It may have looked more like preparation for a major drugs bust or a manhunt for a dangerous fugitive, but officers assembled in numbers in front of a row of police vehicles and off-road bikes in a snowy car park in North Yorkshire were getting ready for a very different type of challenge; tackling a plague of vicious and repeated killings of protected birds of prey.
North Yorkshire has the unwanted record of having more confirmed incidents of raptor persecution than any other county in England, with 54 incidents between 2012 and 2016 in which species such as peregrine falcons, red kites and hen harriers have been shot, poisoned and even caught in spring-loaded pole traps that have been outlawed since Victorian times. The force says such crimes are particularly prevalent in areas where land is managed for driven grouse shooting.
In a bid to tackle the problem, North Yorkshire Police launched Operation Owl at the weekend; a massive public awareness campaign covering vast swathes of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the North York Moors.
The initiative has been six months in the making and was the brainchild of Sergeant Kev Kelly, who was named the national Wildlife Law Enforcer of the Year in 2017. In addition to persuading 20 other police officers to give up their weekends to help, Kelly secured the backing of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the RSPCA, as well as local gamekeepers, for the initiative.
Representatives from all the different groups gathered together on Saturday morning at Brimham Rocks car park, 11 miles from Harrogate, to launch the first day of the operation.
Ahead of the officers setting out on patrol across the local area both to known persecution hot-spots and local villages and tourist hotspots to share information with members of the public, a video created to promote the operation was played while a demonstration of the ferocity of the pole traps was given using a piece of wood to show how quickly and tightly their jaws slam shut. Birds caught in them can struggle for hours in pain before they either escape with fatal injuries or trappers return to kill them.
Kelly said he has a simple but ambitious target; “the ultimate goal is to end raptor persecution in North Yorkshire”. “If we do the right things in the right way at the right time, we will get there.”
The animal-loving officer, who is originally from Leeds, says each case involving the murder of a bird of prey “makes your heart sink”. “These things do nothing to anybody. Yes, they are predators but they are birds doing what nature intended. They are there to survive, breed and flourish. To see that somebody could go to that level of brutality to bring a bird down, whether they are shot or trapped or poisoned, it is disheartening.
“They deserve to have their wings spread above us in the sky, not be lying down on the ground killed or injured. We have got to protect these birds for generations to come.”
Such an ambition is not easy with such a huge rural area to cover and suspicions that the true number of incidents is likely to be far higher than the official figures suggest. As such, one of the key elements of Operation Owl is asking members of the public to be the police’s “eyes and ears” and report suspicious activity to them more frequently.
Kelly said one of the big questions is why people kill such birds. But four years ago, a judge warned landowners who employ gamekeepers to keep numbers of birds like grouse and pheasants at high levels for shooting seasons that they “have a strict duty to know what is being done in their name and on their property”. Those comments followed a case in Norfolk where a gamekeeper was convicted of killing 11 birds of prey after being found in possession of illegal pesticides and other equipment described as a “classic poisoner’s kit” that included a syringe for injecting poison into eggs or meat baits.
At the time, while environmentalists claimed that the case was indicative of more widespread practices of gamekeepers deliberately killing birds of prey, The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation argued that “the selfish, stupid actions of one man must not be used to tarnish the good name of gamekeeping” and indeed, a group of local gamekeepers were among those in attendance to support the launch of Operation Owl.
One of them, Will Watson, from the Nidderdale Moorland Group, said perceptions of gamekeepers being to blame for such crimes are unfair. He says of the notorious pole traps: “People might hear that gamekeepers use those traps, but 0.001 per cent might do.”
Watson said in addition to supporting the operation, gamekeepers had turned up to “get our side across” and educate the general public about the legal methods of moorland management they use, as well as its positive impact on the local environment. “We manage the landscape and that is why it looks like it does. If you can find anyone else who can fund it, good luck to you.”
Kelly said it was vital to have the support of local gamekeepers for the operation. “There is always a challenge when you have to come and ask people for help. It signifies people have faith in us; local communities, gamekeepers - everybody is working to do the same thing. If we work together, we can make raptor persecution unacceptable.”
Also in attendance was Inspector Geoff Edmond, national wildlife coordinator for the RSPCA. He said he accepts raptor persecution can be a complex issue for people to understand. Even spring-loaded pole traps are only illegal when they are fixed to the top of posts; intended for pest control, the traps are legal if set low on the ground or inside tunnels.
Edmond said it is hoped Operation Owl will create a greater understanding of the issues - but also encourage people to come forward should they see something suspicious so experts in the police can assess whether something illegal has occurred.
“If people see something they think is suspicious, please report it to the police and the RSPCA. Every situation is different. I hope this operation increases the awareness about the issue and encourages people to report what they consider to be wildlife crime and show it is unacceptable.”
Kelly accepts transforming attitudes will be a long-haul but speaking to The Yorkshire Post on Tuesday said the weekend’s work is already paying dividends, with charities and other police forces across the country coming forward to ask to work alongside North Yorkshire Police on the issue.
Most importantly, members of the public have started reporting suspicious activity in greater numbers.
Kelly said: “At the end of the day on Saturday, a guy called Bob Elliot from the RSPB said something that summed it up for me. He said ‘We might have saved some of this year’s birds’. I really hope so.”
Park chief points finger at ‘shooting interests’
The chief executive of the North York Moors National Park Authority says “shooting interests” are behind the fall in the numbers of birds of prey locally.
Andy Wilson said: “Raptors are beautiful. They are an essential part of our National Parks, but their numbers have been diminished over many years by persecution from shooting interests. We urge everyone to help prevent illegal persecution and welcome Operation Owl.”
Guy Shorrock, RSPB Senior Investigations Officer, said North Yorkshire “has a terrible history for the illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of birds of prey”.
People wishing to speak in confidence about potential raptor persecution can call the RSPB on 0300 9990101.