The tale of three wee hedgehogs

We’ve always been lucky enough to have hedgehogs in the garden. The garden is quite extensive – one and a half acres – and includes a wooded banking of mainly larch, ash, wild cherry and rowan trees. It also abuts farmland so it is hardly surprising we have hedgehogs. What I didn’t realise was how many we had until my daughters bought me a trail camera for my birthday earlier in the year.

An adult hedgehog feeding in the garden

I’ve used the camera almost every night since May, sometimes taking photos but mostly taking short film clips. I’ve had 5 different cats, red squirrels, mice, a frog, early birds and of course hedgehogs. The camera has been sited at different parts of the garden, especially on a bridge over the burn. This position is particularly good since it gives a view of the underside of the hedgehogs and I can see what sex they are.  I leave a wee drop peanuts in strategic positions so that I’m more likely to encounter the prickly fellows. I’d like to leave dog or cat food but I don’t want to be encouraging the visiting cats.

In the late spring and summertime there were at least a male and female, and I watched part of their courting ritual in some of the film clips. Slightly later in the summer I could identify two different females since one had some sort of mark on its spines as if it had brushed up against paint. This was temporary and I could see it fading and eventually disappearing over the course of a couple of weeks.

A second male appeared, and it was clearly lower in the pecking order to the other male as twice I saw it being butted and rolled over by the bigger male. There was then a new kid on the block: a young hedgehog about half the size of an adult. It sometimes came out just before dark and frequently met my wee dog, not even rolling into a ball when approached. At some stage it must have hurt a front paw and for or a week or so it had a slight limp. Thankfully it recovered from that.

On 12th October one of the film clips showed a very small hedgehog following an adult, I presumed to be its mum. This youngster appeared most nights after that, and after I put a short film clip of it on Twitter I was advised by a lady called Jane from a small hedgehog rescue centre in Wales that the hedgehog looked about 300g, which was most likely too light to survive the winter. Jane communicated with me and passed on some really helpful advice.

On Sunday 18 October I went out to the garden with a torch about 9.00 pm and was lucky enough to find this wee hedgehog. I caught it and put it in a garden tub for the night with some straw, some wet dog food and some water. I was still using the trailcam and noticed in the morning that there was a second tiny hedgehog. This meant another torchlight visit and I was lucky enough to encounter the hedgehog quite quickly.

The first tiny hedgehog weighed in at 300g

By this time I’d made up a slight bigger run for the original hedgehog using a long rectangular plastic tray and the wire top of a cage in which we used to have guinea pigs. This temporary accommodation now housed two wee hedgehogs, one being just over 300g and the other about 310g.

I checked the trailcam as usual in the morning and there was a third wee hedgehog. An evening check of the garden by torchlight quickly led to the recovery of number three, and I also bumped into the young hedgehog from earlier in the year. He (or she) was looking plump and healthy and ready for the winter.

The three mini hedgehogs are eating the food I leave out for them in their short-term home and now await collection by Polly Pullar, another author and long-time friend of mine who rehabilitates waifs and strays, especially owls, hedgehogs (of which she already has 7) and red deer hinds (of which she currently has 2). They’ll be overwintered by Polly and maybe next spring I can get three hedgehogs of different parentage back to the garden to continue our wildlife adventure.

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The scandal of stag hunting – some thoughts

On 1st October staff from the League against Cruel Sports filmed a stag being hunted by the Devon and Somerset staghounds. It appears that League Investigators caught the hunt whipping and chasing this exhausted stag for sport.

The claims were – and the film shows to a degree – the stag was whipped to keep it running. It seems that nearer the end of the hunt the stag was exhausted and only able to run slowly. It was reported that the stag was later killed by the hunt. The method is not given, though being shot with a shotgun is likely.

In the hunt filmed, there were at least half a dozen, possibly more, folks on horseback in red and black jackets yelling like banshees, and one wielding a whip. They are close behind the fleeing stag then appear to be alongside it, still howling like mad dervishes. The stag’s mouth is open and only the most naïve person would consider it not to be terrified. This activity, as the name suggests, also includes hounds, though none are seen in the video clip that I viewed.

In an article on the League’s website they state that stag hunts last on average 3 hours and cover about 18km.  At the conclusion of the hunt LACS state, ‘the deer escapes or becomes exhausted. In the latter case the stag would then stop avoiding the hounds and would “stand at bay” where it would turn and face the hounds.

When stag hunts have been challenged about their behaviour, they have claimed they were undertaking exempt hunting, as the Hunting Act 2004 has a list of exemptions where deer hunting with dogs is allowed. Currently the exemption the stag hunts claim the most often is that they are undertaking ‘research and observation’, despite the fact we believe this is just a cover for illegal hunting.’ 

The LACS website reports, in relation to the cruelty aspect of this ‘sport,’ ‘The members of the Government’s Burns Inquiry committee agreed, stating: “There seems to be a large measure of agreement among the scientists that, at least during the last 20 minutes or so of the hunt, the deer is likely to suffer as glycogen depletion sets in”.

I am amazed that this caveman-type ‘sport’ can in any way be considered legal. I’m not au-fait with legislation covering England and Wales but I had a look at legislation that might throw some light on the possibilities of a prosecution.

The Deer Act 1991 is pretty hopeless as it is far too unspecific on the methods permitted to kill deer. It’s an offence to drive them with a motorised vehicle but not, cowboy style, with horses.

There is a possibility with the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996, where the offence is to: mutilate, kick, beat, nail or otherwise impale, stab, burn, stone, crush, drown, drag or asphyxiate any wild mammal with intent to inflict unnecessary suffering. Depending on what the League staff witnessed with the whip it might qualify as ‘beating.’ The term ‘beat. Is not defined in the Act but the dictionary definition is to strike with a series of violet blows. I doubt anyone would argue that the outcome of the whole ‘sport’ is to inflict unnecessary suffering. The CPS might have a view on this.

Could there be a prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006? A person commits an offence if:

(a)an act of his, or a failure of his to act, causes an animal to suffer,

(b)he knew, or ought reasonably to have known, that the act, or failure to act, would have that effect or be likely to do so,

(c)the animal is a protected animal, and

(d)the suffering is unnecessary.

I don’t think (a), (b) and (d) are in doubt but is the stag a protected animal?  To qualify, it would require to be under the control of man, whether on a permanent or temporary basis.  Is the stag under the control of the gaudily-dressed clowns on horseback? It may not have been for all of the chase but at the part shown in the film clip where the riders are alongside the stag close enough to whip it, directing its course and suppressing (maybe even eliminating) its ability to escape, it may be argued that it is temporarily under the control of man. This could be another interesting discussion with CPS.

The Hunting Act 2004 may also offer an option. On the assumption that there are hounds involved, the offence is clear – A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt. So what might exempt this despicable ‘sport?’  Let’s look at the exemption that LACS consider currently used by the stag hunters. If this is the exemption they favour they must consider it the most likely to allow them to carry on their degenerate purpose.

Research and observation

(1)The hunting of a wild mammal is exempt if the conditions in this paragraph are satisfied.

(2)The first condition is that the hunting is undertaken for the purpose of or in connection with the observation or study of the wild mammal.

(3)The second condition is that the hunting does not involve the use of more than two dogs.

(4)The third condition is that the hunting does not involve the use of a dog below ground.

(5)The fourth condition is that the hunting takes place on land

   (a)which belongs to the hunter, or

   (b)which he has been given permission to use for the purpose by the occupier or, in the     case of unoccupied land, by a person to whom it belongs.

(6)The fifth condition is that each dog used in the hunt is kept under sufficiently close control to ensure that it does not injure the wild mammal.

Note that condition (1) doesn’t state that only some of the conditions are satified, which means that they must all be satisfied.

I don’t know how many dogs, if any, were used but there will be witnesses who can speak to that. Assuming it’s more than two dogs then it seems to me a pretty clear-cut offence. 

If there were only two dogs, condition (2) is the one that should really catch them out. How can any sane person accept that hunting a stag for hours and to exhaustion is for the purpose of or in connection with the observation or study of the wild mammal. What is the purpose of the study? How often does this study need to be carried out to reach a conclusion? Does anyone write up a paper at the end?  Does it in any way help red deer?  Does any study involving deliberate unnecessary suffering not need to be licensed?  If there was any semblance of truth in this claim why do they need to wear their gaudy hunting regalia?

I wonder why Devon and Cornwall Police, and other forces that have the blight of stag hounds on their patch, have not had these discussions with CPS. Maybe they have and they have come to dead end. If so the law needs to be changed.

To rub salt into the wound, the Devon and Somerset Staghounds apparently recently received a £10,000 grant and a £50,000 loan from taxpayer-backed coronavirus schemes.  

Bloody Hell!

Red deer stag in velvet jumping fence.
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Book Review – The Ring Ouzel: a view from the North York Moors

I’m always in awe at an author – or in this case two authors – who can write a really interesting book about one species. The Ring Ouzel, by Vic Fairbrother and Ken Hutchinson, covers every aspect of the life of a ring ouzel in fine detail. Though the authors cover ring ouzels in different parts of England and Scotland, it primarily focuses on the North York Moors.

The authors study the arrival dates of ring ouzels to the area, their pairing and courtship and their selection of nesting sites. Much of the book is devoted to nesting success in different parts of the study area, including how the birds are affected (or sometimes not affected) by people walking near the nest, nest desertion, nest predation, a second clutch after failure of the first, re-use of nests and fledging two successful broods. Having watched blackbirds in my garden sometimes rearing three broods to fledging I was surprised that ring ouzels often struggle to rear two broods. I was disappointed to read of the percentage of nests that were predated but, as primarily a ground nesting species, this was little different to the many other birds that nest on the ground or a low level.

I particularly liked the anecdotes in italics in the book which were direct from the authors’ notes. These paragraphs of the book described some of the more unusual aspects of ring ouzel life and serve to make the book much more personal, especially when read in conjunction with a photograph elaborating on the incident.

Predators and potential predators were covered, as was human impact on the bird, feeding behaviour, vocalisation, including dialects in different areas as occurs with mistle thrushes and chaffinches, and details of migration, both to the UK and back to Spain and North Africa, plus winter survival in these countries.

The book is extremely well illustrated with photos and sketches of the bird itself, nests and nest sites, plus helpful graphs and diagrams. The Ring Ouzel is a high-quality ornithologist’s book, as well as being a fascinating book for a reader with a generalist interest in birds. Being a bird that I rarely encounter, I knew very little about the ring ouzel. I know much more now.

The Ring Ouzel, a view from the North York Moors, by Vic Fairbrother and Ken Hutchinson. Whittles Publishing Ltd., Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG.  £21.95

The Ring Ouzel, by Vic Fairbrother and Ken Hutchinson
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The recovery in Strathbraan, Perthshire, of a sat-tag from a golden eagle

Satellite-tagged golden eagle ‘Alma’, found poisoned on an Angus estate in 2009.

For those reading this and unaware of the recovery in a Perthshire river of a satellite tag from a golden eagle the following is a brief resume:

On 1st May 2016 a satellite-tagged golden eagle vanished in suspicious circumstances in Strathbraan, Perthshire. A search for the bird was carried out by police and RSPB investigations but no trace was found.

Some four years later, on 21st May 2020 two people out walking found a suspicious folded up piece on lead on the banks of the River Braan, some 9 miles downstream from the area in which the golden eagle vanished . On opening up the lead they discovered a damaged satellite tag inside.

A police officer and Ian Thomson from RSPB Scotland investigations attended and recovered the item. From a report given by Ian the harness had been cleanly cut and the antenna had been snipped off. Wrapping the item in lead had clearly been an attempt to prevent any signal continuing to be sent by the tag. The items recovered are reported to be undergoing forensic examination.

This find has finally put paid to persistent claims by some defending driven grouse shooting that the many tagged golden eagles and hen harriers that have ‘disappeared’ have been as the result of faulty tags. Ian wrote a blog here and made a video in which he narrated the sequence of events and the conclusion that the missing birds had been killed, almost exclusively on driven grouse moors.

I agree totally with the points made by Ian, particularly that the killing of birds of prey is part of organised crime in order to improve grouse bags and therefore increase the value of the grouse moor and associated profits for the landowner. If a case was ever to be brought to court it would be interesting to see if a proceeds of crime order would be made against a landowner or sporting agent.

I disagree, however, with the procedure in the making of the video. The lead and damaged satellite tag are productions in a criminal investigation. I would much rather have seen the police officer, rather than Ian, dealing with opening up the lead and displaying the satellite tag, while Ian did the narration. I appreciate that the police officer involved was a local officer rather than a wildlife crime officer and is much less likely to have experience of dealing with wildlife crime, however it would have looked much better if the police, as the statutory investigating agency, was in charge and being assisted by Ian. I am not saying for a minute that Ian risked damage to any forensic evidence that may be available (indeed the forensic work may well have been concluded and the productions made available for the video) but I think it is important to get procedure correct.

I have also looked for a press release from Police Scotland and have not so far been able to find one. As part of a criminal investigation I’m of the view that the press on the incident should be led by the police or at least a joint press release by Police Scotland and RSPB Scotland. It also helps to demonstrate that the police take wildlife crime seriously. This in no way lessens the value of the work of Ian and the RSPB investigations team and indeed most raptor-related crimes and the subsequent investigations depend on their advice and assistance.

I read the press release from the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, which was dire. If ever there was a piece of evidence that tended to link the killing or birds of prey with the shooting industry this was it. The recovery deserved absolute condemnation and not a comment such as ‘They (satellite tags) elicit high levels of publicity and a person finding one on their land would not want it around, given the scrutiny they would come under’. So, someone connected with a piece of land may have found it and instead of calling the police immediately, had disabled it, wrapped it in lead sheet and chucked it in the river. Aye, right!

This is yet another nail in the coffin of driven grouse shooting as it currently stands, and probably the most damaging yet. Notwithstanding the tremendous work that the Scottish Government is putting into dealing with Covid19, it must surely now give more attention now to the Werritty report and license driven grouse shooting as a matter of urgency,  It is unfortunate that this incident will again tarnish the name of gamekeeping and by association lump in all law-abiding gamekeepers who are sick to the back teeth of the criminal acts that take place. It is also unfortunate for the landowners who stay within the law, though almost all that I have spoken to are not unduly concerned by the prospect of licensing.

Let’s hope that forensics can come up with some evidence that could lead to a conviction, though I have my doubts. Let’s also hope that the Scottish Government get moving on the Werritty report.

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Fact as fiction – ‘Snared’, by Bob Berzins

Snared, by Bob Berzins.

I was keen to read Snared by Bob Berzins and did a book swop with him for one of my books, Killing by Proxy. Bob’s book is a fictional wildlife story of a gamekeeper, John, his young underkeeper, Sam, and the illegal activities they are involved in on the grouse moor on which they are employed. As sometimes is the case, the owner of the estate lives elsewhere and only visited during the shooting season. The gamekeepers are under the control of an agent, Mr Hawston, who treats them like dirt and has them working every available hour of the day. In the end John’s wife takes the kids and leaves him.

I don’t want to give too much of the storyline away but it was interesting that I had experienced almost every illegal twist and turn of the book in real-life investigations. At this point I’ll state that most gamekeepers are hard-working, decent folk trying to do a job that is becoming more and more unpopular with the public because of the way it is carried out by the characters John and Sam, and more especially by Mr Hawston. Despite, so far as I know, not having an investigative background, the author has painted an almost accurate picture of the criminality that takes place on the worst of grouse moors. (I’ll let him off with the poetic licence of shooting a couple of flying raptors with a rifle).

I don’t suppose they will ever read this book, but it is one that really should be read by every gamekeeper who still kills what the characters in the book call ‘vermin’: raptors and badgers, sometimes – as John and Sam do – crossing the boundary fence of other farms and estates to do so. They would maybe realise, through fact dressed as fiction, that they are the fall guys for rogue agents or landowners, how disposable they are, how working night and day affects family life and how illegal practices reflects on other gamekeepers trying to work within the law.

Snared is a book with a surprising ending and which I read over two days. Having communicated with Bob Berzins since finishing the book he is trying to persuade me to venture into fiction writing. I’m not convinced I am creative enough for this type of writing but I’ve no project for the coming winter so may give it a go. It can always be binned if it beats me or if it turns out to be rubbish.

Snared can be bought through Bob’s website at

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Killing by Proxy – contents and introduction

Killing by Proxy by Alan Stewart



Part 1

Cruelty, Blood Sports and Wildlife Crime

Part 2

Raptor Persecution Now –

Crimes, Incidents, Observations and Interpretations

Part 3

Partnership – Working and the Use of Experts

Part 4

Driven Grouse Shooting:

‘A Business Underpinned by Criminality’

Part 5

The Future



This book captures and analyses some of the most prominent wildlife crimes reported over the past four years or so in the media, including social media. The media plays a pivotal role in informing the general public about the shocking events that are regular occurrences in some parts of the countryside, and in raising awareness of the difficulties the police face in the investigation of wildlife crime.

Some of those commenting on wildlife incidents have no great grasp of the law, or the difficulties involved in detecting and prosecuting wrongdoers. More significantly, depending on the commentator, some media responses are clearly skewed in favour of vested interests such as landowners and the shooting and hunting fraternity. Other exhibit an unfair bias against these country pursuits without due consideration of those in the industry who are doing their best for the environment and its wildlife, and staying within the law while doing so.

I have been involved with the media on almost all aspects of wildlife crime for many years. As far back as the late 1960s I was quoted in the press while still a uniformed police constable dealing with deer and salmon poaching cases. Much later, from 1993 and as the force wildlife crime officer for the then Tayside Police, I began to write articles for newspapers and magazines on a wide variety of wildlife crime, especially in advance of seasonal wildlife crime trends such as hare coursing, wild bird egg theft and poisoning of raptors. This continued right through my 18 years in this role and also into my three years as intelligence officer with the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU). The NWCU role was invaluable in that it gave me an insight into wildlife crime over the whole of the United Kingdom.

My links with the media also included involvement with the BBC 2 series Wildlife Detectives which, over the course of a year, filmed a series of wildlife crime investigations in Scotland as they occurred. I assisted a German film crew making a film on deer poaching in Scotland and an American film crew creating the much-acclaimed documentary on wild bird egg thieving, appropriately entitled Poached. My career in the policing of wildlife crime unfortunately terminated through illness in January 2015. Since then I have continued my interest in wildlife crime through my blog

Until the point that there is a conviction, the police are ultra-cautious in naming estates that are very clearly involved in wildlife crime. Formerly, I ran almost all my articles and draft press releases through the force communications staff before publication or submission to the media and they normally edited it to a bare minimum. A media release will nearly always state that a particular incident, for instance the recovery of a poisoned bait, took place in an area of a county rather than on a particular estate. Even though the recovery is a fact and not an accusation against an individual, and even if there have been countless similar incidents discovered on that estate, it will not be named. This frustrated me and seemed not to be in the public interest. Hot on the heels of the press release I was usually contacted by various reporters – and very often by radio and television – but my comments to expand the press release had to be in line with the force policy.

Writing this book, I have thoroughly enjoyed not having fretful media relations staff looking over my shoulder, and I hope what follows is the better for not having had their interference. Though I have to be cognisant of libel, I am much less constrained now that I have retired and can reveal more information on issues that are not sub judice. After half a century of dealing with wildlife crime I can at last tell it like it is.

In reviewing wildlife crime reportage covered in this book I have tried to use my experience with various aspects of policing to present a fair assessment of the cases covered and the outcomes of associated criminal investigations. This involves giving an accurate reflection on whether or not an incident is a crime, who might have reason to commit such an act, the incredible difficulties of gaining a conviction in some types of crime and whether certain wildlife crimes are in decline or becoming more common.

Though there is a wide range of crimes committed against wildlife I have concentrated on those associated with game management, particularly intensively-managed grouse moors, and those with aspects of cruelty. These are some of the most difficult to detect and also the most difficult to prevent. As far as possible I have tried to keep the cases and incidents chronological within the thematic framework of the book but on occasions some overlap has been unavoidable.

As well as demonstrating where incorporating other agencies or experts into an investigation can be beneficial, I have also criticised what I suspect has been incompetent investigation. Though looking in from the sidelines now I have to try to balance what is presented in the media (which is not always accurate) with my investigative experience. I have also been complimentary to non-government organisations where they have been of valuable assistance in a police investigation. Conversely, I have been critical where I feel they have overstepped the mark.

For the record I am not against the shooting of game. I owned a .22 rifle until the late 1990s and a shotgun until 2014, though it was last used in 2011. As a teenager I used to help gamekeepers with their work. I enjoyed being outdoors and any work that involved animals, even though many of them – rabbits, foxes, stoats, weasels, grey squirrels, crows – ended up dead. I was also a keen beater, going regularly to grouse, pheasant and partridge shoots. I always had dogs, Labradors and spaniels, and really enjoyed working them, either as a beater or behind the guns picking-up. Most of the keepers were decent, hard-working folks who, so far as I knew, stayed within the law. Since most knew I was a police officer it would have been pretty daft for them to have been openly involved in raptor persecution.

I often hear people criticising the fact that gamekeepers make no comment when interviewed by the police. As the law stands they are perfectly entitled to adopt this position, after all most hardened criminals have done this for years. Their defence team (regularly a specialist solicitor and sometimes a QC) may well be paid for by the landowner employing them or by a shooting or gamekeeping organisation but this is not a position unique to game management. I know the gamekeepers’ main defence solicitors well. I have always found them to be perfectly reasonable and fair in their questioning in court, as are any of the QCs acting with them.

By the time I retired from Tayside Police in 2011 my opinion of driven grouse moors was at an all-time low. Despite having been a shooting person, seeing evidence of the amount of criminality associated with driven grouse shooting has turned me completely against that form of shooting. I knew the problematic driven grouse moors across Scotland but with my work between 2012 and 2015 on UK-wide crime intelligence while with NWCU I saw a much more comprehensive picture of wildlife crime on driven grouse moors in the north of England and the almost impossible task of getting those involved convicted. Dialogue with those involved in driven grouse management has had little success. Meantime the landowner hides behind his staff, who are killing by proxy. One element of the crimes committed on shooting estates is clear: if estate owners really doesn’t want their employees to kill birds of prey and sets out the consequences then it will not happen.

On driven grouse moors there is little evidence of change. While the licensing of shoots may help, the only real solution is the complete banning of driven grouse shooting.

By the end of this book I hope the reader will agree.


Alan Stewart

November 2017


Signed copies available from author from at

or copies from Thirsty Books at

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Book review – A Journey in Landscape Restoration: Carrifran wildwood and beyond.

A Journey in Landscape Restoration

Many people look at barren landscapes wondering how much better they might have looked centuries ago, and wishing that they could regain their much more interesting and ecologically improved state. A Journey in Landscape Restoration tells the story of how a group of motivated folks, in due course to be named the Borders Forest Trust, bought a 650 hectare valley, Carrifran, in the Scottish Borders and changed it from grassland grazed almost bare by sheep to a wild woodland.

The book has chapters written by over 40 of the participants of the re-wilding, each with particular skills and expertise, and is edited by Philip and Myrtle Ashmole. It is a fascinating account of how the idea was spawned by Philip Ashmole in 1993, how the initial group met regularly and developed a plan to bring experts on board and how money through grants and fundraising was obtained for the community buyout. It was not until 1999 that the group finally became owners of Carrifran.

To ensure that as many as possible of the trees and shrubs to be planted survived, the area was cleared of sheep and wild goats and roe deer numbers were reduced through shooting by an experienced stalker. Core samples were taken from peat in the valley which gave the group 10,000 year’s-worth of pollen data. This determined the tree species to be planted to ensure that the trees matched the prevailing conditions and would, as near as possible, accurately reflect how the area looked many centuries ago.

Planting began, mostly by volunteers but guided by experienced professionals. Ideas were taken from woodland sites on the Isle of Rum and on south-west Norway. A project officer was employed, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, and slowly and methodically the hillsides changed from a brown desert into mixed native woodland of 700,000 trees, changing to montane scrub nearer the summit of the hills. In due course wildlife, including invertebrates, plants and birds, increased, though some bird species such as meadow pipits, which prefer open land rather than trees, decreased.

Flushed with their success, Borders Forest Trust went on to obtain a further two sites which they re-wilded in a manner that suited these areas. Through the group’s efforts there are now three ecologically restored landscapes in southern Scotland and local communities can hopefully benefit economically from this return of biodiversity.

This is a fascinating book, demonstrating what community buy-outs can achieve. The chapters show the logical process and progress, and the book is illustrated with photographs, maps and explanatory text boxes on almost every page. The book and the habitat improvements are a credit to everyone involved.

A Journey in Landscape Restoration: Carrifran wildwood and beyond.  Edited by Philip and Myrtle Ashmole for Borders Forest Trust.  Published by Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG.  £18.99

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Hen harrier chicks fledge in Angus Glens

Hen harrier chicks, nearly at fledging stage.

I see in The Courier today that a brood of four young hen harriers successfully fledged in the Angus Glens  The estate was not named, though is described as a ‘mixed estate which hosts grouse shooting and deer stalking. The nest had been monitored by ‘licensed monitor Mike Groves.’

This is indeed good news, and the claims are even better in the last paragraph, which states, ‘Lockdown has seen successes for other breeding raptors in the glens, with peregrine, eagle chicks and large numbers of merlins, buzzards, short-eared owls and kestrels fledging on local moors.’ I’m not convinced, though, that successes in breeding raptors would necessarily be influenced by lockdown, but could we be seeing the beginnings of a change?

I have it on good authority that landowners see the writing on the wall for enforced change and that some estates formerly involved in wildlife crime have cleaned up their act. With my previous in-depth knowledge of these estates through my former roles as wildlife crime officer for Tayside Police and as intelligence officer with the UK National Wildlife Crime unit you might forgive me for not being immediately convinced. However, I know former criminals who have turned over a new leaf, some of whom now work hard for public benefit.

The proof, of course, is a bit more complex than simply a reduction in reported wildlife crime, albeit that is welcomed. Much more convincing would be the willingness of all estates to work closely with raptor study groups and with RSPB, and of course vice-versa. Although it would not be obvious immediately, proof of a change in attitudes would be much more reliable through a considerable increase in raptors, particularly those that driven grouse moor owners consider a threat: peregrines and hen harriers, maybe even in some cases golden eagles and white-tailed eagles. I wonder, too, if estates that regularly burn heather might consider leaving some areas unburnt in places that would be suitable for hen harriers to nest. I’m sure the estates know these places as well as I do.

I live in hope that this change reported to me is genuine. As I wrote in my last blog I have maybe gone soft a wee bit on the outright banning of driven grouse shooting but licensing is still absolutely necessary. Law-abiding landowners, and those who have converted and can control their employees, have nothing to fear.

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A visit to Rottal Estate in Glenclova

Trial matting impregnated with heather and grass seed to allow the bare area to recover.

Some of the grass starting to sprout

Part of the 2 miles of hedging

Natural regeneration of birch in the heather.

Recently planted Scots pine

The realigned Rottal burn now meandering towards the River South Esk. There are now wild flowers, naturally regenerated alder and shingle banks.

The meandering Rottal burn with recently planted trees, rough cover for wild birds and a field of wild flowers beyond.

Some ditch-sides are now planted up with native trees

Following the recent publicity of the white-tailed eagle found poisoned on Donside, Dee Ward, owner of Rottal Estate in Glenclova questioned my comment that driven grouse shooting should be banned altogether. After polite communication between us Dee invited me to come and have a look over Rottal Estate. I love walking about in the countryside and always love looking over estates that are new to me, whether to find good or bad practice. I immediately accepted Dee’s offer.

I met Dee on the estate on Saturday morning and after a quick coffee, over which Dee explained to me he had bought the estate just under 16 years earlier and had made many improvements since that time, particularly in relation to the planting of 120,000 native trees, we headed out in the Landrover to the hill ground. I had earlier passed a roadside sign stating ‘welcome to the moorland’ which was a great start and a remarkable change from the reluctance of estates to allow or encourage access a couple of decades ago.

The heather was in full bloom and there was a modest number of sheep on the hill – Dee explained that when he took over Rottal he reduced the stocking density to avoid over-grazing and he takes the sheep off in the winter. On the way up the hill there were plenty of small birds, mostly meadow pipits and wheatears but curlew, golden plover snipe, dotterel and ring ouzel are regularly seen. A recent RSPB count identified 102 different bird species. A merlin flew over the hill track in front of us and further up the hill a beautiful male hen harrier was quartering back and forth in hunting mode. Dee told me he has nesting merlin and peregrine. Raptors are monitored on the estate by a member of the Tayside Raptor Study Group who was able to confirm that the peregrines fledged at least one chick this year, which was seen learning to hunt with parents. Merlins with a brood of late-stage chicks was also seen and were expected to fledge.

Near the top of the hill there is a large area of peat where the estate is conducting an experiment to try to re-seed with locally sourced moorland grasses and heather including hare’s tail, sheep’s fescue and cotton grass.  An area had been covered with matting which was impregnated with the seed and the first shoots were beginning to show. I also noticed that many of the narrow streams running off the hill had been dammed with wood to hold back the flow of water.

Dee told me that red grouse numbers were patchy this year due to increased tick numbers and we only saw one small covey of five. Most of the grouse shooting on the estate is walked-up, with some driven only when there are sufficient numbers. We never saw any black grouse but Dee stated that there are about 100 males that come to five leks in springtime. On the return journey we encountered two small groups of red deer totalling about 20 and consisting of hinds, calves and one or two stags. The estate has been trying to keep deer numbers at a reasonable level to allow natural re-generation of native trees and shrubs.

On the marginal land not only was the tree planting regime impressive but so was the natural regeneration of trees, particularly birch. In these fenced areas there was also a proliferation of wild flowers, which demonstrated how different Scotland might look with less sheep and less deer. These projects of course are always long-term and unfortunately I won’t be around to see the majesty of the full-grown oaks, Scots pine or even the faster growing trees such as rowan, birch, alder and wild cherry. I did see the result of the hedge planting though, with two miles of lovely hedging now almost mature, comprising mainly hawthorn, black thorn, snow berry, wild rose and some oak and maple.  I’m sure these hedges will be full of nesting and roosting birds, as are the hawthorn hedges at Dupplin Estate near Perth, where I spent a year in advance of writing my latest book Walking with Wildlife.

Until last year there had been a small-scale pheasant shoot on the low ground, but Dee has discontinued this, though he still sows a wild bird seed crop to encourage wild pheasants and small birds. He would particularly like grey partridge to be present and may need to introduce some to kick-start their presence. The habitat is certainly ideal and it was clear from speaking to Dee that he is of the view that good habitat is the key factor and that if the habitat is correct then wildlife will appear and thrive. This has been obvious to me on my visits to the Western Isles and to parts of Brittany.

We walked down the Rottal burn to near where it joins the River South Esk. When Dee arrived the burn was straight, rather like a canal. Salmon came up the burn to spawn but in most years their eggs were washed out during periods of heavy rain. Working with the fishery board, he re-designed the burn with twists and turns to meander much more slowly to the river, extending its length from 800 metres to 1200 metres and allowing it to spill over. This has been a success not just for spawning salmon but for wildlife in general. It may even help the endangered freshwater pearl mussel, and Dee is well aware of the push by Scottish Natural Heritage to increase their numbers – Pearls in Peril.

Though some of the riparian areas have been planted with trees, there has been a huge amount of natural regeneration, especially of alder. Wild flowers are in abundance, as are small birds. The wetlands adjacent to the burn apparently host a mass of nesting waders – lapwing, curlew, redshank, snipe – in early summer though most had gone by the time of my visit. The shingle banks created by the now-flooding burn may also be ideal nesting places for oystercatcher and ringed plover.

So has this visit changed my mind about completely banning driven grouse shooting? It would certainly be a real shame for estates such as Rottal that are trying hard to improve habitat and biodiversity and whose driven days are modest in any case. Despite being infuriated and frustrated by continued raptor persecution I’ll maybe relent a wee bit, but only if a version of licensing of driven grouse moors that is effective as a deterrent and suitably stringent as a punishment is implemented, and soon. Meantime landowners such as Dee must continue to work on their peers, sporting agents and gamekeepers to adapt to live alongside protected wildlife rather than eliminate those species that don’t suit their purpose.

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The first poisoned golden eagle prosecution in Scotland

The remains of the golden eagle, at least nine months after its death.

In view of the recent discovery on a poisoned white-tailed eagle on Donside, it may be appropriate to revisit the difficulties in gaining a conviction for poisoning wildlife on upland estates. Here is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, Wildlife Detective, where I describe a number of poisoning incidents –

In another of the 1998 poisonings, a hill walker was on West Glenalmond Estate in Perthshire in October of that year when he chanced upon the shepherd for the estate. They exchanged pleasantries and the conversation came round to birds of prey. During the chat the shepherd told the hill walker that he had earlier that day found a dead golden eagle. The eagle apparently appeared to have died in the past few days and the shepherd told the hill walker that he suspected that it had been killed rather than having died of old age or disease. A couple of weeks later the hill walker was on the estate again. This time it was his turn to find evidence of poisoning, which was in the form of a dead buzzard lying near to part of the carcass of a mountain hare. He was highly suspicious and reported his find to RSPB. RSPB investigations officers had still not quite got used to the police fulfilling their statutory responsibilities in the investigation of wildlife crime. Instead of reporting this incident to the police, they went on to the estate, recovered the bait and the victim, and had them examined for pesticides.

To repeat the point, a charity carrying out a police function is a situation that was entirely unsatisfactory but in many ways the police in Scotland had brought this about themselves. A working protocol has since been agreed between the Scottish Police Service and RSPB Scotland, SEERAD, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish SPCA and Scottish Badgers, all organisations with which the police work in partnership on wildlife crime issues. Such a situation would not occur now except in extreme circumstances when police resources were unable to attend and the matter was one of urgency.

I was informed that the buzzard and the mountain hare both tested positive for the pesticide carbofuran and began an investigation. My first point of contact was with the shepherd, from whom I gleaned the story about the dead golden eagle. He also told me that a couple of weeks after he had found the eagle he was gathering sheep in the vicinity of a crag where peregrines traditionally nest when he noticed one of his dogs sniffing at a dead grouse. He went over to examine the grouse as it looked alive. He was amazed to see that it was dead, but sitting up in a life-like position with a length of wire stuck into the ground and under its head. He suspected that the bird would be a poisoned bait to attract the peregrines, since they prefer to kill their prey rather than take carrion. In fact this type of poisoned bait had been found before, and was usually laced with a pesticide of some sort on the back of the neck, as peregrines take the head off their victim before starting to eat it. Pesticide in this position would be ingested by the bird and would most likely kill it.

Though all of this was not known to the shepherd, he knew enough to realise that one of his valuable dogs could have been poisoned. He told me that he was absolutely raging and went straight to the gamekeeper, whom he suspected of setting out the bait, and asked if he would pay for a replacement dog if it had been poisoned.

Along with several police officers I made a search of part of the estate for the dead golden eagle and for any other baits or victims of poisoning, but nothing further was found. Though I had been given the rough location of the dead golden eagle, after several hours searching we had to admit defeat, suspecting it had been found and disposed of. Enquiries continued and at their conclusion, the gamekeeper on the estate was charged with setting out the poisoned mountain hare carcass, killing a buzzard and attempting to kill a peregrine by setting out a baited grouse.

By the following July the trial of the gamekeeper had not started, a delay which is regrettable but not unusual. I had been keeping in touch with the shepherd as he was seriously concerned that his job and his tied house would be at risk now that he was involved in a case against another estate employee. When I phoned him one day, by coincidence he had been on the part of the hill where he had originally found the dead golden eagle the previous October. Coincidentally he had chanced upon it again. This time he marked the exact location and that evening took me and a police colleague, PC Graham Jack, to the spot.

There was little left of the body of the magnificent eagle, though most of the feathers were still intact and attached to the body. We photographed it and collected it as gently as we could so as to keep it relatively intact, putting it in a large polythene bag. It was then transferred to SASA in Edinburgh, where the scientists incredibly managed to find sufficient traces of carbofuran to conclude that the bird had been poisoned. As the carcass of the eagle had been lying out on the hill in all weathers for nine months this was an amazing result. The finding of the golden eagle also meant that there was an additional and extremely serious charge.

The day of the trial eventually came. I had discussed the case several times in the preceding months with the procurator fiscal. He was of the view that as cases go, the evidence was slim but might be sufficient for a conviction if everything went well. He was aware of the predicament of the shepherd and intended to call him as first witness. There is nothing unusual in crucial evidence, albeit from the weakest link, being led first when the evidence of that witness is pivotal to the success of the case. If this witness fails to provide the necessary evidence then valuable court time can be saved by abandoning the trial at an early stage. This is preferable to leading the evidence of strong witnesses first and the case failing after several hours because of poor evidence from a key witness.

The shepherd gave evidence-in-chief, which is the evidence as led by the procurator fiscal. His evidence in court fell well below the level of evidence given to the police in his statement and it was clear to all that he was trying to save his livelihood and his house. The case was immediately deserted by the fiscal without the need for cross-examination by the defence solicitor.

Police officers are philosophical and realistic. All of us are aware that evidence has to be presented in court to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt. This had not been the position here so the accused had walked free.

The shepherd remained in employment for a further year – then was made redundant. Having no job had the inevitable consequence of having no home.

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