Guest Post | Hunting on Protected Sites – Another Natural England Cover Up?

We’re delighted to host another guest post from author and campaigner Bob Berzins. Bob lives on the edge of the Peak District. Climbing on gritstone crags and running over the moorlands has brought him a deep understanding and appreciation of the Pennine uplands. He’s worked with activists and wildlife charities, spoken to police of all ranks and crime commissioners in an effort to improve the plight of wildlife in the National Park. He has also trained and worked as a counsellor which has helped him bring psychological depth to his writing. We reviewed Bob’s excellent first novel ‘Snared’ here.



Hunting on Protected Sites – Another Natural England Cover Up?

So much of our natural space necessary for wildlife and bio-diverse habitats has been lost under a sea of chemicals and development. What’s left really does need to be protected and we rely on Government and its Agencies to conserve those precious areas. But readers of this website will know the bloodsports of hunting and shooting cause a huge amount of damage yet seem immune from prosecution.

For my own part I try to document and publicise wildlife persecution and environmental damage. The publicity part is key because those people who get off on killing animals and seeing them suffer really do want to keep their activities secret.

In October 2020 I saw a pack of hunting dogs rampaging over open moorland above Bradfield, South Yorkshire. Heavy rain had been forecast so I didn’t have a video camera with me (I’ve since bought a waterproof case so I don’t miss anything like this again).


Conservation Areas or Killing Fields?

Almost all Pennine moors are designated as conservation areas, administered by Natural England, the key Government adviser for nature and the environment. Bradfield Moors is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Area for ground nesting birds and a Special Area of Conservation for rare blanket bog habitat. The landowner has banned the public from taking dogs onto this moor because of the threat to wildlife, so what was going on?

Bradfield Moors SSSI copyright Natural England Magic

However, hunt monitors have reported numerous incidents of illegal hunting on conservation sites. The owner of Bradfield Moors is linked to another incident near Peterborough and campaigners, furious at a lack of action, have demanded Natural England offer proper protection to fragile habitats and wildlife.


The law doesn’t apply to the Wealthy

Prosecutions under the Hunting Act 2004 are rare because up until now hunts have had a ready-made list of excuses based on loopholes and exemptions. Bradfield Moors is part of the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Estate, owned by Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland.

The Fitzwilliam family has a long tradition of bloodsports including grouse shooting at Bradfield. They also own the Fitzwilliam (Milton) Hunt based near Peterborough who claim to stay within the law: “We actually do a variety of things, sometimes just exercising our hounds and horses together, or hunting a trail where a scent is laid by a trail layer across the country for hounds to follow, or using hounds to “flush” or move a fox into the open where it can be taken by a bird of prey such as our Golden Eagle. All of these activities are legal and permitted under the Hunting Act.” [This is the same hunt that had to apologise to mourners in December last year after a funeral ceremony was invaded by their hounds – see Fitzwilliam Hunt ‘sorry’ for wrecking funeral]

From Fitzwilliam Hunt website

But in 2018, Peterborough Magistrates Court disagreed. Retired Fitzwilliam huntsman George Adams (66) was convicted of using a pack of hounds to kill a fox on January 1 2016. The defence claimed the hounds were used to flush a fox towards an eagle. However Joe Bird, prosecuting, alleged that the eagle was used as a “smokescreen” to allow the hunt to continue as it had before the law was changed. His choice of words was prescient.


Cutting through the Smokescreen

The deceit has continued and recently published Hunting Office webinars show the hunts have been caught “red handed”. In the footage huntsmen apparently give a tutorial on how to create a “smokescreen” so foxes and hares can be killed exactly as before. Hunt Saboteurs Association spokesperson Lee Moon says, “It will be clear to everyone that their aim is to incite widespread criminality and allow the hunting of live animals to continue as if their cruel sport had never been banned.

And there has actually been a Police investigation so the HSA could announce: “We’re delighted to hear that the Crown Prosecution Service will be pursuing charges against Mark Hankinson, Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), who featured in the leaked Hunting Office webinars that the Hunt Saboteurs Association exposed in November last year. The webinars clearly show a concerted attempt to pervert the course of justice and evidenced a nationwide conspiracy to illegally hunt. As ex-Police Inspector Phillip Davies said so prophetically in the webinars, “I hope no police officers are watching””.


Contempt for Conservation

The true face of hunting is absolutely clear now but at Bradfield Moors, Natural England say “I’d be very surprised (and disappointed) if the Keeper/Agent in this case has sanctioned pack hunting of hare on the estate”. Really?

There seems nothing worse than this duplicity taking place in conservation areas.

Castor Hanglands is a National Nature Reserve run by Natural England but owned by the Fitzwilliam Family. Peterborough Hunt Saboteurs describe an incident in January 2018 where “Horses and quad bikes were ridden through protected habitats, at least one fox was seen to be hunted and supporters turned violent when hunt sabs tried to stop them. Natural England were informed at the time in writing, and followed up with some advice for the hunt, although no clear enforcement action was taken.”

The same landowner allegedly permitted the beagle pack to access Bradfield Moors where there could only be one quarry – the Peak District’s cherished mountain hare which has become an iconic symbol of the National Park.

Mountain Hare. Copyright Craig Jones. Used with permission

A spokesperson from Sheffield Hunt Saboteurs describes the scene they found and the casual violence meted out to anyone who dares to get too close:

We got a tip-off from a concerned member of the public that a hunt was taking place at Bradfield Moors. When we arrived the huntsmen spread out across the moor whilst support held us up. One of the huntsmen attempted at least three times to elbow me in the face as I tried to get past him, footage of which is due to be handed over to the police. After around an hour, realising that we weren’t leaving the moor until they did, the hunt packed up.”


We are paying for all this

Fitzwilliam Wentworth Estate receives agricultural payments of around £150,000pa for Bradfield Moors, as part of a £1.53 million ten year scheme.

Copyright Natural England Magic


A breach of Conservation Regulations?

I asked: Has Natural England given permission for the Estate to use packs of 20 or more dogs in this way?

The answer? “No, there is no specific permission/consent in place to allow this activity. The current Moorland Management Plan states that the enjoyment of sporting rights are not affected by the plan (which provides the required SSSI consent for agreed landowner activity on site). Any change in shooting activity (from Grouse shooting – which is accepted as one of the Management objectives and permitted within the MMP) should be considered a change in Game Management and would be covered by ORNEC no.28 (Dark Peak SSSI) Game management and hunting practice and changes in game management and hunting practice, meaning that additional consent would be required

What action does Natural England propose to take to protect the SSSI/SAC/SPA from damage caused by hunting in this way?

NE would not wish to or be able to consent illegal activity on a protected site.  In itself the use of dogs in a non-hunting capacity (e.g. group exercise) is likely to constitute an organised activity (Recreational Activity is listed as an OLD/ORNEC for this SSSI) and as such the landowner should have consent for the activity to take place. Consent would only be given if it could be clearly demonstrated that the activity would have no negative impact on the designated features of the site. To be clear, no notice was received ahead of this activity and no consent has been given.


No Consent so Enforcement needed

Well you would have thought so. I received the above fairly quickly and then made a specific request for enforcement action. This was also publicised on Twitter @MoorlandMonitor so other people wrote in as well. And then I heard nothing. So eventually I submitted a Freedom of Information Request and it took 2 months for Natural England to send me the emails I’d already received with no reference to any enforcement. I simply don’t believe there was no discussion about failure to enforce the regulations.

This isn’t the first time Natural England have failed to provide information – in 2019/2020 it took a year and the Information Commissioner’s Office to reveal 1100 “General Licences” had been issued to kill birds without restriction after the Wild Justice legal action. I consulted the law firm Leigh Day about an action to show these licences were unlawful only to find the 6 month time limit had expired. I don’t know if the same thing is happening in this case as well? Natural England can use delaying tactics to avoid the scrutiny of a court.


Cross Compliance – a system to ensure taxpayer’s money is well spent

Despite Brexit we are still using the Common Agricultural Policy system of payments. It’s hard to follow all the jargon but Cross Compliance is a clear framework of rules to be followed and penalties if this doesn’t happen.

If you have an SSSI on your land you must get Natural England’s consent in writing before carrying out, causing or permitting any specified operation listed in the SSSI’s designation documents” – The Natural England Officer said “there should have been SSSI consent in place to permit the organised activity”.

Landowners of protected sites receive huge sums of taxpayer money and the public can rightly expect total transparency over how that money is used and the penalties applied for breaking the rules.

Penalties are split into Negligent and Intentional. The usual fine for Negligent activity is 3% of the annual payment, £4500 in this case and for Intentional activity it’s 20%, £30,000 in this case. It’s clear to me this landowner has a history of hunting/permitting hunting at SSSI sites which would make the Bradfield moors incident Intentional with a £30,000 penalty.


What next?

I will be appealing to Natural England and the Information Commissioner to find out why enforcement action was not taken and ask Olivia Blake (Labour MP, Sheffield Hallam) to get on the case as well.

In my opinion, this is yet another example of Natural England overlooking illegal activity by rich landowners.


Banner image copyright Sheffield Hunt Saboteurs, used with permission

References and Links

  • Ownership of Castor Hanglands SSSI: If you use the property ID number – 34061919 – against what are called INSPIRE Index polygons – the boundary data published by Land Registry and Ordnance Survey, this confirms that the entirety of Castor Hanglands NNR is covered by the land title CB32930, i.e. that is is all owned by MILTON (PETERBOROUGH) ESTATES COMPANY of The Estate Office, Milton Park, Peterborough.
  • Charges against webinar participants