Goshawk ‘killing’ was filmed on one of Queen’s grouse moors

A couple of days ago news broke that a ‘masked man’ had been filmed killing a Goshawk – a bird of prey, so supposedly protected by legislation – on an estate in North Yorkshire. At the time the name of the estate was being withheld, as Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors, the team behind the filming were preparing the story for a major newspaper.

That voluntary embargo has now been lifted. An article with an accompanying video was published just after midnight this morning in The Times which was headlined “‘Killing’ of rare bird of prey filmed on one of Queen’s grouse moors in North Yorkshire“. The incident took place at “Goathland Moor in North Yorkshire, part of the Duchy of Lancaster“.


Killing’ of rare bird of prey filmed on one of Queen’s grouse moors in North Yorkshire

One of the Queen’s grouse moors has been searched by the police after a man was caught on camera apparently killing a rare bird of prey on the land.

Footage filmed by undercover animal activists appears to show a man killing a wild bird on Goathland Moor in North Yorkshire, part of the Duchy of Lancaster. The bird has been identified as a goshawk, one of the rarest birds of prey in the UK, and the police have issued an appeal for information.

The Duchy of Lancaster is the private estate of the British sovereign, under the title of the Duke of Lancaster. It covers more than 44,000 hectares of rural and urban holdings, including several thousand acres of moorland.

In footage passed to The Times, a man approaches a large cage trap set up by a brook on the moors. He fills the trap with live jackdaws, apparently as bait, and leaves. When a man is filmed opening the trap a day later, a goshawk has entered the trap.

He uses a pole or hook to hold the goshawk as he enters the trap. For a moment it struggles and flaps but after a few seconds falls still, apparently dead. The man puts the goshawk into a bag and leaves, throwing a carcass of one of the jackdaws into the brook as he goes.

The hidden camera was set up across the brook from the trap by the group Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors. Luke Steele, its spokesman, said: “It is a clear illustration of how deeply ingrained bird of prey persecution is on grouse moors when apparently not even the Queen’s wildlife is safe from criminals illegally destroying it.

A spokeswoman for the Duchy of Lancaster said: “The duchy expects all shoots operated by tenants on duchy-owned land to be professionally run and managed using skilled and experienced game-keepers. Our tenancy agreements make it clear that we require the highest standards of professional behaviour and compliance with national standards and codes of practice. We are co-operating fully with all parties to ensure that the matter is fully investigated and any appropriate action taken.”

Extract: Emma Soames, The Times, 20 July 2020


The fact that the estate is connected to the Duchy of Lancaster may or may not be of much surprise to many people. After all, despite efforts to portray themselves as conservationists, the Windsors own huge tracts of land used for shooting and they are well-known for ‘celebrating’ Christmas by slaughtering pheasants on the Sandringham Estate (the Daily Mail noted in 2019 that even at 92, the Queen still led out a shooting party where guests were seen ‘toting’ dead birds).

It’s unlikely that anyone in the Royal Family has ever personally instructed a gamekeeper to break the law by killing a bird of prey, but it seems equally unlikely that they could be ignorant of the fact that wildlife crime routinely takes place on shooting estates. William has often talked about ending wildlife crime of course, and seems to be very knowledgeable: how could he possibly not know what goes on? He has long been a regular member of shooting parties, of course, leading years ago to suggestions that he was either hypocritical or ‘greenwashing’. Perhaps ‘selective’ would be more accurate, though the ‘family’ do tend to use the excuse favoured (depressingly) by leading conservation organisations (and shooters) that pheasants aren’t rare while rhinos are – a disingenuous way to distance yourself from the killing while ignoring the fact that eg Hen Harriers are almost extinct as a breeding bird in England precisely because of the way shooting estates are run. (Incidentally, a ‘royal biographer’, Duncan Larcombe noted in 2019 that after one photograph of the Queen wringing a pheasant’s neck made headlines across the world.in 2002, photographers were not allowed near shoots “because it’s not good PR, it doesn’t look good.”)

Whether the Windsors themselves issue the instructions or not is a moot point: someone did. The ‘masked man’ seen in the video (as no-one has yet been charged for legal reasons we’ll stick to the line that this ‘alleged’ crime was committed by an ‘unknown person’ rather than a gamekeeper who baited the crow cage trap, pinned the Goshawk down, killed it, and carried the corpse away) didn’t make the decision to kill the Goshawk on the spur of the moment. Is whoever issued the instructions to break the law as liable as the employee that carried them out (and for anyone who believes that employees simply roam shooting estates doing what they want, we have a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to buy)?

This brings up the issues of responsibility that has dogged attempts to get a law on vicarious liability, which imposes strict liability on employers for the wrongdoings of their employees, through the English parliament. While a law was passed in Scotland in 2011 (under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 a landowner, shooting business or manager can be held criminally liable for the actions of their employees, contractors or agents), MPs in England have refused to pass one here. Could that be partly because of the status of the landowners who may be impacted (some MPs are of course landowners themselves)? Admittedly charges of vicarious liability are very rare even on the wildlife-crime riddled shooting estates of Scotland (the RSPB’s Duncan Orr-Ewing came to the conclusion that “a lack of regulation, lack of accountability, and difficulty in anyone securing sufficient admissible evidence to allow a prosecution, has led to a culture where grouse moor managers in particular feel (and act) as if they are untouchable“), but a charge of vicarious liability against the Duchy of Lancaster would have made an interesting follow-up for The Times…

Whether vicarious liabilty is part of the solution to the out of control criminality and the apparent feeling that shooting estates are somehow ‘untouchable’, it is clear that significant regulatory reform of grouse moors is urgently needed if these places are to be brought into the 21st century. We’d like to see them shut down and reinvented as wildlife reserves supported by ecotourism, but a licencing system seems to be the preferred solution proffered by conservation organisations. Given that wildlife crime is already illegal but court cases are as rare as hen’s teeth, you have to ask how ‘licencing’ would be enforced. It’s interesting to note at the same time that a comment from the Duchy of Lancaster included in The Times piece includes a claim that land should be managed “using skilled and experienced game-keepers” – it’s because of those ‘skilled and experienced gamekeepers’ that there has been such targetted and widespread slaughter of raptors on shooting estates for so long anyway, so that’s hardly encouraging…


Talking of ‘places’ perhaps as notable as who manages this land is that the majority of Goathland Moor is contained within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the – drum roll – raptor persecution hotspot of the North Yorks Moors National Park. National Park? SSSi? When it comes to the depravities of the shooting industry – of which the Duchy of Lancaster is a part – our protected landscapes don’t seem to include protection for some of our rarest and most persecuted birds of prey.

A comment on that observation by the Windsors would be worth hearing, but there seems to have been a permanent embargo put in place on that ever happening….