A gamekeeper plead guilty on Wednesday to “potentially the largest English raptor persecution case”. But wildlife advocates are unhappy with the penalty.


GUILTY PLEA

On 1 June, gamekeeper Archie Watson plead guilty at Swindon Magistrates’ Court to multiple wildlife crime and firearms offences. As a result, he was given 180 hours unpaid community service, £393 costs and a £95 victim surcharge.

Covert footage filmed by the RSPB captured Watson throwing the corpse of a buzzard down a well on Galteemore Farm, Wiltshire. A multi-agency investigation followed in August 2020 that recovered the bodies of eleven buzzards, seven red kites and two gulls. However, due to lack of evidence for the other bodies, Watson only faced charges for five buzzards, three red kites and a herring gull.

During the investigation, police also found a loaded but unattended shotgun in Watson’s vehicle


Keep The Ban previously reported that Wiltshire Police described the case as “potentially the largest English raptor persecution case in terms of the number of alleged victims”. And CPS Wessex senior crown prosecutor Angharad Thomas said following Watson’s sentencing that:

“This is one of the largest prosecutions of someone being in possession of dead wild birds.

“A huge effort has gone into growing the red kite population in the UK, so to find three of them dead in that area is alarming and will have an impact on the success of this protected species.”

The RSPB said that the case shows “further regulation of the shooting industry is needed”.


THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

The plea hearing revealed further details about Watson and the investigation. Local press Wiltshire999s reported that Watson claimed the buzzard he was captured disposing of was “found dead under a tree”.

The other bodies found in the well were also “discovered” already dead on the farm’s land, he claimed. And Watson emphasised that there’s “no evidence” showing he’d personally persecuted the raptors. Post-mortems on the bodies returned inconclusive results as to their cause of death. But they did note that two of the buzzards had metal fragments in them.

Nonetheless, investigators found Watson’s keyring held two leg rings used by the British Trust for Ornithology to identify a buzzard and a red kite. Watson claimed they were found while metal detecting.

Watson also plead guilty to a total of three firearms offences. Apart from the loaded shotgun found in his vehicle, police discovered “several” unlocked firearms next to unsecured ammunition at the gamekeeper’s home.

A detailed account of the trial can be read at RaptorPersecution UK.


DISCONTENT WITH THE DECISION

Wildlife advocates have expressed disappointment with Watson’s penalty.

RaptorPersecutionUK called the outcome “derisory” while Wiltshire Hunt Saboteurs said the penalty was “hardly a deterrent”. James Robinson, director of conservation at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, described the penalty as “pitiful”. Meanwhile, environmentalist Ben Goldsmith said Watson “should be in jail” and bird network Rare Bird Alert UK also lamented the lack of a custodial sentence. One member of the public present at the hearing told Keep The Ban that the low sentencing was the result of a series of mitigating factors including age, no previous convictions, the time taken for the case to come to trial, and a lack of evidence for the most serious aspects of the crime.

The RSPB’s urge for greater regulation of the shooting industry is clearly the least that can be done to protect raptors from persecution by humans. And in a time when Britain is understood as one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, protecting every bit of wildlife is of the utmost importance.

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