Wildlife campaigners have called on Prince Harry to use his forthcoming memoirs to help solve a 14-year mystery about the killing of two of Britain’s rarest birds over one of the Queen’s estates.
The prince had been out shooting on the estate on the evening of 24 October, with family friend William van Cutsem, then 28, when the incident occurred. At the time the Queen was a patron of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Witnesses said they saw two hen harriers in flight being shot, an offence under wildlife protection legislation which carries a prison sentence of up to six months or a fine.
Harry, Van Custem, and a Sandringham gamekeeper denied shooting the birds. And as no bodies of the birds were recovered from the scene no charges were brought. At the time Clarence house said Harry had no knowledge of the incident. After 14 years no one has ever been prosecuted for the alleged shooting.
But campaigners are hoping that Harry’s new memoirs, which he promised would provide an honest account of his mistakes and lessons learned in life, might help shed fresh light on the historic incident as well as highlight the continued persecution or rare birds on shooting estates.
Chris Luffingham, director of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “I hope this gives Prince Harry a chance to talk about his environmental concerns and any moves to distance himself from ‘game’ bird shooting.”
He added: “It will also offer Prince Harry a chance to set the record straight about what really happened when a report of hen harriers being shot on the Sandringham Estate emerged in 2007 – the persecution of birds of prey by the game bird shooting industry blights our country’s reputation.”
Dr Ruth Tingay, author of the Raptor Persecution UK blog and co-director of environmental pressure group Wild Justice, said: “In recent years Prince Harry has portrayed himself as an enthusiastic conservationist, deeply concerned about the plight of the world’s wildlife.
“This claim would have far more credibility if he was to use his memoir as a vehicle for exposing the rampant criminality within the driven grouse shooting industry, as it is this, and this alone that is overwhelmingly responsible for the continuing catastrophic decline of the hen harrier in England.”
In December last year a little owl, also a protected species, was killed in a spring trap on the Sandringham estate, prompting naturalists to call for such traps to be banned. In February similar calls were made when a pet dog was caught in a snare trap on the same estate.
Luffingham added: “Harry might also want to address the issue of snares being laid on the Sandringham estate by gamekeepers, a cruel trap which kills indiscriminately and should be made illegal.”
Hen harriers have been illegally targeted particularly on upland moors because they prey on red grouse, for which there is a lucrative driven shooting industry on the moors. They virtually ceased breeding in England in the early 2000s because of persecution. They have since recovered to an estimated 330 pairs, but remain one of the rarest and most persecuted raptors in the UK.
At the time of the 2007 incident, a spokesperson for the RSPB said: “We’re under no doubt that a crime was committed. The fact that no bodies could be found is extremely disappointing. For nobody to be brought to book for the deaths of two hen harriers is also extremely disappointing. We’re concerned, but not surprised, that no evidence could be found.”
At the time the Crown Prosecution Service said: “The bodies of the hen harriers have not been found and there is no forensic or ballistic evidence. Witnesses also heard unexplained shooting in the area before the three suspects said they were present at the scene, so other people cannot be ruled out. The three suspects, who were interviewed by police, all denied that the birds were killed by them.”
A spokesperson for Prince Harry has been approached for comment.
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