Policing Wildlife Crime – No Respite!
The term 'No Respite' has a double meaning this year. In most years, crime committed against our fauna and flora in Tayside reduces slightly in summertime. I am normally able to recover one or two days from the weekends I have worked and spend a weekday gardening instead. Not so this year. There seems to have been no respite from telephone calls reporting incidents, therefore no respite from work to fit in some energetic gardening.
Much of the wildlife crime reported to the police is seasonal. For instance the autumn brings deer-poaching, hare-coursing and salmon-poaching; with the exception of salmon-poaching, these continue throughout winter, with hare-coursing tapering off a bit in December and January, but reports of bird of prey persecution beginning to kick off again and rumblings of song-bird trapping as the birds flock in the colder weather. Spring is the busiest period, as wild bird egg thieves become active, reports of bird of prey persecution on sporting estates are at their height, birds' nests are destroyed if they happen to be built in an inconvenient place, or through ignorance trees and bushes with nesting birds are cut down. And of course hare-coursing continues. Summertime normally brings a rash of reports of crime committed against bats in their breeding roosts in buildings and the taking of Freshwater Pearl Mussels rises as river levels fall.
This summer we did not have a single report of crime against bats or mussels. So could I put my feet up? Not a hope! Going through some of the more interesting entries in my diary for the year so far gives a flavour of the variety of wildlife crimes, and that's just in Tayside. Multiply this by the number of police forces in the UK and the extent of wildlife crime is quite staggering.
We kicked off with a report of a dead Tawny Owl found on the edge of a Perthshire shooting estate where there has been a catalogue of poisoning incidents over more than a decade. It was hardly a surprise that in due course poisoning was confirmed. Owls are not commonly found as victims of poisoning but this is the second on this estate.
In mid-January the shooting tenant of part of a north Perthshire estate reported that most of his deer (three species: Red, Fallow and Roe) had disappeared. He had found traces of blood where a carcass had been lifted over a fence but by the time he reported his suspicions of large-scale deer-poaching it was too late and the poachers had moved on to richer pickings.
In Angus a number of fox snares were found set on a farm owned by a conservation-minded family who enjoyed all the wildlife on their land. They had no gripe against foxes and were quite pleased that they kept their rabbit numbers in check. One of their Roe Deer had already been shot by a mystery night-time visitor and left lying in a field. Despite having strong suspects in both cases, and making great efforts over a period of weeks (which I can't detail further), we never managed to bring anyone to book.
Hare-coursing was increasing. It's incredibly difficult to trace the people involved if they're not caught at the time. They almost never use cars that can be traced to them through the vehicle number plate. Some of them are part-time car dealers (and some deal in drugs) and have a ready supply of older cars to use once in a coursing expedition then sell on before we can catch up with them. Even if they do register a vehicle it is usually in a false name and address. It is a real challenge to get a case to court and we use every investigative method possible, including trying to have them identified by photograph. Some are violent, and witnesses have been threatened with rocks or bottles, have been run down by the criminals, have had stones thrown at them and have had threats made against their property and families. The average hare-courser is not someone you would want as a next-door neighbour. There were four hare-coursing incidents reported during the month and there were indications that some of those involved came into Tayside for this purpose from other areas, particularly Aberdeen and Fife.
A couple of more unusual incidents were investigated during February, one being the sale on eBay of whale's teeth and items made from whale's teeth. All species of whales are listed in Annex A of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and must not be sold without the proper licences being issued by Defra. The items fetched prices far higher than I would have imagined and after a short investigation we managed to trace the Perthshire seller. Had he been an antique dealer with knowledge of the law in relation to the sale of endangered species he would have finished up in court. In the circumstances, since he had bought the items in a trunk full of miscellaneous items, and had little or no antiques experience, the man was given a formal warning.
The police deal with many animal welfare offences and generally I or one of the part-time wildlife crime officers advise on or oversee these investigations. One that was investigated and reported for prosecution was a call to a house in Dundee where a child's Guinea Pig had been killed by being thrown against a wall. Since the case is still pending I can give no more details.
In another case due to come before the court shortly a falconer was flying a hybrid falcon when he heard a shot and the bird disappeared. We investigated and as a result a man was charged with shooting the bird and stealing the radio telemetry equipment attached to it. Generally, if a bird is killed illegally and the charge falls under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it has to be proved that the bird is a 'wild bird' in terms of the Act. The definition of 'wild bird' in the Act doesn't appear to cover hybrids. Further, it's doubtful that a falconer's bird could not be termed 'wild'. I'll be interested to hear the outcome when this case comes to court.
Poisoned Buzzard, probably the most common victim of illegal poisoning. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
The month finished with a report of a dead Buzzard on a grouse moor in Angus where we have had investigations into the poisoning of birds of prey in the last three years (and which I'll come back to in March's incidents), and an unusual deer-poaching incident. A gamekeeper had found a plastic bag dumped at the roadside with the remains of two Roe Deer. When he and I examined them it was obvious that they had been shot with the proper calibre of rifle, a surprise in itself as normally they are shot with a .22, a completely unsuitable rifle. It was also obvious to us that the person who butchered them had a degree of skill. The valuable meat had been taken from the carcasses, and this had probably been done in premises somewhere as there was a complete absence of grass, bracken or dirt that would normally be associated with a beast being skinned and butchered at the roadside. My worry here was that whoever shot them, and I'm assuming they were shot at night as is the norm, would have little knowledge of the terrain behind the deer and where the bullet would finish up if he missed his target.
This month saw the follow-up to the dead Buzzard I mentioned earlier. The person reporting had seen the bird at the end of December but never thought too much about it. Because of the history of the estate on which the bird had been seen, I had one of the part-time wildlife crime officers go and have a look, together with a member of the RSPB (Scotland) Investigations team. No search warrant is required for this as there is power under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for a police officer to search land without warrant where there is reasonable suspicion that an offence has taken place or is taking place. The police can also take with them any other person that they feel necessary, and also take any equipment onto the land that they think might be necessary for the investigation. It is quite a strong power and we use it quite regularly.
The search revealed not one but two dead Buzzards in the vicinity of the map reference given by the witness, making the find even more suspicious. These again were later confirmed as having been poisoned.
A cage used by poachers to catch salmon. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
There was an early influx of fresh salmon to Tayside rivers during March, and they began to build up in considerable numbers in some of the deep pools on the River Ericht at Blairgowrie in Perthshire. We work very closely with water bailiffs, who at that time were finding nets and wire cages hidden near the river, obviously stashed by salmon-poachers. They were seized to prevent their further use but the poachers were determined to scoop some of the run of fish and replaced them in undergrowth at different parts of the river, only for the bailiffs to find them again. A joint operation was put in place and before too long a man was caught and reported for prosecution.
If poachers are determined, so are the police, and after a report from a farmer of hare-coursing, two men from Aberdeen were caught in a field in Angus. They appeared to have no vehicle with them, though no doubt they would have been dropped off by an accomplice. In an effort to hide or escape one of the men sustained quite severe scratches from either brambles or barbed wire. I've a feeling he got little sympathy from the officers. The two men are due in court for trial shortly.
As a follow-up to the confirmation that the Tawny Owl from January had been poisoned, we carried out a wee excursion onto the suspect Perthshire estate, again using the powers given to the police under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Two dead Buzzards were found in the first wood that was searched, giving grounds for a wider search by more officers at a later date. The Buzzards were in excellent condition and it was hardly surprising when their death was confirmed as being due to poisoning. 2009 had the makings of a bad year for poisoning.
We returned to the Perthshire estate with a bigger team, this time finding a further three dead Buzzards. A number of other items were seized after an interview of two of the estate employees. Again these Buzzards had been poisoned, though results for the other items seized are still awaited. 2009 has been an extremely busy year for the Scottish Government department that carries out examinations for pesticides. With all eight Scottish police forces submitting baits, victims and other items for examination they have been somewhat overwhelmed and certain cases have had to be prioritised.
April also saw an increase in deer-poaching in north Perthshire. Evidence was gained from gamekeepers that on a particular highland Perthshire road shooting deer from the roadside appeared to be a regular occurrence. They had found the heads, legs and innards of deer butchered at the roadside and on occasions had found deer that had been injured and had died within a mile or so of the road. All of these had been shot with a rifle of a calibre too light to give an instantaneous death to the poor beast but the injury had inevitably been fatal, death in some cases probably occurring several hours later. In one case a beautiful white Fallow buck was found by the estate stalker, shot and injured by a .22 bullet. I suppose the poacher's view is that there will be another deer round the corner. I thought we had a chance of finding the culprit through DNA when a large plastic bag of Roe Deer remains was reported to be lying just off the roadside in woodland. The person who found the bag had taken the trouble to photograph it but had not reported it at the time. I hoped it was still there; not just because of the chance of obtaining some evidence but because I had a reporter from GMTV with me that day and she was keen to get a deer-poaching story. We made our way there right away...to discover that the bag had gone, presumably removed by environmental health staff.
The bag of Roe Deer remains that mysteriously disappeared. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
The war against hare-coursing continued and we had another capture, this time a man from Dundee. It's rare for anyone to plead guilty and this case was no different. In September I gave evidence in the trial at Forfar Sheriff Court. The man accused had been caught by police in a field with three lurcher dogs. During a search a short time later the officers recovered two dead hares, still warm. A clear-cut case you might think? Wrong — no case is ever clear cut. The accused gave evidence, during which he admitted being there without the permission of the landowner but for the purpose of coursing rabbits, not hares. Rabbits are not mammals for the purposes of the legislation he was charged under. He knew well enough that he wouldn't get rabbits in the fields, especially since there was a covering of snow at the time. He said he was making for the woods to course rabbits there but hadn't reached the woods before being caught by the police.
Typical dogs used in hare-coursing. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
Evidence had been led by a vet and me that a post-mortem examination showed that the hares had been taken by a large dog. The man in the field had three of these, but had no leads for them. His account was that he had been dropped off by some friends who were going to Aberdeen and that when he was finished he would telephone his partner to be picked up. His evidence was that although the dogs were quite biddable there was no way that he could hold two of them while the third chased a hare. This was important evidence for him, knowing what the defence witness would say.
The defence witness was a gamekeeper, which I found a bit strange seeing that most of the complaints about hare-coursing are made by gamekeepers. This man had apparently had lurchers for many years and had used them against hares prior to the change in the law in 2002 which banned the hunting of wild mammals with dogs. His evidence was that the hares couldn't possibly have been killed by the dogs that the accused had with him. The logic was that the three dogs must have been after the hares and three dogs would have torn hares to bits.
I've been present at post-mortem examinations of hares caught by two dogs (maybe three but I'd no evidence there had been more than two). None exhibited any outward signs of being killed by dogs — very little blood and no limbs torn off! Only after they were skinned was it obvious that there was more than the usual amount of bruising. Yet here was an expert giving evidence to the effect they should have been torn to bits.
Any evidence in hare-coursing is welcome; in this case the mark of a dog running flat out, probably chasing the hare, clearly also flat out. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
At then end of the trial the sheriff retired for a short time to consider a verdict. He had clearly been listening intently and in fact carried out a fair bit of questioning of witnesses himself to clear up any queries that he had. When he returned to the bench he found the man accused not guilty of coursing hares under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, but guilty of being on land without permission in unlawful search or pursuit of game under the Game (Scotland) Act 1832.
It is at this stage that the sheriff is made aware of any previous convictions that an accused person has. In this case the man with three dogs and no leads admitted eight poaching convictions. He was fined £300.
At the end of the month I received a report that a man with a farm between Perth and Dundee had threatened to shoot any of the White-tailed Eagles that were regularly on his farm if they took any of his lambs. I visited him and had an interesting conversation. He said that he could legally shoot a dog that was attacking his sheep so why not a bird. I suggested he put the kettle on and we had a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. I'm a great believer in sorting things out over a cup of tea and when I left I was sure that the White-tailed Eagles would be safe.
A variation from the norm: we kicked off an investigation into a report that Prairie Dogs were at large in a wildlife park in Perthshire. A visit confirmed this and advice was given to ensure that they were captured as soon as possible and certainly before they moved out into the countryside surrounding the park. I hoped that the warning would be heeded.
Prairie Dogs are non-native and must be kept enclosed. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
An interesting call came in from a raptor worker one day. He was in a bit of a panic as a Kinross-shire farmer was about to start work in extending the size of a quarry so that he could build a house. The face of the quarry that had to be scraped back a bit held a Kestrel's nest, and even if the machinery did not destroy the eggs the bird was likely to desert because of the close proximity of the JCB. I visited the farmer and we had a look at the quarry. I climbed up to the nest to verify that indeed there were eggs there and sure enough there were six. I explained the legal position to a rather disconsolate farmer, who reluctantly agreed to hold off for a bit. Since the quarry was reasonably large I gave him a guide as to how close he could come to the nest with his work, provided he started at the end furthest from the bird so that it gradually became used to the noise. That allowed him at least to do some of the work, for which he was grateful. The Kestrel was also grateful and fledged five young from the nest.
Rat poison must be enclosed so that birds and non-target animals can't get access. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
There are always unusual calls, especially in springtime. One such call came from a lady who had been walking through west Perthshire woodland along a right-of-way that came quite close to a row of houses. She told me that one of the householders had a tube that seemed to contain rat poison nailed on to the top of his fence. When we visited the householder he said he was pestered by Grey Squirrels coming to his bird feeders and wanted to reduce their numbers. There were several illegal issues here. First of all rat poison can only be used against rats and mice. Secondly the poison was not in an enclosed container and there was nothing to prevent birds entering the tunnel and eating the poison. The offender had managed to get to his 70s without having been in bother with the law and there was nothing to be gained by charging him. A warning was quite adequate, and I was thankful that the police can use discretion with offences at the lower end of the scale.
Oystercatcher's nest on flat roof of building. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
I was less obliging in the next case, which took place in the city of Dundee. A lady had reported that she had watched a neighbour climb up on to the flat roof of a block of houses, catch two young birds and then throw them down about 40 feet to the ground, and to their deaths. The birds were half-grown Oystercatchers and a report has been submitted to the procurator fiscal.
The catalogue of poisoning continued and a very ill Red Kite was found suspiciously close to a grouse moor that has already featured. It had taken a pesticide that had almost killed it through hypothermia, but the vet had recognised the signs and had warmed it up, saving its life. It was later released and the investigation is still ongoing.
A House Martin nest as it should be... (Photo: Alan Stewart)
...and one that has been knocked down. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
June saw the highest number of reports of House Martin's nests being destroyed that I have experienced. Hoses had been used on two occasions, and I'm beginning to appreciate that this is a common method of getting rid of House Martin nests. Many of the nests were on new building sites, where the house martins had been nesting at the apex of new buildings that the developer was hoping to sell. Wouldn't it be terrible if there was a bird's nest on a new house that might adversely affect the sale! The nests had to go and on one occasion residents already in one of the houses took exception and photographed the workers climbing ladders and poking down the nests with long poles. In one case, where at least 50 nests would have been destroyed, three men were charged and the case will go before the court shortly. If these are the cases that are being reported to the police it is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
Oystercatcher shot by a crossbow (Photo: Alan Stewart)
The death of an Oystercatcher featured again in June, this time in the car park of a McDonald's Restaurant. Staff members were horrified when they saw an adult Oystercatcher flapping about the car park with a crossbow bolt through its body. One man tried to kill it with a spade but unfortunately in his haste to put it out of its misery he chopped off the end of its beak with his first blow. I put out a press release hoping that someone might know the identity of the maniac with the crossbow, since I worried that his next victim might be human. There were many calls from people who had been aware of the Oystercatchers nesting round the edge of the car park and expressed their disgust at this crime, but unfortunately no-one could point us in the direction of the person with the crossbow.
The bolt removed. (Photo: Alan Stewart)
As the national co-ordinator of Operation Easter, a UK-wide operation to catch wild bird egg thieves, I was involved in a cross-border investigation where we were looking closely at three men suspected of being involved in illegal trading of wild birds' eggs. At the last minute I managed to identify the one address we needed and the next day co-ordinated searches were carried out by Lothian and Borders Police and Northern Constabulary, assisted in both cases by the National Wildlife Crime Unit and RSPB Investigations. I assisted with the Lothian and Borders operation, where we took possession of 12,000 birds' eggs for further enquiry. With these two searches and one earlier carried out by Durham Constabulary, nearly 20,000 eggs are currently with the police. It is expected that a report will be submitted to the procurator fiscal.
Two entirely unconnected offences were committed on the same day in the Angus town of Arbroath. Since Arbroath is a coastal town there are numerous Herring Gulls nesting on roofs. Many of the fledgling gulls leave the nest before they are particularly accomplished at flight and are vulnerable if on the ground. In one incident a man was charged with kicking a young gull to death after CCTV cameras recorded the action. In the second incident a youth was charged with repeatedly running over a young gull with his bike. Both cases are pending.
Deer-poaching resumed in July, demonstrating how little poachers care about deer welfare, since fawns would still be dependent on their mothers' milk for survival. In the first incident in west Perthshire a man with a lurcher was seen in a field, the lurcher trying to kill a female deer. When the dog's owner realised he was being watched he fled to a van waiting nearby with his accomplice and they sped off, leaving the deer half-dead in the field. We linked the van with a suspect from Port Glasgow, many miles away, but when he was later interviewed he denied any involvement and there was no evidence to prove that he was the person involved. Knowing of someone's participation is entirely different to being able to prove this in court. The injured deer was shot by a gamekeeper and when I examined it I could see it was a doe, but thankfully not lactating.
The next deer-poaching incident took place in Angus. Though a fawn was killed by the lurchers, I suspect that hares had been the target and the fawn just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gamekeepers came on the scene and tried to block in the suspects' vehicle, but got their 4WD vehicles damaged as the poachers barged past them. The same vehicle was involved in a hare-coursing incident the previous week and the two occupants on that occasion, whose identities we know, seem to have gone to ground. They can't hide forever!
The poisoning of birds of prey was still with us. The victim this time was a very high-profile satellite-tagged Golden Eagle called Alma. The bird was two years old and her progress was being monitored, probably by thousands of people, on the internet. She was found dead on yet another grouse moor in Angus and the investigation is continuing. I'm often asked what proportion of wildlife poisoned is found, so that an investigation by the police can take place. I couldn't even hazard a guess at this. One thing for sure is that the people setting out the poisoned baits will be doing their best to ensure that they get rid of any evidence and we will just be alerted to the few victims that they miss. Having said that there is no doubt that poisoning of wildlife is much less widespread than it once was, and most victims or poisoned baits are found on a handful of estates, in many cases on a regular basis. Nevertheless, to gain a conviction police must be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt who committed a crime. This is easier said than done. I've been involved in the investigation of crime since 1966. Wildlife crime has proved by far the biggest challenge.
Hare-coursing has continued, unfortunately without any more of the people involved being caught. Nevertheless we are looking at some new tactics now and will use 2009 forensic technology wherever possible.
There had been little change to the numbers of Prairie Dogs on the loose, and in fact there was evidence that some had been seen (and shot) outside the wildlife park boundaries. A person has been charged and a report sent to the procurator fiscal.
Poisoning continued, even into August. A person out walking found a Buzzard dying on an estate in Perthshire a matter of yards from where last year we found a Buzzard that had been shot. The ailing bird died and was found to have been poisoned. We carried out an investigation, as a result of which a man was charged with a number of offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and a report sent to the procurator fiscal.
The investigation of wildlife crime is exceptionally interesting, with never two days the same. At the same time it is incredibly frustrating. There is no doubt that many of the criminals are difficult to catch. They don't expect to be caught, which is why they carry out the crime in the first place. This is where they will eventually become unstuck. They have to be lucky every time they commit a crime. The police just have to be lucky once.