Goshawk trapped in suspected persecution case on Norfolk estate


An apparent case of raptor persecution has been filmed on Norfolk's Hilborough Estate.

The estate, situated between Swaffham and Thetford, is owned by the van Cutsem family, who are friends of Princes Charles, William and Harry, and is managed for shooting.

In April 2022, the Hunt Investigation Team (HIT) began covert surveillance on the estate following reports of illegal trapping.

It found two illegal hawk traps in use. These large ladder traps each contained live white pigeons, aimed at attracting raptors such as Northern Goshawk.

HIT set up covert cameras and, within days, a juvenile Northern Goshawk was lured into one of the traps. It predated one of the bait pigeons but remained caught in the trap itself. The following day, a person wearing a full face mask and camouflage cap appeared and entered the trap, efficiently removing the hawk by subduing it with a stick and taking it off into the wood, instead of immediately releasing the raptor - which any legal trap operator would be required to do. The same individual then returned, discarding the predated pigeon and leaving the remaining live pigeon in the trap as bait.

The illegal taking of a wild bird and the maintenance of an illegal hawk track both contravene the Wildlife & Countryside Act.

HIT argues that this is a clear case of raptor persecution and that the goshawk in the footage is presumed dead, adding that it was "most likely brutally killed and disposed of out of sight".

Content continues after advertisements

HIT added that the bait pigeons were found to be inadequately provided for, with no fresh water and, in some cases, no food or shelter (thus contravening the Animal Welfare Act 2006).

Norfolk Police raided the estate and recovered the pigeons, finding them to be dehydrated and underweight. The birds were rescued and taken away for appropriate care.

Further evidence of systematic wildlife persecution was documented by HIT. A shooting hide containing plastic pigeon and crow decoys was camouflaged into the trees just metres from one of the hawk traps. Snares were set around stink pits of dead corpses (including deer and hare) and foxes were strung up in trees to draw more predators in. DOC traps and shooting towers were also noted.

Despite its slowly growing population, Northern Goshawk's range and numbers remain suppressed in the UK, with persecution considered a reason for this (Marc Fasol).

This is not the first time that the van Cutsem family has been associated with acts of illegal wildlife persecution. After two Hen Harriers were shot dead at nearby Dersingham Nature Reserve in 2007, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed that William van Cutsem had been interviewed as an official suspect by police, along with Prince Harry and David Clarke, a Norfolk gamekeeper. The case was closed without a prosecution due to a lack of evidence but the CPS noted that no-one else was being sought in connection with the killings.

In 2016, three illegal pole traps were found set on a van Cutsem grouse moor in North Yorkshire, in what was described as attempted Hen Harrier persecution in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The gamekeeper was let off with a caution. The van Cutsems attempted to distance themselves from him and sought to maintain their conservationist claims.

HIT has said that it hopes, but does not expect, its evidence will make it to court, adding that few shooting estates are better protected than Hilborough and claiming that "experienced gamekeepers are well-versed in evading the law".