Scottish Government Wildlife Crime Report 2016 – first thoughts

Hare coursing when it was legal. Only difference now is that the dogs don’t wear collars. Same outcome for the hare.

But the use of traps like this to take raptors seem to be increasing

I have just finished my first skim through Wildlife Crime in Scotland, the 2016 report by Scottish Government covering the financial year 2015/2016. It is welcome news that wildlife crime reduced by 8% compared to the previous year, being down from 284 to 261. There is no doubt that a higher proportion of the public are aware of the signs of various crimes against wildlife and report their suspicions to the police. This heightened awareness is well-known to some of those who would commit these crimes and I have no doubt that, at least in some types of wildlife crime, there is some deterrent value.

Nothing seems to deter the hare coursers, and being caught, convicted and fined means little to them. The figures shown in the report indicate that the hare coursing incidents reported have increased from the 20s and low 30s in the four preceding years to 44 during the year covered by the report.

The incidents may well have increased but I strongly suspect that these are nothing like the real figures. The figures given are those recorded by the police, but I know from experience that many – maybe even most – hare coursing incidents that are reported and logged by control rooms are not recorded in the crime database used to inform the Scottish Government statistics.

The most common example of this is the reporting by a farmer or other witness of hare coursing taking place. It is logged by the control room and a police unit, if available, is dispatched to deal with the report. Invariably, even if it only takes a short time for the police to arrive on the scene, the vehicle and occupants are gone. The police make a search of the nearby roads for the vehicle but there is no trace. They are then diverted to another incident and at the end of their shift no report is made out of the hare coursing incident. The incident has therefore been recorded by the control room, it has been investigated (to a degree, especially since hare coursers’ vehicles are almost never registered to them) it may also be recorded as intelligence on the Scottish Intelligence Database but it is not recorded on the electronic system and under the code used for Scottish Government statistics. As long as the police are stretched to breaking point I don’t see how this will change. Unless hare coursing really has reduced, which I don’t believe, I’d bet the year’s total of 44 across Scotland would barely account for the incidents reported during that year to my old area of work, Tayside.

Figures are complex, too, for raptor persecution. The number of poisoning incidents has remained pretty level over the past five years between four and six, with six being the number of poisoning incidents, with the same number of victims, in the year under review. The number is still far too high but is considerably better than in 2010/2011, when there were 24 poisoning incidents with 32 victims. However what needs to be factored in are the seven incidents in 2015/16 where companion animals were poisoned, where SASA noted:

While the poisoning of a companion animal is not a wildlife crime … the companion animal may have been the accidental victim of an illegal poison intended to target wildlife, while wildlife could also be put at risk by poisons placed to target pets.

Police Scotland have broken down the 25 raptor persecution incidents for the year into Shooting, Poisoning, Trapping, Disturbance or Other. There were eight incidents of shooting of raptors and six incidents where raptors were trapped. With the six already discussed as having been poisoned (though one incident involved poisoning and trapping) this left three in the category of Disturbance and three under Other. Still far too many, and while the numbers poisoned or shot remained the same as during the preceding two years there is a worrying increase in raptors being trapped.

In her Ministerial Foreword, Roseanna Cunningham reminds us that she was:

horrified to learn that the data strongly indicated that around one third of tagged golden eagles, forty-one birds, had disappeared in suspicious clusters, many of which were on or near moorland managed for driven grouse shooting.  Because the majority of these birds had simply disappeared, with no carcase or tag ever found, they could not appear in recorded wildlife crime figures.

So even in these two types of wildlife crime briefly discussed there is some good news on raptor persecution that might not be quite as good as it seems, and some bad news on hare coursing that, at least in my view, is almost certainly worse than the statistics show.

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Licensing of shooting estates – comment

Snare believed set by neighbouring gamekeepers without permission. Trees had also been cut down and used to guide foxes towards snares.

Roe deer suspected shot by neighbouring gamekeepers after vehicle seen shining spotlight on to neighbour’s land

At a meeting of the SNP’s National Council in Perth on Saturday 2 December there was a vote to support the establishment of a licensing system for driven grouse estates, in order to help to prevent wildlife crimes. This is good news, though of course the final decision is that of the environment secretary after seeing the findings of the newly-formed group looking at various issues around grouse moors, including licensing. Nevertheless this important vote must be taken into consideration.

There has been an unsurprising reaction from shooting interests to the effect that licensing is unnecessary, that the shooting industry can regulate its members, that jobs will be lost and that grouse shooting is vital to rural economy. The argument is well-covered in the article of 4 December on the Raptor Persecution UK blog.

I just don’t know why the shooting industry does not just accept the fact that licencing has become necessary and, at least in my view, inevitable. I was involved, 20 years ago now, in the very early days of an attempt to encourage self-regulation through awareness-raising and peer pressure. It made me unpopular with some conservationists but I thought it was worth a try. Self-regulation has been tried and better tried. It has not worked. I have written on this subject at length in my book due for publication any day now Killing by Proxy; wildlife crime in the UK today (Thirsty Book, Edinburgh) but in summary certain landowners, sporting agents and gamekeepers have been allowed to run riot in the commission of wildlife crime, especially that relating to raptors with not a thing done by shooting organisations to stop them. Unfortunately their peers have been condemned by this continued criminal conduct even though they have been abiding by the law (though not necessarily doing much to change the situation.)

In the blog mentioned above there is an excellent comment submitted by a person who, for obvious reasons, wants to remain anonymous and is simply writing under ‘SGA member’. He makes it clear in his comments that the shooting industry is responsible for much of the wildlife crime taking place, saying

‘Some of us with a view of what has been going on have been saying for years now that those involved in the illegal persecution need to stop it and divert their efforts into finding legal recourse if they have predation issues, but persecution is easy, it’s a lazy way to get bigger bags’.

He puts blame on

‘The big shots who see themselves as the “proper” gamekeepers, removing all predators legal and otherwise from the whole area surrounding the moor and their neighbour’s estate too if necessary. Untouchables, they get away with it every time, except all they have really done is drag us down with them’.

As many decent keepers are aware, some of these criminals don’t just stick to their own ground, and there have been countless examples of raptor nests being destroyed, fox dens or badger setts interfered with, fox snares being set or even deer being shot on land neighbouring known problem estates. Equally, as most folks know, wildlife crime on shooting estates seldom finishes up in a court since the evidence is so hard to obtain, bringing us back to the urgent need to license, where conditions can be imposed and as a sanction that can be withdrawn.

There are plenty more of the same opinions as ‘SGA member’ out there, indeed over the years I have spoken to many of them. Their representative organisations need to garner their support and begin to do their decent members justice.

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White-tailed eagles in Ireland

White-tailed eagle and poisoned lamb bait (Photo courtesy of former Strathclyde Police)

Since my visits to Ireland in 2009, when I did research on wildlife crime there for my book The Thin Green Line, I have taken a keen interest in Ireland’s wildlife, especially so the raptor species that have been re-introduced: the red kite, golden eagle and white-tailed eagle.

Dr Allan Mee, the project manager for the white-tailed eagle re-introduction, stated that 100 birds have been released over the past decade as part of a National Parks and Wildlife Service reintroduction project. That should have been great news for Ireland’s wildlife, tourism and general population. The bad news is that of those 100, 33 birds have since died, with poisoning responsible for 40% of those deaths.

This a tragic statistic, with farming interests likely to be the main culprits as opposed to game management in the UK. Though a couple of years is too short a period to judge, there has been some improvement, with no poisoned eagles since 2015 – at least none that have been found.

Reports in Ireland of white-tailed eagles taking live lambs have been scarce, if at all. It may be that in the earlier days of the re-introduction farmers were worried that this would happen and got rid of any eagles that appeared on their land.  With little or no lamb predation evident they may feel more relaxed and now leaving the eagles alone.

While I was wildlife crime officer I heard from the RSPB officer in charge of the east of Scotland white-tailed eagle release, probably around the third year of the project, that she had been speaking to a farmer in Perthshire who had seen one of the immature birds near to his sheep and lambs and was worried that he would start to lose lambs.  He made a threat that if the eagle came back he would shoot it. He contended that he would be justified in doing so, the same as he would be perfectly justified in shooting a dog that threatened his sheep.

The RSPB officer contacted me in a panic. I knew the farmer well and called on him. We had a cup of tea and a biscuit and talked about white-tailed eagles, the perceived threat to live lambs, and of course the penalty for harassing or killing a white-tailed eagle. The quiet chat worked; he agreed that there was nothing that the bird did that indicated it was about to take a lamb, and he gave me his word he would leave the eagles alone.

Let’s hope the farmers in Ireland are now of the same mind and the white-tailed eagles, which are already breeding in Ireland, continue to increase in number. As they have done on Mull and elsewhere in Scotland, they may in time become a huge benefit to the country’s economy through wildlife tourism.

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Killing by Proxy: wildlife crime in the UK today

Killing by Proxy: wildlife crime in the UK today. Alan Stewart

My blogs have been less frequent of recent weeks as I’ve been putting the finishing touches to my latest book, Killing by Proxy. The description of the book contents, as per the back cover, is:

The author draws on half a century of experience in general policing, CID investigations, specialist wildlife crime investigation and criminal intelligence work to analyse and expand on wildlife crimes and incidents occurring right across the UK and reported in the media and on social media. He narrows the range to concentrate on cruelty to wild animals, such as fox hunting, hare coursing and crime committed against badgers. The main part of the book analyses crime associated with game management, especially that relating to intensive driven grouse shooting, and included is a chapter on the valued assistance in some police investigations by experts with relevant skills.

Is foxhunting pest control or simply a nice day out for garishly-dressed people on horses? What cruelty is involved? What is happening to the satellite-tagged hen harriers and golden eagles that have disappeared? Why is evidence obtained by covert surveillance by non-government organisations frequently disallowed by prosecutors or courts? Should shooting be licensed or should driven grouse shooting simply be banned? Who are the main people behind raptor persecution? How can rich landowners avoid prosecution? With all of these questions is the relevant legislation working? What, if anything, is being done to improve the situation? All of these, and more, are discussed in depth by an author who has experienced the complexities of these investigations.

The cover photo of the book is by renowned wildlife photographer Laurie Campbell and is of a female hen harrier about to take a chick offered as diversionary feeding at Langholm Moor. There are 16 pages of colour photographs elaborating on some of the content.

The book is at the printers and should be with me on 7 December at the latest. The cost is £9.99. Anyone wishing a signed copy is welcome to DM me on Twitter or email me at and I’ll post it out as soon as they arrive. If you would also like a copy of The Thin Green Line, seen on this blog under My Books, I’d post them both out at a total of £13.

My more-recent books are not available on Amazon, but as well as from my publisher, (Thirsty Books, Edinburgh), are available from Waterstones, many independent book shops and (signed) directly from me.

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Masked criminals with firearms – and salmon poaching equipment

A device for foul-hooking salmon – no fishing rod required.

The business end of the foul-hooking evice

There has been much discussion recently about the use of masks by people who, for a variety of reasons, want to conceal their identity. If a person is not breaking – or intending to break – the law why on earth would he (occasionally she?) want to wear mask or a balaclava. The most recent incidents in the news relate to a masked man on a named estate in England trying to free a badger from a snare by shooting through the snare with a shotgun. It is not surprising, carrying out such a barbaric act, that he wanted to remain anonymous. Just this week there was a belated report of two masked men, one of whom had a firearm, in public woodland at an unidentified location in Scotland. It is reported that the men were within 30 metres of an unspecified raptor nest, which makes it more likely that this occurred in spring or early summer. There seems little reason for someone to be (a) masked, and (b) carrying a firearm at a raptor nest unless a crime was being committed.

Naturally being masked makes it much more difficult for witnesses to identify the individual. It is also extremely alarming for members of the public to encounter a masked person with a firearm. In both cases the circumstances suggest the men were likely to be linked to game management. Even if in neither case they were identified, the incident in Scotland provides more grist to the mill for licensing to be applied to shooting. An own goal!

In one instance, in relating to salmon poachers, being masked did not work. I thought I would include a short story from my first book, Wildlife Detective.

In the 1970s, while I was with Tayside Police and working from Peth, we were plagued with salmon poachers using foul-hooking methods during the night on Moncrieffe Island, a large island in the centre of the River Tay at Perth. At this part of the river there is a deep holding pool, locally known as the Friarton Hole, that in autumn usually accommodated many hundreds of salmon. Here is this short excerpt –

The advance of modern technology changes all aspects of policing for the better, and the challenge of catching salmon poachers was no exception. The change for us was a piece of equipment that had been used by the Armed Forces for many years. Policing budgets are miniscule compared to those of the military and we, as the poorer relations, have to wait until prices are more acceptable to the public purse. This wonderful and expensive piece of ultra-modern kit went under the name of the image intensifier, now more commonly known as night vision equipment. I had first seen a very advanced form of this equipment demonstrated by the military during a high-power NATO conference at Gleneagles Hotel. It allowed us to see landscape on a hillside several miles away in different shades, depending on whether we were looking at woodland, grassland, ploughed land or even cattle grazing the hillside. The Irish song Forty Shades of Green came to mind as green was the predominant colour, with a wee bit of purple thrown in. The NATO equipment must also have had a heat-seeking capability. Looking a bit closer we could see rabbits sitting on the grass round the hotel, and I was amazed when they hopped off that their footsteps remained visible three or four hops behind them. Knowing how well insulated rabbits’ feet are with thick fur I could hardly believe that equipment could be so sensitive as to pick up this tiny amount of heat.

I later used a crude and elementary version of this equipment with a colleague, PC Vince Smith, when we spent a few nights hiding under bushes on a hillside. This was nothing to do with either poaching or wildlife but was in fact during the time in the late 1970s when we in Scotland were under a degree of threat by the Scottish Republican Army. At that time, because of the activities of a relatively few fanatics who, at any cost, wanted Scotland to be separate from the rest of the UK, police were on a raised level of alert. Amongst the threats of this small but determined group was that the oil pipeline running down through Scotland would be blown up. This gave the police additional responsibilities in maintaining regular patrols and checks, especially at the vulnerable points on the oil pipeline where there were valves above ground. Police checks were also regularly made at sites where explosives were stored as they were seen as likely targets to be hit by the Scottish Republican Army in its search for explosives with which it could further its violent aims.

Vince and I were watching one of these explosives stores one night as there had been intelligence that this particular one was to be targeted. None of the barmy brigade arrived but we spent our time watching roe deer, foxes, rabbits, owls, mice and other creatures of the night as they went about their business. It was late autumn and very cold but, between the night-time show and the quaffing of a quarter bottle of whisky we had taken with us, the cold and the time were forgotten as we marvelled at the secret lives of beasties that were unaware of the presence of two pairs of friendly eyes intruding on their privacy. Now having had the experience of night vision equipment I could see another very appropriate use for it.

Shortly after our stake-out in pursuit of the Scottish Republican Army, I borrowed the same piece of kit as we had used and went with another colleague down to the Friarton Hole. Instead of sneaking on to Moncrieffe Island, this time we sneaked down to the Perth side of the river and looked across towards Moncrieffe Island. The bank there was lined with nine or ten poachers, all of whom were casting into the river with their treble hooks and lead and ripping the line through the water with the eventual and inevitable consequence of striking a fish. We recognised most of them and had to pass the single piece of equipment back and forth between us since in Scotland every important piece of evidence has to be corroborated.

We watched all of them at various times foul hooking and landing salmon, and we were astonished how quickly the fish was on the bank. Clearly their line was ultra-heavy duty and none of the sporting ‘playing’ of the fish that is the real thrill of legitimate angling took place. The fish was hooked and pulled through the water to the bank just as hard as its captor could yank in the line.

We made notes as best as we could in the darkness of what was taking place and by whom, and had a good laugh at our efforts of trying to write in straight lines once we reached artificial lighting. The cases against those we had observed were almost foolproof since we had witnessed their deeds from start to finish. There was no need to trek on to the island to catch them: we simply knocked on their doors the next day and charged them.

The poachers were gutted and we were accused of using underhand methods to catch them. I suppose most of them thought the whole poaching scene was something of a game and it was fine by them so long as they were only caught occasionally. They were content to be on the winning side but when the tables turned and their substantial financial gains were under threat through technological aids they were thoroughly pissed off.

Pleased with our success we tried the same technique the following night but what we saw was completely different. The green, almost extra-terrestrial images in our night vision equipment were still there but were wearing balaclavas so that we could not see their faces. They wrongly assumed that if we could not identify them facially they would be safe to continue their nefarious practices. They really hadn’t thought through their anti-surveillance measures sensibly. If they had considered whether or not they could identify their brother, father, cousin or uncle from a distance of about 75 metres wearing a balaclava, the answer would have to be in the affirmative. We knew these characters just as well as they would have known their relatives or friends and there was little difficulty in identifying most of them. We knew them by the clothing they wore, by their height and build, by a number of idiosyncrasies that were unique to them, and in one case by the collie dog that regularly accompanied one of them.

For a second successive day many of them had a ‘chap at the door’ that was the forerunner to another court appearance and fine. The poachers were now on the back foot and their activities were severely disrupted. The situation on Moncrieffe Island became much quieter and any other poacher that we did catch was wearing a balaclava just as an extra precaution.

See Wildlife Detective and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on


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RSPB Birdcrime 2016 Report – a mixed response

The poisoning of wildlife is thankfully becoming less common

But the use of traps like this to take raptors seem to be increasing

A mixed response to the release of RSPB’s Birdcrime 2016 report as was expected. The figures do look a bit better in 2016 with (only!) 81 confirmed raptor persecutions but game management can’t boast an improvement until these figures have a sustained drop over a lengthy period. And of course until satellite-tagged golden eagles and hen harriers stop disappearing over grouse moors. And until male hen harriers provisioning females on nests in the north of England stop disappearing. And until ghostly figures with shotguns stop appearing in the middle of the night at goshawk nests. We must also bear in mind that in remote areas and in darkness many more crimes must remain undetected and unreported.

It is good news that the use of pesticides to kill wildlife has reduced. Unfortunately – and this can’t really be seen from the way RSPB have listed their statistics – the use of Fenn traps and similar traps seems to have correspondingly increased.

I have always had respect for BASC – at least in Scotland – and I was really pleased to see this organisation, the first time so far as I am aware for any shooting or game management organisation, to have led the field with a frank and honest statement. Their acting chief executive said that killing the raptors to protect game birds was a “fool’s bargain” and that his members had to stop or risk shooting being banned. He further made the admission that there were “criminals among us” who risked “wrecking shooting for the majority. All of us need to realise that the killing of raptors is doing us no favours. It risks terminal damage to the sport we love.”

He realises that expelling members who were convicted of raptor persecution was not enough, and that shooting needed a cultural shift to make such people pariahs. “Peer pressure is a powerful force in shooting. We must make clear that wildlife crime has no place in our community.”

I have been making similar assertions in my new book, Killing by Proxy: an analysis of wildlife crime (Thirsty Books, £9.99 and due for publication later this month), and the last BASC comment is worth reading in conjunction with one of the blogs written by freelance journalist James Marchington, who specialises in writing about Britain’s wildlife, the countryside and fieldsports. The blog is entitled Poisoned eagles and the Osborne connection, and Marchington writes

‘Another eagle falls victim to illegal poisoning. The story is reported in the Guardian. And once again the name of Mark Osborne is not far away. Osborne is known for his ability to take a poor grouse moor and turn it around, vastly increasing grouse numbers – and the moor’s value – in a few years. Of course it could be coincidence, but several moors run by Osborne have been at the centre of illegal poisoning scandals in recent years.’ 

‘Local keepers are hopping mad at the damage done to shooting’s reputation. And there’s no doubt where they are pointing the finger’.

‘Just a few greedy estates are trashing the damage done to shooting and undermining all the good conservation work done by the vast majority of shoot managers in Britain. Surely we are best placed to weed them out?’

This blog was written in 2009 after the poisoning of a golden eagle. Sadly the weeds are still thriving.

The editor of Shooting Times believes that some young gamekeepers feel coerced by their employers to kill raptors. “If the shooting community refuse to admit it, the future for our sport could be bleak.” This ties in nicely with the title of my new book.

The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation view is that “very few stupid keepers and landowners” broke the law. “These dinosaurs sully the good name of modern shooting, putting at risk its long-term future. The only effective solution lies in changing the collective mindset of those involved.” Could they be beginning to see the light?

The Moorland Association wants more to be done to prosecute people ‘who injure wild birds’.  Their director, Amanda Anderson, said: “Any incident of bird of prey persecution is unacceptable and the full force of the law should be felt by those breaking it.” She also said that more could be done to help restore the hen harrier population, which is a complete turn-around from her comment in the Sunday Times in August when she claimed that “If we let the Hen Harrier in, we will soon have nothing else.” Difficult to give credence to the Moorland Association’s views when they swing so widely from one view to another. Nevertheless she can now be held to her most recent opinion.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association claims to have expelled six members in five years over alleged wildlife crime but that most members were law-abiding. They said that “In Scotland, the greatest issue we wrestle with is the lack of access to legal measures to solve species conflicts. We feel this would have more impact than any other measure to prevent wildlife crime.” This seems to infer licences to kill raptors would be preferred rather than their members simply working within the current law and shows little promise for meaningful change or an admission that they are the architects of their own misfortune.

Tim Bonner, head of the Countryside Alliance, said that historically gamekeeping techniques had devastated hen harrier populations but that there was a “generational shift” taking place towards better conservation. “It’s our role to encourage that change of attitudes.” This is a strange comment on hen harriers and a complete lack of acceptance of what is taking place. There is nothing ‘historical’ about the devastation of hen harriers; it is very much ongoing and substantiated by the regular loss of satellite-tagged harriers over grouse moors.

I can see nothing from the Scottish Association for Country Sports (SACS) and indeed wonder if they are still in existence. If not, it is a pity as I thought they were quite a forward-thinking organisation.

Demonstrating how unlikely it will be for England and Wales to have any improvements in legislation that might curb raptor persecution, Jim Shannon MP (DUP, Strangford, NI), one of the bedfellows of the Conservatives, was quoted as asking Parliament on 2 November,

The number of birds of prey across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has risen astronomically to the detriment of songbirds. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs does occasionally grant licences to cull birds of prey, but many country people and landowners who want to avail themselves of such licences in order to achieve a balance in the countryside find the process to be off-putting. Indeed, sometimes they cannot get a licence. There are too many birds of prey and too few songbirds and mammals, so will the Leader of the House grant a debate on that or call for a statement from DEFRA?

Despite the encouraging views of BASC, with folk like Shannon in places of power, I think they have an uphill battle.

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The pleasures (and otherwise) on a walk along a country road

The four mattresses dumped at the side of a passing place

One of the hawthorn trees absolutely laden with berries

Part of the hawthorn hedge also laden with great winter food for birds

The carpeting and underlay dumped at another passing place

There is a narrow and very quiet country road near where I live and along which I often walk. There is never a time I am on that road that I don’t see something of interest, whether it be deer, birds, flowers or even cloud formations.

Today my first encounter was unpleasant; in fact it was disgusting. Some moron had dumped four mattresses at the side of a passing place. It seems almost unbelievable that someone would load up these on to a van or trailer and, rather than drive six miles to the nearest recycling centre, dump them at the side of the road. They are ‘household’ items rather than commercial waste, so the chances are there would not even be a charge at a recycling centre. An act of sheer selfishness, and left to be cleaned up by the council at our expense.

My spirits were lifted a bit further along the road. A cloud of over a hundred fieldfares rose from roadside hawthorn trees and bushes and flew into birch trees on the other side of the road. The trees were absolutely laden with berries, which are providing welcome feeding for these Scandinavian visitors. They were remarkably quiet, with none of the normal chacking usually associated with these birds. At the same time a skein of pink-footed geese flew overhead, having lifted from barley stubble a couple of fields away. A nearby field was also host last week to another migratory flock, whooper swans, this time journeying from Iceland. I counted 32 last Friday but there were even more at the weekend. On Monday I took my camera to get a photo, but they had gone. Typical.

Further along the road a female sparrowhawk came swooping towards me along the road side of the hawthorn trees. At the last minute it cut through the trees and continued its journey on the field side, heading towards where the fieldfares were. I’d be surprised if fieldfare was not on the menu, though maybe such a large flock would confuse the predator and make it miss out.

A couple of hundred yards further on there was more disgusting flytipping, again at a passing place but this time old carpeting and underlay. It looks as if the person involved had tried to turn his vehicle by backing up on to the damp verge and had got stuck. After much spinning and flattening of grass I think he had managed to get the vehicle out. What a pity!

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