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Nature reserve's gamekeeper accused of killing wild bird

The head gamekeeper at a country estate which owns one of Britain's most celebrated national nature reserves has been charged with a string of wildlife and firearms offences, after an investigation by police into the death of a wild bird.

Nicholas Parker, the head keeper of the 25,000 acre Holkham Estate near Wells-next-the-Sea in north Norfolk, has been bailed to appear before King's Lynn magistrates on 9 February.

Mr Parker has been charged with killing a Schedule One wild bird, taking game out of season, possessing ammunition for a firearm without a certificate, possessing a shotgun or rifle for committing a wildlife offence, possessing a shotgun without a certificate and contravening the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Schedule One of the Wildlife and Countryside Act refers to "birds which are protected by special penalties".

Mr Parker has been suspended from the job he has held since 2008. The estate is owned by the Earl of Leicester and is run by his son, Viscount Coke. As well as being a major tourist attraction for its Palladian stately home, Holkham Hall, it is one of the most prestigious game-shooting venues in England.

The estate is also the freehold owner of the adjoining Holkham National Nature Reserve, which is currently managed by the Government's wildlife agency, Natural England. A wild area of foreshore, salt marsh and sand dunes, the reserve is celebrated for its flora and fauna, hosting especially a range of rare birds from avocets to marsh harriers.

Last year it made headlines when spoonbills, large white wading birds which have bred only four times in Britain in the past three centuries, suddenly set up a breeding colony at Holkham, with at least six pairs of spoonbills nesting and producing at least six chicks. At no time since the early 1700s has more than one spoonbill pair bred in the UK, and conservationists are hoping that the unique breeding success at Holkham will become permanent.

It is likely, however, that Natural England will soon have to give up management of Holkham, as under its Big Society programme the Government is seeking to divest itself of the responsibility of running nature reserves, just as it has begun to divest itself of England's public forests, most of which are being sold to the private sector.

For several months ministers have been talking to the main wildlife charities, from the National Trust to the RSPB, about taking on the management of nature reserves themselves, but the charities have told the Government they will only do this if they are fully funded, something which seems unlikely to happen.