(An except from my book A Lone Furrow)
Remaining on the theme of falconers’ birds, there was an unusual situation one day in north Perthshire when a gamekeeper saw a peregrine sitting on a grassy mound amongst the heather on the hill. He wondered why it didn’t fly off and as he approached he saw that it had jesses attached to its legs. Realising it was a falconer’s bird that had failed to return to its handler he crept quietly closer and managed to catch it. He then put it in a run, which earlier in the season had been used to house partridges and had been left on the hill. His next move was to phone me to report that he had the bird in case its owner contacted the police.
There had been no report of a missing peregrine but in any case I let Constable Graham Jack, as the divisional wildlife crime officer for the area, know about the bird and he set off to collect it to take it to a local falconer to be looked after until it could be re-united with its owner.
I’d love to have seen the next stage of this moorland drama. Graham met the gamekeeper and the two set off to the run that was a temporary home to the bird. But the run was empty. They checked round the run-in case there had been a hole through which the bird had escaped but the run was intact. No escape route and not a trace of the peregrine that he had put there not an hour before. It was a complete mystery and had the two scratching their heads in disbelief. It was not until later that all was revealed.
The peregrine had a radio transmitter fitted on its tail that had gone unnoticed by the keeper. The falconer, unaware of what was happening a few miles away over the hill, was tracking his peregrine; tracking which ultimately led to the partridge run and the recovery of the bird. Initially the falconer was as puzzled at his peregrine being inside a partridge run as the keeper and Graham were at its failure to be there. He soon realised that his bird had been caught and rescued and in due course made contact with the police. It was a comedy with a happy ending.
Later the same year a wild peregrine was not so lucky on another Perthshire estate. It was found on the ground by a walker, who quickly realised, since the bird was flapping along the ground to get away from him, that it was unable to fly. It’s amazing how many kind souls there are who would never leave an injured bird or animal, and take the trouble to catch it and bring it either to the police or an animal rescue organisation. In this case the walker was aware of a man who kept birds of prey and took it to him to see if the bird could be saved.
Since peregrines must be registered if kept in captivity, the falconer let me know that he had it, reporting it as an injured wild bird that he would take to a vet with a view to eventually rehabilitating it to the wild, and which he would also register with Animal Health at Defra. The falconer explained that it was an immature bird, an easy identification since adults are predominantly blue and immature birds are predominantly brown. One wing was damaged at the tip.
The peregrine was examined by Alistair Lawrie, the specialist bird of prey vet at Falkirk. Alistair x-rayed the bird and was able to say that it had been shot. Its wing was injured in two places, at the elbow and at the wrist, and at both places traces of lead were evident in the x-ray. The prognosis for the bird was poor. Though it would have no problem in surviving, it would never be able to fly again. A peregrine is master of the air and probably our fastest bird, being able to reach speeds well in excess of 100 miles an hour in a stoop from high above a prey species such as a pigeon or grouse. This predator at the top of a food chain had caught its last wood pigeon and was now destined to a life in an aviary.
The vet’s opinion was that when shot, this injury would make the bird lose height quite quickly so it was likely that it had been shot not too far from where it had been picked up. It was in good condition so had not been shot too long before it was found, otherwise through lack of food it would have deteriorated in condition rapidly. It could walk, but is unlikely to have walked very far as it was in woodland. Even in the open, birds of prey, unlike game birds, are not inclined to walk since they rely on flight. A river bounded one part of the woodland, which would restrict it even further.
An investigation was carried out by Graham Jack and several people interviewed. Its proximity to the river, the boundary between two different estates, complicated the issue as it could possibly have been shot on one side and landed on the other. There had been some visiting goose shooters on one side of the river, and there were gamekeepers on the estates on each side. There was no evidence to point to one person more than another (there may even have been others we could have been considering but were unaware of) and the case was never solved.
It was revealing that one of the keepers when interviewed told Graham that he couldn’t stand birds of prey that were scavengers. ‘But peregrines, they kill in the air. I would never shoot them.’ Could this be interpreted that he would shoot buzzards?
And would he have considered as a scavenger the buzzard I saw chasing a woodpigeon for two miles before catching it?
A Lone Furrow. Tales from when I was a wildlife crime officer. (£10) For a signed copy. contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org