Captive fox cubs and missing hen harriers

Hen harrier nest with eggs on heather moorland

Hen harrier nest with eggs on heather moorland

The League against Cruel Sports recently reported to the police that 16 fox cubs were being held in a barn near Malton in North Yorkshire. They claimed that the shed was fitted out to resemble a fox den, with large pipes and other items in which the cubs could hide. They also claimed that the cubs were being fed by the terrierman for the Middleton Foxhounds. The land on which the shed is located is owned by Lord Middleton and is 200 yards away from the hunt kennels.

So why would anyone want to keep 16 fox cubs? Provided they are well looked after there is nothing illegal in doing so. In an article in the Daily Mirror, Lord Middleton, when asked if the foxes were being kept to hunt, said,

“That’s rubbish. We’re not allowed to hunt foxes with hounds. They’re not being kept for hunting. It’s not illegal to keep foxes. He added that he “had no idea whatsoever” the cubs were being kept on his land, but added that they were not being mistreated. He said he did not “condone” keeping foxes, and suggested the cubs were being cared for by the Hunt for kind reasons. “I think people have rung up and said, ‘Hey, look I’ve got foxes that need rescuing, their mother’s dead’, or, ‘I can’t live with them where they are, can you look after them?’ “The Hunt obviously has a supply of meat from farmers etc and it would be able to feed and look after them and then release them back to the wild.”

The cubs were seized by the police, who are continuing to investigate the matter. My view on the ultimate fate of the cubs is completely different to that of Lord Middleton. Not even the most naïve person would believe what he is alleged to have said, and in fact it is an insult to their intelligence. What I find frustrating is that at the conclusion of the police investigation there may in fact be no offence. On this occasion the cubs have been saved from certain death by hounds or terriers but on how many other occasions has this scandalous and uncivilised behaviour taken place? Readers of my blog should know my views on mounted foxhunting and if any good comes of this incident it is that surely this will be the final nail in the coffin for the repeal of the Hunting Act.

In recent weeks in the north of England five male hen harriers with females on nests have mysteriously disappeared. The nests, in Lancashire and Cumbria, were all on land managed for conservation, but males provisioning a female on a nest may hunt some distance from the nest, including the crossing of estate boundaries. During many criminal investigations, police officers mostly know the real story, and very often even the identity of the person committing a crime.  Proving a case, however, is a completely different matter. I doubt that the police wildlife crime officers investigating these indents in Lancashire and Cumbria know how the five birds were spirited away but I am certain they will not think that all have died of natural causes. The hen harrier is the most persecuted bird in the UK and very few have chicks that fledge successfully on driven grouse moors. In persecution incidents generally the female harrier is shot off the nest but this is not so easy on someone else’s land. Shooting, trapping or poisoning the male of the pair (or trio, as sometimes male hen harrier’s have two mates) means that the female has to leave the nest to find food. This usually results in the chilling of eggs or chicks and the subsequent desertion of the nest.

One, or even two, males disappearing may be suspected to be as a result of natural causes but for my part I am convinced that these five birds were the subject of persecution. The unfortunate issue is that there are no bodies that can be examined therefore any suspects or their apologists can argue that no crime has been established. From the policing point of view, the investigating officers can only work with facts, making the chance of solving the disappearance of these birds almost nil.

These may well have been the only hen harrier nests in England and it is a disgrace that this beautiful bird has never been allowed to reach its breeding potential in England, where RSPB reckon there is sufficient habitat and food for 300 pairs. While it can’t be proved that grouse shooting interests are behind the disappearance of these five magnificent birds there is little doubt that this will strengthen the argument and the lobby against driven grouse shooting.

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