A morning on Rottal Estate, Glen Clova

I had a relatively short (3 hours) walk on the lower ground of Rottal Estate this morning. It was a lovely sunny day though there was still a chill in the wind. It was not a day for sitting around but it was a lovely day for walking. When I’m appreciating nature I always walk slowly; fast walking means that you miss interesting things, plus you may not be able to stop in time if you suddenly stumble upon something interesting, the subject takes fright and is off.

I walked down a hedgerow dividing a grass field and a last year’s stubble field. Every 20 yards I seemed to be in a new chaffinch territory, with the male bird singing loudly from the top of the hedge. A pair of greenfinches were also skulking in the hedge, the attraction being the first of several farmland feed bins that were suspended in the hedge. The flattened earth under the feeders were testimony to their use.

One of several bird feeders in the hedges

As I came to a small gap in the hedge I could see a pair of greylag geese at the far end of the grass field. I thought geese might have been on eggs by this time, though of course they could have an incomplete clutch somewhere.

The two picked pheasant eggs

I hope it doesn’t have the same outcome as the two picked pheasant eggs I later found, with carrion crows being the chief suspects. Pheasants will not have laid a complete clutch yet and they are also guilty early in the season of just dropping an egg anywhere so there will be plenty time yet for the owner (or owners) of the picked eggs to rear chicks.

Greylag geese

I walked up to one of several lochans on the estate.  A hundred or so black-headed gull took off from the water at my arrival and watched me from a nearby hillock. There was no sign of nest-building (as there had been last year) but I was maybe just a week or so earlier. They were sharing the lochan with two pairs of teal, which took off and landed at the far end.

A bit further on I was pleased to see two grey partridges, the first I’ve seen for ages. Along with the hen harrier, they are my favourite birds. It’s a real pity they’ve almost gone from arable farmland because of lack of food and continual disturbance by implements. With stubbles being left unploughed on Rottal until late spring they should be able to find food, and there is plenty rough grass on the field edges for nesting.

Away from the hedges, the most common small birds were meadow pipits, skylarks and pied wagtails. It was great to see the number of lapwings and oystercatchers in the fields, and even a redshank.  On most of the damper areas there were plenty of calling curlews. The call of the curlew is one of the most evocative sounds in the countryside, but it is yet another bird that is struggling. They’re certainly not struggling on Rottal and if they get peace from foxes, crows and gulls their productivity should be good. It was interesting that every time a common gull flew over the fields it was harried by lapwings. Even a stray lesser black-backed gull received the same treatment. I was pleased that I saw no carrion crows.

Meadow pipit

As I came over a crest in one of the fields of last year’s barley stubble a lapwing rose about 30 yards ahead of me.  I marked the spot and sure enough the bird had come off a nest of four eggs, all with their pointed ends towards the centre of the nest. It’s the first lapwing nest I’ve seen for a while, but can remember in my teens a field loved by lapwings on Dupplin Estate near Perth where I found five nests as I crossed the field. There were lapwings everywhere and I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been at least twenty nests in the field, roughly one for every acre of the field.

Lapwing nest with eggs

I was pleased to see that there were plenty healthy rabbits in all of these fields. Near the lapwing nest there was a rabbit nesting burrow, a short burrow that the doe digs to have her litter of four to seven young rabbits. The narrow entrance was worn smooth by the passage of the doe in and out, and maybe even the young rabbits if they had reached four weeks of age and had been venturing outside. It’s unfortunate that there are so many areas, certainly in Perthshire, where the rabbit population has been almost wiped out by viral haemorrhagic disease. Rabbits recovered after the deadly myxomatosis in the 1950s; lets hope that they can get some immunity from this latest plague. As I was looking at the rabbit burrow a common gull flew over my head directly towards the lapwing nest. It dipped momentarily in its flight as it passed the spot where the nest was. I thought it had spotted the well camouflaged eggs but thankfully it carried on.

Rabbit nesting burrow

I drove along to the Rottal Burn and walked down the side of the burn towards the River South Esk. There was a marked difference from my last visit a year earlier; a massive flood had washed sand and gravel down and scattered tons of it across the field. Parts of the area looked like sandy beaches and pebbly beaches at the seaside. Oystercatchers will now find that a good nesting area. There was still plenty gravel within the burn itself and the water was lovely and clear. It is ideal for spawning salmon that come up the South Esk but I doubt that any eggs or salmon fry would have survived that flood.

The result of the flood on the Rottal Burn

Further down the burn I came to the fishing hut. Between the hut and the river a red kite was flying eastwards, while a buzzard was circling and mewing loudly over some mature trees to my right. There were two swallows’ nests on the south facing side that were in very good condition considering they were last years’ nests. They’ll take very little repair work to make them suitable for nesting this year if swallows come back to them.

Swallow nest

The most interesting find of the day was at the door of the fishing hut.  I noticed a large pile of bird droppings on the ground, and directly above, on a beam over the top of the door, there were scratch marks of a bird’s sharp talons. Looking downwards to the ground again there were over a dozen large grey furry pellets. I looked among them for any feathers that might have identified the species of bird using the beam as a roost but there were none.

Owl pellets

There were three main contenders: kestrel, tawny owl and barn owl.  The pellets were too large for a kestrel so it was out of the equation. It’s more the type of place I’d expect a barn owl to roost rather than a tawny owl but I considered the height above sea level and wondered if it was beyond the barn owl’s range. I’m still tempted to say barn owl but I’m not sure.  I’ll ask the estate owner, Dee, for his thoughts.

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Early beavers in Tayside

From a chapter in my book A Lone Furrow;

I had kept a close eye on the consultation to re-introduce the once indigenous European beaver to Scotland. The beaver was hunted to extinction in Britain in the sixteenth century and suffered a similar fate elsewhere in its European range. It’s yet another example of how man has interfered with and completely altered biodiversity and our natural heritage either for sport, greed or in ignorance. Proponents of European beavers claim that they are much less destructive than North American beavers and lead a different lifestyle. In Europe, in places where they remained in existence, or in the 13 countries to which they have been re-introduced, they are regarded as water engineers. They are claimed to benefit wildlife by building dams and creating wetlands and ponds that support a wide range of species. European beavers are alleged to regulate flooding and improve water quality as any silt coming down a river or stream is held behind their dam. In addition they benefit from and live happily alongside another species that is having an exceedingly hard time in Britain holding on to suitable habitat, the water vole: Ratty from Wind in the Willows.

Those who oppose their re-introduction say they will destroy salmon rivers, though this is countered by claims that they prefer slow-moving water rather than the much faster-flowing waters preferred by salmon. What may be a genuine complaint is that a dam may prevent salmon passing further upstream to spawn. There is also no doubt that beavers fell trees, which may be a negative factor in some cases but in other areas may be a benefit. In any event, despite a positive response for their return under controlled circumstances by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Government initially vetoed the return of the beaver to Britain, though a trial release began in Argyll in the spring of 2009. When the decision to release beavers was first knocked back, I was disappointed as I would love to have seen beavers back again in the environment they once shared with many other species before man’s interference. My wish came true sooner than I expected!

In November, 2006 I had a call from the proprietor of a trout fishery near Perth. He told me that over the previous few months – in fact since the summertime – several trees had been chopped down round his loch. At the beginning he thought it was local youths running amok with an axe and replicating George Washington’s demolition of the apple tree, though in this case the felled trees had mostly been willow and alder. As time went on he began to wonder if the culprit was a beaver, and consulted various internet sites to gain more knowledge of a beaver’s lifestyle. By the time he phoned me he was able to say that the internet photographs of the trees felled by beavers bore a striking similarity to those felled round his loch. I was intrigued but doubtful and agreed to meet the trout fishery owner and witness the evidence first-hand.

Evidence of the chisel-sharp teeth of a beaver

My visit left me in no doubt that the loch had a new inhabitant: one with chisel-sharp teeth and a flat tail used to clap against the water surface as a warning signal to its relatives of danger. About ten trees had been taken down round the lochside. Most were saplings but one in particular was about twelve inches in diameter. That really surprised me and was clear vindication of the axiom as busy as a beaver. The fishery owner had some concerns about the presence of a beaver in his fishery, the principal one being the difficulty of getting a large tree out of the loch once it had been felled. Casting a fly near to a toppled tree and hooking a large stocked trout which would immediately make a dash into the branches was not conducive to increasing the numbers of paying anglers. He could foresee a drop in profits.

In the meantime I was snapping away with my digital camera, at the back of my mind thinking I would email the photographs to Dr Andrew Kitchener, curator of mammals and birds at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, for absolute confirmation of the presence of a beaver. I suppose this was a belt and braces approach as I could clearly see the teeth marks on the trunk of the trees and the pile of multi-faceted wood chips beneath, lying like a pile of giant wooden gem stones. To my knowledge there was no other mammal that had a capacity to munch with that power. Andrew confirmed that it was a beaver and just to double-check emailed my photos to a friend in Norway, who concurred. The first wild beaver in the UK in Perthshire! Interesting. Even exciting. Nevertheless someone somewhere may well have committed an offence by allowing it to escape.

At section 14, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states, if any person releases or allows to escape into the wild an animal which (a) is of a kind which is not ordinarily resident in and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state; or (b) is a hybrid of any animal of that kind, he shall be guilty of an offence. This seems quite straightforward, though I was amused at the regular visitor part. Beavers are good swimmers but I hardly imagine they have regular – or even infrequent – sojourns across the North Sea. ‘Regular visitors’ is a term relevant to the part of the Act that relates to birds.

Within a couple of days I had a further call from the fishery owner: there were two beavers. He was in absolutely no doubt about this as both had been seen at the same time. This put a more positive slant on our investigation. It was much more likely now that if there were two beavers they had been brought to the fishery and released. For two beavers to escape – even from the same place and at the same time – and finish up at this fishery, would be unusual to say the least and anyone who believed that would be naive. If there were two beavers I had no doubt that someone wanted to kick-start a wild colony and also that the beavers would be male and female.

This was a difficult investigation as in reality the beavers could have originated anywhere. We did have three places in Tayside where European beavers were kept in large enclosures by private owners but asking them if they had lost any was completely different to asking someone who had two rabbits in a hutch or half a dozen budgies in an aviary if any had gone missing. Beavers are mainly nocturnal, secretive and for the most part, even when active, are underwater. Population statistics and breeding dynamics are not easily obtained.

In the meantime the fishery owner was keen to get rid of the beavers and I made contact with one of our local beaver-keepers, who volunteered to bring down a live-catch trap to assist. The trap was left open so that the beavers could enter and become familiar with it. In due course the safety catch would be taken off and the next time one of them entered the doors would drop and it would be again a captive beaver.

We almost never reached this stage. The fishery owner had begun to consider diversification into environmental interest. He had realised that the presence of beavers would not, as he had first thought, ruin his fishery, and he reckoned that their presence may provide a small additional income but more importantly could help to educate local young people about their environment, especially as the fishery already hosted an active badger sett, otters, kingfishers, herons and much more. He wondered about erecting a fence round the loch but was advised that the beavers would then be captive. If they were captive and he intended visitors to come and see them he would need to register them with Perth and Kinross Council and would require a zoo licence. Too much red tape put an end to this innovative vision.

How the fishery owner coped with the beavers was not a police matter though I allocated PC Doug Ogilvie, the divisional wildlife crime officer for that area, to monitor the situation. In addition there was some pressure from elsewhere to capture the beavers to at least determine whether they were the once-native European beaver or the more destructive North American beaver. There was also the question – especially if they were the latter species – that they may be carrying disease that could transmit to wildlife or even agricultural livestock here. They were an unknown, though hopefully benign, quantity.

I visited the fishery on several occasions hoping to catch a glimpse of the errant beaver. The elusive beastie never did appear, but the walks round the loch were well worthwhile. The highlight one morning was finding the evidence of a visit by an otter. Otter droppings, referred to as ‘spraints’ are black and oily. Those who have put their nose anywhere near may be surprised that the otter’s toilet has a rather sweet smell. They spraint regularly in the same place, marking their territory. I had found such a place, which was on a mossy covered boulder beside a ditch running from the loch to the nearby River Earn. This must be the favoured route of otters moving between the two stretches of water, and the nitrogen in the spraint and urine had killed and discoloured what should have been bright green moss. Like foxes, the otters depend on the scent from these marking posts to advertise their presence to visitors of the same species. The signal will be loud and clear. Our sense of smell is crude, a dimension that we have either lost or never truly developed. It is our loss that we can only guess at what the otter (or the fox) might be telling its rivals, or indeed prospective suitors.

The fishery beaver was trapped soon after this. All went quiet and I suspect it had been on its own. It is much more likely that, if two were thought to have been seen, they would have been otters. In the meantime there was an issue with an escaped beaver developing elsewhere in Perthshire.

In early January, 2007 I had a telephone call from a person who was concerned about wild boar roaming over woodlands in north-east Perthshire. He had seen them on frequent occasions and even if I did not see one he could show me evidence on the ground – spoor in native tracking terms – that could confirm their presence. I suddenly remembered a conversation I had with a gamekeeper who had been driving home one dark night in this area and encountered a wild boar running across the road in front of his car. I don’t often forget snippets of information I am given but this had been an exception. I had completely forgotten the wild boar story till this latest report stirred my ageing memory. ‘And there are beavers on the loose as well,’ my new informant assured me, ‘I can show you a tree that they have been chewing at, and a dam that they’ve made on the burn!’ The presence of beavers was almost a throw-away remark. It was something I was least expecting and one I could have well done without.

My helpful informant was willing to show me the evidence of escaped wild boar and escaped beavers but apparently had two very busy weeks ahead before he could do so. His report to me was simultaneous to a report from Scottish Natural Heritage of wild boar and beavers at the same location. This turned out to be the same incident and the same person reporting. He was not aware that the frolic in the wild which these species were enjoying could have constituted a crime and his first port of call had been SNH rather than the police. We have tried hard within Tayside Police to put the message about that wildlife crime should be reported to the police, who have the statutory enforcement role under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, but it was evident we had not yet reached everyone.

My informant met me on a date in early February and pointed me in the right direction to see evidence of the Tayside Two, boar and beaver. I saw plenty evidence of wild boar, first of all in the form of a grass field well rooted up by the snouts of the beasties in their search for bulbs, invertebrates and any other juicy morsels that lay under the healthy sward of grass. The gate of the field was open and the estate from which my informant stated the escapees had originated was just at the other side of the narrow country road.

As I was taking a few photographs I was enthralled by one of the earliest avian songsters – apart from the robin – and a real harbinger of Spring: the mistle thrush. Strangely I was not really aware of mistle thrushes until I was well into my twenties. Their song is not unlike the blackbird’s but instead of a full-flowing aria like the blackbird, the mistle thrush sings in short bursts. The first time I was aware of hearing one in full voice I was walking up a steep hill with a heavy game bag full of rabbits on my back and I thought that I was wheezing. It took me a while to realise that when I stopped walking the wheezing should also have abated, and only then I knew that the sound was from a different pair of lungs. I suppose this description does a disservice to the singing ability of the mistle thrush but the bird was probably about a quarter of a mile away. When heard close up, very often on a day when it is miserable with rain and all other birds are seeking shelter, the mistle thrush must surely lighten up the day of anyone who takes the time to listen, even if they don’t know the species that is giving them so much pleasure.

To digress further, we had a pair of mistle thrushes nested in the garden at home in 2005. I watched the female building a nest on the limb of an apple tree (not in a fork in the tree as text books suggest) while the male perched on top of a nearby larch tree singing for all he was worth and proclaiming his territory to birds of all other species, not just rival mistle thrushes. He showed no antagonism towards smaller birds but if he saw another member of the thrush family – a blackbird or a song thrush – or a bird he recognised as a predator such as a jackdaw, he was off his perch and viciously mobbing and scolding it, all the time making a loud churring call.

Eggs were laid in the nest and the female began to incubate. All seemed fine until one day I came home to find feathers scattered across the path between the lawn and one of the borders. I recognised two of the long white feathers as the outer feathers from a mistle thrush’s tail and realised my bird still sitting on the nest was now a single parent. I doubted it would cope on its own and was amazed every time I passed that I could still see the tip of the bill sticking up at one side of the nest and the end of the tail at the other. I was sure when the eggs hatched that the female could not collect food for the chicks and at the same time brood them to keep them sufficiently warm.

Within a few days I could see a bit more of the bird on the nest. I realised that the eggs had hatched and that the bird had to give a bit more space to the chicks by sitting higher in the nest. I was sure that within a few days all the chicks would be dead, but this was not the case. The valiant female mistle thrush managed to rear a single chick despite all the odds being stacked against her. The chick eventually fledged and on its first day out of the nest, the most vulnerable period before it is able to fly back to the safety of a tree, I watched it hopping around on the lawn. I was devastated in the morning when I came out of the house to find the chick lying dead on the lawn. It had been caught in the night by a cat, used as a plaything until it had died, and had been discarded once it no longer provided any fun. I have never liked cats, and I dislike cat owners who put their felines out at night with the milk bottles. And this latest incident strengthened my views.

Returning again to the wild boar hunt, there was ample evidence on the estate, and also on adjoining farms, that porcine ungulates were at large. Cloven hoof (or trotter) marks, droppings, freshly rooted areas and inverted U shapes under netting fences where the netting had been pushed up to create a pig-shaped runway all bore testament to their presence. The evidence extended across the estate and there must either have been a good number at large or a single one that was one helluva busy piggy. As busy as a piggy is not a common simile but that brings me neatly back to beavers. I found not one but two trees that bore the same chisel-teeth marks as I had earlier found at the trout fishery just south of Perth. There was also a dam across a burn near one of the trees. A beaver had indeed been busy! Too busy!

I intended to visit the estate owner – the owner of the beavers and wild boar – and make him aware of the law regarding allowing the escape of non-native species, but another incident took place before I could arrange my visit. I was staying overnight in a hotel prior to attending the Scottish Police Wildlife Crime Conference and ordered a morning newspaper. I was amazed to see a photograph depicting a beaver and the remains of 5 apple trees in an orchard. Just the stumps remained and I could easily see the handiwork as that of a beaver. This had taken place on a farm adjoining the estate in which I had an interest. The story was then covered on the news on television and on radio. I had to get moving.

I met the estate owner by arrangement a few days later. He is a really pleasant individual and makes no secret that he would like to see beavers and other formerly native species back in the wild. On the face of it he seemed to be making a good start at ensuring this took place. Had there been evidence the releases were deliberate then the action I took would have been substantially different. I had already discussed the issue with the Scottish Government, with Scottish Natural Heritage and with the specialist wildlife procurator fiscal in Tayside. All agreed with my decision that the estate owner should be warned; advised that he had to take all steps not just to round up the escapees but to ensure there were no further escapes.

The estate owner and I made our way round the estate and he was particularly proud to show me a new grid placed on the fence line of one of the beaver enclosures where the stream runs out. He had commissioned a local firm to install this grid but it was apparent that the employees had no idea of the size of beavers, maybe thinking they were the size of bears! A triangular gap at each side would easily allow beavers to escape and neither the contractors nor the owner had noticed this. This was the first issue for immediate attention.

We parked at the top of the beaver enclosure to then walk into the pond in the middle, but were confronted by a wild boar – a very large male – behind a pile of earth. Thankfully it seemed a canny sort of beast and just stood snorting at us as if it needed to be fed. Behind it lay the gate of a deer fence which looked as if it had been lifted in the air and off its wooden hinges by the boar’s strong snout. The owner told me that his wild boars had escaped during a gale on Hogmanay 2006, when a large number of trees were blown down, flattening and uprooting the security fencing. He explained that though he had managed to capture and contain the sows and their year-old litters, the boar, having tasted freedom, just could not now be secured in any enclosure. It had lifted off wooden gates, metal gates, and electric fencing now held no fear for it. We put the boar in the woodland and replaced the gate but I doubted it would stay there very long.

After I left the landowner I had a quiet walk around the estate – regrettably cut short as the rain was teeming down. Even though the estate was a bit run down and I suspected might not be making much profit, the habitat was as natural as you could find anywhere. I found the largest mixed bed of snowdrops and aconites that I have seen anywhere. It was an amazing mosaic of white and yellow and completely carpeted a chunk of very open mixed birch and alder woodland; a part that the wild boar had obviously not yet found. It was a tranquil spot and I tried to visualise it with shafts of bright sunlight coming through the trees, lighting up the woodland flowers rather than the blasts of almost horizontal rain that appeared to be making them indulge in a reluctant and un-coordinated dance as the heavy raindrops bounced off their petals.

I had a further thrill on one of the estate roads when I met the wandering boar again. It was at the side of the road and saw me before I saw it. It was walking towards me at a fairly brisk pace and I was glad that I was not far from my car. I took a series of photographs as it came towards me, though until I reached my car I never allowed the distance between us to decrease. My last photograph was when it was about 10 metres away. It had stopped by that time and was eyeing me up. Had I not met the boar earlier and had some confidence that it was more likely to be inquisitive rather than threatening I might well have been pretty frightened. In any event I was not taking any chances and jumped into my car. By the time I had closed the door it was within touching distance outside the door, with its back higher than the bottom level of my open window. It must have reached that point in a flash. I wondered how I or anyone else coming face to face with this beast without the safety of a nearby car might feel. A truly wild boar may well have faded quietly away into the woodland. The trouble with semi-domestic animals is that they have little fear of humans and this can in many cases make them extremely dangerous. I fervently hoped that on my next visit the boar would be safely enclosed. I really admired its character and independence though I suspected that its determination to remain a free spirit would bring its life to a premature end.

The wandering wild boar

 The beaver story continued in December of 2007 with evidence of another beaver on the River Tay near to Dunkeld. A number of saplings on the riverbank had been cut down, the chisel marks of the extremely sharp teeth of the beaver being evident on the stumps. At the end of January in the following year there was yet more evidence on the banks of a small burn in Angus just on the Perthshire boundary. This was too far away for it to have been the same animal, though it may have been the one that had demolished the orchard the previous year. Evidence in the form of toppled saplings showed that the beaver was still a resident of this burn in February and efforts were put in hand to capture the animal by Edinburgh Zoo and my long-time friend Dr Gill Hartley from the Wildlife Management section of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture in Edinburgh. Plans were barely arranged and suitable cages sourced when a further beaver was spotted at Tentsmuir Forest, across the Firth of Tay into the neighbouring county of Fife. Since this was a coastal beauty spot regularly visited by large numbers of people the catching of this beaver took precedence.

Gill kept me up to date with progress, or in fact lack of progress in the first couple of weeks. The beaver had been visiting the trap but would not go in. It then did enter the cage but somehow had managed to get out again. Modifications were made and an infra-red camera was installed to see what was happening. The beaver was seen to be coming to the cage to feast on the apples left at the entrance but still seemed reluctant to enter. While it was making its mind up a dead beaver was found many miles away on the shoreline on the Black Isle in Easter Ross, an area policed by Northern Constabulary.

At last the Tentsmuir beaver succumbed to temptation, this time being held securely in the cage. One down but how many to go? In January 2009 the beaver on the River Tay was still leaving its trademark of gnawed saplings. In the following month a new beaver had appeared on the River Earn to the south-west of Perth. This one had been reported by the keeper, Bill McIntosh, another long-time friend, and I went with him to see the evidence for myself. There were two locations where the animal had been active. At the first, on a spit of land that would normally be covered by high water, there were a dozen or so willow saplings neatly taken down. I was impressed, but Bill told me that the next site, half a mile away as the crow flies but probably double that following the course of the river, was much more interesting.

The captured beaver

Indeed it was. I was flabbergasted at the sight of a huge beaver lodge. It was at the side of the main river and had an entrance coming directly from the river. It stood about 4 feet high, with each willow or alder branch that was part of its elaborate construction neatly chiselled at the bottom and interlinking with its neighbours. The cutting, dragging and intricate building must have taken many hours. Bill told me, ‘this one’s good, but there’s another one over here.’ We then walked across to the bank at the side of a field, crossing an area that is flooded regularly when the water rises. This second lodge may have been built for an escape during flooding; a holiday home if the main lodge nearer the river became waterlogged.

Although already a fan of beavers, I now knew that they really were incredible creatures. Their vegetarian diet means that they don’t adversely affect other wildlife; in fact the wetlands they create benefit a whole range of other creatures. Despite the fact that I was involved in the investigation to establish how the beavers came to be living free, the circumstances of which were reported for consideration of a prosecution in 2011, beavers most certainly deserve a place back among the wildlife of the UK.

I took a call later in February, this time about a beaver on a small ox-bow lake just off the River Isla near Coupar Angus in Perthshire. This was probably the one that had preferred the small burn on the Angus/Perthshire boundary the previous year since that waterway is a tributary of the Isla and about 6 miles away, not too long a swim for a beaver. I visited the site and there were freshly felled saplings, though no lodge. I passed all of the information to Gill, though we both realised that an itinerant beaver such as this would be very hard to catch.

Allow me to digress: it’s New Year’s day 2010 as I write this and want to capture the moment. We are still enduring 12 inches of snow that fell between Christmas and New Year and I’m barely able to type for looking out of the window. There are literally hundreds of birds in the garden, and they’re costing a small fortune in a variety of bird food, which of course I don’t grudge one bit. Most are greenfinches and chaffinches, with the greenfinches on the black sunflower seed feeders and the chaffinches scavenging below where I’ve shovelled away the snow to let them feed. They’re joined by an assortment of tits: great tits, blue tits and, in the larch trees, long-tailed tits. In summer we had the highest number of coal tits I have ever seen, but for some unknown reason they don’t seem to favour the garden in winter. Among the chaffinches there is a pair of bramblings, winter visitors from Scandinavia that look remarkably similar to chaffinches. Comparing the two, bramblings definitely give the appearance of a bird from cold climes. Their plumage is somehow distinctively wintry, with more speckled grey where the chaffinch is a summery orange. I make a similar visual comparison between the redwing and the song thrush; the fieldfare and the mistle thrush.

I’ve put some wheat on the path through the wood and this attracted a horde of wood pigeons, and some more timid, less pushy collared doves in the quieter periods. A pair of cock pheasants flew into the garden, one determinedly chasing the other, and so engrossed in their pugnacious avian conflict that they missed out on the wheat supply. Lastly, under a bower of honeysuckle that has kept the ground underneath clear of snow, I’ve treated some of the less gregarious birds, robins, dunnocks and wrens, to some grated cheese, mealworms and smaller seeds, with some half apples spread round in the lighter snow for blackbirds, a single mistle thrush and fieldfares. It’s a veritable treat of birdlife and well worth the effort of regularly replenishing their supply of lifesaving food.

On the following morning I was at the computer again, this time treated to some different avian visitors to the snow-covered garden. In addition to the usual birds, a great spotted woodpecker appeared. He slowly made his way up some of the larch trees looking for insects, that would probably be frozen to death if they were anywhere near the surface of the bark. He then flew across to another set of feeders not 10 metres from me, where he quickly grabbed a peanut and went back to a larch tree to break it up and swallow it. He knew exactly where the peanuts were and he had obviously been a visitor well before I saw him that day. I was surprised that I’d never seen a sparrowhawk in the garden for a while, since they are quite regular visitors; after all a garden-full of birds is their bird table. As I was thinking about it, a buzzard flew into the garden and perched on a tree above the main feeders. Had this been a sparrowhawk the birds would have been gone in an instant and would not have returned for at least half an hour. I was surprised that they showed little regard for the buzzard, probably realising that unless they were unfit and weak, the buzzard, not nearly as agile as a sparrowhawk, would be little threat to them.

The next day I was at work, but when I came home I saw that the sparrowhawk had visited. A fieldfare had been the victim and the raptor must have finished up with a full belly since there was very little left. The garden visitor I felt most pity for, though, was a heron. It landed on one of the larch trees on 9 January, two weeks exactly after the main fall of snow. The countryside had changed very little during that fortnight and we still had a foot of snow. Most of the burn running through the garden was frozen over after nights of frost ranging from zero to minus 15C and I wondered what the heron had done for food. It looked a bit of a sorry sight, sitting there hunched up, looking down at the window with its yellow-ringed eye and somehow redolent of a visitor in a smart grey suit who was not part of the celebration. It certainly wasn’t a guest of the party that the birds were having below; there was nothing that would have suited it. My wife and I watched it on and off for an hour, before it at last lifted its head, stretched out its massive wings and ponderously flapped off down the burn to see if there was any better hunting there. It was as remarkable in flight as it had been on the tree branch. Its long dagger bill pointing the way ahead, its snake-like neck curled into an S shape and its stilt-like legs stretched straight out behind it. There would be thousands of birds dying of starvation during this extreme cold spell. I hoped the heron wouldn’t be one of them.

Coming back again to beavers, the River Earn beaver had moved on during the spring and summer, though I got a call from Bill in mid-December 2009 to say that it had returned to what seemed to be its winter abode. The efforts will begin again to try to catch it. I was interested to listen to an update by Simon King on the release of the Knapdale, Argyllshire, beavers on the Autumnwatch Update programme in late December. Simon reported that they are doing extremely well and have built a lodge, the first beaver lodge to be built in the UK for 400 years.

The beaver lodge on the banks of the River Earn in Perthshire

You and I know differently!

See A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. I sell most of my books myself. If you would like a signed copy contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

Postscript: A few years later more evidence came to light in relation to beavers either being released or escaping. We carried out an investigation and charged a person with allowing beavers to escape. A report was sent to the specialist procurator fiscal, who considered that there was little chance of a conviction due to the wording of the legislation.  At that time, at section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 the wording was that if any person releases or allows to escape into the wild an animal which (a) is of a kind which is not ordinarily resident in and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state; or (b) is a hybrid of any animal of that kind, he shall be guilty of an offence. The stumbling block, as I recall, was the term ‘into the wild.’  Amendments under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 changed the wording of the offence to ‘releases, or allows to escape from captivity, any animal to a place outwith its native range.’

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Setting hounds on released fox – some thoughts

The video widely shown in the media and social media the other day of members of the Avon Vale Hunt digging out a fox, showing it to a pack of hounds and encouraging the hounds to chase it was horrific. Had something like this occurred in nature, or even if someone had shot a fox with a high-powered rifle, I would have thought nothing of it but for grown men to do this for pleasure is beyond words. A second fox bolted from the den as the pack took off after the first one and I suspect, given how close the hounds were to both foxes, both would have been killed while running for their lives.

Fox photo courtesy of Bill McIntosh

There should be no problem for the police identifying those involved in this incident but I wondered what might be the best charge or charges in an incident of this type. I know little of the law in England and Wales but I thought I’d research the legislation to see if what I thought might be most relevant in Scotland would also apply in England and Wales.

The most relevant charge would be under the Hunting Act 2004, Section 1:  A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt. The elements are present: a fox is a wild mammal and a person or persons encouraged it to be hunted by a dog (which includes more than one dog.) None of the exemptions in the Act apply.

This may not necessarily be the best charge, however, as the penalty needs to be considered. The maximum penalty under the Hunting Act 2004 is level 5, with, so far as I can see, no penalty of imprisonment. As an example of where penalties should be considered, in 2008, on the island of East Linga on the Shetland Isles, two men were seen clubbing seal pups to death. The local wildlife crime officer investigated and decided, rather than charge the men under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 (a useless Act with a low monetary penalty and no imprisonment, thankfully now repealed and replaced by the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010) he’d charge them under the Wild Mammals (Protection Act) 1996. The offence under this Act is that if any person mutilates, kicks, beats, nails or otherwise impales, stabs, burns, stones, crushes, drowns, drags or asphyxiates any wild mammal with intent to inflict unnecessary suffering he shall be guilty of an offence. Further,it has a maximum fine of £5000 and/or six months imprisonment.  It was a good decision; one of the accused pleaded not guilty, which was accepted by the court, the other was imprisoned for 80 days.

In the case of animal cruelty, the maximum penalty is now five years imprisonment so I had a look to see whether that legislation, the Animal Welfare Act 2004, might be relevant.

The first hurdle comes under Section2 – is a fox under the circumstance on the video a ‘protected animal?’ Part of the definition is that an animal is a ‘protected animal’ if it is under the control of man on a permanent or temporary basis. A fox is most certainly under the control of man if it is dug out from a den, held and restrained.  At the very least the digging out of a fox and holding it in the very close proximity of a pack of hounds would most certainly qualify for a charge under Section 4 of the Act – unnecessary suffering – made much more serious by then releasing the already-terrified animal in the almost certain belief that it would be caught and killed by the hounds.

But there may be a better or additional charge under Section 8(1): that of causing an animal fight:

A person commits an offence if he—

(a)causes an animal fight to take place, or attempts to do so;

The definition of an animal fight is an occasion on which a protected animal is placed with an animal, or with a human, for the purpose of fighting, wrestling or baiting.

Is an incident such as was videoed stretching the definition a tad too far? Is it too far off the mark to consider that placed with could be dropping the fox almost beside hounds and that the definition could be extended to the ensuing pursuit, culminating in the fox (provided it is caught) fighting for its life? A conviction under this section would almost certainly result in a higher penalty. Further, if a court were to accept this as a valid charge, there is another offence at Section8(h) which relates to a person who keeps or trains an animal for use for in connection with an animal fight. Wouldn’t this be really interesting in relation to packs of hounds kept by hunts!

Whatever the outcome of the incident that was videoed it is a massive blow to alleged ‘trail hunting.’ It surely must hasten a revision by the Westminster Government of the Hunting Act, as has been done in Scotland, and finally lead to the demise of fox hunting.

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When tracks in the snow can solve crime

With snow falling and forecast to last the whole morning there will be no gardening done today. Being housebound though is a good chance to repeat a blog from 2018 that relates to one of my favourite activities: evidence from tracks in the snow. Here is one of the more unusual hare coursing investigations as recounted in my book A Lone Furrow:

Fox tracks

In a Perthshire hare coursing escapade, with a participant I’ll call Mr Snowman, adverse weather conditions were no deterrent. On 4 January in 2008, after a heavy snowfall, a man local to the area was driving slowly and carefully along a narrow country road. He looked over the fence into a roadside field and saw a man walking a greyhound-type dog through the field. Just at this time three brown hares rose from the snow and ran off across the field. Mr Snowman now released his dog, which duly took off in pursuit of one of them.

The dog chased the hare across the field and the hare gained some ground by being able to get through the fence at the top of the field much more quickly than Mr Snowman’s dog. The witness continued along the road but as he rounded a bend the road was blocked by Mr Snowman’s 4WD car. He got out and shouted across the field to Mr Snowman, who politely enquired, ‘What the fuck do you want?’ before returning to his car. By this time the witness was using his mobile phone to contact the police, and received a tirade of curses from Mr Snowman.

Snowman moved his car, all the while anxiously looking up the field to see what had happened to his dog. The witness passed Mr Snowman’s car and continued on his way, but at that point, unusual for such a quiet single-track road, a man came walking down the road. This witness saw Mr Snowman in the field and heard him shouting, at first thinking he was calling to him but then realising when he saw the greyhound that he was calling on the dog. He also saw the farmer approaching through the fields on his tractor and realised then that Mr Snowman had been coursing hares.

As this witness approached Mr Snowman’s car, it coincided with the return of Snowman and dog. Mr Snowman tried to cover the rear number plate of the car with snow, all the time calling to his dog to get into the car. Snowman either didn’t seem capable of counting beyond one, or didn’t realise his car had number plates front and back. As the witness passed the car, he noted the number from the front number plate and saw the farmer arrive in his tractor.

Red squirrel tracks

The farmer told Mr Snowman he had no business chasing hares, and was subjected to a variety of threats for his trouble. This is just about standard with hare coursers, with the threats usually about returning and burning down a barn or opening gates to let stock on to the road. Occasionally blows are struck, with the hare courser often coming off second-best. In this case it didn’t come to that and Mr Snowman made his departure pretty quickly, knowing that the first witness had phoned the police.

Police officers attended and by following the man’s and the dog’s tracks, could read in the snow what had taken place. To a significant degree this corroborated what the first witness in the car saw. The second witness, on foot, could add other pieces to the jigsaw but did not see coursing taking place. The farmer did not want involved and refused to give a statement to the officers.  Identification of Snowman, of prime importance in any investigation, came from the first man, who was able to pick him out from a set of twelve photographs.

Because the farmer had refused to speak up, the case was short of the level of evidence to convict if Mr Snowman denied being involved, which was more than likely. Mr Snowman was a career criminal and I was determined that he wouldn’t get away with this, so called on the farmer the next day. I could quite see why he didn’t want involved. Apart from any threats made, the farmer was a busy man and didn’t want to spend time hanging about a court. I explained that the others, who were virtual bystanders, had spoken up, and that it seemed only reasonable that the person on whose land this had taken place should stand up and be counted. I managed to convince the farmer that if he gave a statement to me of what he saw, then the case would be really solid and it was much more likely that a guilty plea would be entered. He took a wee bit of persuading but in the end I left with a statement completely backing up that of the witness in the car.

Rabbit tracks

Mr Snowman was charged with hare coursing and, as I suspected he would, pleaded guilty. His record determined that a jail sentence would be appropriate, though that was replaced with the alternative option to a court, that of a community payback order. Mr Snowman was sentenced to carry out 80 hours of community service. He’d missed an opportunity to work as Santa Claus but I’m sure there would still have been some snow to be cleared off pavements.

In another investigation in the snow, this time when I was a detective constable, my colleague, DC Martin Buchan, and I were day shift and the first job of the day was to carry out a scene of crime examination at a break-in to a club in Luncarty, a village about three miles north of Perth.

There were about two inches of snow on the ground and we could see where the person had left the premises after the break-in, crossed the public road onto the Perth to Inverness railway line and had started to walk towards Perth.

Cat tracks

While my colleague drove almost parallel to me, I followed the housebreaker’s tracks on the railway line for two and a half miles until, at a bridge over the public road, the thief left the railway line and started to walk on the pavement, still towards Perth.

The tracks led to the North Muirton housing scheme and became too difficult to follow since there was much more foot traffic on the pavements. Martin and I considered the most active criminals in that housing scheme and decided to check the common closes at their addresses to see if any wet footprints matched those I had been following.

We hit gold at the very first address, where the matching footprints led to the bottom right door. Our housebreaker answered the door, still wearing the same footwear, and was duly detained. He realised the game was up and we made a full recovery of the property stolen. I don’t particularly like snow, but sometimes it has its advantages.

See A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. I sell most of my books myself. If you would like a signed copy contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Hen harrier threat to garden birds – comment

I read today on Twitter a copy of a letter to a The Yorkshire Post from a woman who obviously has not a clue about ecology. She is concerned about the decline of garden and ground nesting birds, which is fair enough. The letter, though, was based on alleged ‘re-introduction’ of hen harriers and was titled Hen Harrier Threat to Garden Birds. She goes on to describe hen harriers as’ murderous birds which predate and impact on numbers of already struggling small birds.’

Of course they are no threat to birds in gardens and no more murderous than blue tits eating greenfly and blackbirds eating worms.

It reminded me of an early morning BBC Scotland radio programme I listened to, part of which related to birds of prey. A farm worker spoke at length and with an abundance of anthropomorphic sentiment about seeing buzzards killing and eating young lapwings and leverets. He said it was terrible that when a buzzard catches a young leveret it screams out just like a baby.  A rat or mouse or vole, much more common prey of a buzzard than a leveret, probably screams out just the same, but is this not so important? I’m sure it’s just as important to the rat or mouse or vole. The buzzard is not being deliberately cruel to the prey that it catches: it is simply coexisting with prey species in almost the same manner as it has done for thousands of years. I say in almost the same manner as any change in predator/prey relationships has in almost all cases been induced by humans. Prior to the Victorian era, the buzzard did not have a countryside supermarket stacked to the brim with pheasants, so it is only natural that now in many areas of the UK its lunch menu is likely to be predisposed towards one of the easier prey items to catch – semi-domestic pheasant poults.

On the radio programme, the farm worker stated with authority that buzzards should be culled and reduced by 80%, which would make a big difference to the number of young wader chicks and other ground-nesting birds taken by them. It might make some difference but then could a much more substantial difference not be made by a change in farming practices? Every time the farm worker sprays a young cereal crop with an insecticide spray consider how many millions of insects he is killing that could provide protein-rich feeding for young partridges, lapwings, skylarks and the like. To a ground-nesting, insect-eating bird, a field of young wheat or barley must be the equivalent of a desert. Rolling operations and the early cutting of silage are equally devastating.

On another occasion I was asked by a journalist for a local newspaper if birds of prey would take pigeons. She had been visiting a pigeon fancier who was bemoaning the fact that his stock of pigeons was being decimated by birds of prey. I explained that peregrines would readily take pigeons that were on a race and that sparrowhawks would take them closer to home, even in some cases entering the pigeon loft to do so. The journalist could see that she now had verification of the pigeon fancier’s complaint, but asked, obviously as the next stage in her article, if anything could be done to ameliorate this.

I probably surprised her by answering ‘Yes’. She seemed delighted that she was going to be able to publish the solution to the problem and asked what could be done. I replied, ‘All peregrines and sparrowhawks would need to be caught up and conditioned to eat grass and turnips.’ ‘Great,’ she said, ‘can I print that?’ ‘Of course you can Maureen,’ I replied.

I smiled when I saw the article the following day, which including the line ‘a police spokesman said.’

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‘I would shoot all these bloody eagles!’

I’ve put this post on my blog twice before but I think, in view of the astonishing comments by two board members of the Yorkshire Dale National Park Authority, as published in the latest blog of Raptor Persecution UK   https://raptorpersecutionuk.org/2022/12/17/yorkshire-dales-national-park-not-natural-country-for-hen-harriers-red-kites-according-to-national-park-authority-board-member/ it’s worth another airing. (By the way if anyone can tell me how to minimise these long links I’d be obliged)

Photo courtesy of the former Strathclyde Police

 In 2013, while visiting a local farm shop, I met a lady I hadn’t seen for a while. We chatted, and a few minutes later her husband appeared. I was introduced to him as Alan Stewart, the retired wildlife crime officer from Tayside Police.  The husband shook my hand and the ensuing conversation went along these lines:

“Yeh, wildlife crime. I can think of some different types of wildlife crime.”

“Oh, what is that?”

“It’s all these bloody eagles that have been released.”

“Do you mean the ones that have been poisoned or shot?”

“No, it’s the bloody lambs they are killing. It’s scandalous that all these birds have been released here.”

“But white-tailed eagles are native to Scotland. They’re being released because of the fact that they were exterminated by farmers and gamekeepers. They have a place in Scotland and the release project is righting the wrongs of the past.”

“I would shoot all these bloody eagles. Farmers can hardly make a living for them killing their sheep and lambs, it’s a bloody scandal.”

At this point his wife piped up, “Yes, it does seem a shame for the lambs.”

I continued, “Many of the lambs taken are already dead. There was a study done on North Uist that demonstrated that. They do take live lambs but many they take are weaklings, have been still-born or have died.”

“It’s not right at all. The whole bloody lot should be shot.”

By this stage I was thinking it was this clown who should be shot, when his wife, who by this time had lost any respect I’d had for her, again said, “It must be terrifying for the lambs to be carried away.” Nothing about how terrifying it might be for a mouse or a bird to be caught by a cat, a water buffalo pursued by a pack of lions and eventually suffocated, or the guts torn out of a zebra by a pack of hyaenas or African hunting dogs. Ignorance can be bliss.

I could see there was no sense in continuing a conversation with this couple, who probably wouldn’t know a gimmer from a tup or a blackfaced ewe from a north country cheviot. I suspect what they collectively know about farming could be written on the back of a matchbox, yet Mr Know-all was spouting forth in such prejudicial terms about a subject he knew damn all about. I was glad I’d already had my coffee in the farm shop. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it otherwise.

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Poaching salmon using explosives

It’s a very cold day and many folks up and down the UK will be staying indoors in whatever heat they can afford.  It’s a day for reading so I thought I’d give you a chance to read about one of my very earliest cases, away back in 1966. It’s part of a chapter of my first book, Wildlife Detective, a new version of which was published earlier this year. Note the penalty imposed on the poachers which, even for 1966, was a paltry sum, especially considering it was one of the most serious charges in relation to salmon poaching, and it would hardly have made a dent in their profits:

My first salmon poaching case greatly influenced my career, virtually making me a specialist in dealing with poaching cases overnight. The circumstances turned out to be unique in my forty years of policing; I have still not heard of another police officer having a similar case. It was sparked from the most basic of good policing practice, observation, inquisitiveness, evaluation and most importantly of being aware of crime trends. This is how it came about.

Each police force had its own weekly bulletin, which gave details of some of the more serious crimes committed, criminals arrested, criminals wanted for interview or criminals travelling into other force areas to commit crime. Times have changed for the better and all of this information is now available to the bobby on the beat at the touch of a computer key. It can all be accessed virtually in ‘real time’ without the need to wait for a week on a bulletin. In any event I read in the Stirling and Clackmannan Police bulletin that two of their salmon poachers, both from the village of Fallin, were travelling each weekend to the River Deveron near Turriff to take salmon from the river. Their names and addresses were given, as was the fact that they were using a grey Mini van with the registered number WAG 844.

That weekend in October I was day shift and out on patrol on the A9 in a Jaguar police patrol car. I had with me a police woman with just weeks under her belt as a police officer and, as I had just started in May, our combined police experience was little more that six months. Much of the patrol consisted of parking somewhere with a view of the passing traffic and looking for something of criminal or road traffic interest that we could get our teeth into. We were nearing the end of our shift on the Sunday afternoon when a grey Mini van approached travelling in the direction of Stirling. As the police car driver I had the better view as it was approaching from my offside and I saw that there were two men in the van.

While every other driver with a clear conscience has a look at a police car as they pass, these men stared straight ahead. Pretend we don’t see the cops and with a bit of luck they may not have seen us. Even without bearing the number plate WAG 844 this would have been a vehicle to have a closer look at, but with this number plate its fate was sealed. The men had 43 salmon in the back of the van and told us that, as regular salmon anglers, they had just had one of the best fishing weekends of their lives. Conditions had just been right for worm fishing and the fish had been snapping at the worm almost as soon as it had been cast into the pool. Fishermen are experts at tall tales and it got better. They said they had caught so many fish they didn’t know what they were going to do with them all and would we like a couple! Our response was that we would like more than a couple: we wanted them all. We also wanted the two people that were in charge of them who we were arresting for unlawful possession of salmon.

Fish poaching has now been consolidated into one piece of legislation, the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 2003, but at that time it was covered by the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Act 1951. Unlawful possession of salmon or sea trout is always the best starting point for an investigation, and other charges can be added in if and when more information becomes available. Once the men were charged and safely in police cells we would begin the search for more evidence as to how the fish had been taken. It was also interesting that the men had £300 each in their possession. This was a lot of money in 1966 and I had a strong suspicion that they had sold a number of the fish they had caught and the 43 we had was only what was left.

Police can never be experts in everything that they deal with and, depending on the particular investigation, experts in other fields are regularly called in to assist before a case goes to court. This is nowhere more relevant than in the field of wildlife crime, which of course includes poaching. In this particular case I called in water bailiffs from the Forth District Salmon Fisheries Board. Their examination of the fish showed that each one of the 43 had a mark in its mouth consistent with having been caught by a hook, but all of us were convinced they could not have caught so many salmon legally. We were sure the salmon had been taken by the use of Cymag. This is the trade name for sodium cyanide, a white powder which gives off hydrogen cyanide gas when exposed to moisture. If a quantity of Cymag is thrown into a river at a fast-flowing part upstream of a pool holding salmon, the salmon will effectively be suffocated, will thrash about on the surface, and once dead can be easily scooped out of the river as they float downstream. If we had to place bets on the way the fish were taken, this is where the smart money would have been placed.

On the Monday morning the men were due to appear from custody at Perth Sheriff Court. (Dunblane had its own sheriff court but it only operated on a Wednesday). An arrangement would be made with the procurator fiscal to leave their case till the last of the morning’s cases. In the meantime, at 8.30 am, I was waiting at the doors of the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Faskally, Pitlochry, with a random sample of six of the salmon in the boot of the police car. This laboratory has some of the leading Scottish experts on matters relating to freshwater, and their evidence is essential in proving that salmon have been taken by Cymag.

The fisheries experts got to work on the salmon and before long they had a result. If I had placed a bet on Cymag my money would have gone down the drain. My first salmon poaching case and it was a method of taking fish almost unknown in Scotland; they had been taken by explosives. All of the blood vessels, including the capillaries, had been ruptured by the detonation of some sort of explosive in the pool. I was flabbergasted but this evidence was sufficient for another two charges to be added, those of taking the fish by proscribed methods, which included the use of explosives, noxious substances or electrical devices, and the fact that two or more persons had been acting together in this activity.

The two accused pleaded not guilty and later faced trial at Dunblane Sheriff Court. I don’t know whether or not the sheriff, Sheriff Prain, had a particular interest in salmon poaching cases but the trial lasted till well after 6 pm, something I have not heard of since. They were both found guilty and were fined £30 each, with the alternative of 30 days imprisonment. Despite the fine being at the lower end of the scale, even in 1966, neither paid the fine and I got the satisfaction several months after the trial of arresting them both for a second time and taking them to Perth Prison.

There were two important lessons from that case. The first was to appreciate the lengths to which criminals committing crime sometimes go to cover their tracks, even to the extent of marking the mouth of each of the fish with a hook so that they looked as if they really had been caught legally. The other was never to make assumptions before the full facts have been established.   

Since this incident in 1966 I have seen the effect of explosives during specialist training courses designed for that purpose. In one of the demonstrations some explosive was set off in a pond. The resulting waterspout went nearly 50 feet into the air and when I saw it I thought back to the River Deveron and how effective a tool explosives would be to an unscrupulous salmon poacher. As for Cymag, it was taken off the market in late 2004. Its legitimate use in the gassing of rats and rabbits had come to an end, probably because of the real risk to the health of those using it. Its effects are of course fatal, though if caught early enough the drug amyl nitrate can sometimes ameliorate its effects.

Its effects were demonstrated in an incident in 2005 when a gamekeeper found several part-filled Cymag tins left behind by his predecessor. For whatever reason he decided to put all the powder into one tin, and in so doing was badly affected by the toxic hydrogen cyanide fumes. An ambulance was called and, as is the case with fatal or potentially fatal accidents at a workplace, the police were informed. For my part, as wildlife crime officer, I arranged for experts from the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (SASA) in Edinburgh to collect and make safe the Cymag.

Meantime I phoned one of the previous manufacturers of the substance, Zeneca, a comany based in Grangemouth. I spoke to a woman there, explained the incident that had just taken place, that a man was seriously ill from the effects of Cymag and was being taken to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, and was there any further information she could give on Cymag that might be of assistance to the hospital. She said she would need to speak with someone else first and could I hang on. I hung on. She came back to the telephone after a few minutes, and I must confess I was more than a little stunned by what she had to say. Very politely and in a matter-of-fact manner she said, ‘I have to ask you first of all if the man was prescribed the Cymag by his doctor.’

For a signed copy of Wildlife Detective or any of my other books see them at   https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/books/ and email me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Fox Hunting – some more thoughts

I have never liked mounted foxhunting. It is a lie that it is done to control fox numbers. If foxes are causing a problem, shooting them is the most humane response. Most foxes are shot at night in a spotlight, or even by the more modern method of shooting them with the use of image intensifiers or thermal imaging. Some are flushed by persons on foot with a pack of hounds. They are driven forward to be shot by other persons strategically placed with shotguns. If this is done properly, I have nothing against this method either. All these methods can genuinely claim to be methods of fox control (note that I don’t use the word vermin control, a term that I hate, or pest control, since foxes are lovely, intelligent animals, but can sometimes be problematic if they deign to dine on livestock).

Photo courtesy of Bill McIntosh

The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 was the first legislation to give mammals some protection specifically against being hunted by people using a dog or dogs. This is reasonable legislation to deal with criminals coursing hares but much less effective at dealing with criminals in fancy dress and on horseback hunting foxes.  It was a private members Bill which was poorly drafted with far too many complex exceptions. As it turned out I was involved in the investigation of the first successful conviction in Scotland, in 2003. (see https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/the-first-conviction-in-scotland-for-fox-hunting-in-2003/ )

England and Wales followed with the Hunting Act 2004, which is almost as poorly set out, has the most ridiculous exception allowing stag hunting, and has no penalty of imprisonment. At least in Scotland the legislation is currently being updated and promises to be a much more effective Act. England and Wales are falling behind in any sensible amendments, but then maybe some of the folks in fancy dress have pals (or hunt members) in their government.

I have never seen a hunt taking place in England or Wales (and have no great wish to do so) but I have read plenty reports on fox hunting, most of which clearly demonstrate that it’s illegal. So why are there not more convictions?

  • Evidence presented to the police is insufficient?
  • Evidence probably sufficient but police not up to speed with the legislation?
  • Evidence probably sufficient but police not interested?
  • Direction from senior police officers that crime committed against animals not serious enough to waste time on (or maybe some other hidden reason?)
  • Belief that legal ‘trail hunting’ is taking place?

As a retired police officer I am frustrated that on many (most?) hunts criminals are clearly and openly flouting the law and getting away with it. I’m sure many wildlife crime officers share this frustration, especially if they are being held back from carrying out a proper investigation. It’s certainly not easy legislation to enforce but that fact should be a challenge to an enthusiastic police officer. Since we are talking about crime, the responsibility of the police to investigate, would it not be an idea for forces to agree a debrief where there has been a claim of illegal activity? Two representatives of sabs/monitors could meet with two experienced wildlife crime officers to discuss the evidence available and see if there is a prima facie case which could either be built on or abandoned, depending on how further investigations go. I’m sure there are many factors showing illegal hunting that could be built into a good circumstantial case, especially when hunting is filmed, or when relevant discussion or instructions are overheard or recorded or recovered on a mobile phone. Commands to the pack of hounds or the response of the pack on finding a fresh fox scent are also relevant as evidence.  Other possibilities are the presence of newly-blocked setts and earths and the presence of terrier men with terriers on quad bikes. Identification is often the most difficult element of evidence to prove, but the hunt master, huntsman and whipper-in are the obvious hunt staff to target since they are in charge. Where a particular hunt has a reputation for illegal activity it would also be sensible for a force to obtain dates for hunts in advance and have two wildlife crime officers on stand-by to attend if there is evidence that can be recovered.

In any event the present legislation needs to be updated, and if trail hunting is genuine, which I somehow doubt, the hunt should have no complaints. Hunting in England and Wales is different from hunting in Scotland, which is mainly driving foxes forward to (allegedly) be shot. When the Scottish legislation is changed and re-written into the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act it could be a guide to what is required south of the border but my views at present on making fox hunting in England and Wales more easily enforceable are as follows:

  • The legislation needs to specify that the dogs being used must be under control. This means that if they start to follow a live fox trail or start to chase a fox they must be able to be stopped and recalled.
  • ‘To Hunt’ must include the terms, ‘to search for or to course.’
  • If the claim is that the purpose of the hunt is ‘trail hunting’ there is no need for terriers to be present. It should be an offence to have a terrier at what is claimed to be trail hunting.
  • The legislation should clearly state that a hunt must have permission to be on land, 
  • There should be an offence of vicarious liability in respect of the owner of the land on which the hunting is taking place and the person(s) in charge of the hunt
  • If a breach of the hunting Act is charged, there should be a reverse burden of proof in relation to claims that trail hunting was taking place.
  • Penalties and time limit on prosecutions should be in line with the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
  • The ‘observation and research’ exemption in relation to stag hunting should be removed.
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An introduction to Cruel Intentions

I thought I’d say just a wee bit more about my latest novel, Cruel Intentions, before it comes back from the printer on 30th November. My 50 years of policing have covered general police work, some specialisation in dealing with salmon and deer poaching in my earlier days, CID and drug squad work, 18 years as force wildlife crime officer, and latterly, three years as intelligence officer with the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit. I have used my experience to create fictional investigations that are as near to factual as possible.

My fictional wildlife crime cop, PC Bob McKay of the Tayside Division of Police Scotland, investigates a range of crimes against wildlife in which I hope the evidence required, the method and the outcomes may be of assistance in the future to police officers in forces across the UK. I hope it will let all readers appreciate the work of wildlife crime officers, the difficulties many face with unsupportive supervisors and the considerable work that goes into securing enough evidence to get a case before the court.

The story

Who is the ex-boxer who has moved to Perthshire from the north of England and is poaching deer and badger digging with his dogs? Bob gets a tip from a strange source: a gamekeeper in jail for causing the death by poisoning of a farmer’s young daughter. The convoluted investigation takes him to the estates owned by a rich former sporting agent, Nigel Roberts, and one of his head gamekeepers, who is suspected of killing birds of prey.

Despite an awkward and unsupportive detective inspector as his line manager, Bob sticks with the investigation into the ex-boxer, who he has now identified as Big Mo, while his case-load expands to cover disturbance of dolphins, destruction of a beaver dam, illegal fox hunting, finch trapping and the theft of two terriers.

Will Bob succeed in getting Big Mo and the head gamekeeper convicted of their crimes? Might he also get the rich landowner, Nigel Roberts, before a court, using a unique and innovative charge, or will Big Mo put a spanner in the works? Using the totally unsuitable legislation covering hunting with dogs, how will his enquiries fare against the huntsman and whipper-in of the Kingdom Hunt? Have two unidentified men seen digging a badger sett managed to evade capture and will the evidence against the titled Viscount Marcus Orlington-Manners be enough to secure his conviction for disturbance of bottlenose dolphins?

Praise for Cruel Intentions

Alan Stewart’s laser intellect, wisdom and compassionate commitment to the welfare of wildlife, and all animal life, shine through in this book.  Its compelling stories illuminate the murky world of wildlife criminality through a rich treasure chest of characters and what makes them tick.

This book is not only a very great read, it also draws back the veil giving us a rare inside view of the challenging world of wildlife policing and of the attitudes in wider society that drive wildlife cruelty. 

  • Dr Elspeth Stirling, Secretary, Scottish Badgers

Written by probably the most experienced and knowledgeable wildlife crime officer in the country (now retired), these stories and criminal cases are a riveting read and will have any nature lover enthralled from start to finish.

                                – Charlie Phillips – Whale & Dolphin Conservation Field Officer

Interested in wildlife and its protection? Read this excellent novel! Alan Stewart blows away the smokescreen around foxhunting and lifts the poisonous lid off the grouse shooters world of organised crime. Alan’s knowledge, experience and determined actions are highlighted in every page.

  • Clive Swinsco, Wildlife Activist

Once again Alan, has shown why he is the best wildlife crime author on the market. Both captivating and educational, one not to miss.

  • Mark Thomas head of RSPB investigations, Bedfordshire

For anyone interested in wildlife crime investigations this is essential reading. Alan Stewart brings to this book his personal experience of following-up wildlife crime reports involving serious animal welfare incidents. Once again, we are taken on a journey with our specialist police wildlife crime officer who is always unsure of senior management support whilst investigating complex cases. As we follow the twists and turns of the fictional cases, we are constantly hoping that natural justice will prevail.

– Bob Elliot, Director, Onekind

Another great read from Alan Stewart (aka The Wildlife Detective), a sequel to Calls from the Wild, following the life of police wildlife crime officer, Bob McKay, and all the different types of wildlife crime and variety of perpetrators of these crimes that he encounters. It’s been really eye opening to me, as someone who manages an upland estate, to see the depth and variety of incidents faced daily by wildlife crime officers. If we truly want to fight climate change we need to start by understanding and looking after the nature and wildlife on our doorstep. I thoroughly recommend Alan’s book.  

  • Dee Ward, owner Rottal Estate, Angus Glens

Cruel Intentions runs to 192 pages and is £12. I sell most of my books myself. Signed and personalised copies are available from me by contacting me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com All of my books can be seen at My Books on this blog.

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Policing fox hunting – or not!

Hunting a wild mammal with a dog has been illegal in Scotland since 2002 and in England and Wales since 2004. Neither of the pieces of legislation is fit for purpose and certainly not easy to enforce. The difficulties are appreciated in Scotland and the Scottish Government is preparing new legislation that will help in prevention and enforcement, especially regarding the loophole of trail hunting. Meanwhile in England and Wales foxes continue to be killed with regularity by packs of hounds and there seems to be no will by the Westminster Government to make the law more easily enforced.

Photo courtesy of Bill McIntosh

I can only work with what I learn from the media, particularly social media, but it is clear in many instances that a hunt is deliberately seeking out and hunting foxes rather than trail hunting. The fact that they run through gardens, churchyards and other private places demonstrates that they are not following a trail laid by the hunt. They are regularly filmed entering woodland where a fox has taken refuge, filmed during an actual chase after a fox, and there is at least some evidence of the use of foxes that have previously been caught and released for the hounds to chase (bagged foxes). There is also belief that a bagged fox sometimes has a paw deliberately cut to leave a blood trail for the hounds. There is also evidence of commands and shouted information by the huntsman and others that indicate a fox is being hunted. Lastly setts and artificial earths have been seen to be blocked. What is the need for this illegal interference if trail hunting is the objective?

Terrier work was described in a hunt webinar as being their ‘soft underbelly’ so far as drawing criticism from the public is concerned. That is hardly surprising due to the cruelty involved in digging out a fox which has gone underground for safety, and sometimes even its release in front of hounds after being dug out.

What I can’t understand is why some police forces do their best to investigate reports of illegal practice, while others seem happy to believe that the hunting is trail hunting and therefore legal. Surely if a crime is reported to the police they have a duty to follow up the claim and investigate it.

I appreciate that sometimes a complaint might come to a quick and unsatisfactory conclusion, with five or six witnesses describing and giving oral evidence of illegal activity, while an equal number of those involved deny any wrongdoing and claim they were trail hunting. Video evidence no doubt helps to prove or disprove illegality but unfortunately this may not always be available. There may also be circumstantial evidence that could help a prosecution case.

So who should investigate complaints of fox hunting? This was sometimes a subject for discussion in the days when I attended the National Wildlife Enforcers’ Conference. Some, including myself, argued that it should always be a wildlife crime officer. These officers are trained to investigate most types of wildlife crime, are invariably enthusiastic and have the appropriate clothing and footwear to carry out investigations in the countryside. Some argued that this should not be a wco’s role as the complaint may be of public order offences. These are two completely different types of investigations and I agree that public order is not the wco’s responsibility. An example took place recently when a female sab was deliberately run over and the investigation fell to detective officers. Horses for courses.

So how can the police fulfil their responsibilities of upholding the law and verify witnesses’ regular claims that trail hunting is often a lie and that the intent or the outcome is to find and kill a fox? Lets compare a similar crime against wildlife, that of hare coursing.  Where there are regular complaints of this crime taking place police put on special patrols to attempt to catch those involved. However these patrols are carried out mainly from roads or sometimes farm road and tracks. This would be much less effective in dealing with fox hunting as any criminal activity is likely to be taking place well away from roads. Putting officers out with the hunt is unlikely to work in obtaining evidence as those involved are not going to commit illegal activity when they are being watched by officers of the law. In hare coursing cases, the dogs used are sometimes seized. While the hounds and horses used in fox hunting may be seized and forfeited I can’t see any chief constable happy about 20 or 30 hounds and an indeterminate number of horses needing to be cared for until a trial. This unfortunately puts fox hunting investigations on a different level of fairness to hare coursing.

The use of drones might help, especially if a hunt monitor or hunt saboteur is able to directly relay information back to an officer operating a drone of where to concentrate observations. It is an opportunity for police and sabs to work together.

I’m not generally an advocate of members of the public carrying out an investigative role that is really the responsibility of the police but with this tricky situation of fox hunting there may be no real alternative to the police relying on evidence obtained by hunt monitors or sabs. Hunt monitors and sabs are present with hunts both to prevent foxes being chased and killed and to gather evidence if the hunt, in their opinion, breaks the law. They film many instances of where it appears that hunting is taking place. I’m only looking at footage but there is nothing to beat the evidence of the person(s) on the ground, especially since they have much more knowledge of fox hunting than I have.

I watched footage recently of what was clearly hunting. I know this is being investigated by the police, though unfortunately not by a wildlife crime officer. There seemed to be no attempt by the hunt staff (hunt master, huntsman or whipper-in) to call off the hounds. Interesting just the other day the hunt master of the South Shropshire pack pled guilty to and was fined £600 for failing to call the hounds off the scent of a fox. Telford Magistrates Court was told that he was responsible for the hounds on that day, and he should have taken reasonable action.  

If these witnesses obtain video evidence tending to show the illegal activity then it seems to me that it is the duty of the police to follow the complaint through, identify suspects and interview them, whether under arrest or otherwise. The frequent reports of hunt staff being charged and appearing in court demonstrates that this can work. What disappoints me though is evidence obtained by a single monitor. On its own this certainly wouldn’t suffice in Scotland and I doubt if the law of corroboration is much different in England and Wales. I don’t see any point in a lone person trying to gain evidence.

I have no objection to foxes being killed by legal means, especially by shooting, but a huntsman deliberately chasing or killing a fox with hounds is blatantly flouting the law and making a fool out of those of us who believe in the rule of law. When some police forces fail to do their best to curb this type of crime they are rightly accused of failing the public.

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