cases like these, wishes to remain anonymous).

The witness reported what he’d seen to both South Yorkshire Police and the RSPB. Because he’d had the presence of mind to record the location and take photographs pinpointing precisely where the shooting had taken place, he was able to lead investigators to the exact spot where the body of the Owl had been hidden. The body was sent for testing and was confirmed to have been shot.

In his account of what happened, the witness is quoted saying:

“I stopped on my way back from work to do a bit of birding at I place I knew, where you get a good view of the moorland. I noticed that someone had come onto the moor in a six-wheeler, all-terrain vehicle. He was in green and on his own, and he had a shotgun and a bag. But I didn’t pay him much attention, as I was watching a barn owl which was out early, flying around hunting. That’s when I picked up the short-eared owl, way over in the distance. I started watching it through my scope.

It was drifting towards where this guy was positioned in the heather. Whilst I was watching it, the bird burst into a cloud of feathers. I knew what had happened. And then I heard the gunshot, and realised the guy on the moor had fired the shot.”

The police made extensive enquiries and identified a local gamekeeper as the prime suspect. Despite the efforts of the police and the forensic testing that was carried out on seized items, as so often it couldn’t be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the suspect was responsible for this crime. Yet again, wildlife crime and raptor persecution on a grouse moor will go unprosecuted.

The full story is perfectly described on the RSPB’s ‘Community’ website here and we obviously won’t simply copy it verbatim, but we would like to make some points about what is an all-too-familiar story of crime on grouse moors.

 

Why shoot a Short-eared Owl?

Unlike the majority of UK owl species, Short-eared Owls are diurnal (our page on this species is here). They hunt during the day, searching for rodents, especially voles, but will eat other small mammals such as rabbits, mice, and shrews. In Britain they breed primarily in the uplands of Northern England and Scotland, and in regions where so much of the uplands (even in our so-called ‘national parks’) are owned by the shooting industry, that unfortunately almost inevitably means nesting on grouse moors.

Like all other birds of prey, and there are no exceptions, Short-eared Owls have (or should have) full legal protection under the Wildlife & Countryside Act (see our Protectors page on Birds of Prey and the Law). They are Amber Listed as a bird of conservation concern in the UK, and not normally a species said to be ‘in conflict’ with shooting estates (ie threatening their profits), but the sad and inescapable fact is that despite all their risible claims to be the UK’s ‘real conservationists’, the gamekeeping profession is still all about eradicating wildlife so that more grouse or pheasants can survive long enough for someone to pay to shoot them.

That wildlife includes Short-eared Owls. Guy Shorrock, a hugely respected RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, said back in 2018 following the conviction of gamekeeper Timothy Cowin for shooting two Short-eared Owls on Cumbria’s Whernside Estate, “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”.

 

Why hand grouse moors a ‘licencing lifeline’?

As the RSPB say in their account, this shooting was not an isolated incident. This particular owl was shot close to where Octavia, a satellite tagged Hen Harrier, ‘disappeared’ (legalese for killed and hidden) in 2018. Another tagged harrier called Anu was last recorded alive nearby in 2022 before his tag was found cut off. In the same year, two male Hen Harriers disappeared when paired with nesting females. The area remains a hotbed of raptor persecution and there is little doubt that Short-eared Owls are being deliberately targeted.

This does lead us to ask – yet again – why anyone thinks grouse moor licencing, which we are fundamentally opposed to, will halt raptor persecution. We have explained our position numerous times (see Grouse moors and the ‘licencing lifeline for example), but we keep coming back to the fact that gamekeepers and their employers know that the chances of being caught are very low indeed. If a witness hadn’t been on site that day and had known to record and report the incident it would have just been ‘another day on the moor’ for a criminal gamekeeper and another Short-eared Owl not breeding in habitat that – for all intents and purposes – would seem to suit the species to the ground.

No one but the shooting industry wants to kill Short-eared Owls. Ending the shooting industry is the only way to stop senseless killings like these taking place. Can we do that? With your help we can – please see our pages on Ending the Shooting industry.

 

 

Protectors of the Wild

We fully echo the RSPB who “thank South Yorkshire Police for their rapid response and thorough investigation and of course the witness themselves, who did everything right in reporting this straight away”.

While we may not always agree with how some police forces respond to some wildlife crimes (particularly crimes involving foxes and fox hunting), we do recognise that they have an incredibly difficult job to do and it is vital that information reaches them. Even if there is no conviction, collating data on these crimes is hugely important. It helps establish patterns of criminality.

Few of us knew just what has been taking place on grouse moors until incidents of wildlife crime began to be gathered and disseminated. A decade later and only a handful of shooting lobbyists and bloodsport apologists are still trying to deny that the grouse shooting industry is indeed ‘underpinned by wildlife crime’.

‘Evidence gathering’ is critical, but it needs to be done properly and as quickly as possible.

Protect the Wild recently launched a free new resource called ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ which is designed to help us all Recognise, Record, and Report incidents like this one. We’ve published over thirty pages so far on everything from the laws protecting raptors, badgers, foxes, and bats to how to know if a snare or trap is being used legally. And we’ve arranged the information as FAQs – getting on for nearly 400 of them and counting!

Please have a look, let us know what you think and tell us if we’ve missed anything out or have got something wrong. We are convinced that putting ‘eyes in the field’ is critically important to protecting the wild – and stories like this one should convince everyone else too.

 

  • Header image of the shot Short-eared Owl by RSPB