The Nidderdale cocktail
Police Inspector Matthew Hagen worked on the River case. He says the estate’s response to River’s death illustrates why it’s so difficult to sue in a court where a person must be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. “I can assure you that it is more likely than not that River was shot on the Swinton Estate,” he said. “I just can’t prove it in court.”
In recent years, Cunliffe-Lister has taken steps to accommodate Northern Harriers on their property, including erecting an awning to allow visitors to see a winter roost, feeding on diversion, and working with Natural England, the government’s environmental consultancy agency, to implement satellite tagging and brood management study.
“They’re making the right noises right now because it’s okay with them,” Hagen says, “but it wasn’t always like that.”
I join Hagen on a tour of Nidderdale, North Yorkshire, “the number one, the hotspot of raptor persecution,” he says as he drives his car along a winding country road. “There are more birds of prey killed here than in any other county.” The RSPB confirms that North Yorkshire holds a seven-year record for most incidents of raptor persecution: 135 cases from 2011 to 2020. Not all birds died; some were injured and released.
Parking on the side of the road, Hagen heads for the hills and valleys. “We have all this habitat – woods, nesting sites for raptors, rabbits – but where are the birds of prey? He asks looking at the sky. ” There are not any. Because people poisoned them, shot them, trapped them. They just aren’t there.
Hagen is on the trail of a gamekeeper who he says uses a concoction of chemicals – the Nidderdale cocktail, he calls it – to kill raptors. Post-mortem examinations of the dead raptors revealed a rash of poisonings all linked to a particular chemical mixture. “It’s really distinct,” Hagen says. One of the compounds is carbofuran, a banned agricultural pesticide, a neurotoxin particularly deadly to birds and other wildlife. A quarter of a teaspoon can kill a 400 pound bear in a matter of minutes.
Recently, the raptor killings in Nidderdale made headlines when a poisonous hawk fell in a resident’s garden. Next, a woman’s dogs had seizures after coming into contact with a poison while walking on the moor. One of the dogs died. When a local resident staged a £ 3,000 reward for information on the perpetrator of the poisonings, his store windows were stimulated and he received anonymous threatening letters pushed into the letterbox.
Hagen says he knows who the poisoner is. “We’ve talked to people who go to the same pub as him, and when he’s had a few drinks he brags about how he’s doing,” Hagen says. “He tells them that the police came and raided my house, but they couldn’t find anything because I hid him elsewhere.
Police are constrained by laws that prevent them from conducting covert investigations into people killing raptors because the government considers it a low-level crime. Law enforcement often benefits from evidence transmitted by the RSPB investigative team, which secretly monitors game wardens, collects incriminating video footage and receives witness reports.
In April 2020, RSPB investigator Howard Jones informed North Yorkshire Police about an informant, Helen, who told them she heard gunshots and saw a game warden with a dead buzzard on the Bransdale estate. A second anonymous witness reported that on the same date and time, she heard gunshots and saw two buzzards falling from the sky.
When police traveled to Bransdale to investigate, Helen guided them to the area where she saw the person she believed to be a game warden. Executing a search warrant, police found five dead hawks stuffed into a hole in the ground. Medical examinations and x-rays of the remains of the birds revealed that they had been slaughtered.
“There were six game wardens working on the estate,” Hagen says. “We interviewed them all and they all said, ‘No comment.’ We know what happened, but we can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, so that’s it. “
Tougher sentences could lead to better prevention of bird crime, Hagen says, but all the police can do is gather evidence and present it to court. For him, a conviction alone is a victory for wildlife. If someone is “convicted, especially of a Wildlife and Countryside Act offense, it means we can challenge their suitability to hold a firearm,” he says. “If they lose their firearms license, they risk losing their jobs, and their house is filled with that job. “
Back at Harrogate Police Station, where Hagen is based, he opens an evidence freezer marked ‘animal’. Pulling on a pair of blue latex gloves, Hagen removes a nozzle. He says a local citizen recently found the dead bird lying on a trail. Soon he will be x-rayed, autopsied and checked for poisons. If the bird is positive, it will add it to the list of probable victims caught in the sights of a game warden.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between the National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here and learn more about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]