Calls from the Wild – chapter to give a flavour of the story.

One of the early chapters from my novel Calls from the Wild to give a flavour of the content.  PC Bob McKay, wildlife crime liaison officer for the Tayside Division of Police Scotland, visits a gamekeeper who is keen to report the activities of the new estate owner of Loch Garr Estate and his head gamekeeper, who are causing serious problems for his brother, a gamekeeper on that estate.

Chapter 2

It was a lovely sunny morning when Bob headed up the A9 to Highland Perthshire to visit Mike Curtis on Inversnood Estate. He loved this landscape, the forested and craggy slopes as he passed Dunkeld. It was here at Inver that one of Scotland’s greatest fiddlers and composers, Niel Gow was born two-hundred years previously. Bob started to whistle the mournful tune Niel Gow’s Lament on the Death of his Second Wife but after a few bars his thoughts turned to Dougie MacLean who lives in the village of Butterstone just east of Dunkeld. He was now tunefully whistling Dougie’s well-known tune Caledonia, which he felt really should be Scotland’s national anthem.

The forests opened up to hills dotted with birch trees as Bob approached Pitlochry. He was fascinated by trees and would love to have seen Scotland a few hundred years ago before human intervention ‘improved’ the landscape by removing vast areas of Scots pine and other native trees. The trees had yet to come into leaf, which would further alter the panorama as springtime made its welcome entrance. A buzzard was soaring lazily in the blue sky off to his left; before long it would be ospreys that could be seen by observant drivers and their passengers.

Bob drove into the track leading to the gamekeeper’s cottage. Mike was hosing out his dog kennels and a mix of three black Labradors, two liver and white spaniels and a Jack Russell terrier barked at Bob’s arrival but stopped immediately at a command from Mike.

Bob considered Mike to be an excellent keeper. Not only did he play by the rules, he also had a great knowledge of all aspects of nature, including being able to name most small birds that many people would simply refer to as ‘wee brown birds.’ He was furious at the extent of persecution of protected species by some of his colleagues and the fact that their illegal activities negatively affected everyone involved in shooting. 

‘Good morning Bob.’ Mike greeted him with a wave and a smile. ‘I thought you might like a tour of the hill and I could check some of my traps at the same time. But what about a cup of tea first?’

‘That’s perfect, thanks,’ Bob replied. ‘It’s a lovely day to be out and about and I’ve no urgent jobs on this morning.’

They went into the kitchen, where Mike’s wife, Margaret, had the kettle on the boil and some thin strips of venison ready to go into a frying pan.

‘Would you like a roll with venison Bob?’ Margaret asked. ‘It’s the best of roe deer venison.’

‘That would be lovely, thanks. I’ve not had venison for ages. The last time I had anything from a roe deer it was fried liver and it was delicious.’

They ate with obvious appreciation of the flavour of meat, a second breakfast for all three of them. As Bob wiped crumbs from his chin Mike got up from the table and put on his deerstalker. ‘Ready for the off then Bob?’

As the Land Rover bumped up the hill track Mike said, ‘I wanted to tell you about my brother Albert’s dilemma. He’s an underkeeper on Loch Garr estate near to Amulree. He’s been there for years and loves the area and the work on the estate. It’s about 5,000 acres and for most of that time there was only him and the headkeeper, Jock Scott. Shooting on the estate was walked-up grouse and deer stalking. Half of the estate is farmed in-hand and the other half is tenanted, with the tenant running about 800 blackfaced ewes.’ Mike slowed the Land Rover and bumped through a hill burn that crossed the track.

‘The estate owner has been quite happy with that but he’s getting on in years and got a good offer for the estate from Nigel Roberts who wanted a grouse moor of his own and has given up his land agent role.  

‘Roberts took over the estate some months ago and wants big changes. Jock Scott has already left and been replaced by a new head keeper, Cyril Masterfield, from the north of England who’s not much older than a school laddie. They’ve also brought in a young under keeper, Charles Brock, from another estate where Roberts formerly gave management advice and they’re renovating one of the estate houses for him. They’ve also given Masterfield and Brock brand new Land Rovers and I’m damned sure they’re getting a bigger wage than Albert.’

‘Thankfully, I’ve only met Roberts once,’ said Bob. ‘He has the reputation of being able to produce big bags of grouse. I’ve heard one or two keepers and landowners singing his praises but others loath him, saying a lot of his methods are illegal and give grouse shooting a bad name.’

‘That’s exactly the point,’ Mike replied, ‘My brother is now being made to work all the hours under the sun. It’s clear that they want him out and replaced by a younger man. Albert is nearing 60, a few years older than me, and he’s not up to working 16 or 18 hours a day. It’s not right that he should be asked to do that anyway.’ Bob could hear the anger rising in Mike’s voice. ‘His wife, Lizzie, doesn’t keep too well and Albert can’t afford to be out all night.’

Mike’s face was reddening as his rage grew. ‘The two new guys have been shooting red deer and roe deer at night in the spotlamp and just leaving them lying, not even putting the bloody things into the food chain.’

Mike knew that deer, mountain hares and sheep get the blame for carrying the ticks which can infect grouse and give them the disease louping ill so guessed why the deer were being slaughtered.

‘Masterfield was even boasting that he shot a red deer stag last week, out of season of course, across the boundary fence on their neighbour’s land. They’re absolute bastards.’

The hill track Mike was driving on was now running parallel to the burn he crossed earlier. He stopped at a birch tree between the track and the burn and the two men got out. Mike pointed down to the burn where there was a log placed over the burn. In the middle of the log Bob could see a tunnel made of gridweld mesh with a trap in the centre of the tunnel. Bob recognised the trap as a Fenn Mk 4 trap and could see that both ends of the gridweld mesh were crimped in at either end to limit access to the tunnel to a mammal about the size of a rat.

‘Nothing in the trap today Bob but that seems to be a really good trapping site. In the last month or so I’ve caught three stoats and two rats. Because of new legislation I can’t use them where there are stoats from 1st April so I’ve a load of the new Tully traps to replace them.’

They drove on up the road for another hundred yards to where the remains of an old drystone dyke met the track. This time the trap was in a tunnel fashioned from the stones in the dyke.

Mike lifted the flat stone off the top of the tunnel to reveal a weasel with its body caught right in the centre of the two jaws of the trap.

‘If they’re set right these are great traps,’ said Mike. ‘I always set the trigger of the trap very lightly so that something even as light as a weasel would set it off. The trap would kill the weasel instantly. Hopefully the Tully traps will be as efficient.’

He removed the dead weasel from the trap and shoved it into a gap a bit further along the dyke. As Mike reset the trap Bob was wondering what harm a weasel would do to wildlife since it mostly catches and kills mice and voles, voles also being a serious vector for ticks and louping ill. He was a pragmatist; knowing what Mike was doing was legal, and part of his job, he said nothing.

When they got back into the Land Rover Mike took out a tin of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. He continued with the sorry tale of his brother’s situation.

‘The new headkeeper, Masterfield, came round to my brother yesterday and gave him a tub of Yaltox, telling him to get on and get rid of the vermin on the estate. It was clear to Albert he meant birds of prey as well as foxes and crows.’

Bob knew Yaltox as the trade name of the banned pesticide carbofuran. ‘What the hell did your brother say about that?’

‘He was dumbstruck. He’d heard this was happening on other estates where Roberts was involved. He’d read lots of stuff in the papers about crime on these estates, but he couldn’t believe he was getting caught up in this illegal gamekeeping. He phoned me and I told him to bury the tub of Yaltox and to cut open and put out some shot rabbits as if he had put some of the pesticide on them. If the other keepers look closely at the rabbits, they’ll see there’s no poison on them as the dark blue granules would be visible. They’d also expect to see one or two dead insects on the carcasses, though there’s not many bluebottles about yet, especially up at this height.’

Mike suddenly broke off, pointing. ‘There’s a female hen harrier over there hunting up that gully.’

Bob could see the brown raptor flying slowly close to the ground, stalling from time to time, turning and continuing into the wind. For a few minutes he watched the hunting technique of this magnificent bird, with the lovely white feathers on its rump and dark bars across the tail, and saw it suddenly drop into the white grass, probably for a field vole. It must have missed the vole and rose again and continued hunting for another 50 yards till it disappeared from view.

‘They’re fantastic birds, God knows how folk can kill them.’

‘They cause no problem here,’ said Mike. ‘We’re not high intensity but they’re hated on most intensively managed driven grouse moors. We’ve usually got a nesting pair in that sloping bank of long heather at the far side of that burn.’ He pointed to a slope about a quarter of a mile away. ‘They reared chicks last year, four I think. The laird sometimes comes up and watches the food passes – the male passing food to the female – from just a wee bit further along the hill road. The female comes off the nest in the heather for the food pass then goes back with the prey to the chicks. We’ve never gone to the nest during the nesting time, but I’ve passed it after the chicks are away. We never tell any of the raptor folks about it as we don’t want them disturbed.’

‘Getting back to your brother Mike, would he talk to me about all of this?’ Bob suspected the answer would be no as keepers are loath to give information or statements to the police that would put their job and tied house at risk. He hoped in this case, since Roberts obviously wanted rid of Albert to replace him with a young malleable keeper, that he might be one step nearer to charging someone committing criminal acts against protected wildlife.

‘I think he would, though I doubt if he’d want to be involved in anything that finished up with him giving evidence in court. He’ll have a hard enough job getting another job in gamekeeping at his age without being ostracised by his peers. I’ll phone him and get back to you.’ The short life of the cigarette long finished, Mike fired up the Land Rover and they set off to check a crow cage trap further out the hill.

They completed a circuit of the hill, checking the crow cage in which the decoy carrion crow still had no company in the trap. Bob was pleased to see that the mandatory sign in the trap was in order, showing the trap number issued by Scottish Natural Heritage. He also saw that the decoy crow had a fresh half-eaten rabbit and clean drinking water. The law was being complied with; he expected no less on this estate.

Before parting Mike said, ‘I’ll give you a call tomorrow morning Bob and tell you what my brother says. Hopefully things will work out for him and for you.’ They shook hands.

On the journey back to his office in Perth Bob contemplated Albert’s predicament. He hoped he could get evidence enough to get at least one of the three men he’d been told about to court.

Especially Nigel Roberts.

If you’ve enjoyed this chapter and are intrigued as to how the story unfolds see my blog at https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/ for details of this and my other books and of how to buy a signed copy. The sequel to this book, Cruel Intentions, is meantime with the publisher and will be available later in the autumn.

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Millden Estate keeper jailed – some thoughts

So Rhys Owen Davies, a former gamekeeper at the infamous Millden Estate in Glenesk, has been jailed for 210 days, a well-deserved sentence. He pled guilty at Forfar Sheriff Court to, while employed at the estate, keeping five dogs for animal fighting from 24 April 2018 to 8 October 2019.  An important part of the penalty was his disqualification from keeping dogs for 15 years.

The evidence was uncovered after a raid by SSPCA and police at his home. He also pled guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to two dogs by failing to provide veterinary treatment and to breaching the conditions of his firearms certificate by having unsecured firearms and ammunition in his home. Police found a Benelli shotgun propped against a wall near the front door. Two rifles were also found, a Tikka .243 rifle on the sofa and a CZ rifle in the hall cupboard next to the open gun cabinet.  An assortment of ammunition, including 23 bullets in a pot on the floor, five in a carrier bag behind the front door and one on top of a bed were also seized by police.  He was fined £1,800 in relation to the firearms offences

All of his terriers were signed over to the SSPCA, who reported the animal welfare part of the investigation to the procurator fiscal after finding equipment on the property linked to illegal animal fighting including, locator collars, medication, needles and syringes and a staple gun used to staple up injuries.  Badger DNA was found on a red locator collar following forensic examination, and photo albums were recovered showing images linked to badger digging, with Davies clearly identified in some of them.

Identification of the person committing a crime is often one of the most difficult pieces of evidence to obtain, and of course it is crucial to a conviction. While the evidence of identification was clear in the animal welfare and the firearms charges it was a different story in a third part of the investigation.  A number of dead raptors in bags were apparently discovered in at least three separate locations, and believed to include at the addresses of two employees, who I’m guessing would be other gamekeepers. Police Scotland have not released further details though a case (or cases) were reported to the procurator fiscal who considered that there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

Alma, a satellite-tagged golden eagle found poisoned on Millden Estate

This is unsurprising. I was involved in different aspects of policing for 50 years, including 20 years specialising in wildlife crime investigation and intelligence-gathering. I found crime committed against raptors to be the hardest of all crimes to solve – and I saw this nation-wide while with the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit – principally because they are most often committed on large tracts of land with no witnesses. The law is quite clear that it is an offence to possess a dead wild bird unless it can be shown that it died of natural causes or was killed other than by a crime being committed against it. It is suspected – though not confirmed by Police Scotland – that these birds were shot. This is not difficult to prove by x-ray examination, but proving who shot them, or even who was in possession of them is a much harder component of a case to prove. I would suspect this is where this investigation fell.

Despite the raptor persecution part of the investigation having no satisfactory outcome let’s look at what has been found on Millden Estate over the years.

In 2006 a working collie was poisoned. Around the same time the eggs of a nesting hen harrier disappeared and two fresh shotgun cartridge cases were found near the nest. Despite DNA tests on the cartridge cases and the shotguns of the keepers being taken for comparison with the mark on the cartridge cases made by the firing pin no charges could be brought.

A poisone buzzard found on the estate

In 2009 a poisoned buzzard was found. That same year a poisoned golden eagle, Alma, was found. We carried out an operation during which traces of a different pesticide to that which killed the buzzard and eagle were found on a knife, two keeper’s game bags, and sweepings from five keeper’s vehicles. Despite a huge operation, no charges could be brought. One of the most disturbing aspects of the investigation was that while I was on the estate along with ornithologist Roy Dennis, we discovered that all of the single trees along the edge of the hill burns had been cut down, presumably to prevent the nesting or roosting of carrion crows or raptors.

Also in 2009 a dead otter was found in a fox snare.

The dead otter found in a fox snare on the estate. Photo courtesy of Grampian Police.

In 2010 an egg tray and nitrile gloves, all with traces of pesticide, were recovered buried on the estate. It is likely that eggs baited with pesticide had been set out.

In 2011 a buzzard was seen being shot. The person doing the shooting drove off in a Land Rover. Neither the vehicle nor the person shooting could be identified. Despite a search on a rocky hill face, we were unable to recover the dead buzzard.

In 2012 May, (after I had retired from Tayside Police and moved to the UK National Wildlife Crime unit) a satellite-tagged golden eagle probably caught in a spring trap, mysteriously moved overnight from Millden Estate and was found dumped, still alive and with two broken legs, on Deeside.

This is a horrendous catalogue of criminality. In some of the investigations, gamekeepers were arrested and interviewed at a police station (a power the SSPCA don’t have and which should be borne in mind by those who think giving SSPCA extra powers will be the silver bullet to solving wildlife crime). Unable to prove the crucial identification of who committed the particular crime frustrated all of the officers involved, and I’ve no doubt frustrates specialist wildlife prosecutors. Wildlife law, including police powers and sentencing options, is reasonably strong in Scotland, much more so than in England and Wales. Unfortunately the risk of being caught and convicted remains low. Vicarious liability has made some difference as a deterrent though not much as a penalty, since it is not always possible to identify the owner of an estate.

I have been saying for years that effective sanctions are required to augment the legislation. One sanction, though fairly toothless, is the suspension of the right to use a general licence. If a person takes no notice of the law and continues to illegally shoot, poison and trap raptors or other protected wildlife then he is likely to disregard any suspension of a general licence. Much more effective, provided it is worded correctly, is what we have all been waiting for: licensing of driven grouse moors. I have generally found that if a landowner does not want his employees to break the law and enforces that with the threat of immediate dismissal, then they will abide by the law. Surely it is much more relaxing for a keeper if his employer does not mind (or even enjoys) seeing a hen harrier, peregrine, buzzard or golden eagle on the land. If the employer does not enforce employees to keep within the law then some will quite happily kill what they consider as ‘vermin.’

Returning to the jailing of gamekeeper Davies, the specialist wildlife prosecutor Karon Rollo, who I know well, said in press release:

“I welcome the sentence and the granting of the order preventing him from keeping animals for 15 years. I would like to thank Police Scotland and the Scottish SPCA for their part in investigating and gathering evidence of these offences. 

“Hopefully this prosecution and the sentence will serve as a message to others who would cause such suffering that there are consequences and that they will be held to account for their actions and could also lose their liberty. 

“COPFS will continue to work to ensure those who participate in these barbaric practices are prosecuted and would encourage anyone who may have information on animal fighting to contact Police Scotland or the Scottish SPCA.” 

As for Millden Estate and its disgraceful record, I’d recommend that those who think it’s a wonderful place to shoot vote with their feet and their wallets and take their custom elsewhere. Other landowners and keepers should also make their feelings known and ostracize the estate. A catalogue of crime like this brings shame to game shooting and all of its participants. It has already led to the promised licensing regime and if it does not stop, may lead to the banning of driven game shooting altogether.

Lastly, I’m well aware that for various reasons it’s not aways possible for the police to keep the public up to date with the detail of some investigations. There is a huge public interest in wildlife and the crime so often committed against our wonderful birds and animals. The public must be kept on side and there is nothing more likely to turn folks against reporting suspected crime and criticism of the police than failing to share progress of an investigation.

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Removal of live fox from den. Questions of legality.

I saw a tweet from Weymouth Animal Rights which appeared to show a live fox that had been dug or pulled from a den being placed by several men into a box on a quad bike. A terrier had been in the den for the purpose of bolting the fox and apparently came out of the den shortly after the fox was taken.

There were lots of claims on Twitter that this activity was illegal and that the police were failing to take action against those involved as they allegedly said there was not sufficient evidence for a prosecution.

I’m in absolutely no doubt, as most folks will be, that the fox was carted off by the men for some extremely cruel and disgusting end, but for the police to charge someone they must show evidence of a crime either against some statute or common law. I wondered about what the offence might be.

The first choice was a contravention of Section 1 of the Hunting Act 2004, which states: 

A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt.

There are five conditions that must be fulfilled when flushing a mammal from below ground for that activity to be within the terms of the 2004 Act. Numbers 1 to 4 appear to have been in order but condition 5 states that: 

(a)reasonable steps are taken for the purpose of ensuring that as soon as possible after being found or flushed out the wild mammal is shot dead by a competent person, and

(b)in particular, each dog used in the stalking or flushing out is kept under sufficiently close control to ensure that it does not prevent or obstruct achievement of the objective in paragraph (a).

So in this case why was the fox not shot? It probably could not be shot while still in the den as the terrier was still in there and may have been killed or injured by the shot. Normally when a fox is flushed it runs off and then is shot by someone with a shotgun. Would the same effect not have been achieved by pulling the fox out, immediately letting it go and shooting it as it ran off?

The men might argue that they were taking the fox off to shoot it elsewhere. Firstly, this is not shooting it as soon as possible after being found or flushed. Secondly, if it’s put in a wooden box it still has to be released from the box to be shot.

There may be grounds for a charge here (assuming there is identification of the person or persons involved and that they can’t give a valid reason for not shooting the fox at the time) though I wouldn’t be confident that a public prosecutor would agree.

The second option for a charge might be under Section 4(1) of the Animal Welfare Act 2006

A person commits an offence if—

(a)an act of his, or a failure of his to act, causes an animal to suffer,

(b)he knew, or ought reasonably to have known, that the act, or failure to act, would have that effect or be likely to do so,

(c)the animal is a protected animal, and

(d)the suffering is unnecessary.

The act of putting a terrier into a den to flush a fox is legitimate under the Hunting Act, despite the fact that suffering to the fox is involved. The fox, when it is pulled out of the den, is captive, therefore it falls within the definition of a protected animal. What follows, by putting the fox, a wild animal, in a box, is an act that causes the fox to suffer, plus that suffering is unnecessary. This may open the way for a charge under the Animal Welfare Act that may be more acceptable to a prosecutor and a court.

Again, this would be subject to identification of the suspect(s), a factor which is unknown, plus an expert giving evidence of the fact that the activity would cause unnecessary suffering to a fox.

It is an interesting scenario, and I’m sure the police officers dealing with it would be keen for a prosecution and would have considered the options I’ve outlined.

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My garden wildlife

My wife and I are lucky enough to have a garden of 1.5 acres. I suppose it can only be described loosely as a garden since more than a third of it is a steep bank with a couple of hundred larch, wild cherry, ash and rowan trees. A burn runs through the garden, joined before it leaves by a much smaller stream I have dammed as a pond for my ducks. The remainder of the garden is a mix of grass, shrubs, small trees, half a dozen large fir trees and a vegetable garden.

This mix of habitat seems to suit wildlife and the variety living in or visiting the garden is incredible. As I’m typing this there are six blackbirds and two dunnocks feeding on fallen scraps of fat from the fat balls hanging overhead. Three are adult males, which is unusual in that they are not being competitive for either the food or the territory, one is a mature female and the other two are well-grown fledglings. The feeders above variously contain fat balls, peanuts and sunflower hearts.

Since we came to the house in 1993 the species of birds has changed slightly. The main birds coming to the feeders then were chaffinches and greenfinches. Greenfinches started to become less common and were replaced by house sparrows, which seemed to come from a farm steading along the road which was demolished. Thankfully this past two years greenfinches are becoming more numerous. Blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits visit the feeders, the families of long-tailed tits only staying a few minutes despite a considerable food supply. Goldfinches are becoming more numerous but the biggest surprise this winter was the presence of at least 60 siskins. Siskins remain now the most common birds, concentrating on the fat balls and (less-so) the peanuts. Naturally the number of small birds attract sparrowhawks. Though they take some birds, my feeders are placed where the birds have most chance of escaping predation. An immature female sparrowhawk crashed into the conservatory window one time and sat on the path for a few minutes to recover. Another bird which crashed into the window – probably the most unusual bird to come to the garden – was a woodcock. Unfortunately it wasn’t as lucky as the sparrowhawk, and didn’t survive the crash.

I’m always amazed at the woodpigeons in the garden. In a field they wouldn’t let a person within a hundred yards without flying off, but the other day I was sitting outside reading a paper and my dog, Molly, was relaxing on the grass. A woodpigeon landed between us, about two yards from my dog and maybe three yards from me, and began to busily peck at clover. My dog, used to birds including my hens and ducks, never batted an eyelid and the pigeon fed happily for about ten minutes until an amorous male woodpigeon landed, puffing itself up, bowing its head and raising its tail and pestering it into flying off. Another pair have recently been sitting on the handrail of the steps from the conservatory gently taking turns at pecking each other’s head. They’re a real pair of lovebirds and the female has been building a nest in the pergola.

It’s lovely to listen to the songs of the birds, especially in the morning. Spending as little as five minutes outside I can listen to a blackbird, song thrush, robin, dunnock, chaffinch, the loud piercing song of a wren, woodpigeon, chiffchaff and blackcap. The tit family seemed to have stopped singing now and are busy feeding chicks. Two families of blue tits, one of great tits and one of coal tits successfully fledged in the garden this year that I’m aware of. Disappointingly there have been no spotted flycatchers nesting here this year.

The burn attracts its own mix of birdlife. Grey wagtails regularly nest in the dyke edging the burn, while dippers nest in a drain under the bridge under the main road. Kingfishers periodically pass up and down the burn and I’ve jammed a stick into the dyke over the deepest pool that contains minnows and young brown trout. Herons, especially immature birds, are regular visitors and are also keen to harvest these small fish. They often sit on the drive and their presence there is usually marked by a large white splash.

I mustn’t forget the mammals. We regularly have red squirrels, especially in summer when young are dispersing. They are great to watch as they bounce across the grass looking for a suitable place to bury a nut, giving it a final pat into the ground to complete the job. Hedgehogs come nightly to their feed station, nearly always emptying their bowl of kitten food which is placed where cats can’t get at it. I bought hedgehog food for them but they ignore it in preference to the kitten food.

Three mammals that come to the garden are a potential threat to my hens and ducks, though the poultry are safely tucked up at night. I’ve twice lost ducks to otters that have appeared at dawn or dusk and I once had to chase an otter out of the pond after it scattered the ducks but before it made a capture. A mink is an occasional visitor though if I know one is about I usually manage to trap it. The last one that I saw was wrestling with an eel in the burn. I ran for the camera but they were both gone when I returned. I suspect the mink would be the winner in that battle.

In a way I’m pleased that a pine marten is a very occasional visitor. I’ve twice captured one on the trail camera and one autumn morning I found a bright red pine marten scat in the garden. It had clearly had a good feed of berries. If it sticks to berries and not my hens and ducks I’ll be quite happy, though I’ve no intention of encouraging their visits.

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The Corncrake, an ecology of an enigma by Frank Rennie

That the corncrake is a most unusual bird has certainly been captured and explained in this book. The author, who is Professor of Sustainable Rural Development at the University of the Highlands and Islands, is well-placed to write on the corncrake, living in one of its last strongholds in the Western Isles. He has combined his considerable experience of the ecology of the corncrake with that of numerous other studies of this bird worldwide to produce a book that leaves no stone unturned in an effort to uncover its secret lifestyle.

The book covers the biology and population and distribution of the corncrake, the type of land that they favour for breeding, their migration and much more. I was particularly interested in a chapter on the various calls of the corncrake, and their meaning, far beyond the well-known crek crek. A later chapter deals with their various predators, though their biggest threat is that of the birds, their chicks or nests being destroyed by cutting grass for silage or haylage. The author delves into the various types of habitat management that has been tried, with varying degrees of success. Considering the vast amount of information in this book, the author concludes that what makes this bird really interesting is the fact that there is so much as yet unknown about its ecology.

Helpful graphs and tables give additional information in many of the chapters, and there are eight pages of colour photographs, though one omission in my view is the lack of a photograph of a corncrake nest and eggs.

I enjoyed the book, and I’d suggest with its scientific leaning, it is one that would be a magnet to serious enthusiasts of birds. Frank Rennie absolutely deserves full marks for the effort he has put into producing such a comprehensive book on a single bird, albeit one that clearly offers as many questions as answers.

The Corncrake, an ecology of an enigma by Frank Rennie. Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG. £18.99

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Trapping rooks in June

I heard the other day that someone was using multi-catch cage traps to catch rooks. It was alleged it was on an almost industrial scale, with nine ladder and funnel traps spaced out over two fields that a crop of silage had been taken off. The allegation was that each trap looked to be holding between 25 and 30 rooks, though I’ve no doubt there would be some jackdaws amongst the captive corvids. This operation may well have been legal, though I suspect it was more likely to have been illegal.

Rooks trapped in ladder traps (in 2019, before general licences conditions were tightened)

Under the revised general licences that took effect in Scotland from the beginning of April 2020 Licence 1 allows the killing or taking of certain birds for the purpose of the conservation of wild birds. This list includes jackdaws but does not include rooks. Simplified, rooks cannot be killed or taken for the purpose of the conservation of wild birds, so the traps could not (or at least should not) have been set for that purpose. If they were set for that purpose, a condition of use of both licences is that: ‘Trap operators must immediately release any unharmed bird found in any trap which is not a species covered by this General Licence’. The rooks should therefore have been set free, though somehow I doubt that would happen.

Licence 2 allows the killing or taking of certain birds for the purpose of the prevention of serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables and fruit. Rooks and jackdaws are included in this list and both can be used as decoy birds in a multi-catch cage. On this basis it seems likely that a farmer was using the cage traps rather than a gamekeeper, though I don’t know any farmers (or even any gamekeepers) with nine mobile ladder or funnel traps.

So what serious damage could have been taking place? Rooks are no threat to livestock. They’re unlikely to enter buildings to take foodstuffs. Vegetables and fruit are not yet ready. In the month of June almost all crops have been sown so it’s unlikely the rooks could be being blamed for digging up grain or peas, nor could they be blamed for eating flattened grain. Was the serious damage actually taking place, or was it anticipated?  If it was anticipated, when was damage thought to have been a risk? Later this month? Later this year?  2023?  Where was the serious damage? Was it in these fields? (That’s unlikely). Was it 500 metres away?  Was it a mile away? Was it five miles away? The general licence probably needs to define all this. The only way to know what serious damage was at issue is to ask the person setting the traps, and had he tried all other methods to protect the crops and found them to be ineffective.

Somehow I’m not convinced that everyone controlling ‘pest’ species is sticking to the rules.

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Wildlife Detective – new edition, May 2022. (£15)

Wildlife Detective was my first book and is now on its third reprint. The new edition launched this month has a new front cover picture and a new introduction. The book covers my earlier days with Perth and Kinross Constabulary, which was then amalgamated into Tayside Police. At my first station, Dunblane, because of my farming background, I was put in charge of the checking of farmers’ stock books. I dealt with many game poachers while working from Dunblane, then when I was transferred to Perth I dealt with well over 100 salmon poaching and deer poaching cases.

In 1993, when I became the Force Wildlife Crime Officer, I took on many investigations into raptor persecution, some successful but many frustrated by the lack of the police powers available now. In the book I frequently reflect on amusing incidents, including nearly losing my wellies in a dung midden, almost being thwarted from a mission to capture two salmon poachers by a herd of noisy cattle in a field in pitch darkness, and a transvestite hill walker in a tent near a golden eagle nest site.

The new introduction gives a flavour of the book.

INTRODUCTION

This book was first published in 2007 and it is now January 2022 as I write this updated introduction. I have to reflect on the huge changes in legislation and the way in which police and prosecutors used to deal with wildlife crime compared with modern-day investigations and results. I was a serving officer with Tayside Police when I took part in many of the investigations in this book, whether as constable, detective constable, sergeant, detective sergeant or inspector. In relation to some of the later investigations I cover, I had retired from being a serving officer and, still with Tayside Police, was investigating wildlife crime and advising and assisting serving officers in a civilian role, albeit without any of the police powers that I formerly had.

My lack of police powers was unimportant. The number of officers trained to deal with the variety of wildlife crime and fill the role of wildlife crime officers as part of their normal policing duties was gradually increased to ten. This expanded experience, together with the enthusiasm of this small band of officers, made a difference, but we still were encumbered by out-of-date or unsuitable legislation. While the police experience was improving in dealing with an aspect of criminality which had formerly been pretty much ignored, the procurator fiscal service was still lagging behind. Few, if any, prosecutors had little familiarity in marking and presenting some of the more complex investigations in court.

We investigated hundreds of crimes committed against a variety of wildlife, but as you will appreciate when you read this book, on many occasions the cases never reached court. If they did reach court they often resulted in a not guilty or not proven verdict for reasons outwith the control of the investigating officer and frequently because of the wording of the legislation. If we did secure a conviction, few penalties available to courts included the option of imprisonment.

Nevertheless, despite the frustrations when dealing with wildlife issues, and apart from a short spell in the 1980s when I wished that I had been a vet (though my lack of university education would have precluded this) I had no wish to earn a crust from anything other than the profession of which I was one small cog in a big wheel. I had joined Perth and Kinross Constabulary as a police cadet in 1965, and worked in Perth, mainly carrying out office duties of different sorts though occasionally getting out and about under the supervision of a police constable. On 15 May 1966 I was old enough to become a police constable, at a mere eighteen and a half years old, and I joined the big league. I was stationed in Dunblane, Perth, CID, Drug Squad, and by the time I retired I was inspector covering Crieff and Kinross as well as carrying out my force-wide wildlife crime role.    

My background had been in the countryside, with a fascination in anything that grew there, lived there or took place there. At an early age I could identify most animals and birds, knew the crops that were growing in every field, and even had a boring knowledge of varieties of barley and wheat, breeds of sheep, cattle and poultry, and even the names for most parts of the harness used by working Clydesdale horses. Worse still, as a boy I could identify some of the more common ailments farm livestock were subject to, such as calcium or magnesium deficiency and orf in sheep, and ringworm, mastitis or grass sickness. It was little wonder that during the whole of my policing career I was never happier than when I was allocated a call that had something to do with animals.

The book is principally about wildlife crime and the force-wide investigative responsibility which I had from 1993 to 2011. It is unsurprising that dealing effectively with the wide spectrum of wildlife crime is a specialist role so the early part of the book deals with how I gained some knowledge and experience of dealing with poachers in the more formative years of my police service, especially during the late 1960s and early 1970s. This experience would stand me in good stead later on, even though neither I nor anyone else at that time had ever heard of, or considered the responsibilities of, a wildlife crime officer.

Returning to the present time, many of the investigations of which you will read would have had a totally different and much more satisfying conclusion had the updated legislation been available that exists in 2022. Suspects can now be arrested and taken to a police station. Police officers can search land and unlocked buildings without warrant. This was a change in legislation that I and a colleague, Inspector John Grierson, managed with great difficulty to convince the then Scottish Executive legislators as being essential. Snaring legislation has been considerably improved. Outdated poaching legislation has been repealed and incorporated into the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The outdated (and completely useless) Conservation of Seals Act 1970 has been repealed, replaced in 2010 by a much more satisfactory Marine Scotland Act.

Many of the crimes against wildlife are now punishable by 5 years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. Each Division in Police Scotland has a wildlife crime liaison officer, many of those being full-time posts, and there is also a network of part-time wildlife crime officers across the force. There is a detective sergeant and detective constable in full-time support roles. There are wildlife policing priorities recognised across the United Kingdom, namely crime committed against bats, badgers, raptors, freshwater pearl mussels, specified CITES species, poaching and cypher-enabled wildlife crime. We have a government-led Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime in Scotland, and a UK National Wildlife Crime Unit has been developed. It is based in Stirling and has a crime intelligence function as well as giving valuable assistance and advice to police forces during investigations. Lastly, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have upped their game and have a highly efficient Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit with specialist prosecutors who deal with all wildlife, environmental and animal welfare crime.

In the near future it is likely that driven grouse moors will be licensed, which will be a major step forward, since the licence will be able to be revoked in certain circumstances yet to be determined. It is also likely that the unwieldy and non-user-friendly legislation covering the hunting of wild mammals with dogs will be updated soon.

When you read the different chapters in this book bear all these changes in mind and imagine how they would have influenced the various investigations, prosecutions and sentences. 

For a signed copy of this book or for offers on my books see my blog at https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/april-offer-free-signed-copy-of-the-thin-green-line/

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Another walk over Rottal Estate in Glen Clova

I had another enjoyable visit to Rottal Estate in Glen Clova on 28th April. Just short of the entrance to the estate office there was a large flock of oystercatchers in a grass field at the roadside. There would not be far short of 100 birds and they were busily pecking and probing at whatever morsels they could find in the grass. They’re generally just a wee bit later than lapwings to begin nesting but the signs are good for plenty oystercatcher nests soon.

Two of nearly 100 oystercatchers

I began with walking over some of the lower ground, which was mostly rough permanent grassland being rested and with no stock, and some new grass being enjoyed by blackfaced sheep and their lambs. I was delighted at the first sighting: a male lesser redpoll. It landed briefly on a fence, gave me long enough to get my binoculars on to it, but must have been camera-shy as it took off as I swapped binoculars for camera. Nevertheless it was a bird I hadn’t expected to see.

One of the three brown hares

I walked down the side of a hedge (it’s good to see fields divided by hedges rather than just fences) and could see a couple of lapwings at the far end of the field I was in running along the ground as if they had come off a nest at my approach. Half-way down the hedge I stopped at a gate to see into the next-door field with sheep and lambs. They were also joined by lapwings, as well as three brown hares, although somewhat distant, and an adult rabbit. Two 2022 model rabbits sat at the entrance to a nursery burrow, they looked around a month old and this may well have been their first excursion above ground.

A rabbit shares the field with the sheep

Further on I visited a wetland area which had been improved by the estate, and the pond and rushes now supported a colony of about 100 black-headed gulls. The gulls took to the air at my approach and landed on a nearby knoll to observe my progress. I could see the beginnings of three platforms of weed that would be built a bit higher and in a matter of days some will hold a clutch of three eggs. As I moved round the pond a female teal sprang into the air from the rushes in the centre. Hopefully it will nest there as well. The gulls may be potential predators of the teal’s eggs but they will also be guards that will alert other nesting birds to the presence of another predator such as a fox or otter. By the time I got to the end of the wetland the gulls had moved back to the pond, showing they are reasonably tolerant to moderate disturbance.

The wetland area colonised by black-headed gulls about to nest

I continued on towards a strip of young trees enclosed in another wet area, disturbing a redshank, which landed briefly on top of a telegraph pole. A curlew rose from within the fenced area. I may have disturbed it off a nest though I think it was more likely to have been probing the mud in the wet area. My journey towards the River South Esk, the boundary of the estate, took me down a ditch side where I disturbed yet another species of wader, this time a snipe. I stood for a while at the side of the South Esk, expecting to see one or two wildfowl flying up or down the river, but it was all quiet.

The River South Esk

Back in the rough grass again there was a good number of lapwings. Twice I must have been near a nest as the lapwings flew close to me, although they were silent. In a week or so some eggs will have hatched and the lapwings then noisily mob anyone near the chicks, as they do with any other ground or aerial predator. I was about to make my way back to the estate office through the next field, which was a grass field with sheep and lambs. I could see at least half a dozen lapwings and a curlew along with the sheep and it was an ideal field for nesting. I changed my mind when I saw a lesser black-backed gull quartering the field. It may have been looking for some of the recently-lambed ewes’ afterbirth, but it could equally have been looking for nests. If I’d put the lapwings off nests they’d be more vulnerable to the gull so I took a detour via another field back to the estate office.

One of many curlews on Rottal Estate

Dee Ward, the estate owner, then kindly took me in the land rover to the top of the hill. As I get older I walk down hills much more easily than climb up them. The journey up in the vehicle revealed good numbers of wheatears, skylarks, meadow pipits and even a common sandpiper. Halfway up I briefly saw a lapwing harrying a bird of about the same size. It was most likely a bird of prey of some sort but I didn’t have long enough to identify it before it dipped over the skyline.

Nearer the top of the hill Dee was surprised that there were no mountain hares showing. Two RSPB staff who are on the estate monitoring waders saw a white-tailed eagle on the hill earlier and it’s possible that the hares moved away because of that.

The mystery flower

I found an interesting flower on the hill. It was peeping out through the heather and was the only flower around. It looked a bit like a strawberry flower but I couldn’t imagine how a strawberry would get there. I was frustrated not knowing the name of the flower so if anyone can help please let me know.

A meadow pipit

As I approached the shooting hut a male merlin flew up the burn. I wondered if that had been the raptor that the lapwing had been harrying? A meadow pipit sat on a tuft of heather beside the shooting hut and I was delighted to see that a swallow nest from a previous year, which was occupied last year by a pied wagtail, now had been extended to include a wren’s nest.

Wren using a swallow’s nest to support its own

My last treat as I neared the estate office was a fly-past of six curlews, two of which were in full flow with their lovely trilling sound. It is the best sound in the countryside, so regularly heard on this estate, and a great end to my walk.

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Nesting carrion crows – a change in attitude

I’ve been watching a pair of carrion crows for the past month or so. Part of our garden is a wood of about half an acre, mainly mature larch trees but with some ash, wild cherry and a couple of fir trees. Nearby, at the edge of my vegetable patch, there are four spruce trees.

Carrion crow

One of the spruce trees was the nesting site for the carrion crows two years ago. An ash tree was used last year and this year I thought they were going to use the ash tree nest again as they showed great interest in it to begin with. However, their interest moved to one of the larch trees and they started building at near enough the top of the tree at a point where the tip was lying to the east because of the effect over years of the prevailing west wind.

Carrion crow nest in larch tree

The nest is currently being lined and what drew my attention yesterday to what I assume is the female’s regular visits to the nest with lining material was her voice. I was surprised first of all that she was so noisy while on the nest, drawing attention to her activities, but secondly her call was identical to that of a rook, so much so that I was convinced for a while that a rook had landed on the nest with a view to taking it over. It was only when she flew off the nest that it was easy to confirm the bird I was looking at was indeed a carrion crow. She has been lining the nest for three days now so it must be neatly complete. By the time she starts to lay her clutch of four or five eggs the larch tree will be fully greened-up and the nest will be much less visible from ground level. Between visits to line the nest both birds have regular patrols of the area and the male uses a perch on an ash tree, still bereft of leaves, to loudly proclaim that the territory is taken. I’m always interested that when carrion crows land they have a quick flip of their wings to settle them in place. I’ve never seen a rook doing this.

Carrion crow nest – close up

I’m quite surprised at my attitude to carrion crows. A decade ago had any carrion crow dared to nest in the garden I would probably have shot it. Apart from the conditions on general licences that allow some bird species to be controlled now being much more strict (and in any case having given up my shotgun certificate in 2014), I think that as we humans age in years we become much more tolerant and no longer feel the need to control everything in nature that doesn’t suit us. No doubt the carrion crows will take some eggs or chicks of other birds but there are no endangered birds such as curlews, grey partridge or lapwings in the immediate area so there will be no overall difference in the bird population because of the presence of the crows. The drastic decline of these species in any case is due to changes in farming methods altering habitat, nesting success and availability of food. I’m happy now to live with this pair or carrion crows and observe what they are doing, and have done over many centuries.

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Book Review: At the Very End of the Road by Phillip Edwards

At the Very End of the Road by Phillip Edwards is a book of observations. Descriptive observations. Minute observations. As well as describing weather and landscapes in fantastic detail, the author picks out the finest specifics of what a bird looks like, what it is doing and possibly even what it is thinking. He does this with such accuracy that the reader can almost see the bird and appreciates nuances of bird behaviour that only a trained eye can detect. This skill and knowledge can only be gained by many hours observing birds and the reader will be in awe at the author’s attention to detail.

This book is also a masterclass in the use of metaphors, similes and alliterations. In addition the author’s use of imaginative language is unparalleled. Take for example, Rabbits stand alert, erect on hind legs, casting a watchful gaze at the chestnut ripple of a weasel flowing along a grass track through the field, or A blackbird, fleeing the bushes and scolding in alarm, startles a woodpigeon that flushes with an applause of clapping wings. These narratives immediately allow the reader to appreciate, visually and aurally, exactly what the author is describing.

If I have any negative comment on this book it is that the author occasionally uses a word not in common usage when a more everyday word would save the reader reaching for the dictionary. Nevertheless it is a remarkable book by a talented author and one I’d thoroughly recommend.

At the Very End of the Road by Phillip Edwards. Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG. £16.99

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