A gamekeeper has been convicted of shooting two short-eared owls in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Timothy Cowin, 44, pleaded guilty to two charges concerning the intentional killing of two protected short-eared owls on the Whernside Estate, an area managed for driven grouse shooting within the national park but in Cumbria.
He also pleaded guilty to one charge relating to the possession of items capable of being used to commit offences against wild birds.
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Cowin appeared in Lancaster Magistrates Court yesterday and was fined £400 for killing each owl and £200 for possessing the calling device, which was forfeited by the court.
He was ordered to pay £170 costs and a £40 victim surcharge – a total of £1,210.
Outside court, Sergeant Kevin Kelly, from North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Taskforce, who worked on the investigation with the RSPB, said: “Following this conviction, I feel like we have taken another step forward addressing bird crime.
“This is the first courtroom conviction for a raptor persecution case in a number of years and I’m proud of my officers who have persevered through this investigation.
“On the face of things it looks fairly straightforward. However, I can assure you that this case was not. It was extremely complicated with acute matters of law and procedure at the highest scrutiny.”
On 19 April 2017, RSPB officers visited the area and Cowin was seen walking on the moor holding a gun.
An RSPB officer saw Cowin shoot and kill two short-eared owls before disposing of their bodies on the moor.
The police were called immediately and, after a pursuit on foot, Cowin was arrested.
Both owl corpses were recovered and a post-mortem examination confirmed they had been shot.
A Fox pro calling device – a type of electronic sound luring device – was also found in Cowin’s vehicle and seized.
The device was later examined and found to have a number of raptor calls including peregrine, goshawk, buzzard and sparrowhawk on the device.
The RSPB says these were not included with the calls that came with this US piece of equipment and had been added.
Sgt Kelly added: “I appreciate there will be varying degrees of frustration levelled at this case and the outcome.
“None more so than myself as this undermines the excellent work we have been doing with Operation Owl whereby police and investigators are bringing landowners, land managers, game keepers, around the table to help eradicate persecution.
“This whole situation could have been avoided by good practice and accountability – something that was clearly devoid with Cowin in April 2017.
“Cowin has not only let himself down, he has tarnished his former profession and no doubt his actions will have a lasting impact. We will continue to take positive action, to enforce when opportunities arise and keep up engagement.”
Guy Shorrock, RSPB senior investigations officer, said: “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. We are immensely grateful for the response of the police to this remote location.”
A spokesman for Whernside Estate said: “The estate was dismayed to learn of the fate of these owls.
“It was particularly disappointing given the enormous increase in the number of all species of birds witnessed across the moor over the last few years.”
“Following the allegations of a wildlife crime having been committed, the keeper in question resigned his position several months ago and is no longer employed by the estate.
“The estate takes its conservation responsibilities very seriously and when it learned of these allegations took immediate measures to ensure best practice in accordance with the industry.”
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “We unreservedly condemn this criminal behaviour.
“These actions have no place in modern-day moorland management and undermine the great work that is done by gamekeepers day in, day out on moors across the country.”
Members of the public who have information about raptor persecution or any other types of rural crime are urged to contact North Yorkshire Police on 101.
The RSPB recently launched a confidential Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.