Two down, third in line

Used by kind permission of Hayden Lorimer
© Hayden Lorimer

As a news item it flat-lined almost the very same moment it flared. Newspaper reports were suggestive, throwing out tit-bits to tantalise readers, Royalist or Republican. Two unexplained deaths, but no bodies to speak of. And two suspects for a crime punishable with a spell behind bars. The story merited cartoonist Steve Bell’s attentions. His portrait depicts a pair in flight, their label: ‘Protected Species’. Above, Harry the Gun, on the wing, rifle trained on some prey unseen, signature plumage fiery red, jacket and wellingtons Barbour green. Hovering below, identically clad, William van Cutsem, close family friend, a ruddy-cheeked son of England. “They couldn’t have? Could they?”

Two hen harriers plucked out the sky as they quartered their hunting ground, running the border where the Dersingham Nature Reserve backs onto the Sandringham Estate. The reserve warden spoke of hearing the shotgun’s muffled retort, then another soon after. With each sound, a bird fell instantly. Expert work. The local constabulary came knocking with questions that demanded answers. The Prince, his shooting chum and their gamekeeper-consort had the same story. It was straight. Duck hunters only, duck hunters all. No ballistic evidence. No forensics. And no eye-witnesses. So no charges to be brought. The police decision to terminate inquiries dropped the whole thing stone dead. Gallows humour, it seems, is all that’s left when the Establishment closes ranks.

The sorry tale and its satirical treatment are, truth to tell, as old as the hills of the Highlands, far north of Norfolk. In those days when it is said that the Cabinet might reasonably have met in Inverness, rather than Whitehall, Punch enjoyed making fun of rotund men who love hunting game, and of the silly games that they play. Politics and power, prestige and privilege, have annually convened in places where animals and birds are plentiful, and know when to take flight in sporting fashion. But if the plunder of protected species continues unabated and goes unpunished, all the poking and pointing, all that conspiratorial nudging and winking, troubles this social scene not one jot.

Pray silence a moment for the fallen. By certain countryside economies, the hen harriers’ greatest value is neither as study skin, cabinet trophy or living treasure, but rather as anonymous dead thing. The gamey’s secret cache. Poisoned, bagged up or burned. Best dealt with behind the back shed. The most discreet of disposals, leaving behind no mortal remains. Thus, persecution is the troublesome fact wherein lies a difficult truth. Knowing just one of the birds’ number as well as we do – which by many a biographer’s measure is not well at all – is in some respects miraculous. The killing of hen harriers is something done so as to leave the investigator policeman, artist or geographer with absolutely nothing to go on. And long after the inquisitors have gone, so it goes on, and on. Spelling out the continuance of stewardship, and the associated indulgence of boyish adventure, by older and long outlawed means.