It started as a quiet evening watching two of England's rarest birds of prey wheeling in the air over Dersingham nature reserve in Norfolk. The reserve's warden and two visitors gazed in admiration as the hen harriers circled slowly. Then came the muffled blast of a shotgun and the first bird fell from view. Then another shot, and the second bird plummeted down.
The shots came from Queen Elizabeth II's estate bordering the reserve at Sandringham, and the warden immediately raised the alarm. Norfolk police found themselves investigating the illegal killing of two protected birds of prey by someone on the royal family's land -- offenses which carry a six-month jail sentence or a ?5,000 (US$10,500) fine.
On Tuesday, nearly two weeks after the hen harriers were shot on Oct. 24, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed that Prince Harry, third in line to the throne, had been interviewed as an official suspect by police, along with William van Cutsem, 28, a family friend, and David Clarke, 58, a gamekeeper.
Despite an intensive police inquiry, no charges could be brought because "the bodies of the hen harriers have not been found."
As a result, there was no forensic or ballistic evidence to study. And since all three suspects denied any knowledge of the incident, and there was no eyewitness testimony of who had fired the fatal shots, the case was closed. But, added the CPS, no one else was being sought.
A senior CPS lawyer, said: "I am satisfied the police investigation has been thorough and there are no other areas of investigation which can be pursued."
The implication in the agency's statement that the dead birds' bodies were removed infuriated conservationists last night.
A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which counts the Queen as its patron, said: "We're under no doubt that a crime was committed. The fact that no bodies could be found is extremely disappointing. For nobody to be brought to book for the deaths of two hen harriers is also extremely disappointing. We're concerned, but not surprised, that no evidence could be found."
Prince Harry and a member of the van Cutsems, a family with close ties to Prince Charles, had been interviewed as part of the police inquiry. Officials at his father's official residence, Clarence House, confirmed that "because Prince Harry and a friend were both in the area at the time, the police have been in contact with them and asked them if they have any information that could help. Unfortunately, they've no knowledge of the alleged incident."