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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Book review – On Foot in the African Bush by Jeff Williams

On Foot in the African Bush: adventures of safari guides, Jeff Williams

On Foot in the African Bush – Jeff Williams

It’s not often that I get a book that I would love to read all in one go, but this is certainly such a book.  To guide tourists on foot in the African bush entails considerable training in order that the guests, the guides and the animals stay alive.  Despite the best training and experience there are always situations that result in considerable danger, with a few developing into a life-threatening crisis. The author is a bush guide and relates his and other guides’ tales of when things have gone horrifically wrong.

Guides try to take their guests reasonably close to wildlife, but always with safety in mind. The idea is to watch and photograph the animals, then leave again without the animals having been aware of the presence of humans. The experiences related by the author show that despite the best of intentions and a high degree of bushcraft the group may surprise an animal or encounter an animal with a youngster in tow, and that’s when things can go badly wrong.

Imagine being faced with a lion, in the open, 7 metres away, and trying to talk it into thinking an attack is a bad idea. Imagine being charged by an elephant, a rhino or a buffalo with nowhere to go to be safe, and with absolutely no chance of outrunning it. Imagine walking in the dark and being attacked by a spotted hyaena. Imagine having a dip in a pool believed safe to find you are sharing it with a hippo.

The guides carry rifles but are reluctant to use them. The only time in the book, despite guides receiving life-threatening injuries, that a rifle was used was to rescue a girl from the jaws of a crocodile. Had the croc not been shot a grisly death for the girl was inevitable.

The author finishes the book with a chapter on the most dangerous animal of all: humans. Because of humans, rhinos, elephants, lions, giraffes and pangolins are all critically endangered. Even vultures are not safe and are being poisoned in large numbers by poachers so that they don’t give away the location of the remains of poached animals by circling overhead.

For anyone with even a remote interest in wildlife this book is fascinating and full of amazing colour photos. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

On Foot in the African Bush by Jeff Williams. Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG – £18.99

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A search of an estate in 2011

I get prompts for my blogs from various articles or discussions. This prompt came from a reply from Raptor Persecution UK to a reader’s query about their blog on the discovery of a stash of illegal pesticide on Leadhills Estate in Lanarkshire. The person asking the question wondered if legislation allows police officers to perform unannounced searches of estates. The blog author responded that the police do not have the authority to conduct spot checks on private land. To enter, they must first have reasonable suspicion that an offence has occurred.

I should also add in reply to the reader’s comment, that police searches are always unannounced, otherwise they would be a waste of time.

The first poisoned buzzard found in 2009

What the RPUK blog author replied is absolutely true but very often officers have to ‘think outside the box.’ Invariably searches of land using powers under the Wildlife and Countryside Act closely follow the discovery of a situation suspected to be illegal, however we found ourselves in 2011 requiring to carry out what amounted almost to a ‘spot check.’

There was a history on Edradynate Estate in Perthshire, going back to at least 1995, of poisoned baits or victims being discovered in spring or early summer, not too dissimilar to the history on Leadhills Estate. We could show that in March and April 2009 five poisoned buzzards had been found and in July 2010 a poisoned red kite, dead for some time, had been found. It seemed reasonable that this course of illegal conduct, the setting out of poisoned baits, was likely to take place again in the spring of 2011.  

The second poisoned buzzard, in the same wood.

In March 2011 we carried out a search of the estate, justified by the findings of the previous two years. We recovered 2 poisoned buzzards, two poisoned carrion crows and 2 dead pheasant laced with pesticide. The gamekeeper was detained and later charged, though the Crown’s view was that there was insufficient evidence to link him with the baits and victims.

Despite the absence of a conviction I think this shows that the police do not always need to wait until illegal activity is reported before taking proactive measures. Amendments to the Wildlife and Countryside Act in Scotland in 2004 have made it a powerful piece of legislation so far as police powers of search are concerned.

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Book review – A Life of Extremes: the life and times of a polar filmmaker. Max Quinn.

I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted by Kirsten Knight, the marketing and publicity assistant at Exisle Publishing, asking if I would like a review copy of this interesting book. I accepted the kind invitation and my review follows. Although this is a New Zealand publishing company, the book is widely available in the UK.

A Life of extremes – Max Quinn

The author, New Zealander Max Quinn, begins his career as a polar filmmaker in the Antarctic winter of the early 1990s at temperatures down to minus 50 degrees. He is working on two films simultaneously: the breeding cycle of emperor penguins and the lives and work of the scientists from New Zealand who also have to work in these extreme temperatures during the long winter of almost complete darkness.

The author, his soundman and others of the team managed to overcome the difficulties of working with equipment that is nowhere as sophisticated as now. It was a real challenge to successfully film penguins at close quarters and without panicking them in the darkness with lights, and with a camera and batteries that were prone to freezing.

The penguin breeding colony lay 85 km from where the author and team were based, and this journey had to be undertaken at the various stages the author wanted to capture: the penguins making their way on to the ice, egg-laying, incubation by the male, hatching, which coincided with the return of the female after around 120 days at sea feeding, and the growth of the young penguins before they eventually left the breeding site to go to sea.

Shortly after the author’s films in Antarctica he began a series that looked at the biological, physical and human characteristics of the Arctic and the Antarctic. This meant at least six trips, four into the Arctic and two to the Antarctic. The trips included filming scientists carrying out Weddell seal research and another scientist studying the antifreeze properties of a group of fish that includes the Antarctic toothfish. In the Arctic the author has a very close and dangerous encounter with a mother polar bear and two cubs. He films the drilling of the Greenland ice cap 3000 metres thick for core samples and the landing and cutting up of two bowhead whales by the Sami people as their traditional and permitted harvest.

After a return to Antarctica where he directed another film, the author made for the Arctic again, this time filming the Yukon Quest, a 1500 kilometer sled dog race. 41 teams of 14 dogs started out but some failed to complete the journey to the end and the $30,000 dollar prize.

Max Quinn was back to the Arctic again filming the work of the famed Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft, now fitted with a Teflon-coated ski at the front. This is an aircraft that can take off and land almost anywhere, often having to be landed in a whiteout by the crew using only their instruments. He also managed to film the last and deepest ice core to be drawn from the Greenland ice cap at 3083 metres.

Just when he though his polar exploration days were over the author was back to the Antarctic again on a research ship carrying out a 50-year census of Antarctic marine wildlife. The scientists landed some marine species new to science and satellite-tagged 30 humpback whales.

In his last filming expedition Mx Quinn travelled to the town of Oymyakon in the far east of Russia where the temperature has been recorded at minus 71 degrees. I’ll say no more than that this expedition finished with a bang!

This is quite an amazing book, showing the hardship, danger and excitement of filming in extreme weather conditions. As well as the scientific aspects of the films, the author has a real interest in and knowledge of the polar wildlife, and many different species feature throughout the book. It is well illustrated in colour photographs, with the pictures alone almost being able to tell the story. I can heartily recommend this book.

A Life of Extremes: the life and times of a polar filmmaker by Max Quinn. Exisle Publishing Pty Ltd, 226 High Street, Dunedin, 9016, New Zealand. £25.99.

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Oh deer, what can the matter be?

A chapter from my book Walking with Wildlife which covers a year spent walking over the lovely Dupplin Estate near Perth and writing of the great variety of habitat and wildlife.

CHAPTER 27

Monday 18 March 2019. Calm. Cloud but with sunny intervals. 100C.

Milton Den, Lawn Park, Pond Wood, Harlaypoint Wood

After snowy and windy weather which caused me to miss a couple of week’s walking it was great to get back to Dupplin again. I parked at Munday House and made down through a grass field with yearling lambs towards Milton Den. Gulls were gathered around the area where the sheep had been fed. They were mostly common gulls but when they lifted into the air I could see that there was single black-headed gull and a single lesser black-backed gull. The largest gull in the group didn’t seem to be part of the coalition and while the main group settled further along the field the lesser black-back flew off eastwards.

The pond in the lovely Milton Den

Milton Den, normally a part of the estate with a great variety of birds, was surprisingly quiet, with only blackbirds in the trees and bushes ahead of me. As I approached the pond the silence was broken by the sound of much splashing and a mallard duck suddenly rose into the air pursued by two mallard drakes. The drakes chased the duck around the sky, no doubt hoping it would land so that they could mate. They are determined suitors and can be quite hard on the poor female. When we had mallard at home my wife was often out with a brush trying to rescue a duck from almost being drowned in the burn by three or even more amorous drakes.

The trio of ducks disappeared over the distant wood and as I walked in closer to the pond no less than six herons rose from its edges and flew in almost slow-motion flight over the adjacent ploughed field. I wondered what had attracted such a large group to the pond and suspected it would be frogs spawning. Despite a search round most of the perimeter of the pond I could see neither frogs nor frog spawn so the reason for the congregation of herons remains a mystery.

One of the herons feeding in the pond

At the west end of Milton Den I surveyed the field of quinoa, the heads now looking rather dead and empty, for a feeding frenzy of finches. There was a small flock at the far end of the quinoa, flitting between the crop and the electric wires that provide an aerial bisection the field. They were just out of my binocular range and unfortunately remained unidentified.

The wild bird seed crop of quinoa that feeds hundreds of small birds

I moved my car further along and parked near to the estate office. In a nearby field a tractor was ploughing with a six-furrow reversible plough. This immediately took me back about 40 years. The field had been in grass and a large number of rabbits came from The Parsonage wood on to the field to feed. I had set snares for the rabbits about 30 or 40 yards from the wood. In the morning when I came to check the snares and gather up what I hoped to be a decent harvest of rabbits the field had been ploughed. All the snares, maybe between 70 and 100, had been ploughed in. In anthropomorphic terms I could just imagine the rabbits sitting in a row at the edge of the wood rubbing their paws together with glee.

I was brought back to the present when a red squirrel ran across the grass near my car. It stopped at the base of a monkey puzzle tree and began digging. It seemed to be unearthing nuts or cones and alternated between digging and munching. While it was digging it was distracted and I managed to inch closer until I was less than 20 yards from the busy wee squirrel. It continued its brunch for a good ten minutes before making for higher ground and a well-earned rest up the conifer next to the monkey puzzle.

The red squirrel busy burying or unearthing a nut

I walked up through Lawn Park and crossed the fence towards Pond Wood. A roe doe crept quietly away from where it had been resting behind a fallen tree trunk on my left. Simultaneously a really dark-coloured buzzard mewed from somewhere above the deer and glided across the clearing just ahead of me. The shepherd with his brown and white collie on the back of his quadbike then glided – much more noisily and with far less elegance – from right to left across the clearing.

Ahead of me the high metal gate on the deer fence surrounding Pond Wood was closed. I could see a movement to the left of the gate, which turned out to be a young roe buck, antlers in velvet. It had tried to squeeze through the gap between the metal gate and the straining post, managed most of its body through but the gap was just too narrow for its haunches. It was well and truly stuck. It kept straining forward but in fact needed a reverse gear. The buck squealed like a baby as I approached but seemed to settle a bit while I stood beside it, trying to work out how best to extricate it from its plight. I was also making sure it had no broken legs, which would have resulted in a far less satisfactory outcome. Mercifully the legs were fine and I gripped both back legs and gently pulled. There was neither sound nor resistance from the deer. I moved it slowly backwards through the gap and it was free. I let go the legs and it bounded away apparently none the worse for its potentially fatal adventure. Surprisingly, after about 50 yards, the buck stopped and looked back, then continued out of sight round the back of a fallen tree. There were relatively few marks indicating the deer had been stuck for a long period and I suspect it had only been there overnight.

The trapped roe buck

Further up the track there was a stridency of sound coming from both left and right. To the left, in Pond Wood, a group of jays had spotted me and were sounding their alarm call. Jays are lovely birds, brightly coloured and intelligent. There is no doubt they take the eggs and chicks of some other birds but they have all co-existed happily for thousands of years and it really is a pity that in some circumstances they can still legally be shot or trapped as ‘pests’. On my right, in Harlaypoint Wood, a green woodpecker yelled out its mocking kew kew kew kew. I was tempted to go through the trees and look for it but they are incredibly elusive birds and I’ve always found that the best way to see them is to come across them accidentally. It’s great that green woodpeckers are on the estate. During my many years here in the 1970s and 1980s I neither heard nor saw one.

I cut left through Pond Wood and when I came out at the far side I could see a hare sitting on a cultivated field. I managed to get quite close to it and took several photos before backtracking and exiting the wood further up to avoid disturbing the hare. It was only when I got home and put the photographs on the laptop that I saw that there was a head of a second hare in some of the photos. Two hares had been sitting almost together and I had only spotted one.

Two brown hares together

Two fields further on and another hare was sitting clapped down in the grass. I got quite close to and took several more photos and I could see the hare visibly relaxing and becoming far less flat against the ground than at first. Again I continued without disturbing the hare, which is not always possible. I was nearly back at the car now and the day was complete with a sighting of a lovely melanistic cock pheasant, almost jet black with a bright red head. It strutted about as if in the knowledge that the shooting season had ended and it was relatively safe (apart from motor vehicles and predators) until October and the start of the next shooting season.

This brown hare gradually relaxed

Walking with Wildlife: a Year on a Scottish Estate. £15 plus £2 P&P. For a signed copy contact me at wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Dead raptors. Natural, accidental or criminal cause of death?

I was interested in the most recent post on Raptor Persecution UK which centred around an article by the Southern Uplands Moorland Group (SUMG) and the finding of a dead barn owl. It seems that the bird probably died of starvation. The article goes on: Whist this is sad it is part of the natural world and simply reinforces the fact that a dead raptor is not automatically linked to the keepering profession

Two dead buzzards at the bottom of an electricity pole. Suspicious?

RPUK dealt with another issue raised in the SUMG article and went on to state that there are some decent, law-abiding gamekeepers who are as thrilled at seeing a raptor as I am. I’ve met them and have worked with them, so I know they exist. I agree entirely, though I have met more than my share of keepers and their employers who are the other end of the spectrum and who do their colleagues a huge disservice. In fairness this proportion of bad apples is diminishing, some of them retiring, some seeing the light and coming in to the 21st century and some changing over to a much more modern employer.

Anyway, the real point of my writing this article is to expand on the issue that all raptors found dead should neither automatically be linked to game management nor may even have died as a result of a crime. The barn owl in the article is a good starting point, and one winter I picked up several dead barn owls at their roosting sites. The winter in question was probably one of the worst we had for a number of years and there was complete snow cover, in some places several feet deep. The barn owls were probably at their extreme northern range in Scotland and would possibly have struggled for food even in an open winter.

The transformer-type device on the pole leading off the electricity to go under the railway bridge. The buzzards had been electrocuted..

When I was with Tayside Police dozens of calls came to me every year about dead raptors, buzzards in particular. I would never have been done collecting them and submitting them for examination but I managed to screen many of them out as most likely having died of natural causes. The criteria used was:

  • Is the bird in an area known as a hotspot for persecution
  • Is there a dead bird or mammal nearby which may have been a bait
  • Are the bird’s talons clenched
  • Is its head arched over its back
  • Are any injuries or is there any blood visible?
  • Is it late autumn/winter/early spring when some birds succumb to starvation
  • Does the bird appear to be thin
  • Is the bird under or near overhead wires
  • Is the bird near a public road
  • Is the bird (in the case of sparrowhawks or sometimes peregrines) near a window

Depending on the answers to these questions a decision was made either to collect the bird as soon as possible or to disregard it as most likely being a natural or accidental death.

Immature peregrine with wing tangled on barbed wire on fence
Immature peregrine hanging on fence. Suspicious?

Apart from the examples of barn owls, buzzards are regularly found having starved to death. They are also frequently found dead under electricity pole that have a transformer-type appliance to divert electricity off to a building or under a bridge. On one occasion two buzzards lay dead at the bottom of such a pole. Their presence would look extremely suspicious to most folks who encountered them but in fact they had died accidentally, as a result of electrocution. Other birds I’ve seen in such circumstances are kestrels and in two cases ospreys at the foot of  pole near a fish farm.

On one occasion a female peregrine was found dead in the High Street in Perth. Its death was also accidental. It had been chasing a pigeon and both it and the pigeon crashed into a shop window.

Young sparrowhawks also have frequent crashes into windows or even tree branches when pursuing small birds. In many cases these prove fatal or result in a broken wing, equally devastating for such a bird.

The most unusual suspicious death reported to me was that of a peregrine which had been found hanging on a fence. The death didn’t fulfil many of the criteria above but was most certainly worth a look. The bird turned out to be an immature peregrine with a wing tangled round the barbed wire which was the top strand of the fence. The estate that the bird was on was one where there had never been any problem with illegal activity so I went to see the keeper, who was an extremely pleasant and competent individual. He knew immediately what had happened. He had often seen young peregrines pursuing either grouse or partridges at low level. This was almost certainly what happened here, except that the prey had seen the fence and the peregrine hadn’t. The inexperienced peregrine had struck the barbed wire with a wing and had become impaled, quickly wrapping the wing further round the wire. It had been an inglorious end to a glorious bird.

The peregrine probably hit the fence while chasing prey at low level
The bird had most likely crashed into the fence while chasing prey.

Despite many dead raptors having succumbed to natural or accidental deaths most that are found should still be reported to a police wildlife crime officer, who can then apply the tests above and decide whether it may be the victim of a crime. The police will err on the side of caution.

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