Who shot dead the Queen's rare hen harriers?


Last updated at 00:38 26 October 2007

Two of Britain's rarest birds of prey have been shot illegally at the Queen's Sandringham estate.

The hen harriers were killed as they flew above trees at the Norfolk retreat.

The incident was spotted by two members of the public and a Natural England warden, who reported the incident to police. An investigation has been started.

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Insiders at Natural England believe a gamekeeper was responsible, trying to protect pheasant and wildfowl from the harriers.

A source said: "It is a fair assumption that the shots were fired by a gamekeeper. I can't imagine why anyone else would do it."

There are only around 20 pairs of hen harriers in the whole of England and they are classed as being at high risk of extinction.

The Queen

A spokesman for Natural England, which launched the Hen Harrier-Recovery Project in 2001, said: "One of our wardens and the members of public saw two harriers shot and killed on Wednesday evening at about 6pm.

"They saw the birds in the air, heard the shots and watched them fall. It wasn't possible to see who was responsible.

"We are shocked that two of England's rarest birds have been killed in this way. They are one of the most vulnerable species we have."

Birds of prey are protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

The maximum penalty for each bird illegally killed is a six-month jail sentence and £5,000 fine. Sandringham House, near King's Lynn, has been the private home of four generations of British monarchs.

It is set in 60 acres of gardens and is bordered by a 600-acre woodland country park.

Staff at Sandringham yesterday refused to confirm how many gamekeepers were employed there, although there are understood to be 14.

The Queen's land agent at the estate, Marcus O'Lone, said he was unaware whether any employees were under investigation.

He added: "I am aware that an allegation was made but I know nothing more at this stage."

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Buckingham Palace said the Queen was in London at the time of the shooting but refused to comment further.

Norfolk Police said: "We have received a complaint and are investigating."

It is not the first time the treatment of animals at the Sandringham estate has caused an outcry.

In 2000, the Queen was pictured wringing the neck of an injured pheasant which had been brought to her by a gundog during a shoot.

Last year, a gamekeeper was fined £500 after illegally catching a tawny owl in a trap.

• Hen harriers are members of the hawk family. They mainly eat small mammals and birds which they hunt on moorland, bogs and farmland while drifting low over the contours. Males are grey and white while females are predominantly brown. There are believed to be 520 breeding pairs in the UK, although just 20 of those are in England. Some estimates put this figure as low as 15.

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