Conservationists shocked by killing of hen harriers

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Prince Harry knew nothing about the shooting of two rare birds on a royal estate although he was in the vicinity at the time, Clarence House officials insisted yesterday.

Three people have been questioned by police over the alleged shooting of a pair of hen harriers, a protected species, on the Royal Family's Sandringham estate, in Norfolk. The shooting was witnessed by a game warden and two members of the public.

Prince Harry is believed to have been shooting in the area at the time, with a family friend, a member of the van Cutsem family, who own a nearby estate. The killing of two protected birds is highly embarrassing to the Royal Family, not least because the Queen is patron to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

On the RSPB website, the hen harrier is described as "the most intensely persecuted" of the UK's birds of prey. They are frequently killed by landowners or gamekeepers to prevent them preying on grouse.

A member of the staff of Natural England and two members of the public are said to have been near to the Dersingham Bog reserve on the edge of the Sandringham estate late on Wednesday when they heard a shot, and saw a hen harrier fall out of the sky. A second shot brought down its mate.

A spokeswoman for Natural England said she was "shocked that two of England's rarest birds have been killed in this way". The witnesses reportedly did not see the shooter and the carcasses of the two birds have not been found.

Norfolk police said they were interviewing three people about the allegation, and will be sending a report to the Crown Prosecution Service. A spokesman would not say whether Prince Harry was one of the three being interviewed.

A Clarence House spokesman said: "Because Prince Harry and a friend were in the area at the time, the police have been in contact with them, and asked them if they have any information that could help. Unfortunately, they've no knowledge of the alleged incident."

Officials at the Shooting Sports Trust said modern game shooters were acutely aware of conservation issues and would not kill birds of prey. He added it would be "extraordinary" if an experienced marksman shot a protected species by mistake. "It would be easy to see the difference between, say, a partridge and a harrier," he said. "This would be an amazingly dumb thing to do. Very embarrassing. And illegal."

He added: "Whatever you think about shooting, Sandringham is a model shoot. Members of the Royal Family are bought up to shoot and know what they are doing."

It is not the first incident of its kind on the Sandringham estate. Last year, a gamekeeper, Dean Wright, 26, of Anmer, Norfolk, was fined £500 for illegally trapping a tawny owl, in a village on the estate. The injured bird had to be put down.

Although large numbers of hen harriers have been illegally killed, convictions are rare. The first was in Scotland in 2002, when a gamekeeper was fined £2,000 after admitting killing one of the birds to protect his grouse. After the case, an unnamed gamekeeper gave an interview, saying gamekeepers were under constant pressure from wealthy employers to dispose of any wildlife that threatened the grouse, even if they were protected species. "If you don't do these things, you haven't got a job," he said

Hunter becomes hunted

Hen Harriers are among the UK's most beautiful birds of prey and one of the most endangered. It is thought they were once a common sight in British skies but it is estimated that are 570 mating pairs in the UK and on the Isle of Man. The male hen harrier, right, is ash grey with black primaries and white upper tail coverts. The female is dark brown above and pale brown streaked with dark below. They open their mating season with a spectacular sky dance. The male flies to a great height, performs side rolls and somersaults then goes into a steep dive, almost hitting the ground. They will eat anything small enough. Voles are perhaps its favourite, but young grouse do very nicely. They prefer to hunt in rough, low-lying open ground, a grouse moor being ideal. Experts say there is only one cause of the fall in the population – deliberate criminality. They have been protected since 1981 but are shot or poisoned, or have their habitat destroyed, to stop them spoiling a day's grouse shooting.

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