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   Inside Out - North East: Monday 16th September, 2002


Hen harrier chick

A rare bird of prey whose numbers are in decline, the hen harrier is under threat. Its predator? - man and a particular type of man at that - as Inside Out finds out......

Wildlife policeman Paul Henery investigates the reason behind the illegal killing of these beautiful and endangered creatures.

After the disappearance of eggs from a hen harrier nest in a reserve in Cumbria, a team of volunteers have set up home in a chilly wooden hide. The team have placed the nest, one of only seven successful hatchings in the UK this year, under 24 hour protection.

Their efforts came too late for one female hen harrier who was shot in the early hours of the morning. The killer, who could have come from anywhere, was caught on camera, but had come prepared with a balaclava which made identification impossible.

Protecting grouse

Game Keeper caught on camera
It is now a criminal offence to kill hen harriers

The RSPB in Scotland had better luck though. Douglas Ross, became the first man to be convicted of killing a hen harrier. His occupation? - a gamekeeper. His motivation? - to protect his grouse.

By preying on grouse, hen harriers along with other birds of prey, have become targets for gamekeepers trying to protect their stock of grouse.

Legal culling

Simon Bostock of the Moorland Association condemns the illegal killing of hen harriers by gamekeepers and land owners. Instead he believes that the law should be changed to allow them to be legally culled when their numbers increase.

Simon also points out that Gamekeepers are responsible for a great deal of conservation work.

"The work of the gamekeeper isn't just on the moor ... we are working with English nature to plant trees and shrubs to improve the nature, conservation and diversity of the valleys."

Paul Henery gets the story from someone on the inside. Gamekeeper Bill (his name has been changed to protect his identity) explains why he risks prison to kill rare birds when he claims to love the countryside.

Paul: So Bill how long have you been a game keeper?
Bill: I started off keepering when I was at school. Whenever I got a spare moment I was out and helping game keepers on estate where I was born and brought up. Then gradually progressed from there
Paul: What sort of things did you do on the estate?
Bill: Everything that you should do and everything you shouldn’t do. Vermin, flying things, hawks, owls - everything that shouldn’t be there had to go.
Paul: What was the attitude of the estate to birds of prey?
Bill: The attitude of the estates I have worked on is if it does the grouse any harm they have to go.
Paul: What kinds of birds of prey are we talking about?
Bill: Everything - everything with a hooked beak and claws. Some places will do merlins - others tolerate them - kestrels supposedly take young grouse chicks right up to whatever big that flies past.
Paul: How did you go about killing the birds?
Bill: Numerous ways. You can just go out there and shoot them. You can go out at night and wait till they go to roost and walk them up in a team. Then you have got all the ground covered, lamp them poison, trap - anyway goes.
Paul: How did you poison them?
Bill: Whatever you had at hand - whatever you could get hold of. If you found say you were walking across the hill and you found a dead grouse that you presumed had been killed by a harrier or a sparrow hawk, if you got some poison you would lace that grouse with poison. Within that day that hen harrier or sparrow hawk would go back for another feed and you would probably pick it up that day.
Paul: So it was that effective - same day killing?
Bill: Yep - if you didn’t find the carcass till the evening time then it would maybe the following morning - give it time to work and then go back say just before dinner time and you would probably pick something up.
Paul: Any method favoured?
Not really as long as you got them. No-one likes going out into the open and brazenly just going out and shooting something where everyone can see. You try and do it undercover, you try and do it on the edge of dark or very early morning. You are avoiding people and you are avoiding being seen by people round about you.
Paul: On the estate, how many birds of prey are you talking about shooting?
Bill: Say for instance the last estate where I worked, you would be talking around about eight nine ten hen harriers per year plus maybe four to six peregrines and then all the other things that go between. Short eared owls maybe a dozen maybe more, kestrels whenever you saw them, sparrow hawks there could be up to twenty or thirty a year.
Paul: And was that just on your estate or was that elsewhere too?
Bill: That was on the estate where I worked but I know for a fact it was going on 99.9% of all the other estates round about. There were very few estates around about that didn’t actually kill birds of prey.
Paul: What would the method be for killing them?
Bill: Usually either early mornings. Get out before anyone else gets up, try and get them when they are getting their first flight and getting warmed up for the day. Or on an evening time when they are going to roost you sit and watch. You know where they are going to roost, they have their favourite bits to roost. You just keep sitting and watching right until the very edge of darkness. Then walk in quietly and you will get as close as you can to them before they jump up right at your feet.
Paul: And you get a shot then?
Bill: Yep, but usually you have got maybe three, four - you could get teams of keepers from other estates just to be sure of getting it. Doesn’t matter whether its shot four times as long as its got.
Paul: Seems to be a lot of effort put in to killing birds of prey?
Bill: There is as much effort, maybe more, put into killing birds of prey because if you have got your foxes that’s all legal you can go about that in your everyday duties. The illegal side of things you have to do undercover of darkness or when there is least amount of people watching you.
Paul: Why Bill do you have to kill birds of prey?
Bill: From a very early age its more or less expected of you. If you want to become a game keeper you have to do as the old school says. You could go to the best college in the world, but once you get out on your work experience and you get onto an estate be it north of England, Scotland, wherever you go, the old school grab hold of you and you have to do as they say.
Paul: So do you think it is just purely tradition or do you think there is a genuine reason why they want you to do that?
Bill: There is a reason and it is tradition. Old tricks dies hard. They are stuck in their way they wont accept any change, things have to change.
Paul: You have said you have gone and killed birds of prey bill, Why did you do that? Were you told to do that?
Bill: You got told in a way that if you didn’t do these things you were basically down the road. They would find a way of ousting you. You would have no career and you would have no house or anything. You’d just be turfed out. You are not actually told you have to go out an do these things, usually anyway. Some people are actually told, but some have a very coy way of beating around the bush so to speak and you are left under no uncertain terms that if you don’t do these things you haven’t got a job at that place.
Paul: So when you go for a job as a gamekeeper - does it come up in the interview?
Bill: A lot of times yes
Paul: In open terms - will you kill birds of prey?
Bill: No, they don’t put it in such a stupid way. They come out and say what are your views on raptors and then you have to, knowing that you want that job, you have to be as coy as them and play it back to them. Possibly, say there is a great problem with them, we have just to do our best, we have just to do what we have to do . If you aren’t required to do anything then fair enough. If you are required to do something then you have to be willing to do that to get that job.
Paul: You obviously love the countryside - like the outdoor life being a gamekeeper - how does it make you feel killing birds of prey?
Bill: I knew it wasn’t right but its all I’ve ever known since before I left school. Its all I have ever wanted to be is gamekeeper, so you just go with the flow.
Paul: Your boss - the land owner - how do you feel about them telling you to do it?
Bill: I think basically they are cowardly coy and they are just using us as a front all the time, what should really be done. I know the gamekeeper is in the wrong 99% of the time. But if it wasn’t for the fat cat at the end of the line that wants more grouse for his cronies and his friends, at the end of the day the game keeper wouldn’t have to do the things that he is pushed to do.
Paul: So when they are in the butts on a shooting day - what would the reaction be when a bird of prey came over?
Bill: They maybe wouldn’t say things but usually at the end of a drive if they have any decency they will probably come and thank you for it -"splendid drive" or "very good drive." If something came through they would go away with their head down and very quietly usually. They didn’t like it, they didn’t like being embarrassed in front of their friends with a hen harrier or bird of prey or anything come through the drive. What the keepers usually try to do in those cases, if there is a bird of prey in a drive, is they will try to let it out to one side of the drive, out of site of guns so they don’t see it. And maybe if there is time when they have finished shooting, or the following morning, they will try and go out and do something about it.
Paul: Kill it you mean?
Bill: Yeah.
Paul: How did you know the landowners wanted you to kill the birds Bill?
Bill: I was told by the keeper above me and he told me we were expected to do these things, but if ever we were caught by anyone such as the police or RSPB or anyone like that, any legal expenses that we needed would come through the boss, but the boss wanted keeping out of it. If there is a game keeper sent to prison you are not achieving anything, it's the fat cats at the top of the chain that want sorting out to start with, expecting a game keeper to go out and do that in the first place. I think most gamekeepers would be quite happy during his trapping duties without trying to get himself into any bother.
Paul: Why do you want to come forward and tell us all this illegal activity?
Bill: I want people to know it's not just the common old game keeper that’s doing all this wrong - its the hierarchy above. Its them the fat cats. A lot of them aren’t even lords or earls. A lot of them are just big fat businessmen whose got a lot of money to splash around and they are just impressing their friends. They want the best moor. They want the most birds over their butts to impress their friends.
See also ...

On the rest of the web
The National Gamekeepers Organisation
The Moorland Association
Hen Harriers on English Uplands
Hen Harriers
British Raptors
Wildlife and Landscape

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