A visit to the Caledonian forest

Tree creeper looking for insects

Tree creeper looking for insects

Pair of goldeneye ducks

Pair of goldeneye ducks

Loch Mallachie, Inverness-shire

Loch Mallachie, Inverness-shire

We had a lovely break last week at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown on Spey. My wife and I, along with my daughter and her husband had three days in this 3-star hotel which specialises in catering for people interested in wildlife. It has everything that is required for the birdwatcher: guides, films, talks, discussions, charts showing a myriad of species from birds to butterflies, and information leaflets detailing places to visit locally to see particular birds, some of them relatively uncommon, such as the Scottish crossbill and the Slavonian grebe. Its location is also situated on the Speyside whisky trail, a visit to a distillery being a good diversion on a wet day. Importantly the Grant Arms Hotel welcomed dogs, and wee Molly received a welcome bag with goodies on her arrival. I gave a talk on wildlife crime in the hotel – the principal reason for the visit – and there were two dogs at the talk (as well as 30 or so humans).

Autumn is a fabulous time of the year to be out and about in the countryside. The trees are showing brilliant colours, ranging from the green of oaks still to start their winter ‘moult’, to the yellow leaves of birch and needles of larch to the bright red of rowan leaves, and of course their berries as well.

It was a real treat to be walking in the ancient Caledonian forests of Nethybridge and Loch Garten in mid-October. I was in awe at the size of some of the ancient Scots pine trees and tried to imagine what Scotland must have been like before so many of them were felled. It is really tragic that we are left with only 1% of this great forest, though thankfully more are being planted to join up the remaining fragments.

Since capercaillie are now so scarce I didn’t really expect to see one, but I am lucky to have memories of seeing them regularly in mature woodlands just to the west of Perth when I was a teenager. It was commonplace to see upwards of 30 capercaillie on stubble fields at harvest time, and walking through the woods I regularly disturbed a feeding Capercaillie that clattered off the top of a tree and flew like a bomber through the wood to land on another further on.  The last one I saw – a hen caper – was about eight years ago no more than a mile to the west of the Perth city boundary.  It was feeding in a stubble field on the other side of the main A.9 from a mature wood. It was there a couple of days later, this time lying dead at the roadside, having been struck by a vehicle.

I was fascinated by the tit species in the main car park at the Loch Garten visitor centre. The main species were coal tits, with blue tits, great tits and crested tits in much lesser numbers but in roughly the same proportion. I have seen most bird species in Scotland but this is a first for crested tits. They are lovely wee birds and it is hardly surprising that they are a favourite of photographers. Those in the car park were giving great opportunities for photos and some photographers were spending hours and must have been taking literally hundreds of photos.

I was surprised at how trusting the coal tits were. Many people, my daughter Janet included, were holding out handfuls of sunflower hearts and the tits were landing on the palms of their hands, selecting a seed and flying back to a tree or bush to eat it. Janet had four on her hand at the same time and was just captivated by their trust.

Tree creepers were common on the edges of the car park, but I was surprised there were no red squirrels. It is ideal habitat and I am sure they are there but I neither saw nor heard a red squirrel. I say ‘heard’ as that is often the way red squirrels are located, the scraping of their claws giving them away as they run up the bark of a tree.

On my last day, while the rest of the family went to Nairn, I had a lovely quiet walk in the autumn sunshine down by the side of Loch Garten, seeing a flotilla of pink-footed geese and some goldeneye on the loch, and turning to come back once I had reached Loch Mallachie. Altogether this was a memorable short break, in a fantastic part of Scotland in a hotel which I could not fault and the best that any of us have ever stayed in. I’m really surprised it is just 3-star.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Trapped cat on shooting estate – some thoughts

Cat in trap as reported on Raptor Politics

Cat in trap as reported on Raptor Politics

I read today on the Raptor Politics blog an account of a police investigation by Lancashire Constabulary into a cat that had been illegally trapped (see     http://raptorpolitics.org.uk/2016/10/14/21459/#more-21459 ) The photograph on the blog shows a cat hanging by the back leg from a Fenn trap which had been set on a log over a ditch or other waterway on a shooting estate in the Forest of Bowland.

In the blog there are many serious accusations against the police officers involved. I’m not going to comment on these accusations as I have no way of confirming their veracity. In any case, so far as I can see from the photograph, I wanted to give my view of the use of trap in which the cat was caught.

The trap is a Fenn type trap, probably a Mk IV rather than the larger Mk VI. It had been set on the log and covered by wire mesh, but had no restriction at either end to prevent non-target mammals entering and being caught. My blog of 2nd September 2016 explains the legal use of these traps.

For two reasons this trap has been set illegally.

(1) The Spring Traps Approval (England) Order 2012 governs the setting of traps for mammals. The trap needs to be approved, which is the case with the Fenn Mk IV, but it is only approved if the conditions of approval are adhered to. They are, The traps may be used only for the purpose of killing grey squirrels, stoats, weasels, rats, mice and other small ground vermin (except for those species listed in Schedules 5 and 6 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). The traps must be set in natural or artificial tunnels which are, in either case, suitable for the purpose’. Whoever set the trap has therefore set an unapproved trap. In England, under section 8 of the Pests Act 1954, it is an offence to use or knowingly to permit the use of any spring trap, other than a trap that has been approved by Order, for animals or in circumstances for which it is not approved.

(2) Anything that flows from this illegal setting would also be an offence. Here we have a cat caught by a leg and left to suffer, according to a vet who examined it, for at least three days. This is a further offence, this time under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, in which it is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal.

Interestingly there is nothing set out in legislation about the checking of traps such as the Fenn trap, which is meant to kill instantly if set as approved and for the correct species. If it is set outwith the approval conditions any animal injured as a consequence could come under the jurisdiction of animal welfare legislation.

I tend to agree with the independent expert who examined the trap and concluded that it would be highly likely that other traps and snares on the estate would be set in a similar illegal manner.  While part of the police investigation was clearly focussed on damage to traps and snares on this estate, and seems to have been ongoing since 2015, I have no idea what, if any, investigation they carried out in relation to illegally-set traps. It does strike me, though, that if tunnel traps were being set illegally, this fact should have been picked up and investigated much earlier, and certainly during any scene of crime examination of damaged traps.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Book review – A Year in a Ditch by J C Jeremy Hobson

A Year in a Ditch by J C Jeremy Hobson

A Year in a Ditch by J C Jeremy Hobson

A Year in a Ditch is a very attractive book, with lots of interesting photographs and helpful text boxes describing in more depth some of the subjects being discussed. In a chapter Fascinating Flora and Fauna lots of noteworthy species are examined, though the detail on some of them is brief, being only a couple of paragraphs. It was at this point in the book that I started to query the title, since the author began to look at species that could only be loosely linked to a ditch. This was especially so in relation to birds. Confining the subject only to a ditch rather limits the scope of what can be included in a book.

I was pleased to see part of this chapter covering invasive species, since many non-native plants and animals are now causing havoc in waterways. Rather alarming was a text box in a chapter Dining Out in a Ditch suggesting that foragers ‘purge their freshwater mussels’ for a few days in fresh water before eating them. Of course it is illegal to take freshwater pearl mussels and this may have been better to be clarified.

I enjoyed the principal chapter A Year in the Life of a Ditch, which suggested species to look out for during every month of the year. This took on a much broader scope than simply a ditch and took me back to what I though was a rather restrictive title.

Nevertheless there is something in the book for everyone interested in the countryside, much of it, where appropriate, related with humour.

A Year in a Ditch by J C Jeremy Hobson, Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG.   www.whittlespublishing.com   £16.99

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


The pole trap at the pheasant pen

The pole trap at the pheasant pen

I read three interesting appeals on Twitter and in the media over the past couple of days. One is an appeal for information, while the other two are appeals against conviction or sentence.

The first, the appeal for information, related to a pole trap discovered on East Devon farmland. The trap was a Fenn trap set on top of a post beside a pheasant pen. Police attended at the location and photographed the trap, which was set and ready to trap any bird that landed on it, most likely a bird of prey of some sort.

So far so good but instead of taking possession of the trap and having it tested for DNA, which could lead to the person setting it, the officers left it there, intending to collect it the following day. The next day, however, it was gone. It is hard to believe that Devon and Cornwall Police, a force that is normally very good at investigating wildlife crime, (a) left a trap in the set position where it could well have caught a victim, and (b) missed out on an opportunity to gain good evidence through DNA.

Having photographed the trap, which I assume was corroborated, there would still be sufficient evidence to convict, but makes the case much more difficult to investigate.

I am making the assumption that the officers attended in uniform, maybe even in a marked vehicle, which is hardly discreet. It matters less when all the evidence can be gathered at that visit, but if further visits are required, either to the scene or to a suspect, I would always work on the basis that the suspect is aware of the initial visit. Despite this apparent faux-pas, from the photograph of the trap and the set-up described, with a bit of work and good interviewing the police should still manage to get a case to court.

The next case, the appeal against sentence for hare coursing, took place in my own area, Perthshire; in fact the locus of the coursing is not too far from my house.

Mark Reid was jailed for four months and banned from keeping dogs for six years after a court heard during trial how he and his son, plus two others who were cleared after the trial, had been coursing in a field west of Perth. The son, John Stewart, was banned from keeping dogs for two years and ordered to carry out 100 hour’s unpaid work.

Reid admitted three previous convictions for wildlife crime, and his solicitor told the court, “He has a previous conviction for this activity from Forfar and he comes from a background where this activity has, to an extent, been normalised.”  I immediately thought of the many times in court I have heard solicitors’ pleas in mitigation and said to myself, ‘Have you ever heard such bloody guff!’ I am sure most sheriffs say the same thing under their breath.

In any event Reid appealed his sentence. His solicitor said that the jail term was excessive and that he had managed to pay fines in the past. She also had told the court that Reid was not fit to perform unpaid work as he has trouble with his back (she omitted to say that his bad back doesn’t affect his hare coursing or his ability to obtain money for fines).

The appeal court accepted that Reid should not have been jailed, quashed his conviction and instead imposed a fine of £1500. I assume that his six-year ban on keeping dogs still stands. This is in his own interests as dogs could easily pull on the lead and make his bad back worse. Knowing Reid and knowing the original sentencing sheriff I think he got the sentence exactly right!

I’m not too sure of the timeline for the next appeal, which was against conviction, but it relates to a Mr Martin, who was convicted after trial of blocking a badger sett in advance of a fox hunt by the Middleton Hunt in North Yorkshire. He was ordered to carry out 120 hour’s unpaid work and pay £970 costs. His ‘legal team’ successfully appealed the conviction on the ground that there was no evidence that badgers were using the sett.

So the timeline doesn’t really matter; the issue is in the difficulty in proving that a sett is in current use. In this case the incident took place on 29th March last year but footage taken and shown to the court only showed evidence of occupancy up to 26th March, and again between April 1st and 5th. There was no evidence that the sett was occupied on the day it was blocked and the QC told the appeal court that although it was obvious Martin had blocked the sett “We do not think that the evidence alone can prove there were signs of current use by a badger.”

When you look at the Protection of Badgers Act for signs of a sett in current use, somewhat reluctantly I tend to agree with the appeal court. (see also my blog of 17th February 2013 for much more detail on this subject)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

My evidence to the Westminster inquiry on grouse shooting

Poisoned white-tailed eagle 'White G' recovered by the author in 2008 after eating poisoned bait set out on a driven grouse moor in Angus. This was a young bird fledged on the island of Mull

Poisoned white-tailed eagle ‘White G’ recovered by the author in 2008 after eating poisoned bait set out on a driven grouse moor in Angus. This was a young bird fledged on the island of Mull

My background is as a police officer in Scotland. I was involved in various aspects of policing for 50 years, dealing with poachers in my earlier years and during the last 20 years as force wildlife crime officer, initially as a serving officer and latterly in a civilian role. For the last three years I worked as an intelligence officer with the National Wildlife Crime Unit.

As a young man I went grouse beating, helped gamekeepers and indeed shot grouse. I was a great supporter of gamekeepers until relatively recently, but the volume of wildlife crime I saw that was clearly committed in the name of game management astonished me. I tried hard to integrate keepers into the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime, which meant I was then shunned by some conservationists. I shrugged that off but could see from policing and NWCU intelligence that on driven grouse moors, in particular those under sporting agents, the level of wildlife crime continued and showed no signs of abating.

The crimes I encountered or dealt with ranged from the killing by various means of golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, peregrines, red kites, goshawks, buzzards, ravens, badgers and otters to the illegal shooting of deer to reduce the tick burden on grouse. On one driven grouse moor all the deer were shot at night in a spotlight and the carcasses left on the hill. On another driven grouse moor the native trees beside hill burns were cut down to prevent the roosting or nesting of any birds that might predate grouse. Intelligence consistently showed that the worst areas were east and south-west Scotland and the north of England, all areas of driven grouse moors. Considering I was once part of the ‘shooting scene’ and used to shoot game this has completely sickened me.

The regular discoveries of poisonous baits or their victims present a real risk of serious injury or even death to anyone encountering and touching them. Most are found on driven grouse moors and sooner or later will lead to a fatality. In Scotland in the last five years at least eight satellite-tagged golden eagles have ‘gone missing’ in areas of grouse moors. This, together with a considerable number of hen harriers that have also ‘gone missing’ in grouse moor areas in Scotland and the north of England, strongly indicates there is no let-up in criminality.

The Scottish Parliament has made great strides forward in improving wildlife law. Examples are vicarious liability, adding the term ‘reckless’ as an option to ‘intentional’ for most wildlife crimes, upgrading snaring legislation and extending time bars for court proceeding to three years from the date of the crime. Nevertheless, despite these welcome changes, it remains almost impossible to gain a conviction for wildlife crimes committed on the vast expanse of grouse moors with multiple gamekeepers. Many landowners, sporting agents and gamekeepers on driven grouse moors are well aware of this and completely ignore the law, with the situation being considerably worse in England since the Conservative Westminster Parliament is very strongly influenced by MPs heavily involved in game shooting.

The grouse shooting lobby may try to argue that if grouse shooting is banned then many people would be out of work and the local economy would suffer. This need not be the case. There is a variety of uses for moorland, including re-wildling, that will be far better explained by others than I could ever attempt. The grouse shooting lobby try to argue that running a moor for driven grouse shooting is better for the wading birds that (should) nest there. Some driven grouse moors I have been on are almost barren of wildlife apart from red grouse, and certainly very few – if any – raptors. Many of these moors are in national parks where visitors expect to see an even bigger variety of wildlife than elsewhere. The current publicity created by wildlife crime together with a limited range of species of interest must negatively affect visitors’ impression of national parks and will adversely affect local economy. Wildlife tourism could potentially bring in much more to local economies than ever grouse shooting did.

Genuine hard-working hill farmers are well deserving of CAP payments – maybe even increased CAP payments. I have been privy to the vast sums of money given to some grouse moor owners as CAP payments. Many are already millionaires and are being given money – my money as a tax payer – to run a few sheep which are there primarily to mop up ticks that might otherwise find their way on to grouse. I object as strongly to this as I do to some of these estates running rings around the law. Whether they like it or not we live in the 21st century, not the 19th century and the killing of protected species is reprehensible and does the reputation of the UK incredible harm. The Westminster Government has been virtually aiding and abetting wildlife criminals for years and it is time they realised the sway of public opinion against driven grouse shooting, the direct cause of so much wildlife crime. Warnings and compromise have been tried many times and failed.

I never thought I would ever say this but it is time to completely ban driven grouse shooting.

There is still time to express your views on whether or not driven grouse shooting should be banned. The link is http://www.parliament.uk/grouse-shooting-inquiry?utm_source=petition164851 though responses are required by 5th October.

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments

Hen harriers: good news and bad news

Hen harriers can be easily shot when protecting their nest against human intrusion

Hen harriers can be easily shot when protecting their nest against human intrusion

So another satellite-tagged hen harrier has disappeared. This is extremely bad news, though hardly unexpected. I’ll come back to this later, but it is heartening to report some good news in the form of Heads up for Harriers. This is a PAW Scotland-driven initiative to encourage estates to work with conservationists to monitor nests on cameras to identify some of the threats to the eggs and chicks.

Last year was particularly successful, with 30 nests fledging in excess of 100 chicks in hen harrier SPAs. This year was less successful, probably due to the weather, with two nests on five of the estates involved failing for that reason and another losing one chick to fox predation.  Twelve young fledged in total, but with any nesting bird, especially those that nest on the ground, there are always good years and bad years.

None of the results are surprising. Extreme weather and predation are well-known factors in hen harrier breeding success, just as they are in grouse breeding success. Nesting grouse, of course, don’t have to contend with their eggs or chicks being destroyed through human interference or the parent bird or birds being shot. The cameras, unfortunately, won’t stop this, nevertheless it is a step in the right direction and full marks to participating estates. I wonder if any of the estates involved are Glenogil, Millden, Glenlochy, Raeshaw, North Glenbuchat, Leadhills.  I somehow doubt they’d have any harriers there to nest.

Returning to the missing harrier, this was a chick fledged this year in Perthshire and given the name Brian. Its signal stopped abruptly on 22nd August near to Kingussie, an area of grouse moors. Despite searches the bird was not traced.

This is the second of this year’s satellite-tagged harriers to ‘disappear’, with the previous one, given the name Elwood, disappearing on 27th July in the Monadhliaths, the area in which eight satellite-tagged golden eagles have also ‘disappeared.’  Professor Des Thompson, Scottish Natural Heritage, who is the Chair of PAW Scotland Heads up for Harriers group, said,

“The loss of Elwood is very worrying, particularly given the reported loss of eight satellite-tagged golden eagles in the same vicinity over the last five years. We are reviewing these incidents and will report our findings in due course”.

The ‘findings’ may be part of the report being prepared for Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, who requested a review of satellite-tracking data. In my own experience with satellite-tagged birds, if they die or are unwell, the instrument continues to transmit their location to within a few metres and they are easily recovered. Of course if they are deliberately killed the instrument would be destroyed by the criminal and immediately stop transmitting. If this is what happened it is unlikely to be proved but more and more identical incidents must help Ms Cunningham draw her own conclusions.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sheep worrying

One of the 7 sheep, still alive, savaged by a dog

One of the 7 sheep, still alive, savaged by a dog

I see regular reports, UK-wide, of dogs attacking and killing or injuring sheep. There have been some horrific attacks, with upwards of 30 sheep affected.  I note from North Wales Police that the most common dog involved is the husky or similar types. Over the years I have encountered a wide range of dogs sheep-worrying in Tayside, from lurchers to German shepherds. I once saw a yellow Labrador chase a blackfaced ewe for more than a mile across the hillside, pursued by its exasperated and exhausted owner. I was at the other side of a loch and was attracted to the incident by much shouting and swearing. The outcome was that the sheep jumped into the loch. I last saw it swimming out into much deeper water while the owner retrieved his dog and made off down the lochside. Whether the sheep turned around and made it back to the shore I don’t know. On another occasion I shot a lurcher that had come back for the third evening in succession to worry sheep on the other side of a river from a travellers’ encampment.

I was really shocked at one incident, when 7 sheep were found with their faces badly torn when the farmer checked the flock in the morning. Unbelievably they were still alive and a vet was called out to euthanise them. I sent photos of the sheep to an eminent veterinary pathologist, who was convinced the injuries had been caused by a dog similar to a pit bull terrier or Staffordshire terrier. He had learned from experience that these dogs normally grip a victim by the nose, which was proved to me a few weeks later when a pit bull terrier-type dog attacked a donkey. I grabbed the donkey by the nose and was pulling it along the ground when it was eventually beaten off. The dog that had attacked the sheep was unfortunately never traced.

Most of these attacks are completely avoidable if dog owners would keep their dogs under control. Below is the short section on dogs attacking livestock from my book Wildlife and the Law.

Dogs worrying livestock

A dog unaccompanied in a public place can still be seized and dealt with by police or dog wardens as a stray, but this is the most minor of the offences. Some dogs worry livestock, and while it is often legitimate for the livestock owner to shoot the dog, there are limits on this offence by dint of the definition of ‘worrying livestock.’  This term, within the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, means attacking cattle, sheep, goats, swine, horses, asses, mules, domestic fowls, turkeys, geese or ducks; chasing livestock in such a way as may reasonably be expected to cause injury or suffering to the livestock or, in the case of females, abortion, or loss or diminution in their produce, or being at large (not on a lead or otherwise under close control) in a field or enclosure in which there are sheep. The offence must have taken place on agricultural land, which means land used as arable, meadow or grazing land, or for the purpose of poultry farming, pig farming, market gardens, allotments, nursery grounds or orchards. These offences would be dealt with by the police.

The definition above would not extend to a garden.  A situation with a dog attacking poultry kept in a private garden would be excluded from the offence and would therefore require (in Scotland) to be dealt with by the Local Authority under the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, despite the fact that most calls reporting this type of incident would be made to the police.

See Wildlife and the Law and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments