An innovative use of DNA testing has helped to convict two gamekeepers of the use of a pole-trap and the killing of a short-eared owl.

Head keeper David Dixon and underkeeper Ian Joseph Smith, of the Croglin Estate, Stanhope in County Durham, pleaded guilty at Bishop Auckland Magistrates’ Court on 12 May 2003 to using a pole-trap and the possession and killing of a short-eared owl. They also admitted three offences, each contrary to the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 (FEPA), relating to improper storage and use of the pesticide Cymag. They were fined £1,270, including costs. Their employer,
Croglin Estates Ltd, pleaded guilty to five offences under FEPA, relating to the failure to ensure that pesticides were safely used and stored by Dixon and Smith. It was fined £10,210.

The court heard that in May 2000, a walker found a pole-trap set on a grouse moor managed by Croglin Estates. Pole-traps were historically used for killing birds of prey. It has been illegal to use them since 1904, but they are still found on occasions. The trap was removed and the RSPB contacted. A site visit indicated that an owl had already been caught.

In 2002, another pole-trap was found set in the same location. On both occasions, a hen harrier was seen in the area and it was suspected that this species was the target. In April 2002, following observations by the RSPB, Dixon and Smith were filmed resetting the trap, and Dixon was seen hiding an object on the moor. The corpse of a short-eared owl was later found buried in the peat. The trap was seized and traces of feathers and blood were found on it. Forensic testing by the Central Science Laboratory confirmed that they contained the DNA of a shorteared owl. We believe this to be the first time that DNA testing has been used on an illegal trap.

Dixon and Smith were arrested on suspicion of attempting to take a hen harrier. This was the first arrest of a gamekeeper under new police powers brought in by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Smith said he was trying to catch a corvid and Dixon denied any involvement. A container of the fumigant pesticide Cymag was found in Smith’s vehicle. There was no safe pesticide store available and enquiries revealed that Smith and Dixon had committed offences in relation to this product. Croglin Estates Ltd had failed, on a number of counts, to ensure that both men had used and stored pesticides safely. In sentencing, the district judge, Mr Kitson, said that the employer must accept the main responsibility for health and safety issues.

Source: RSPB

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