Officials warned of ‘serious wildlife incidents’ at Queen’s Sandringham estate

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The Guardian

On a pleasant autumn evening in 2007, a wildlife warden at the Dersingham Bog nature reserve in Norfolk took a friend to see two female hen harriers returning home to roost. But as dusk descended, they were startled by the sound of shotgun blasts.

After the first shot, they saw one of the rare birds of prey “immediately fold and drop out of sight”. About 30 seconds later they heard a second blast – and another harrier fell from the sky.

The shots appeared to have come from inside Sandringham, the Queen’s rural retreat bordering the reserve – where Prince Harry, then aged 23, and a close friend were out shooting ducks that evening.

Within minutes, the warden had notified Natural England, which manages the reserve. Shocked officials called the police and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who scrambled to investigate.

It is a criminal offence to injure hen harriers, one of the rarest and most persecuted birds in the UK, then punishable by six months in prison or a £5,000 fine.

According to internal Natural England documents obtained by the Guardian, their urgency was in vain. To their surprise, they were told by Norfolk constabulary that no immediate action was possible: the police said they needed to ask Sandringham officials for permission to go on to the estate.

One Natural England memo states its officials had pressed for an immediate search that night, but were told by a Norfolk officer that his chief inspector “had advised that he contact the Royal Sandringham Estate and ask for entry in the morning”.

Successive investigations

A Guardian investigation has revealed that dozens of UK laws stipulate that police are barred from entering any of the Queen’s private estates without her consent to investigate crimes ranging from wildlife offences to environmental pollution – a unique privilege not granted to any other private landowner in the UK.

In fact, a year before the shooting incident in the vicinity of Sandringham, the UK’s wildlife legislation was updated. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 included amendments to a number of existing laws for England – one of which sets out the Queen’s personal immunity from prosecution for wildlife offences, and denies wildlife inspectors the power to enter her private estates to investigate alleged crimes.

But internal documents from Natural England, obtained by the Guardian, reveal that Sandringham has been the focus of successive police and regulatory investigations.

  • Sandringham has been investigated for wildlife and pesticides offences against legally protected birds of prey at least six times between 2005 and 2016.

  • As well as the two hen harriers shot in 2007, police and Natural England have investigated the deaths of a goshawk, a sparrowhawk, a red kite, a tawny owl and a marsh harrier at Sandringham estate and land it owns nearby, with only one prosecution.

  • In 2009, the estate was given an official warning about the mishandling and unlawful storage of highly toxic chemicals after the sparrowhawk was poisoned.

  • In 2016, Sandringham admitted it had destroyed the body of a goshawk found dead near Sandringham House before it could be examined by police, which meant no cause of death could be established.

Buckingham Palace did not comment. Representatives for Prince Harry did not respond when asked to comment on the 2007 incident.

Old files destroyed

In November 2006, Sandringham briefly became the focus of public attention for its practices after one of its gamekeepers, Dean Wright, was fined £500 and told to pay £470 in costs after pleading guilty to maiming a tawny owl in a steel rat trap. The owl was euthanised due to the severity of its injuries.

Wright was originally charged with four offences, including setting the trap, causing unnecessary harm and the use of rat poisons. Those three charges were dropped; according to a previously unpublished internal memo, Natural England officials later said “there had been flaws in how the case was investigated prior to our involvement”. It is unclear from the memo what those flaws were.

Norfolk constabulary refused to confirm or deny that it gave the Sandringham estate advance notice of a police search in October 2007. Photograph: David Goddard/Getty Images

In the memo, written on 25 October 2007, the day after the two hen harriers were shot, a senior Natural England official claimed to other executives in the agency that Sandringham was, in effect, known as a wildlife crime hotspot.

The memo states: “You will be aware that there has been a series of serious wildlife ‘incidents’ at this locality”, which involved Norfolk police or Natural England investigations. The official lists poisoning, pole trapping – a form of trap for live birds or mammals – and a potential case involving rat poison.

The same official also disclosed two other suspicious incidents involving the deaths of protected birds of prey on Sandringham-owned land near the royal estate that have not been reported until today: a bird poisoning case involving a red kite, which is alleged to have taken place at Sandringham in 2006, and the death of a marsh harrier allegedly found in 2007 “just on the border of this particular land ownership”.

Contacted for comment, Natural England said it no longer holds any records about those two incidents as it routinely destroys old files under government record management rules. Norfolk constabulary refused to comment on these cases, so it remains unclear if any formal investigation was carried out.

Police say incidents investigated in transparent manner

When two Norfolk police wildlife crime officers and two RSPB investigators arrived at Sandringham just after dawn on the morning of 25 October 2007, they found a flurry of activity at the site where the hen harrier incident was believed to have taken place the night before. People were already searching the site.

Mark Thomas, an RSPB wildlife crime investigator, wrote in a blog at the time: “A couple of people were already present: a man and a woman with a Land Rover and eight dogs which were busily working the ground. On speaking to the people, they were there on the request of the estate to retrieve ducks shot the previous evening.”

Several days after the hen harriers were shot, Prince Harry, William van Cutsem and David Clark, then Sandringham’s head gamekeeper, were interviewed by Norfolk police but not prosecuted. They denied any knowledge of the hen harriers being shot.

Estate vehicles were also examined by police, and swabbed for blood traces, but no forensic scientific evidence linked to the hen harriers was detected. Allegations that lead shot had been unlawfully used on a protected wildlife site during their shoot were never pursued.

On 6 November, the Crown Prosecution Service said that as there were no witnesses who could identify who had shot the birds and no hen harrier carcasses for forensic examination, there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution. The CPS added: ”There are no other areas of investigation which can be pursued.”

At the time a spokeswoman for Clarence House said: “Because Prince Harry and a friend were both 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.”

It was uncomfortable for all concerned: the Queen has been the RSPB’s patron since she took the throne. It has had a royal charter since 1904.

Multiple wildlife crime investigators have told the Guardian it is normal practice not to notify the subject of a police search in advance that a search for evidence will take place. Norfolk constabulary refused to confirm or deny that it notified Sandringham its officers wanted access to the estate in October 2007, or on any other crime investigations.

Norfolk police said: “Alleged offences and wildlife incidents reported to Norfolk constabulary on, or close to, the Sandringham estate are investigated in an open and transparent manner with the full cooperation of the Sandringham estate. Outcomes of any police enquiries are published contemporaneously.”

Warning for Sandringham

In 2009, numerous buildings on Sandringham estate were searched by police and Natural England officers after a dead sparrowhawk and two poisoned pigeon carcasses, used as bait, were found on the estate. The case was passed on to the Chemical Regulations Division (CRD), a subdivision of the Health and Safety Executive, to investigate.

Memos later released to the investigative blog Raptor Persecution UK under the Freedom of Information Act reveal there was intense discussion by lawyers at the HSE and CPS about whether the Queen and Sandringham were exempt under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985.

These lawyers believed because the act did not specifically say her private estates were covered by the act, Sandringham was not exempt. Buckingham Palace officials say this is wrong: they insist the Queen is always personally exempt from prosecution.

A CRD lawyer records in one memo: “When the [Natural England] officer went back to [Sandringham] to obtain some paperwork, [he] was met by estate agents and the estates solicitor and was subjected (in his words) to fairly aggressive questioning from them on the powers he was acting under.”

Despite those clashes, CRD officials were allowed to search Sandringham’s outbuildings. They did not find the poison that killed the sparrowhawk but unearthed a number of “unacceptable” offences involving another poisonous and highly volatile substance called Phostoxin, used to gas rabbits, rats and moles.

The CRD warned Sandringham: “The storage conditions of Phostoxin are strictly controlled as, in contact with even small amounts of moisture, it produces toxic and flammable phosphine gas. Brief exposure to phosphine can be fatal to humans and animals.”

Its inspection found the chemical was stored in unlocked open containers in an unlocked outbuilding. There were inadequate records and warning notices, and a poisoned rat was left in a gutter, which put non-target bird species at risk.

In 2010, the CRD issued Sandringham with a warning and said its findings would be kept on file. The estate escaped prosecution because Natural England had assured the agency Sandringham had put the correct storage systems in place. Sandringham officials vigorously denied any responsibility for the dead sparrowhawk, but accepted the CRD’s warning letter.

In 2016, the British Trust for Ornithology, (BTO) an organisation for bird experts whose patron was then Prince Philip, had an odd experience. On 11 August, it received a satellite tag used to track a goshawk in the post from Sandringham estate, along with a compliments slip. Sandringham claimed the tag had been recovered from a badly decomposed goshawk corpse, which the estate said was incinerated “because it had been dead a long time”.

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In fact, the Mail on Sunday reported, the tag showed the hawk was alive on 8 August, in trees close to Sandringham House, the Queen’s private residence. Sandringham changed its account: it said the bird had actually been found by a gardener but “it was in a poor condition and quickly died”.

A police investigation was launched but with no evidence to examine, was unresolved. “A thorough investigation was carried out and no wrongdoing was identified,” Norfolk constabulary stated.

That left the BTO none the wiser. Without a body to examine, it had no idea how the goshawk died. Paul Stancliffe, a trust spokesperson, said at the time: “The bird could have died from natural causes, but we do not know.”

Natural England refused to comment on any of these cases, but said in a short statement: “We are determined to tackle the scourge of raptor persecution, which is why we work very closely with our police colleagues at the National Wildlife Crime Unit to investigate incidents and, where appropriate, bring prosecutions.

“Those guilty of persecuting protected species, deliberately or recklessly, should be subject to the full force of the law.”

July 15, 2022 at 12:39PM Severin Carrell, Rob Evans and David Pegg

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