Book review – Untangling the Knot, Belugas and Bears by Mike Potts

What a fantastic book! The first third of the book takes the reader to Alaska, the Bering Sea and Svalbard, places I would love to visit but unfortunately never will. The author writes of filming a caribou migration to the calving grounds. He moves on to the Yukon Delta with its incredible numbers of nesting waterfowl, including rarities such as the spectacled eider and the emperor goose.

On a tiny island in the Bering Sea we are treated to accounts and photos of 2,000 walrus, the males weighing up to one and a half tons, packed onto a beach. There are also encounters with pods of orcas and sea otters.

The story then moves to the southern coastal regions of Alaska, where the author is filming brown bears, often at a distance of only a few metres, as they feast on salmon running up the Mikfik River. He has a close encounter with a charging brown bear which almost tramples him, though it is simply trying to escape from another bear which is chasing it.

On Ellesmere Island the author is filming nesting red knot, and is amazed at the variety of other nesting waders. He also films beluga whales, which have an annual pilgrimage to a particular shallow inlet to scrape their skins on the bottom during a moult. Moving to Svalbard, Mike Potts films young guillemots and auks making their maiden flight down to the sea. Most make it safely but some fall short and become food for Arctic foxes or glaucous gulls. As Svalbard has a dense population of polar bears it is inevitable that the author has a few close shaves.

The reader is then taken to New Guinea, where the author is filming birds of paradise and for part of the time accompanies Sir David Attenborough. Both use an ingenious pulley system to allow them to reach the top of trees where the birds display. Rewards, as well as a variety of birds of paradise, include parrots, cockatoos, mynah birds and bower birds.

We’re off now to Africa, where the author is filming in Mali, one of the poorest countries, for a BBC Natural World programme Beyond Timbuktu. In contrast to the poor living conditions and the state of sanitation, the bird life is first class, especially the nesting water birds. The author has a filming first, managing to capture an African fish eagle catching a fish. This part continues with fascinating encounters with plagues of locusts in Central Mauritania and concludes with the filming of forest elephants, parrots, hippos and kingfishers in the Central African Republic.

On the Cape York Peninsula in the north of Australia the author goes in search of the beautiful eclectus parrot and the palm cockatoo. He also checks out a yellow-billed kingfisher, which nests in a termite mound, using the heat of the termite mound to incubate the clutch of eggs. He finishes his filming with bower birds, as part of the wildlife documentary The Art of Seduction, again meeting up with Sir David Attenborough, who presented the programme.

Cuba is the destination of the next assignment, where the author films spawning land crabs, humming birds, breeding flamingos, Cuban parrots and bats in hot, smelly caves. His endurance is tested by hordes of mosquitoes, endless bureaucracy and exorbitant fees.

Four shorter chapters at the end of the book deal with filming Komodo dragons, filming a variety of wildlife, including blue ducks, dalmatian pelicans and bald eagles in New Zealand, and many different humming birds in South America.  The author finishes with a trip to Antarctica, where he visits cabins used by explorers Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton.

The book is a virtual world tour with fascinating tales and photographs of some of the planet’s rarest or most interesting wildlife. It will give great encouragement to many budding wildlife film makers, though the author sets out many of the hardships and risks that are encountered: mosquitoes, endless bureaucracy, barely eatable food in some third-rate accommodation, and of course the ever-present danger from being in close proximity to some of the larger animals.

Untangling the Knot, Belugas & Bears. My natural world on film by Mike Potts.        Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG    £20.95

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The new general licences in Scotland – more thoughts

Letterbox trap on moorland with decent shelter, but on the ground.

Funnel trap with small shelter, but also on the ground.

I’ve been having a second read of the new general licences 1 and 2 that are to be implemented in Scotland from 1st April this year. I’m not against the use of general licence to control some birds that may at times be pests to some (apart from the continued inclusion of the jay) but this time, considering the changes are intended to make a police investigation, where necessary, a little more promising, I read them from the point of view of trying to secure a successful prosecution.

Those taking advantage of a general licence to allow them to kill protected birds (and bear in mind that all birds are protected, the general licence allowing a derogation from the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) should be absolutely clear of the conditions of the general licence. If a person is charged and goes to court the court should have absolutely no doubt that the licence makes clear the responsibilities of that person. I find it strange that, in the April 2020 licence, the following wording has been left out of introduction right at the start of the licence:

However, they (the general licences) should only be used as a last resort. Operators must be able to explain what other alternatives they have tried if challenged.

I think this is an absolutely essential sentence defining at the outset that the licence is a right to deviate from the law and the person must think about why he or she needs to do so and be able to justify the use of the licence to an investigating police officer and possibly a court.

On the issue of welfare requirements there is a new inclusion which states:

Shelter should be provided off the ground as birds are more likely to make use of it.

This is absolutely the case as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a corvid sheltering in a shelter on the ground. I also looked through my photos and none of the multi-cage traps has a shelter off the ground. So if a complaint is made to the police, as undoubtedly will be the case, that there is only a small box on the ground in a multi-catch cage the line about shelter off the ground is meaningless. The way it is written is simply a recommendation. Why not state that shelter must be provided off the ground.

Failing to provide shelter off the ground is not a situation that could ever lead to a prosecution but what will Scottish Natural Heritage do about it? In the part What restrictions apply to the use of this general licence it states that NatureScot reserves the right to exclude the use of a general licence where it is being otherwise misused. Will this lead to a licence being suspended?

A similar situation arises in the General Notes where at point 4 it states:

Authorised persons should not use the general licence within 500m of a designated site.

Hypothetically, a trap is subsequently reported to the police as it is only 100m from one of the designated sites. There is no offence as this is only written as a recommendation, with no use of the term ‘must’.

Further on in that section, at points 6 and 7, a person using meat-based baits in a Larsen mate or Larsen pod ‘will be asked to provide an annual return relating to the traps used and their location. The person will also ‘be asked for details of the type and number of non-target species caught and subsequently released.’ He or she might tell SNH to get lost. Why is this so woolly and what will happen if a person refuses to give such details?

I have real concerns about point 3 under What other trapping conditions are there? If a trap operator elects for whatever reason to use a ‘buddy system’, delegating the checking of the trap to someone else, SNH suggest the estate or farm are strongly advised to keep records of this in operation (whatever that means). Let’s say they don’t keep records and an offence in relation to the registered operator’s trap is reported to the police. The police interview the registered operator and he replies that someone else is operating the trap under the ‘buddy system.’ The police ask who this ‘buddy’ is and the registered operator makes a ‘no comment’ response. Bear in mind that if he is a suspect, as he may well be, he must be cautioned by the police that he need not make any reply to questions put to him. Possibly the end of the road for the investigation.

Let’s assume that records have been kept in relation to this ‘buddy system’ but the farm or estate decline to show them to the police. There is no power without warrant to obtain these records. Compare this to the Section 11E(4)(a) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in relation to the keeping of records of snares set, which states:

Any person who—

(a) is requested to produce the record kept under subsection (1) to a

constable; and

(b) fails to do so within 21 days of being so requested,

is guilty of an offence.

In a similar vein point 3 states:

The trap registration number which appears on the trap will be presumed to relate to the operator of the trap.

I’m not sure that this will have legal standing. Compare section 11D of the WCA, again in relation to snaring, provides that: The identification number which appears on a tag fitted on a snare is presumed in any proceedings to be the identification number of the person who set the snare in position.

This wording is considerably stronger than that on the general licence.

I accept that a general licence is not legislation but unfortunately this part of the licence, at least, doesn’t go much further forward in the identification of a person committing an offence in relation to the trapping of birds.

In relation to the humane killing of birds caught in multi-cage traps, if 30 or 40 rooks and jackdaws are caught in the one trap, as I have often seen, I have some doubts that each bird will be caught individually and ‘killed with a single swift action.’ I also suspect that if rooks are caught along with jackdaws, some rooks will be left in the cage as decoy birds, despite rooks not being included as a decoy bird in either a multi cage trap or a Larsen trap.

Scottish Natural Heritage staff have done well to make the changes now shown in the new licences and I accept that some drawbacks are not easy to identify during the planning and consultation stages, indeed I submitted a consultation response and only now see these weaker links in the wording that may stymie a prosecution. If SNH staff agree with me they may yet be able to close any loopholes.

I think it would be beneficial both for trap operators and for police relations with them if, in the first few months of the use of the new licence, police wildlife crime officers visit active traps along with the operator and confirm that the traps are being used within the terms of the general licence or licences, giving advice where necessary. I think this would be especially worthwhile when the operator is trapping jackdaws.

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A lovely walk in the country spoiled by a badger sett that had been dug

Two of the many drake goldeneye on the loch

The first two brown hares

A bit of water is not going to put off the third contender

The third hare joins the chase

A red squirrel or a koala bear?

Two of the badger sett entrances with freshly excavated earth

For various reasons – mainly the weather – I’ve not been able to get out on any decent walks this year. The sun was shining on Wednesday 4th March so that presented a great opportunity: I set off with Molly our wee dog.

I began by visiting the two small lochs that lie about a couple of miles from my house. Waterfowl abound on these lochs in autumn but are scarce in winter. The first loch had its usual quota of around a dozen mute swans, no mallard that I could see, and 40 or so goldeneye. There seemed to be twice as many males as females, though they are more colourful and therefore easier to spot. Some of the males were coming into breeding mode and showing off to the ladies; throwing their head back and displaying their white breast. They were about half-way over the loch, which made getting a decent photograph difficult but I managed one or two at maximum range of my wee Canon bridge camera.

I walked further on to the second loch. Goldeneye were the predominant species there as well, with two pairs of mallard, a single little grebe, a heron in the shallows and a pair of swans in the reeds at the far side near the nesting site they used in 2019.

On my return journey I spotted a couple of red squirrels searching for nuts under the trees and a buzzard flew, mewing, overhead. My dog was identifying the various tufts of grass, rocks and tree stumps that were clearly territorial marking places of foxes, some of them with fresh or dried up fox scats. She sniffed each in turn, much more aware of the mysteries of scent than I was.

I scanned a grass field that I knew always held brown hares. It was surrounded by fields that had been ploughed and is meantime the best food source in the area. I could see two hares sitting quietly near the far end of the field and one away to my left. The gamekeeper told me that one night he shone his spotlight on this field and the hares feeding in the part that he could illuminate were well into double figures.

As I watched from behind a drystone dyke the two hares in the distance came to life and one, probably a buck, began to chase the other, which most likely was a doe. They came running up to my end of the field, passing within a few yards of me, then ran down the side of a narrow strip of floodwater that almost bisected the field. The hare on my left became aware of the other two and ran over to join in the chase. The strip of flood water was no barrier and he splashed through to try his luck. The three ran down the field, went through the fence into the wood and when they re-emerged into the field there were now four hares. The hares re-entered the wood but when they returned to the field two of the number were missing. One of the hares, most likely a buck and trying to find the scent of a doe, began to hunt over the field in the manner of a hunting spaniel. He came over the dyke to my right, ran behind me without paying me the slightest bit of attention, then re-crossed into the field where he continued his hunt. Mad March hares indeed.

I walked down the edge of a conifer wood and at far end noticed a red squirrel on a branch half way up a beech tree.  He (I later identified the sex from photographs) seemed unfazed by my presence and I managed to take a number of photos from different angles, trying to ensure in at least some of them that there were no branches in the way. He was a lovely wee chap, with the long silky tufts on his ears sometimes shining as blinks of sun appeared. He had a light coloured nose and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a red squirrel so closely resembling a koala bear. As I stood under the tree I could hear a great spotted woodpecker drumming in the distance, the first this year. Mr squirrel eventually tired of posing and made his way further up the tree. Time for me to move on as well.

My next encounter was with a substantial badger sett, or at least several setts in close proximity on a banking. I’d no way of knowing if all interconnected but there had been recent badger activity at all of them, with freshly excavated earth and badger footprints. One entrance had the remnants of bedding amongst the earth, another factor showing that the setts were in current use. I had a brief look for any latrines without success. I was concerned when I saw that on top of the banking above one of the sett entrances there were signs that someone had dug, or tried to dig, into the sett. There was a sunken patch in the grass of about 4 foot square, which was most certainly human activity. My first thoughts were that someone had buried a dead sheep there but of course fallen stock can no long be buried and, except for the most remote places, much be collected by a knacker’s business. It was not a recent dig and I doubt that badger diggers would fill in any hole that they excavated. The chances are it was filled in by some of the farm staff, maybe several years ago, so I might yet be able to get an idea when this dig took place. This find, the work of some of our worst criminals, spoiled a lovely walk.

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Rabbits, rabbits rabbits.

The rabbit nursery burrow, with the entrance blocked by the doe (near the top of the photo)

The nest in a nursery burrow not so lucky, where a fox or badger had dug down for its reward

The nursery burrow 3 days later, now left partly open by the doe

The nursery burrow narrowly missed being destroyed by the tractor which had been spraying

Another nursery burrow in the same field, with the blocked entrance near the crook of my stick

The nursery burrow now fully open with the entrance made smooth by the doe entering

Dupplin Estate, to the west of Perth and where I based myself for a year to write Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish estate, used to have rabbits aplenty. When I first became acquaint with the estate in the late 1950s rabbits were beginning to recover from the ravages of that horrific disease, myxomatosis. By the time I did some rabbit control on the estate in the 1970s there were hundreds of thousands. I wrote in my book:

‘Because of the vast number of rabbits, Bill (the retired keeper) used to take guests out at night shooting rabbits with the use of a spotlight and a .22 rifle. There were many nights when the haul was over 100 rabbits and with a best night of 330. Between what Bill shot during his time as gamekeeper on Dupplin and what I snared and shot we would have taken at least 60,000 rabbits, a huge amount which in truth made very little difference. Many more were gassed by Bill and Gordon, the rabbit trapper, and Gordon took another massive number of rabbits with his drop traps once the fences around the woods were netted. The number shot of course is always dependent on the accuracy of the shooter and the type of weather. A dark and damp night with a breeze is perfect, whereas on a frosty moonlit night it is a waste of time as the rabbits can hear you much better and can easily see the vehicle by the light of the moon.

Viral haemorrhagic disease came in to the estate in 1998.  After the onset of VHD, suddenly, no matter where Bill looked for rabbits to shoot, they had disappeared. Very few were lying around dead, confirming the belief that most rabbits that are affected with VHD die in their burrows. I was not on the estate much at this particular time but it must have been a strange experience to look at a field with hundreds or even thousands of rabbits one night, and visit the same field a few nights later and not see a single rabbit’.

When I began the walks for my book in August 2018 I was saddened to experience the almost total absence of rabbits. I gradually began to see an odd sign, such as a rabbit run, droppings or an active burrow, but the rabbit numbers were a tiny fraction of what they once were. As I walked over more of the estate I began to see small pockets of rabbits here and there and in the spring of 2019 it was heartening to see clear evidence of them breeding. The following part of a chapter covers the breeding burrows of rabbits, the evidence of which not even many folks who are in the countryside almost daily can recognise:

‘Wednesday April 10. Sunny and calm. 14C.

Greenhill Farm

A lovely spring morning and, for a welcome change, no wind. My last visit to the estate had been to the extreme east end. Today I was going to the extreme north-west. I parked at Greenhill Farm steading and was delighted to see the number of house sparrows at different parts of the steading. There would be at least 60, a number that is much more in keeping with numbers at East Lamberkin Farm when I was young.

I walked up the farm road to a prairie-sized field that had been sown with spring cereal just a few days earlier and I was pleased to see the work on the field was completed, with the last task being rolling the field with Cambridge rollers. These are the ridged type as opposed to the flat rollers. There’s nothing I hate to see more than a field sown, but not being rolled until a couple of weeks later. The eggs of any nesting bird are then destroyed.

There was a grassy end rig round the field that made both for easy walking and gave an added chance for birds such as partridge, skylarks, curlew and mallard duck to nest. I could see three or four rabbits on the grass further up the end rig. There was a ditch and a line of whin bushes on the other side of the fence; ideal places for rabbits to take refuge and dig their burrows. A roe buck, antlers cleaned of velvet, broke cover ahead of me, jumped the fence, and joined up with a doe on the other side.

The rabbits scurried for cover at my approach but I could see from the runs going through or under the fence that there was a decent colony in that area. There were lots of scrapes in the recently cultivated soil, and further up the field was a burrow that would have new-born young rabbits inside. Most doe rabbits dig a shallow, short burrow, maybe two or three feet in length, away from the main burrow or warren. The chamber at the end of the burrow is lined with dry grass and fur which the doe pulls from her belly to make a cosy nest for the young. This particular burrow would contain four to seven naked and blind pink and black rabbits that at that stage resemble mole rats. The burrow was barely noticeable, since for about the first week the doe pushes earth into the entrance to prevent stoats and weasels entering and killing the young. At night she removes the earth blocking the entrance to enter and feed the young, and pushes it back when she leaves. If the burrow has been blocked on a wet night it is slightly more easily spotted as much of the earth pushed forward by the doe goes into small balls about half the size of rabbit droppings.

Nearer the top of the field my attention was drawn to a scattering of dried grass near some disturbed earth. I walked over and my suspicions were confirmed. A rabbit nesting burrow had been dug out, with the suspect being either fox or badger. The burrow had been about two feet long and little more than six inches below the surface. The nest chamber at the end of the burrow had been lined with grass but there was no rabbit fur present. An absence of fur means that the likelihood is that the young had not yet been born. However a fox or badger would smell the doe rabbit in the chamber of the burrow. It is unlikely to dig out an empty burrow so the chances are that the predator would have dined well’.

I had later found evidence of a badger or badgers in the area and I suspect they would have been the culprit rather than a fox. Badgers tend to dig right down on top of the nest chamber and that was the case here.

I intended to monitor the area and made another couple of visits. On my second visit, about three days after the first, the entrance to the nesting burrow was slightly open. This is normal since, as the young rabbits grow, the doe is less concerned about totally blocking up the entrance. The field had been sprayed the previous day, but luckily the tractor had straddled the burrow rather than running over it. Had a tyre gone over it the rabbits inside would have been killed instantly.

I wrote of my third visit:

‘Friday May 3. Dull with occasional sunshine 7C.

Greenhill Farm

I was keen to see how the young rabbits in the burrow at Greenhill were faring. The field had been recently sown when I first saw the burrow on 10th April but there was now a good growth of spring barley. As I walked up the edge of the field I heard a willow warbler singing in a damp and rough area just outside the fence and went over to investigate. The wee light brown and yellow bird was perched right at the top of a small tree and was singing with gusto a series of notes that started off high in the scale and came tumbling down to a flourish at the end, rather in the manner of a chaffinch.

I walked up the field 30 yards out from the fence, knowing this was the line at which I would find the burrow. This must be about the favoured distance from the fence for rabbits digging their nursery burrows as I found another one before I got to the burrow I was looking for. The young rabbits in this burrow must have been recently born as the entrance was filled in to give them some protection against predators. Rabbits run in a series of hops, often landing in the same place as they make their way to and from a particular area. There were three clear pads or hops off to the right made by the doe rabbit as it came and went from the burrow. The earth at these hops was smooth and shiny and the barley growing in the hops was flattened. It was a sure sign of activity at the burrow.

When I reached the burrow I had come to see, the entrance was still open, as I had expected. As in all nursery burrows the entrance was also much smaller in diameter compared to that of a normal rabbit burrow, only just big enough for the doe to squeeze through. There was clear evidence that it was still being visited nightly by the doe as the earth just outside the entrance was smooth and polished, caused by the doe sliding in and out. She obviously sat at the same place just outside the burrow, and this resulted in a rabbit-sized patch of flattened barley. Young rabbits start to come out of the burrow at four weeks of age. They were obviously not quite at this age yet as I would have expected to see the barley round the burrow nibbled as they were weaned off milk and onto vegetation. Within the next few days they will be nibbling the barley and a week or so after that they will move from this short nursery burrow to a larger burrow in the bank of whin bushes beside the fence separating the barley field from the permanent grass of the moor.

On the subject of rabbits and their predators, it is really unusual that I have now been walking around this estate for nine months and have not seen either a stoat or a weasel. Stoats, in particular, depend on young rabbits as their main source of food. I have no doubt that when rabbit numbers crashed it would have had a knock-on effect on these mustelids’.

Walking with Wildlife: a Year on a Scottish Estate. £15 plus £2 P&P. For a signed copy contact me at wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Poisoned buzzard investigation in Derbyshire – comment

Poisoned buzzard with a pigeon bait ‘nearby’

I wrote of this incident in my blog of 7th February. I now see from the latest Raptor Persecution UK blog that Derbyshire Police maintain that:

‘There are too many unknown variables to conclusively say that the buzzard has been poisoned deliberately. All that can conclusively be said is that the buzzard has died as a result of ingesting poison. Its death has been recorded as suspicious’.

To a (slight and technical) degree this is true. There is a serious failing in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as it relates to England and Wales. Section 1 (1)(a) of the Act states that it is an offence if any person intentionally kills, takes or injures a wild bird. The legislation in Scotland augments intentionally by the term or recklessly.  I agree that, for the purposes of a court trial, it would be difficulty to convince a court that a buzzard is the intentional target of any poisoned bait as opposed to a fox or indeed any other animal, as poisoned baits are indiscriminate.

Nevertheless it is clear from the evidence publicly available that a criminal offence has been committed here as opposed to a ‘suspicious’ incident as stated in Derbyshire Rural Crime Team’s Facebook page. I see the following as facts:

  1. A dead red-legged partridge was found by walkers.
  2. Nearby was a dead buzzard (though ‘nearby’ is not explained further).
  3. There was also a dead wood mouse ‘nearby,’ (though this turns out not to have any bearing on the incident and is excluded by the analyst as not being the cause of death of the buzzard.).
  4. The partridge had been laced with the pesticide alpha-chloralose and set out somewhere. It may or may not have been set out where it was found by the walkers. It is possible it could have been carried there by the buzzard or by some other means.
  5. The analyst’s report on the partridge states that the ‘Chloralose was detected on the remains of the red-legged partridge suggesting it was a poisoned bait.’
  6. The analyst’s report also stated that, ‘Chemical analysis of the dead buzzard identified residues of chloralose at a level likely to have caused death.’ The report further states that, ‘The evidence therefore suggests that the buzzard died as the result of a deliberate and illegal use of a high concentration of chloralose on a partridge bait’.

I’d suggest that all of this gives more than  reasonable cause to suspect that a person or persons have committed an offence, that being the setting out at a place meantime unknown ‘any of the following articles, being an article which is of such a nature and is so placed as to be likely to cause bodily injury to any wild bird coming into contact therewith, that is to say, any springe, trap, gin, snare, hook and line, any electrical device for killing, stunning or frightening or any poisonous, poisoned or stupefying substance,’ this being contrary to Section 5(1)(a) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. There is also more than reasonable grounds to believe that the buzzard died from eating the partridge, whether or not the buzzard was the intended target.

I’d also suggest that if I’d had involvement with the same circumstances in the former Tayside Police it would have been recorded as a crime and investigated. I’m not suggesting that the Derbyshire officers did not investigate the incident; their Facebook article states that it was, but I think one of the factors that the public have concern over is that it is apparently discounted as being an offence and referred to as being a suspicious incident.

My previous blog shows my concern at the amount of time taken to get a toxicology result and also the absence of a timeous press release by the force.

In relation to the pesticide alpha-chloralose, this is sometimes used as a rodenticide indoors at a diluted level of around 4%. Alpha-chloralose used illegally against wildlife has a high purity often around 90%. The chemical kills by lowering the body temperature and the victim dies of hypothermia. While it is effective against raptors it poses the least danger to humans of the pesticides used illegally.

The other rodenticides mentioned in the analyst’s report, difenacoum, brodifacoum and bromadiolone, are frequently found in low levels in raptors that feed on mice and rats. This secondary poisoning can build up and is occasionally fatal.

Returning to the point I have made several times in blogs about the absence of the term ‘reckless’ in wildlife legislation in England and Wales it needs to be included as a matter of urgency.

Lastly, no-one can be right all the time and I think this incident needs Derbyshire Police to have a re-think. It’s no disgrace to say, ‘I was wrong.’

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Lovely encounters with brown hares

The hare killed by a fox.

Two hares lying together. I’d failed to spot the one on the left.

Hare initially clapped down in grass and gradually relaxing.

The hare, probably a doe, watching me and my wee dog.

The totally relaxed hare in a field of young peas.

The jack hare with a leg injury.

The hare with the leg injury joins the chase after a doe.

During my year-long walk over Dupplin Estate west of Perth for the purposes of writing my recent book Walking with Wildlife: a year on a Scottish estate, I was pleased to see the number of brown hares that were present. Though the hare numbers were high they are still nothing like what I remember in the late 1960s when it was possible to walk through a field and raise ten or more hares. At that time there would be at least 1000 hares on the estate. A (very rough) estimate now would be less than half of the 1960s numbers but nevertheless still a healthy population, considering that brown hare numbers have pretty much crashed UK-wide and remain a UK Biodiversity Action Plan  (UK-BAP) species.

I took hundreds of photographs of brown hares, mostly between February and May when they are just that wee bit more preoccupied with breeding and less concerned with human presence. Many of these photos were as a result of spotting a hare clapped down in a field and walking slowly and quietly towards it, though not directly towards it but as if to pass it by at about 20 or even 10 yards distance. It was noticeable that after a few minutes many of the hares relaxed slightly and their shape showed them much less pressed into the ground. With a couple of the hares I managed to kneel down and remain with them for five minutes or so before leaving them in peace. Although one or two took off at this point most remained where they were as I walked away.

The first photo is of a hare that had been taken by a fox. I’d met the gamekeeper during my walk on 22nd February 2019 and he told me about the dead hare, which was on my intended route in any case

‘I climbed the fence into the field of oil seed rape and saw the hare that Stewart had mentioned. It was an adult hare and its head was missing, often a trade mark of a fox kill. I could feel that some of its ribs were broken, another indication of a kill by a fox or dog rather than by a large avian predator since it would be killed by being crushed and violently shaken. The top of its rump was slightly eaten. Though this looked more like predation by a bird it was strange that there was no fur lying around as avian predators or scavengers usually pull out fur or feathers before dining on a carcass. It seemed that the fox had just killed the hare, taken its head and left the rest. It must have been a well-fed fox and if it comes back to the area there are also two swans for lunch over the fence. They had hit electric wires as they came into land on the river. A healthy adult hare would take a bit of catching even for the fittest fox, though the fact it was lying near to a fence may mean that the fox gained a few valuable seconds while the hare tried to get through the fence’.

On 18th March 2019, after an incident rescuing a roe buck trapped in a gate, I exited woodland and had two lovely encounters with hares:

‘I cut left through Pond Wood and when I came out at the far side I could see a hare sitting on a cultivated field. I managed to get quite close to it and took several photos before backtracking into the wood and exiting further up to avoid disturbing the hare. It was only when I got home and put the photographs on the laptop that I saw that there was a head of a second hare in some of the photos. Two hares had been sitting almost together and I had only spotted one.

Two fields further on and another hare was sitting clapped down in the grass. I got quite close to it and took several more photos and I could see the hare visibly relaxing and becoming far less flat against the ground than at first. Again I continued without disturbing the hare, which is not always possible. I was nearly back at the car now and the day was complete with a sighting of a lovely melanistic cock pheasant, almost jet black with a bright red head. It strutted about as if in the knowledge that the shooting season had ended and it was relatively safe (apart from motor vehicles and predators) until October and the start of the next shooting season’.

I was amazed that I had missed the second hare lying in the ploughed field. The way in which the hare that I was interested in was lying, it was catching full sun, whereas the other one, just feet away, was slightly lower and more in shade. These hares, and the next one in the grass field, were perfect examples of normally flighty hares lying still even as I approached quite close to them.

The next photo, on 29th April, was of a hare that I was sure had leverets nearby. I had my wee dog with me that day and I suspect the hare was taking more interest in my dog, despite the fact it never left my heel. We had a stand-off for a few minutes, but Molly my dog and I gave up first allowing the hare to relax. I recorded the sighting in the following terms:

‘Further still, when I was at the edge of the wood, another brown hare hopped a dozen or so yards across the field away from me but instead of taking flight it stood upright on its hind legs surveying me for several minutes. This is quite unusual for brown hares; often they sit upright but this one balanced on its hind legs, front paws held in front of its body and almost resembling a kangaroo, for nearly five minutes. Only when I moved away did it hop further out into the field. I suspect this was yet another jill with leverets nearby’.

The photo of my next hare, taken on 21st May 2019, showed one of the most relaxed hares I encountered. It was initially clapped down in a field of young peas. It wasn’t too far from the car so I got out and slowly approached it. I stopped about 20 yards away, gradually kneeling down on the ground. From its clapped down position it gradually came up and within 10 minutes was sitting almost upright and at one point closed its eyes. It was no doubt stuffed with pea shoots and just wanted to snooze after a heavy breakfast. I wrote:

‘I was now a mile or so from the public road at West Cultmalundie Farm. At this point the farm road degenerates into a farm track and my destination was yet another mile along this track. I passed a field of peas on my left, where a very lucky brown hare was sitting in the sun surrounded by succulent food. It gave some good photo opportunities and in fact turned from side on to almost head on to watch me. I left the hare undisturbed – observe, photograph and move on – which is the way I try to operate when possible’.

The following day, 22nd May, I was walking on another part of the estate when a hare hopped over the track I had just walked along. I noted the following:

‘As I emerged from the track there was a field of winter wheat, now about a foot high, which had been behind the hedge, and a field of spring barley a few inches high on my immediate left. On my right was about half an acre of scrub land and a pile of old fencing and other discarded wood. I walked on for 20 yards and saw a hare hopping purposefully from the scrub land and crossing the path I had just traversed. The hare hopped into the young barley and I could see that it had a large patch of fur missing on its upper right back leg. The skin on the bare patch looked yellow and had possibly suppurated after a fight with another hare.

The hare stopped to survey the scene, then continued on along one of the tramlines in the field. Halfway along the field I could see another hare nosing about near the field edge bordering the winter wheat. ‘My’ hare stopped opposite and thirty yards from this second hare but for whatever reason did not approach it. My assumption was that they were both males. The second hare slipped through the fence into the winter wheat and emerged minutes later along with another two hares. One of these must have been a female and ‘my’ hare was now interested. It joined the cavalcade and there was considerable kicking and boxing taking place within the group, with the hares jumping into the air and running in close convoy as if jockeying for closest position to the female. This continued for a good five minutes before the hares disappeared into the next field, and without any of the hares managing to mate with the female. Procreation for many wild species is fraught with danger, and hopefully the hare with the injured leg will recover’.

Brown hares are probably my favourite mammal. This probably accounts for my hatred of hare coursers and my determination, in the course of 50 years policing, to ensure as many as possible were convicted.

Walking with Wildlife: a Year on a Scottish Estate. £15 plus £2 P&P. For a signed copy contact me at wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Changes to general licences in Scotland – are they now fit for the present day?

A multi-catch trap full of rooks and jackdaws

During this wet and windy Storm Ciara weather I’ve had time to have a look at the changes made to GL 01, GL 02 and GL 03 by Scottish Natural Heritage.

Looking at GL 01 – the licence to kill or take certain birds for the conservation of wild birds – of the corvids listed that can be killed or taken (carrion crow, hooded crow, magpie, jackdaw and jay) I am disappointed that the jay remains on the list. There is no doubt that jays take the eggs or chicks of some other birds though I doubt that they are a serious risk to either amber-listed or red-listed birds. I’m a bit puzzled that the jackdaw remains on the list while the rook has been removed. While both take some eggs or chicks of other birds in my own experience there is more risk of nest predation from rooks than jackdaws. Others, of course, might have different experiences.

GL 02 – the licence to kill or take certain birds for the prevention of serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables and fruit – retains the woodpigeon, feral pigeon, hooded crow, carrion crow, rook, magpie, jackdaw and Canada goose. I have no argument with the retention of woodpigeon, feral pigeon, hooded crow or carrion crow as all, in certain circumstances, can cause serious damage in relation to agriculture.

The rook has been retained, and while rooks at times can cause damage, sometimes serious, to flattened grain it could be argued that this is offset by the benefit to farming by the destructive grubs, insects and larvae that they eat. It could also be argued that the jackdaw has the same negative and positive effects in relation to farming, especially since they flock and forage together for much of the time. While I admit that magpies are not my favourite birds, I can’t think of how they can seriously impact any aspect of agriculture. Maybe someone will enlighten me. Lastly the Canada goose has been retained. The impact of this species is increasing and I suspect a large flock can have a serious effect on growing crops. It is also a non-native bird (but then so are pheasants and red-legged partridges).

On the control of rooks and jackdaws they have been caught in multi-catch traps for years. Sometimes around 50 birds can be caught at a time; I saw at least that number of jackdaws in a multi-catch trap on an Angus estate, and more recently around that number of rooks and jackdaws in a multi-catch trap in Perthshire. Looking closely at the wording of the general licence, which of course is ‘to prevent serious damage’, it states that the licence allows ‘authorised people to carry out activities that would otherwise be illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). They cover situations where we accept that there may be no other satisfactory solution. However, they should only be used as a last resort. Operators must be able to explain what other alternatives they have tried if challenged’. How many operators are ‘challenged’ and how many could really justify this slaughter of corvids? Strangely it nearly always seems to be game interests that utilise multi-catch cages for rooks and jackdaws, not those involved in agriculture. This type of ‘traditional’ corvid control has been taken for granted for years. Traditions do not always reflect either modern-day needs, acceptability or current law. With an operator rather than an estate or farm now having to apply for a code to attach to any cage it should be much easier for the police to find the operator to ‘challenge’.

In relation to GL 03 – the licence to kill or take certain birds for the preservation of public health, public safety and preventing the spread of disease – the only birds now remaining on this licence are the feral pigeon and  what suddenly seems to be public enemy No 1: the Canada goose. I’ve no experience of the Canada goose endangering public health, safety or the spread of disease so can’t argue either way. It is certainly sensible to retain the feral pigeon on the licence. The herring gull is red-listed and the lesser black-backed is amber-listed. Both were formerly on this licence but I think it is sensible in respect of their conservation status to restrict any action that can be taken against them. It therefore seems totally reasonable to only allow control where a specific licence has been sought and granted, though it may be prudent to allow the granting of a licence retrospectively in a genuinely urgent situation, as can be done with the shooting of brown hares when they are causing serious damage. I’m thinking particularly of urban gulls with chicks attacking people near to their rooftop nest.

Overall (apart from failing to give the jay protection) I think Scottish Natural Heritage staff have made reasonable decisions.  Looking at what my recommendations were at the time of the public consultation some have been met and others not. It seems a compromise has been reached and I suspect this might be the case with regard to most respondents to the consultation. Those using the licences now just need to strictly comply with the conditions, and SNH and Police Scotland must monitor and enforce the law.

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