Book review – A Last Wild Place by Mike Tomkies

A Last Wild Place, by Mike Tomkies

In A Last Wild Place Mike Tomkies tells the story of his struggle to survive in often extreme weather in a remote part of the Highlands of Scotland where the only access to his cottage is by boat. In winter and early spring his difficulties almost mirror those of some of the wildlife he encounters on a daily basis, a position he describes as ‘close to the animal state oneself’.

Mike’s frequent treks in the area round his wilderness home demonstrate the seasonal changes in the woodlands, in the mountains and on the loch, which is his ‘main road’. His phenomenal knowledge of wildlife is not limited to mammals and birds but includes trees, wild plants and insects, particularly butterflies. At close quarters he studies and writes of golden eagles, buzzards, black-throated divers and red deer.

His chapters on deer in winter are particularly poignant and dramatically demonstrate the heavy death toll on deer in bad weather, especially when their numbers are too high or when they are fenced out of what would have been their traditional winter sheltering grounds. He attempts to rescue several exhausted deer, on occasions bringing them into his kitchen or workshop to dry them and heat them up. His empathy with wildlife is such that he put himself at considerable risk rescuing a red deer calf that had fallen into a raging burn and was close to being swept over a waterfall.

Whether his subject is the birds round his cottage, the common gulls nesting on an island in the loch, the butterflies in summer or the deer at their calving grounds, Mike Tomkies can include more valuable detail in a single paragraph than some writers can put in a chapter. He is an extraordinary naturalist and his tales are made all the more interesting by the presence of his constant companion, his experienced German shepherd dog Moobli.

I read this book when it was first published in the 1980s. I’m so glad I read it again.

A Last Wild Place, Mike Tomkies.  Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG.  £18.99

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Listen to the birds

The blackbirds and chaffinches drew my attention to this snoozy tawny owl

If you are observant and can read the signs it’s amazing what wildlife can tell you. Here are just three examples of listening and understanding from a couple of my books:

On one occasion when I was detective sergeant I was with a colleague, detective constable Willie Gibson. A man involved in a robbery in Perth had driven off in a car pursued by another two detective officers, but had abandoned the car at the edge of a large wood. Knowing the area well I decided that we would park up in sight of the far side of the wood and just sit quietly and watch. We had been sitting in the car for half an hour or so on this spring afternoon and, as well as keeping a lookout for our robber, I was enjoying the wildlife all around me.

At one point I said to Willie, ‘There’s a cat about Willie.’ ‘How do you know that?’ was his response. ‘I can hear the birds,’ I answered. He probably thought I had gone off my head but there was a chaffinch sounding a steady pink, pink, pink call which is always worth investigating. There was also a blackbird alarming with a regular tak, tak, tak call, a clear indicator of a predator on the ground (its loud and piercing chatter, a completely different alarm call, is reserved for an avian predator).

I continued, ‘The cat’s just over there where that hedge meets that shed.’ ‘Can you see it?’ queried Willie. ‘No,’ I said, ‘but that’s where the birds are telling me it is.’ Willie was anything but convinced and said, ‘Well if there’s a cat appears over there I’ll eat my hat.’ At that a white cat appeared from the end of the shed. Unfortunately Willie didn’t have his hat with him!

And the robber? He was capable of terrorising helpless elderly shopkeepers but he was out of his league in a dark wood on his own. He only ventured into the wood a short distance and was caught within an hour.

………

This incident relates to one of my walks on a Highland Perthshire Estate while carrying out a wildlife survey for the owner:

I followed the fence line along – the boundary with the estate to the east – and climbed over once I came to Geordie’s Moor. I cut through the junipers and at the end crossed a boggy patch, again sticking to the rabbit hops to ensure I didn’t sink in the bog. The rabbits had developed this safe route over many years and I’d have been daft not to trust to it. I could see two blue tits on top of a blackthorn bush at the side of the drystane dyke separating Geordie’s Moor from the grass field beyond. They were flicking their wings and clearly alarmed. I couldn’t hear them at that point but as I got closer I could hear their tsee tsee tsee alarm calls. Their calls attracted another blue tit and there were now three on top of the bush warning fellow birds and mammals of danger.

I had a good idea what the danger was and made a squeaking sound, sucking with my lips, somewhat (hopefully) resembling a rabbit squealing in distress. Within a few seconds a small brown triangular face, with two dark eyes and an equally dark and shiny nose, poked out of the dyke. Knowing how inquisitive stoats and weasels are, I continued squeaking and he (or she) came out a bit further, resting his front paws on one of the stones to get a better look at me. He was a smart wee chap, with a light brown coat and white belly. He went back into the dyke and re-appeared two or three stones further up, repeating this twice more before giving up on identifying the cause of the squeaking.

Whatever the weasel had been up to – or was going to be up to – the blue tits had given everyone around an early warning.

………

On yet another day of my survey:

My attention was immediately taken by two new inhabitants of the shooting lodge loch on my arrival at the estate. With the brief glance I had I was sure that new arrivals were Canada geese, and I went on to the veranda of the shooting lodge overlooking the loch to confirm. Sure enough a Canada goose and gander were proudly resting on the island, the gander considerably larger and slightly paler in colour. The four resident mute swans were close by and there seemed to be no animosity with their recently-arrived wildfowl cousins.

As I watched them I became aware of a blackbird chattering behind me in the small conifer wood adjacent to the lodge. I couldn’t see the blackbird, but knew its tone meant an avian predator, probably an owl. Blackbirds in particular are great at letting any observer know what is about – provided of course the observer can read the signs. In contrast to the high-pitched chattering, the blackbird gives a pink pink or tak tak note if it spots a predator such as a cat, stoat or weasel on the ground, with this warning repeated for as long as the danger persists.

I could now see two chaffinches joining in the warning, emitting a similar pinking note, though pitched higher than that of the blackbird. They were nervously flitting about the branches half-way up a sitka spruce tree near the corner of the wood. I went round the lodge to get to the edge of the wood and looked up into the trees. Barely visible, and blending perfectly with the trunk and branches, was a tawny owl. It was tight against the trunk of the tree, and had I not been peering up with some confidence of what would be there I probably wouldn’t have seen it.

With my presence the small birds had gone, their whistle-blowing job done. Having brown feathers streaked down the breast with white, the owl merged perfectly with the dappled shade of the woodland. Its head looked almost as wide as its body, with a creamy white semicircle on each side and a brown stripe down the centre, ending in its beak. Its eyes were firmly shut, and it seemed to be enjoying its siesta despite its raucous and inconsiderate neighbours. This could well have been the owl that I heard in daytime on my visit a mere five days before. I went to the car for my camera and managed to get a few decent photos that rather surprisingly looked as if I were opposite the bird rather than underneath it.

 

See A Wealth of Wildlife, A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy, plus a free copy of another of my books, The Thin Green Line, contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Captive fox kept for hunting? Comment.

Fox

The BBC and other media reported on 29 March that ‘A gamekeeper who kept a fox captive in a brick shed – allegedly so it could be hunted – has been found guilty of an animal welfare offence’. (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-43568572 )

After a report to the League against Cruel Sports (LACS) in December 2017 their staff found a fox inside a brick shed on the Buckminster Estate, which is on the Leicestershire/Lincolnshire border. They suspected that the fox was kept for the purpose of fox hunting and set up video surveillance on the shed. The following day they watched a man come to the shed, then leave again shortly after.

LACS were aware that the Belvoir Hunt were due to meet for fox hunting the following day, 17 December, so they informed the police of what was happening, the terrible conditions in which the fox was being held, the fact it had no water, and returned to the shed to rescue the fox.

On the day the Belvoir Hunt were due to meet, the same man – later identified as the gamekeeper on the estate – returned to the shed. This time he was carrying a net and a hessian sack. The inference from these items was that he was going to catch and bag the fox. Though common sense cannot be used in evidence, it was clear the fox was to be released so that it could be hunted by hounds.

The gamekeeper, Nigel Smith, was arrested by the police and interviewed. In the typical fashion of most hardened criminals and suspect gamekeepers he made ‘No comment’ replies to each of the questions put to him by the officers. The principal questions were:

“Are you willing to tell me why you had that fox in the building?”

“Has somebody asked you to catch that fox for them?”

“Have you got that fox as a pet?”

“Would you generally keep a fox as a pet?”

“Have you any links to the Belvoir Hunt or Belvoir Estate?”

“Were you going to give it to one of the members of the hunt?”

Smith was fined and ordered to pay costs totalling £1640. He was also disqualified from keeping foxes (which is a strange acquisitive pastime in any case) or being involved in fox hunting for five years.

This is yet another incident demonstrating the illegality involved in fox hunting and is one of several cases where a fox or foxes have been held captive by people linked to a fox hunt. The common-sense suspicion that the fox was to be released blows completely out of the water the claim that mounted fox hunting is carried out as fox control.

This was a great bit of work by LACS. There was certainly the issue of the suffering of the fox and its need to be released from that suffering. The fox was a ‘protected animal’ in terms of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 since it was under the control of man. It was being subjected to unnecessary suffering, not only because of the poor conditions under which it was kept but because of its captivity, being a wild animal, and its visits from its most deadly predator, man.

Section 18 (1) of the Act gives the delegated power to LACS to seize the fox, stating:

If an inspector or a constable reasonably believes that a protected animal is suffering, he may take, or arrange for the taking of, such steps as appear to him to be immediately necessary to alleviate the animal’s suffering.

But it again brings up the confusing position of covert surveillance on what I am sure would be private land and whether or not it can be admitted in evidence. The police, CPS and the court in this case, thankfully, accepted the evidence of the covert surveillance, but unfortunately appeared to give no explanation for future cases as to why it did so.

The other aspect of the case worthy of comment was that the judge said he had drawn an “adverse inference” from the fact that Smith did not give evidence at his trial. I’m not particularly acquaint with court procedures in England but I can’t imagine a judge saying this in a Scottish court, where an accused person has the right to remain silent and it is up to the Crown to prove evidence of guilt.

In any event it was a good conviction, albeit it was only in relation to an offence under the Animal Welfare Act rather than under the Hunting Act 2004. It also provides more ammunition for the complete banning of the ‘sport’ of mounted fox hunting.

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The use of clam traps in England

Home-made and extremely powerful clam trap set in a woodland. The gamekeeper who set it admitted it was to catch a buzzard.

The trap photographed by the Hunt Investigation Team in the Peak District

I looked at a photo put on Twitter this morning by the Hunt Investigation Team. It was a clam or Larsen mate trap set with a pheasant carcass as bait. The caption was ‘Here is another clam trap, baited with carrion by a grouse moor gamekeeper, in an area populated by buzzards in the Peak District’.

The use of these traps, also known as Larsen mate traps, is permitted in Scotland only under specific conditions and following a year-long trial to see whether or not they would catch non-target species. I have always been doubtful about these traps, especially since the ones I was involved with before retirement were clearly set for buzzards. The trap resembles a clam and the principle is that a bird lands on the perch to get to the bait, causing the two sides of the clam to spring shut and trap the bird inside. For a big bird such as a buzzard this was likely to mean that it could be caught with its wings up in the air and sticking out of the top of the trap. The trial showed that, while this could happen, manufacturing the trap so that its two sides did not close completely would allow the bird to retract its wings.

During the period of the trial the traps were allowed to be used but only with bait of bread or eggs, which would still attract crows but much less likely to attract raptors. Since the beginning of 2017 the traps were then permitted to be used with a meat bait but the operators have to provide to Scottish Natural Heritage Licencing Section their names and contact details, the number and types of traps used and the area in which they will be used.

I wondered then what the legal position was in England, where this trap was alleged to have been used.

The general licence for England made no reference to any trap other than, generically, to a cage trap. Cage traps come in different sizes and designs, but the licence does not even define or describe any of those. I have found over the years that good clear definitions within legislation makes a world of difference. Could a Larsen mate or clam trap be said to be a cage trap? I would doubt it. I think the prosecution may be able to argue that it is a spring trap, and that its use would fall within the terms of Section 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, this being, (in Scotland) :

Prohibition of certain methods of killing or taking wild birds.

5.–(1)   Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person–

(a)        sets in position any of the following articles, being an article which is of such a nature and is so placed as to be likely to cause bodily injury to any wild bird coming into contact therewith, that is to say, any springe, trap, gin, snare, hook and line, any electrical device for killing, stunning or frightening or any poisonous, poisoned or stupefying substance;

(b)       uses for the purpose of killing or taking any wild bird any such article as aforesaid, whether or not of such a nature and so placed as aforesaid, or any net, baited board, bird-lime or substance of a like nature to bird-lime;

Clam traps being included in the general licence in Scotland, of course, derogates from the terms of the legislation.

But the equivalent section for England weakens any prosecution argument by the use of a term much more difficult to prove: ‘calculated’

5.-(1)  Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person—

(a)         sets in position any of the following articles, being an article which is of such a nature and is so placed as to be calculated to cause bodily injury to any wild bird coming into contact therewith, that is to say, any springe, trap, gin, snare, hook and line, any electrical device for killing, stunning or frightening or any poisonous, poisoned or stupefying substance;

This is yet another example of where wildlife legislation covering England is weak and full of loopholes that can allow a suspect an easy escape route.

While it does not seem that the use of Larsen mate traps is legal in England I telephoned the licensing telephone number to ask their advice. The girl I spoke to had clearly never heard of a Larsen mate or a clam trap. She took my details and said she would make enquiries and phone me back. It must have been a tricky puzzle as by the end of the day I had not had a response. If I do (eventually) get a response I’ll add it to this post.

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Abandoning guinea pigs in winter

Guinea Pig Dead

One of the dead guinea pigs

Guinea Pig

The rescued guinea pig that required to have an eye removed

The Courier of 3 March carried a story of a timid tri-coloured guinea pig which was found in the Reid Park, Forfar, by a dog walker. The guinea pig was taken to a local vet and though it appeared to be OK there was no way of knowing how long it had been out in the snowy conditions or where it had come from, since the nearest houses were some way off.

The story reminded me of an incident which we dealt with as wildlife crime officers in Tayside, probably around 2005. A person who had been walking in Little Glenshee in Perthshire reported that he had found some dead guinea pigs near a roadside banking of whin bushes. He said there were ‘some small ones and some larger ones’ and he had also seen some live ones in the thick jaggy bushes.

I met the man reporting the incident and he showed me where these guinea pigs were. There were indeed several dead ones, unsurprising considering the freezing weather conditions in the month of December when the incident took place. There were also some ‘small ones’ as well, which the witness had not realised were hamsters, not guinea pigs.

It was clear that these poor wee beasties had been dumped in the countryside. Between the cold and predators such as stoats and weasels they had next to no chance of survival. Some of those that were dead had been partly eaten, though this might have been after death. It was sad to see the remaining live guinea pigs in the impenetrable bank of whins and I wondered how – if at all – they could be caught.

The nearest house, almost a mile away, was that of a gamekeeper. I called on him to see if he had some live-catch traps that we could use to try to tempt the live guinea pigs into. He provided several traps and some carrots to bait them and helped set the traps round the bank of whins. We agreed between us to check the traps three times a day, with him carrying out the early morning and late afternoon checks and me carrying out a late morning check.

Unfortunately only two guinea pigs entered the traps. These two might have been the only two remaining, we had no way of knowing. No hamsters were caught, nor were any live hamsters ever seen.

As had happened at the Reid Park, the trapped guinea pigs were taken to a vet, this time in Perth. One was quite healthy and recovered well after being warmed up. The other had a damaged eye, which had to be removed, though it recovered after its surgery.

This was a case that I was especially keen to solve. To release pet animals to certain death is cruel in the extreme and I worked closely with the media for help in tracing the person who had dumped them. I was sure that someone would be aware of a neighbour or acquaintance who had a shed-full of guinea pigs and hamsters one day and an empty shed the next day. Sadly there was not a single response to my media appeals. It was incredibly disappointing.

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Bird-watching in the garden

The female blackbird waiting beside the conservatory for its mealworms

The impatient (or hungry) male blackbird waiting for its mealworm breakfast

Chaffinches and bramblings under one of the feeders in the larch wood

The dejected mistle thrush that failed to find a single berry to eat

The dazed bullfinch under the conservatory window

Well there are some advantages of snowy weather, though not a lot. The day thus far for my wife and I has been bird watching without leaving the house – or at least the garden. The day started with one of the two pairs of blackbirds waiting for me just after 7.00am perched on the balcony rail of the veranda which is part of the conservatory. They get mealworms in the same places in the garden every morning and are always waiting there just after first light. This morning they were impatient and almost knocking on the window for their breakfast.

I filled the feeders at the three feeding stations first thing and by 7.30 there were birds galore. Most were chaffinches, and there have been between 30 and 50 in the garden all day. They surely can’t be the same birds; there must e some change around otherwise their wee bellies would burst with food. It would be great to know how many different chaffinches visit the feeders and the ground under the feeders over the course of a day.

The chaffinches were soon joined by bramblings, with their numbers building to a dozen or so. A few blue tits, three fat wood pigeons, four tree sparrows and about the same number of house sparrows made up most of the rest of the cast, though there was an occasional guest appearance by a wren, a tree creeper and a couple of dunnocks, the latter being more interested in stealing some of the blackbirds’ mealworms. These, of course, had to be topped up every couple of hours.

A mistle thrush appeared and searched every bush in the garden that had formerly held berries, though they had been scoffed earlier in the winter.  I could see one berry on a cotoneaster and the mistle thrush tried in vain to snatch it, but unfortunately it was at the end of a thin, wispy branch and tantalisingly out of reach.

Later in the day the same bushes were visited by a small flock of around half a dozen fieldfares, who also had to leave empty-handed. They’re the first to have visited the garden this winter and only ever come in snowy conditions.

Despite having their mealworm supplies, at one point a female blackbird clung on to one of the feeders, flapping wildly to retain its position. It seemed to spill more seed than it ate, a situation that the hens grasped immediately and scuttled over to pick up the best of the seed, scattering the ground squad of chaffinches and bramblings.

A flock of goldfinches visited the feeders yesterday but, though they were in the garden again today, they were more interested in the cones at the top of the larch trees and were able to feed without interruption. This must be a great source of food as, in addition to the goldfinches, I regularly see chaffinches, coal tits, blue tits and great tits feasting there.

The day almost included a disaster, as a male bullfinch crashed against the conservatory window. It nose-dived into the snow and lay there quivering as if dead. It must have been knocked out but a few seconds later it emerged from the snow and sat looking around, clearly still dazed. I was pretty sure by that time it would survive but it sat there for a good fifteen minutes before it eventually flew off. It would have been easy pickings for one of the sparrowhawks, though none have visited this past few days despite their bird table being full.

As I finish writing this at almost 3.00pm the feeders are just as busy as they have been all day, in fact two feeders of about 2 feet in length are nearly empty and will need refilled for the early morning invasion. I must say we get our money’s worth from the seed and mealworms.

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Mr Snowman, the hare courser

A brown hare, when it thinks it is unseen, will allow humans quite close. Hare coursers use this to their advantage.

The fact I am snowed in today is an ideal opportunity to write another blog. I wondered initially about writing about the mass of birds visiting the feeders in the garden, which would have been a great count for the RSPB Garden Birdwatch: 50+ chaffinches, 2 bramblings, 4 tree sparrows, a house sparrow, a robin, a tree creeper, a goldfinch, 2 dunnocks, 3 blue tits, 4 blackbirds, 4 woodpigeons and a magpie, which I can hear but not see. Anyway I decided to write about an unusual hare coursing case which took place in similar snowy conditions. It is recounted in my book A Lone Furrow:

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 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 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.

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 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.

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 service 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.

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

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