A pig in the close – a response to @WYP_CNewsome

‘Having been called a ‘F***ing Pig’ several times, the other day, I didn’t dwell on it. Yawning faceFace with rolling eyes I love pigs!’

This is part of a tweet the other day by PC Caroline Newsome (@WYP_CNewsome), who is an experienced and dedicated wildlife crime officer in West Yorkshire Police. She was quite right to ignore the comment, invariably made by folk who are too stupid to be able to indulge in any sensible conversation. Very often, when someone utters this type of insult towards a police officer, it can result in the police having the last laugh, as I recounted in part of a chapter of my first book, Wildlife Detective:-

‘It crossed my mind at the time that over the last forty years I have hidden behind bushes and in a variety of other places waiting to pounce on someone who was involved in some crime or other. One such ambush that comes readily to mind was an attempt to catch youths that had begun a stoning campaign against police vehicles. Like every town or city, Perth has its rougher areas and in one of the more run-down streets, when any police vehicle passed along in the early hours of the morning, youths started to hurl stones and half bricks at it. They then ran round the corner into the next street and disappeared into one or other of the three tenement closes.

‘This stoning had occurred twice on our night shift and we were getting a bit fed up with it. I was a sergeant at the time and I told the car crew for that area that I would quietly go through the back gardens and wait in one of the closes so that I could grab at least one of the culprits as they ran through in the darkness. I use the term ‘garden’ here in its loosest possible sense to include scrub, long unkempt grass, broken fencing, all manner of rubbish and the booby traps left by the myriad of mongrels on the housing estate to stick to the feet of the unwary nocturnal visitor. The officers in the car were to give me time to get into position then drive along the street.

‘I had been out the back of the houses in the area sufficiently often in daylight that I was confident I could navigate in the darkness. It was about 1.30 am as made my way to the middle close of the three and stood in the darkness, waiting. The street outside was well lit and I was standing back a few feet into the close but still able hear what was happening outside. I intended to move back a few feet further once I heard the thunder of hooves so that I was behind a right-angled bend in the close leading to one of the ground floor doors and my hand could come unseen out of the darkness and snatch one of the retreating rogues whose antagonism towards the police had gone just a bit too far.

‘When dealing with young people who for a number of reasons rebel against any type of authority, there is a line in the sand over which they generally know not to cross. Police officers put up with – either good naturedly or with gritted teeth – name calling, a range of cat-calls, whistling and hissing. Mental pressure we largely ignore, or bear in mind for another day. Physical assault needs a prompt and effective response.

‘The officers told me by radio that they had started to drive up the street, then minutes later that stones were being thrown at the car as they came near the end of the street. The group of about six or seven yobs was now hot-footing it in my direction. I heard them coming and was about to step back further into the close when I heard shouting coming out of the darkness from the school playing fields at the top of a steep grass banking on the other side of the road, and at a height considerably above the level of the road.

‘Plainly some of the youths’ pals, for whatever nefarious purpose, were in the school grounds and had spotted me in the close. One was shouting at the top of his voice to warn his chums, “There’s a pig in the close. There’s a pig in the close. Watch out, there’s a pig in the close!” I could hear him clearly but for whatever reason the runners heading towards me either didn’t hear him, chose to ignore him, or maybe, with their entrepreneurial hats on, thought that it was a real pig in the close that they could make into a pet or, more likely and practically, convert into bacon butties. Whatever their thoughts were they came hurtling through the close and I managed to catch not one but two and held on to the struggling bodies until my colleagues came to my assistance. The two being arrested put an end to the stone throwing and I’ve had many a laugh recounting the story of the ‘pig in the close’. It was an enjoyable night altogether.’

For more information on my books and how to purchase signed copies see this blog under ‘My Books’

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To shoot a woodpigeon – or not?

An article appeared in the Shooting Time magazine some months ago claiming that on 30th January an individual had shot ten different species in a day. The article was titled A Perfect Ten. The species claimed to be shot were fox, rabbit, crow, red-legged partridge, woodcock, mallard, teal, pheasant, pigeon (in the photo it looks like a woodpigeon) and jay. The shooting apparently took place in England.

Woodpigeons

There has been some debate about the legality of shooting some of the species. I started to look at the general licences as they apply to England, but quickly came to the conclusion that they were difficult to understand and nowhere near as clearly laid out as those that apply in Scotland. This is unfortunate as it creates a problem for many folks who shoot, while at the same time making a police investigation and subsequent CPS prosecution more complex than it should be. I decided to look at how shooting these species might be considered had it taken place in Scotland.

In Scotland the two mammals, fox and rabbit, have limited legislative protection. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act the rabbit may only be shot by a landowner or a person with the landowner’s permission. It is assumed that the shooter in this case fell into one of those categories. Strangely I can see nothing in wildlife legislation to prevent anyone with or without permission going on to land and shooting a fox, though the offence of trespassing on land with a firearm under the Firearms Act is relevant.

It is worth remembering that all wild birds are protected. The red-legged partridge, woodcock, mallard and teal are all species that may be shot by authorised persons outwith the close season, otherwise an offence is committed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Since the shooting allegedly took place on 30th January it had been carried out legally.

Looking now at the jay, a jay may only be killed under one general licence, General Licence No 1, provided that the terms and conditions of the licence have been met. Under this licence it may only be killed for the protection of wild birds where there is no other satisfactory solution. Unless the shooter can come up with a very good defence, shooting a jay on 30th January, which is outwith the nesting season, could well result in a police investigation and a report for prosecution.

The woodpigeon may be killed under General Licence No 2, again provided that the terms and conditions of the licence have been met. Under this licence it may only be killed to prevent serious damage to crops where there is no other satisfactory solution. Shooting a woodpigeon on 30th January, unless it has been shot, for instance, over a field of oil seed rape, could well result in prosecution.

Carrion crow

Lastly the crow.  It may be killed under General Licences 1 and 2 and under the same terms and conditions as already described. A person shooting it on 30th January may struggle to come up with a valid reason for doing so.

To my knowledge, since the licence conditions were tightened, there has not yet been a prosecution for an offence which breaches a general licence (which would either be under the Wildlife and Countryside Act or the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act). It would be interesting to hear a sheriff’s view of the licence conditions. When I used to shoot it was common for woodpigeons, jays, magpies, crows and even rooks and jackdaws to be shot at any time of the year; indeed I have shot some of these species myself when they were neither harming wild birds, crops or livestock. Most folks who shot had never heard of a general licence, far less read and understood one. We are in different times now, and those who shoot must adjust. A court may well decide that species listed on general licences may no longer simply be shot for sport or on sight.

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Another day out on Rottal Estate in Glen Clova

I had another lovely walk on Rottal Estate in Glen Clova on Saturday. Estate owner Dee Ward explained where I was most likely to see a ring ouzel on the estate as that’s a bird I haven’t seen for years. There were three options. When I looked at options 1 and 2 they each involved a pretty steep gradient. I knew that option 3 was a more gentle slope to start with then almost level after that so the decision was made.

I headed out the hill to the fork in the track where I should go to the right across a ford. Already I’d seen and heard plenty of lapwings and curlews. I’d also heard a skylark singing right above me. It had risen from the heather just ahead and its song was one of the best birdsongs in spring. When I reached the ford it was far too deep to tackle with just boots. I also saw that a mile or so further on there was a tractor working noisily with a huge roller flattening the hill track. At the snail’s pace the machine was going it would arrive at the place where the ring ouzels were likely to be at the same time as me. The further complication was getting over the burn. At 74 I’m not so good at rock hopper penguin impersonations and I’d no wish to get wet. I’d even less wish for my camera to get wet. The decision was made to abandon the chance of seeing a ring ouzel and to continue out the hill on the left fork.

The number of lapwings and curlews was inspiring. The lapwings were largely silent but there was a series of calls from curlews, especially the bubbling call for which this bird is so well known. Many of the calls were coming from the area of a marshy part of the hill on the far side of the burn and I was sure that this area would be a favourite for them nesting, with plenty food available to be retrieved from the damp earth by their long, curved bills.

I tramped on up the hill but suddenly my attention was drawn to frantic alarm calls from lapwings and curlews. I looked over and there were about a dozen lapwings and almost as many curlews mobbing a short-eared owl. The owl was coincidentally flying towards the area of scree and rocks where I’d hoped to see ring ouzels. It wasn’t in hunting mode and was minding its own business, maybe even carrying prey to a nest somewhere. Its entourage of alarmed birds followed it for a couple of hundred yards until it disappeared out of sight. The owl may then have disturbed a dozen or so common gulls, as suddenly they appeared flying in the direction that the owl had just come, and presenting another threat to the lapwings and curlews, which now turned their attention to them until the gulls turned and retreated. It was a good indication of just how many nesting birds were on the flat area to my right as I walked up the hill.

Further on, as I neared the shooting hut, I was aware of three sand martins hunting up the burn. They’re never too far from where they are nesting but there wasn’t an obvious sand bank that I could see. I crossed another ford (this time not deep enough to come over the tops of my boots) and went to the shooting hut to sit for a while and watch the sand martins. I pied wagtail flew from under the roof of the veranda. I could see three swallows’ nests in the eaves. All were last year’s nests and, typical of unusual spring, there were no swallows about to reclaim them. One had been reclaimed by the pied wagtail and the dry grass sticking over the edge differentiated it from the other two; their previous hirundine occupants would only have lined the nests with feathers, though some dry grass would have been incorporated into the mud for strength.

I sat on a rock observing the sand martins, at the same time being observed by a male wheatear who sat on a cairn (its mate may well have been on a nest inside the cairn). The three sand martins never landed but the only place where they came near to the ground was at a part of the hill track where there had been a bit of subsidence. That looked most like their nesting place. I later confirmed this as there were two elliptical holes into the sand, each with clear scratch marks from the claws of the birds as they entered the nest holes.

I wondered why I was only seeing three sand martins yet there were two nest burrows. Was one already sitting on a clutch of eggs in the nest burrow or had one been taken by a predator? A male kestrel flew by a short time later. It would certainly struggle to catch a sand martin though a merlin might manage.

On the way back down the hill I deviated past a small pond, one of several created by the estate to improve the habitat. A bird flew from the pond edge when I was still some distance away. It could have been a snipe or even a redshank but it was too quick for me to identify it. One bird that remained, however, was a male reed bunting. I was actually quite surprised to see it there as the nesting habitat wasn’t quite reed bunting standard. I suppose it could have had a mate hidden on a nest in some of the tussocks of rushes around the pond’s edge.

Back down near to the estate office there was a mix of half a dozen song thrushes and mistle thrushes feeding on a lush grass lawn. Across the road, at the entrance to a field where there was a rapidly-drying muddy puddle, a succession of house martins were grabbing beakfuls of mud before the sunny weather denied them that chance. Hopefully they would get their nests completed before that time.

To end my day I drove down the public road a couple of miles to have a look at a field that had formerly held a game crop where Dee told me there were nesting lapwings and curlews. The habitat was ideal and on many farms this would have been ploughed up well before now and re-seeded with another crop. Because of its value to waders (and no doubt skylarks and meadow pipits as well) Dee has delayed ploughing to give the birds a chance to fledge.

I walked down the field and was immediately mobbed by nine lapwings and two oystercatchers, a sure sign that they all had chicks. It has been years since I was mobbed by this number of waders. I didn’t want to stress them further so I cut across to the edge of the field. The birds seem to sense I was now less of a threat and flew to the adjacent grass field to await my departure. I circuited the field, keeping close to the fence, and returned to my car.

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Blue tit battle

It’s amazing how bird numbers and species visiting the garden change throughout the year. Our usual common birds small birds at the feeders are chaffinches, house sparrows and the tit family. Just now there are slightly less of these species but an inordinate number of siskins and goldfinches. Siskins can number up to 12 at a time (mostly males just now) and I’m sure it’s not the same birds visiting all the time. There is also a light-coloured female siskin amongst them. The most goldfinches I’ve seen at a time is seven, which is well up on my previous record of four. I’m also pleased to see that there are still a few greenfinches visiting. Six or seven years ago they were the most common bird at the feeders.

Despite putting up suitable groups of nest boxes I’ve had no tree sparrows for a while. They’ve never used the nest boxes, which is a pity, though they’ve been well used by great tits and blue tits. One nest box has had a swarm of tree bees the past two years though I’ve never checked to see if they are still in residence this year.

A wood pigeon built a nest in a conifer near the house and seems now to be sitting on eggs. I was never sure what part if any the male woodpigeon plays in rearing a family but he seems to sit a good part of the day 10 yards away on top of the shed my ducks go into at night. He often sits on the banister just outside the conservatory and seen close up they’re really lovely birds. I’ve often thought when I’ve seen paintings of woodpigeons that their mix of colours must make them one of the most difficult birds to paint accurately.

I witnessed a mighty battle between two blue tits yesterday. They fought it out on the grass for fully two minutes and it was a bit more than a wee scrap. I was really surprised as they look such gentle wee birds. I’m assuming that they were two males maybe fighting over territory but it’s the first I’ve seen a battle between wee birds (apart from robins) lasting so long. Hopefully neither of them was hurt.

My new white Campbell ducks have settled in well though they and the khaki Campbells still keep their distance from each other. I’m one hen less now as I’d to put one down yesterday as it had what appeared to be a prolapse. The other hens, seeing blood, had started to peck at it and the poor bird was beyond saving. Hens can be devils at times.

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A day on Rottal Estate, Glen Clova

I’d been round parts of Rottal Estate in Glen Clova with the owner, Dee Ward, but had never been round on my own. I met Dee early on Friday morning and he pointed out the parts of the estate to see most waders. I’d been looking in the fields as I drove up the glen and there were plenty of oystercatchers in grass fields feeding alongside sheep. There was also a decent number of lapwings but neither they nor oystercatchers were likely to nest in field of short grass; they much prefer rougher ground, permanent grassland, ploughed land, recently sown fields or, in the case of oystercatchers, shingle. I knew that Rottal had most of these nesting requirements and was looking forward to seeing numbers of displaying waders that I hadn’t seen since holidays on the Western Isles.

I turned off the public road at a sign welcoming hillwalkers to Rottal Estate and drove in towards the estate office. In the field there was a song thrush with a beakful of small worms, clearly a bird with recently hatched young. Song thrushes do nest quite early in the season but I was surprised that one would have young in these colder glens just as early as this. As Dee was pointing out different areas I was pleased to see a red kite flying over. It was almost above a field of blackfaced ewes that were starting to lamb and the afterbirths (or cleanings in agricultural terminology) would make a tasty meal for a hungry red kite.

I set off down the edge of the Rottal burn, seeing about half a dozen oystercatchers and a similar number of lapwings in the marshy ground on my left. A couple of the lapwings were displaying, tumbling about in the air, not too unlike a male hen harrier during its skydance. It’s a magical call they give when dispaying, peeee-weep, weep weep, peeee-weep. I could hear curlews calling in the distance, down nearer where the burn runs into the River South Esk, but I couldn’t see them. A couple of dozen common gulls sat on fenceposts beyond the lapwings. I doubt if they’ll nest in this area as they normally prefer shingle or the bank of a loch.

I’d to cut out a bit from the burn for easier walking and when I came back in to the burn I disturbed 5 teal that sprang up from the burn and headed further upstream. These are lovely wee ducks and I was wishing that I’d seen them before they saw me and could maybe have managed a photo. At the same time as I had disturbed the teal two greylag geese flew quite low over me, landing seconds later in a grass field at the other side of the River South Esk. They were still feeding when I reached the river and I could see that one of them had unusual markings in the form of a white ring running round its breast. I wondered if it may have been the result of the hybridisation of one of its parents with a domestic goose. As I watched the geese several swallows and house martins were feeding above the river, the first if the hirundines I’ve seen this year.

The river and the burn feeding in to it were blocking my route for continuing upstream. At the point where the burn flowed into the river there was a sandbank, and the burn had widened, meaning the water was reasonably shallow. I decided to chance wading across, hoping that my boots would be sufficient to keep the water out. That turned out to be the case and I reached the sandbank with only the bottoms of my trousers wet. It was an easy jump then off the sandbank to the bank of the river and dry land. I should correct this: it would have been an easy jump 20 or maybe even 10 years ago, but in my seventies it was a jump that was just possible rather than an easy one.

I walked up the bank of the South Esk, disturbing a pair of mallard. A carrion crow called from the top of a tree, proclaiming his territory.  I wondered how many waders’ eggs or chicks he would scoff during the nesting time. I then cut up through the edge of another marshy area that seemed favoured by hen pheasants, a single red-legged partridge and more meadow pipits than I could count. One posed obligingly in a small alder tree for a photo. One side and the top end of this marsh area were bounded by a ditch that was too wide for a seventy-plus to jump, and too deep to chance even a failed attempt. I eventually found a structure over the ditch resembling a wide ladder covered in netting that I was happy would support my weight. I would rather there had been a rail to hold on to but it was the best option that there was.

I could now hear the lovely coor-lee sound of a curlew ahead, then its magical bubbling trill, and as I spotted it in mid-air I watched it parachuting down as part of its territorial display. About the same time I could hear the tu-oodle, tu-oodle call of a redshank, though was unable to locate it. I was now in permanent grassland peppered with moraines left behind by moving glacier. It was ideal rabbit habitat and there were burrows everywhere. It was also ideal lapwing habitat and 4 lapwings rose ahead of me as I came over a skyline. It looked to be an ideal nesting spot and I looked about for nests but there were none. Often lapwings make several scrapes in the earth looking for an ideal spot to finalise their nest but none of these was even visible. I doubt if they have started nesting and maybe need even another week.

As I walked among the moraines I rose dozens more lapwings and oystercatchers and I could see a curlew feeding in a grass field about a quarter of a mile away. There was a bird ahead of me but because the sun was in my eyes it was difficult to identify. I failed identification even with the binoculars and tried to photograph it but with the blinding sun it was hard to find it in the viewfinder. I eventually managed one or two photos but it was only when it flew off I could see the crest and identified it as a skylark. Three young rabbits watched me intently from a burrow entrance just behind the skylark.

On the way back to the car I passed through the field of lambing blackfaced ewes I mentioned earlier. There was one lamb that looked dead but after a struggle it managed to get to its feet, only to fall down again. The ewe was 20 yards away with another new-born lamb. It got to its feet, but was pretty unsteady. I lifted the first lamb to take it closer to the mother but she was a flighty ewe and started to wander off with the second lamb trying to follow. Trying to reunite the first lamb was only going to make the mother wander even further away and I put it down hoping that the ewe would come back to it. The ewe seemed happy with one lamb and I could see that the best I could do was to get word to the shepherd, which I did. That was the first time I’d handled a new-born pure blackfaced lamb for years and I’d forgotten how delicate they are.

After a quick lunch in the car, I had a walk up part of the hill on the estate. My first hundred yards was accompanied by the delightful music of a mistle thrush singing. It’s a rather staccato song but it is one of my favourites, maybe because the mistle thrush is one of the first birds to herald the spring, plus rain and wind doesn’t put it off singing, in fact maybe even improves its song. There were plenty of wheatears and meadow pipits on the hill and I was surprised at seeing a displaying lapwing well out the hill rather than on the marginal land they usually favour.

I had a look at a few areas of heather recently burned. There is a lot of condemnation currently about heather-burning and I’ve certainly seen some areas absolutely scorched. The areas I was looking at here seemed as if the fire had just skimmed quickly over the surface, burning the heather but not the mosses and other plants underneath. I have to reserve judgement on heather-burning as I don’t know enough about it.

My last sighting made my day. As I scanned just above the distant horizon with my binoculars a golden eagle was high in the sky over a V in the hills. I watched it for a few minutes then looked for somewhere suitable sit down to get a steadier view. I found such a place, sat down and aimed my binoculars again at the V in the hills. The eagle was gone.

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Badgers and unlucky young rabbits

I’d been waiting nearly a week on the wind to drop to get out for a decent walk; I find that windy days are not conducive to seeing wildlife. The wind had dropped considerably yesterday and it was just about border line for my walk. I parked a couple of miles from my house and made for a large area of permanent grass peppered with banks of canary yellow-topped whin bushes. A carrion crow flew quietly away from an ash tree where it appeared to be building a nest, at least I don’t remember that nest being there last year. I was pleased to see that there were some signs of rabbits: scrapes on the ground, rabbit toilets and obvious runs under the fence where the young grass had been flattened into a series of pads. One adult rabbit obligingly sat for a photo beside a large rock, its eye half closed against the morning sun’s strong rays.

Half a mile away a flock of geese came in to land in a cereal field. As I got closer I could see that there were several thousand pink-footed geese in the field. It looked like this could be a short rest (and a feed on what I could now see was winter barley) before continuing their migration back to their breeding grounds in Iceland. This was 9th April and when I checked back some photographs I found that I had photographed an identical scene in the same field on 10th April 2019.

I walked away from the geese so as not to disturb them and continued westwards through a damp field with patches of rushes and grassy tussocks. A roe buck ran off from the whin bushes at the fence side and three snipe rose from a wet area. Two brown hares slipped away quietly ahead of me. There was some good cover here for hiding leverets and I’ve no doubt I would have passed some by without seeing them hidden below tussocks. I was disappointed at not seeing or hearing any curlews as this is ideal habitat for them and is a place that I normally encounter these increasingly rare waders.

At the far end of this field I had a look in the ditch that forms the boundary of this estate and the neighbouring farm. It is a ditch much used by otters and I hoped to see some tracks in the mud. The water in the ditch was slightly higher than usual so no muddy edges available but two mallard drakes had been taking advantage of the deeper water and flew off without making a sound; fairly typical of mallard drakes.

I returned to the large area of permanent grass and whins to check on a badger sett that seems to be used only periodically. I passed a rabbit burrow that had been dug out by a badger. This was one of the short maternity burrows dug by a doe rabbit. The young are born into a nest of dry grass and fur at the end of the short burrow, the nest chamber seldom more than a foot below the surface. A badger, getting the scent of rabbis in the burrow, digs right down on top of the nest, making short work of the dig with his strong front legs and claws. Depending on the age of the young rabbits they might just be a snack or a decent meal for a hungry badger.

The badger sett, when I located it, showed signs of fresh digging by a badger. There is only one entrance in the open, but at least one other deep in the whin bushes. When I first found this sett a few years ago it showed signs of human interference, with a clear mark of a spade having sheared off a chunk of turf at the entrance. I noticed now that there were smooth cuts where a couple of branches of whin had been cut by a saw. It was hard to determine the reason for this interference; it wasn’t an attempt to dig out the badgers and is maybe more likely to be linked to an attempt to control foxes, albeit several years ago.

The walk back to the car through the area of whins where I normally see many different species of small birds was disappointing, with only a few meadow pipits and a male chaffinch. A return visit in a week or two might prove more fruitful.

On my homeward journey I drove up the track that leads through several fields on the estate, noting that two new hawthorn hedges had been planted. My route was then through two farm steadings where I hoped to see that swallows had arrived. No swallows as yet, just pigeons and jackdaws. Hopefully warmer weather in a couple of weeks might bring about sightings of many more birds.

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Book Review – A Biologist Abroad by Rory Putman

Rory Putman’s latest book, A Biologist Abroad, is in three parts. In the first part, as a young man in the late 1960s, he visits the desolate central Iceland to study the 30,000 pink-footed geese that breed there in an area that had been earmarked for flooding as a hydro-electric scheme. The expedition is beset by a series of problems, mainly relating to transport, but the interest of the author and his young colleagues is maintained by finding numerous other species, with some of them already nesting: whooper swans, golden plover, dunlin, purple sandpiper and red-necked phalarope. In due course they succeed in their quest in finding and studying pink-footed geese, albeit after the eggs had hatched. Their expedition finished with catching up and taking blood samples from the geese but even after success that there was a disastrous twist in the tale.

A decade or so later, and now married, the author goes to East Africa with his wife Morag to act as unpaid assistants to a couple of friends and to see some of the amazing African wildlife. He describes safaris to the Masai Mara and the Serengeti along with their hosts, who had access to these wild areas through the husband’s road-building job. He also met up with a former colleague at the Serengeti research station and was treated to really close contact with lions because of his colleague’s special work-related status, and assisted in the catching of a giraffe.

Having seen a wide variety of wildlife: elephants, zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, various gazelles, rhino and much more, the author moves on to Manyara National Park, famous for its tree-climbing lions, flamingos and forest elephants. He then visits a game ranch where an experiment in ‘farming’ oryx, eland and buffalo is underway. The animals are herded during the day and corralled in bomas at night to protect them from predators.

The author returns to Nigeria later as a consultant, this term being described in the book as ‘a man with a briefcase from more than 30 miles away.’ His specific role is to look into and report on a problem of the deterioration of native range due to overgrazing. He admits that his guide from Nigeria probably knew more about the reasons for this overgrazing problem than he does, but that a report from a consultant would be listened to and acted upon.

In the third part we get taken to the Baluran National Park on the north-east tip of the island of Java, where two doctoral students of the author are studying the animals and their habitat. In particular the students are keen to radio-collar muntjac deer, a process which turns out to be much more difficult than at first thought. The author joins the two students and shares their bafflement that muntjak can survive in such high numbers considering their more specialist diet and their competition with other ungulates: water buffalo rusa deer and the much rarer banteng. The muntjak also have to contend with wild pigs and predatory animals such as leopards and Asiatic wild dogs. This part of the book makes interesting reading in relation to the interaction of these different species.

This book is easy to read and I thoroughly enjoyed what are essentially snapshots over three decades in Rory Putmans’ life as a biologist. It is illustrated by eight pages of colour photographs and several excellent drawings by Catherine Putman.

A Biologist Abroad by Rory Putman. Published by Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG. £16.99

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What kind of bird had come in to the house?

My daughter Janet sounded the alarm earlier this afternoon. ‘Dad, could you help me please, there’s a bird in the house.’ I went out into the hall to join her. ‘Could you keep the dogs back just in case.’

We’d had the windows wide open earlier in the day and I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if a bird had found its way in. ‘Where do you think it is Janet?’

‘It’s in your office,’ was Janet’s assertion.

Wildlife Detective and assistant then crept quietly into the office, shutting the door behind us to keep the dogs out so as not to panic the bird. I intended to open the window wide and let it find its own way out. We expected to see a bird fluttering about, probably against the window. No bird to be seen but we could hear an alarm call, pieu pieu pieu.

Puzzlement. ‘That’s a bird of prey Janet,’ I said, meantime running raptor sounds through my head. I immediately thought osprey, but how could an osprey get in to the house, that was daft. Peregrine was next, but it was a really remote chance that a peregrine had got in. I settled on the most likely, sparrowhawk or kestrel. There was no bird near the window and my eyes scanned under the desk. Still not a bird to be seen.

We remained motionless and silent, then pieu pieu pieu again. What the hell could it be?

The penny suddenly dropped. I’d had the Loch of the Lowes webcam on the osprey nest switched on earlier and it was still running in the background behind my email list. I switched from the emails to the webcam and there it was, the male osprey on the nest calling to his mate who had just arrived less than half an hour earlier from her journey from West Africa.

We both burst into fits of laughter at the thought of having a bird of prey in the house. Minutes later, as we watched the webcam, the female osprey landed beside her mate. It was great to see them back.

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A second prize in a red kite poisoning investigation

I read on several blogs and websites of the appalling incident on the North York Moors where a person with a tethered eagle owl lured in and shot two buzzards. The crime was investigated by North Yorkshire Police, possibly the most thorough force in England at investigating raptor persecution. Though they are convinced that the person involved was a gamekeeper there was insufficient evidence of identification to take a case to court.

This reminded me of a similar incident, in which was involved away back in 2007, but this one relating to poisoning rather than shooting. I had written of the poisoning incident in my book A Lone Furrow and also in this blog, but it is worth repeating. In the relevant chapter I had been going over poisoning incidents year by year and had come to 2007 ……..

2007 was no better, though the circumstances were completely different. All five incidents were in Perthshire and, unusually, all involved red kites. These birds feed differently to other species. If anyone has ever seen red kites at one of the several feeding stations in the UK – a diversification from farming carried out by entrepreneurial farmers to augment their income and to provide a huge amount of pleasure to the public – they would see that the kite swoops down and picks up a morsel of food, without even landing in some cases. The bird then eats the morsel in the air or flies off to a nearby tree to eat the food at leisure. This different feeding strategy means that a kite that is poisoned may not be found as near the bait as may a buzzard. This demands a different investigation strategy by the police.

We had a suspect in the first of these cases, a kite that was picked up on Invercauld Estate at the Spittal of Glenshee in January 2007. Because it had rotted away almost into the ground, it had probably been dead since the spring of 2006. Search warrants are difficult to obtain and, contrary to the impression some folks have, the police can’t just run out and get a warrant to search someone’s premises or house on a whim. When we have a suspect we keep an eye on that person and very often they feature in other wildlife crimes. Evidence can build up and in time may become sufficient for a warrant to be granted. (As it turned out our suspect in this case, a beat keeper on Invercauld Estate, moved soon after to a low ground shoot between Perth and Dundee. He was not there long when information began to come in that he was poisoning buzzards.  We managed to nail him for killing buzzards and he was fined and sacked).

With the death of the second red kite, found north of Perth in June, this would probably have been poisoned in springtime, but this time there was no suspect.  

In June a red kite was also found on Glenturret Estate in west Perthshire, this time fairly fresh, maybe dead a month or so. We had no real suspect but made a search in an area about a mile or so radius from where the bird was found. This was much wider than we might search for a bait if the bird had been a buzzard, golden eagle or white-tailed eagle.

After the search we were no further forward and the investigation was put on hold, though an interesting aspect of the investigation was the proprietary mix of pesticides, carbofuran and isofenphos, traced by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture when the bird was examined.

The second of the two poisoned red kites found

The period of inactivity didn’t last long, and in September another dead red kite was found on the boundary of the same estate but more than a mile from the first. It was beginning to decompose and could well have been killed around the same time as the first bird. This second incident tended to narrow the field down for suspects, and this was narrowed down further when a third kite was found in October in the very same area. All three birds had died of the same mix of pesticides, it was likely that all had been killed about the same time, and it was extremely likely that the same person had been responsible.

The third of the poisoned red kites found

Finding the criminal and establishing sufficient evidence to convict him was always going to be difficult. If a gamekeeper was involved, as statistics show is very often the case, it is hard to prove a case even when there is only one gamekeeper responsible for that area. Some large estates, particularly intensively managed grouse moors, now have seven or eight gamekeepers plus a sporting manager, which, if they are thought to be involved, complicates the enquiry considerably. However prosecution doesn’t always have to be the route that the police go down. A person being charged is one option, but if it looks like evidence is going to be impossible to obtain, stopping the criminal activity is as important, especially where rare and reintroduced birds are concerned. 

On the estate on which I thought the answer lay I knew the owner, factor and head keeper well. I knew that the estate policy was to work within the law, yet no matter how often this is reinforced with employees, not all take heed. I spoke to the head keeper, and discussed my suspicions with him. He agreed to make his own enquiries and get back to me. He knew his employees better than I did and may well have had his own thoughts on the matter. The deal, agreed with my superintendent, was that if he got the matter sorted it would end there.

He worked quickly, and I had a call from the factor that evening stating that the head keeper had found out who had been responsible: one of the under keepers. I confirmed my deal with the factor and we agreed to meet the next day with the ‘suspect,’ since the factor wanted to speak with him and wanted me to do likewise. It is important to have mutual trust and this is what made this route possible.

The outcome was that the underkeeper was immediately sacked, is no longer involved in gamekeeping, and there has been no more poisoning in that part of Perthshire. I considered that a second prize, but a success nevertheless.

The public seldom know of this work that goes on behind the scenes to try to safeguard wildlife, which is why I get so annoyed at negative comments by people who don’t realise the difficulties of getting convictions and the work police wildlife crime officers and others put in to try not only to enforce the law but to prevent people breaking wildlife laws in the first place.

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

NOTE
In the North Yorkshire incident it’s a real pity that the estate was not named. The owner or sporting manager would most certainly know who was involved. I wonder if he was sacked for bringing shame on the estate and on game shooting in general. If he wasn’t sacked then it’s a fair bet that the owner or sporting manager is well aware of this and other illegal practices taking place, maybe even directing or encouraging them.

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‘I would shoot all these bloody eagles’

I read the article yesterday on Raptor Persecution UK about the proposed reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to Norfolk and the letter to a newspaper voicing a negative view on this. Reading the letter reminded me of a conversation I had away back in 2013. I have written of this before but it’s worth a replay:

Poisoned white-tailed eagle beside a lamb bait. Photo courtesy of former Strathclyde Police.

Yesterday, 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 sheep 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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