Peak District bird-watcher describes moment owl ‘burst into a cloud of feathers’

Peak District bird-watcher describes moment owl ‘burst into a cloud of feathers’

A bird-watcher has spoken about the horrifying moment an owl he was watching was shot. The man, who asked to remain anonymous, saw the short-eared owl shot in front of his eyes while birding on Broomhead Moor in the Peak District.

Having stopped at the walking spot in the north of the national park on his way back from work, the man had planned to watch some birds when he saw a vehicle across the moorland. He said: “I noticed that someone had come onto the moor in a six-wheeler, all-terrain vehicle. He was in green and on his own, and he had a shotgun and a bag.

“But I didn’t pay him much attention, as I was watching a barn owl which was out early, flying around hunting. That’s when I picked up the short-eared owl, way over in the distance. I started watching it through my scope.”

Short-eared owls are an unusual type of owl because they prefer to be out and about in the daytime. They can often be seen over moorland, flying low whilst they hunt.

The witness went on to say: “It was drifting towards where this guy was positioned in the heather. Whilst I was watching it, the bird burst into a cloud of feathers. I knew what had happened. And then I heard the gunshot, and realised the guy on the moor had fired the shot.”

This is an example of raptor persecution, which is a crime against wildlife. The offence includes poisoning, shooting, trapping, and nest destruction or disturbance of birds of prey.

“I informed a local raptor monitor I know, who told me I should call the police and report it straight away, which I did. There were high hopes that they could gather enough people to head out onto the moor that night and catch him in place, but it was getting dark by now, and I got told they were looking at doing it first thing in the morning,” added the man.

South Yorkshire police, together with RSPB investigations officers, went to the location as identified by the witness. He was able to guide them to a spot where they found the owl’s body was part-concealed down a rabbit hole.

The police made extensive enquiries and identified a suspect – a gamekeeper. A number of items were seized, but despite the efforts of the police and the forensic testing that was carried out, it couldn’t be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the suspect was responsible for this crime.

The owl was shot on the Peak District moorland (Image: RSPB)
The owl was shot on the Peak District moorland (Image: RSPB)

Reflecting on what he saw, and on raptor persecution in general, the witness said: “I believe he would have shot anything that would have come past him. That enraged me. That is wrong on every level.

“Knowing that harriers were out on the moor as well was really big in my heart. Watching an owl being shot in front of you is bad enough, but I knew that the owl was probably feeding dependent young, so by shooting that owl he’s put an end to the lives of those chicks as well.

“One evening you might stop and watch two owls together, then you go the next day or the day after and you don’t see any. You think, ah well, they might just not be about. Then you go again and you still don’t see them, and at the back of your mind, you’re thinking, those owls might have been shot, and maybe that’s why they’re not there.”

The RSPB does not believe this is an isolated incident. The area the owl was shot in has seen a number of tagged hen harriers disappear over the years, with the bird charity describing the site as a “hotbed of raptor persecution”.

A spokesperson for the RSPB said: “We, the RSPB, would like to thank South Yorkshire Police for their rapid response and thorough investigation, and of course the witness themselves, who did everything right in reporting this straight away and for his invaluable cooperation in guiding us to the spot where the body was.

This article by Joseph Ash was first published by Derbyshire Live on 29 June 2023. Lead Image: A short-eared owl was shot on Broomhead Moor in the Peak District (Image: Michael Flowers).

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