I was in CID as detective sergeant when I had a call at home one day from Mr X. He had reliable information concerning four men who would be going out poaching that night to the River Tay at a part east of Perth near the hamlet of Kinfauns. The ringleader would be one of the pair we had earlier caught operating the cage at the Horseshoe Falls on the River Almond. Mr X gave me the names for the other three, who were all well known to me as poachers, as well as being willing participants in other fields of crime when they thought there would be some pecuniary advantage.
The information was that the men would be leaving a particular address in a housing scheme in Perth at 3.00 am, and that they would be using a grey Datsun (now Nissan) car. I was given the registration number of the car, which always makes success a bit more viable. So far the information was good, and it was to get better. The men would drive down the A90 Perth to Dundee road and park off the road where there is access to the Perth – Dundee railway line. The car would be left there and the men would cross the railway line and make their way to the river bank, where they had a dinghy and a net hidden. They would only be there about an hour before heading back home.
Two complications followed. Firstly, the men would be wearing balaclavas so would not be recognisable. I thought I could cope with this problem since I knew in advance who the men were. The second complication was that they would leave everything hidden at the side of the river and return to collect their fish about midday. That way, if they were stopped by the police on their return to Perth during the night – as they might well have been – there would be no incriminating evidence in the car. They would take their chance on being stopped during the day but (a) this would be less likely as the police were liable to be tied up with other matters, and (b) only one person would make the run, so on aggregate the fine would be lower and all could pay a share of it. This was not an insurmountable problem and was a tactic of salmon poachers of which we were well aware.
One aspect of the information puzzled me. I didn’t know why the time they were leaving the house could be predicted so precisely, and why the poachers would only remain at the riverside for about an hour. It seemed a lot of effort to go to for an hour’s work. The reason, once I had been enlightened, was logical. It gave me further evidence that the poachers were tuned into the forces of nature and that this knowledge was essential if they wanted to successfully catch salmon. I learned from Mr X that twice a day in a tidal river there is a period referred to as ‘slack water.’ This is a period of about half an hour at each high tide when the force of the water coming down the river is counterbalanced by the pressure of the tide coming up the river, and results in the flow of the river being stopped. When a gill net is put across a river one end is fastened to the bank while the rest of the net is paid out from the dinghy until all of the net is in the water. The floats fastened to the top of the net keep it on the surface and the weights fastened to the bottom ensure that it hangs down into the water like a curtain. Slack water is an ideal time to put the net across the river as it will hang motionless, neither being swept downstream nor upstream. Likewise the dinghy will just sit steadily in the river without any controlling effort by its passenger. If the operators have timed their venture correctly there will be little or no movement of either the net or the dinghy, apart from that caused by the frantic struggles of the salmon swimming upstream that were unlucky enough to have been entangled by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When the dingy starts to drift downstream, its occupant knows that slack water has passed and it is time for his counterpart on the bank to start to haul in the net. The information from Mr X was that 4.00 am was high tide, therefore the poachers would leave about an hour earlier, giving them sufficient time to reach their spot on the river and get organised to catch slack water. I was due to start at 10.00 pm so I decided to carry out some reconnaissance in the late afternoon to see how best to tackle this job.
I came on duty early, at 3.00 pm, not wanting to chance an earlier visit to the Tay at Kinfauns as there was a good chance that the motley crew would have fish to pick up that day around noon. I didn’t want to spoil the operation by being seen on my recce. I parked at a farm steading some distance away, having told the farmer what I was up to and trusting him to keep the information quiet. It was a Spring day and as I crossed the railway line to the area of scrub and trees between that point and the river, I was treated to a lovely chorus of birdsong from its many small feathered inhabitants. Though this avian orchestra would have had many more players at first light, I could hear the easiest of the birds to identify, the chiffchaff, pronouncing its name loudly and clearly, chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff.
The whitethroat was the next to be spotted since it is one of the few warbler species to sit on top of a bush and sing rather than skulk in the bushes. It chattered away its creaky, grating song, while in the background I heard another of the warblers in full flow. To my shame I’m never sure which of the warblers I am listening to. I think this one was a sedge warbler. It always reminds me of a motor bike engine that is not running too smoothly (in a much higher pitch of course). The engine is just about to give up, then it has a new lease of life until the next piece of dirt hits the carburettor and it begins to splutter again. My simile does the bird an injustice as it’s really a lovely song and many times on a night shift I have parked the police car in an area I know to be full of these birds, switched off the engine, and marvelled that many of them have flown from Africa to regale us with their sweet music.
In more recent times I had my grandson, Sam, out with me in the woods one day. He was either four or five at the time and I was trying to teach him to recognise bird song. We listened to several birds on our walk, starting with a blackbird, then a mistle thrush, a chiffchaff, a wren and a robin. He was interested to begin with but I had probably overdone his first nature study lesson and he was becoming bored. This fact was confirmed when I asked him if he could tell me the name of the bird singing on top of a young sitka spruce tree beside us. His reply? ‘It’s another bloody chiffchaff.’ Spot on. Bloody good answer Sam!
Back at the River Tay, there was a clearing of several yards between the edge of the scrubland and the river. At one point there was a clump of bushes thick enough to give cover and situated almost beside the river. If I placed someone in the middle of these bushes they would have a good view of what was happening upstream and downstream of their observation point. I checked first that this was not the hiding place for the poachers’ dinghy and net before settling on this as the best available outlook position.
On the return journey to my car I almost stood on a young roe deer fawn hiding in the undergrowth. I saw its mottled body just at the last minute and changed my route by a few degrees so as not to disturb it. It was well camouflaged and relying totally on its innate instinct to lie absolutely still unless flight became the better option. As roe fawns are born in May it was probably just a few days old and no doubt had a sibling lying close by, aware of my presence and hoping that the danger of a predatory human would pass quickly. This was my first encounter with a roe fawn. Even yet I have only found one other roe fawn and one red deer calf at that vulnerable stage when they rely on camouflage more than the speed that they will eventually develop.
When I came back to the police station I made contact with the water bailiffs from the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board and arranged to have the services of two of them. This was agreed and a 2.00 am meeting at Perth Police Station was arranged. A meeting at two in the morning would seem strange to most people, but water bailiffs, like police officers, are used to working round the clock. Criminals respect neither office hours nor weekends, in fact weekends and night-time are often their most productive periods. I intended to remain on duty for the operation, but needed the help of a police officer from the night shift before the trap could be set.
After the 2.00 am briefing, I sent the two water bailiffs, complete with a borrowed police radio, to hide in the clump of bushes I had identified at the riverside. Their remit was simply to wait, watch and report, nothing more. I told them that the poachers would be wearing balaclavas, which was nothing new either to me or to them, and assured them if they were in their place of concealment by 2.45 am they would not have long to wait.
At the allotted time, the night shift police officer who had volunteered to help took his own car and parked near to the target car, which was sitting outside the address given to me by Mr X. Like the water bailiffs, his task was to wait, watch and report. While we had been making our plans for a successful night’s work, the men in the house were probably doing the same. It was not possible for both of us to have the result we wanted. As the dawn of the next morning was breaking one group would be disappointed.
Just before 3.00 am, I parked at the farm I had used in the afternoon and walked up the hill for about quarter of a mile so that I had a vantage point overlooking the spot identified by Mr X as the parking spot for the poachers’ car. The watchers were in position. We just needed the participants to make their move.
Any police officer who has been involved in surveillance, or involved in simply waiting at a given point in anticipation of a crime taking place, knows that in at least half of the instances the long wait is in vain. The rest of the time, a long period watching and waiting may have some form of moderate success and just once in a while everything comes together exactly as planned. I was shortly to move to the drug squad, where much of the work involved surveillance. As examples of how differently things work out, one operation meant surveillance on a ship in Dundee Harbour for two weeks of 12 hour shifts in the expectation that someone was to come to the ship to collect three kilos of heroin that was on board. No-one arrived and we had to allow the ship to sail to its next destination, Rotterdam, where the latest intelligence indicated the transfer would take place. At the other end of the spectrum, we had received information that a particular vehicle was en route to Dundee from Manchester with a cargo of 5 kilos of cannabis resin. A colleague and I parked near the Tayside boundary at Dunblane to watch for the car on the A9. I had reversed the car into a good spot to watch the road and switched the engine off. The car that we were waiting for was the third one to come along the road. We arrested the person in the car, recovered the cannabis and went on, with me driving the car from Manchester that the dealers were expecting to see, to make the connection in Dundee. We arrested four dealers and recovered a carrier bag with £10,000. If only it worked out like that all the time.
‘Stand by, stand by,’ came the call from the officer watching the poachers’ car. ‘That’s five people coming from the target close and getting into the target car. One is out of the car again, he’s walked round behind it. He’s pulled up one of the metal drain covers at the side of the road and has put it in the boot.’ Five people were one more than we were expecting but so far so good. ‘That’s an off, off now, down the hill. Brake lights showing at the roundabout and the car has taken the second exit, heading in your direction.’ I updated the two water bailiffs of the position using the UHF channel. (The first message had been passed to me on the VHF channel, which the bailiffs couldn’t hear).
Less than ten minutes later I saw headlights appearing from the direction of Perth. The car slowed down, turned about on the road and headed back to the parking spot. My radio message to the bailiffs was, ‘Stand by, stand by, that’s the target car with us and parked up. Occupants leaving the car and walking westwards along the railway line. Now lost to my view and should be with you shortly.’ I was happy at this as I had walked along the railway line earlier and it took me towards a natural crossing point from the railway line into the area of scrub and trees that led towards the river.
‘That’s five men wearing balaclavas approaching the river. They’re pulling out a baker’s board from under a bush. The baker’s board has a net on it. They’re back into the bush. It’s a dinghy this time. They’re coming towards the river.’ The bailiff’s report was welcome news and things were going exactly to plan.
I had previously spoken with the night shift traffic crew and had told them of the information and the plan. I asked that they be available about 4.00 am to pull the poachers’ car on its way back to Perth. I updated them as to the current stage of the operation and said I would keep them informed so that they could get into position to stop the vehicle once that was required.
Once more the bailiffs were on the radio. ‘That’s the net getting tied to the bank. They’ve tied something to the bottom of this end of the net. It looks like a metal drain cover.’ So that’s what they wanted it for – an anchor next to the bank on the bottom edge of the net to keep it taut. ‘That’s one of them now rowing out into the river with the net. Looks like a waiting game now for half an hour.’
It’s interesting when something happens, like the taking of the drain cover, that’s not in the game plan. Some statutes, such as poaching game or throwing away litter, don’t have a power of arrest, and often this limits the action that police can take to obtain evidence sufficient to charge the person with the offence. It is always circumspect not to simply look at an offence in isolation but to take a more rounded view of all the evidence available. Occasionally, tucked away amongst the strands of evidence, lies a Common Law offence. Common Law offences range from breach of the peace to murder and include most crimes of dishonesty. All have an automatic power of arrest attached. In this case, had there not been a power of arrest for salmon poaching, the five men could have been arrested for the theft of a metal drain cover. When investigating crimes and offences it is always worth training the mind to think laterally.
‘That’s the net getting pulled in,’ reported the bailiffs. ‘They’ve certainly caught some salmon. They’re being knocked on the head. The net’s getting put on the baker’s board again. That’s now everything including the salmon back under the bush again and the targets are heading back towards the car.’
I was immediately in touch with the traffic crew, asking them to get into position to stop the car and to arrest the five occupants. The poachers returned to the car and were making back towards Perth a remarkably short time after leaving the river bank. I left the poachers to the traffic department and went to meet the bailiffs and help with the salmon and the fishing tackle. It had not been a great night for the poachers, only having caught eleven salmon, but being Spring fish, they would have commanded a good price.
Once we were back to Perth I went through to the cells along with the police officer who had kept watch for their car leaving the house at the start of the operation and who was going to report the case. The poachers were adamant they had done nothing against the law. They admitted they had been out looking for a place that they could take salmon on a future occasion, which accounted for their jeans being wet up to the knees, ‘but Mr Stewart, ask the traffic boys. Our car was clean when they searched it. We’ve done nothin, honest.’
This is a tale from my first book Wildlife Detective . See Wildlife Detective and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on email@example.com