Now why would salmon poachers steal a drain cover?

Tay district water bailiffs with net similar to the one recovered.

I was in CID as detective sergeant when I had a call at home one day from Mr X. He had reliable information concerning four men who would be going out poaching that night to the River Tay at a part east of Perth near the hamlet of Kinfauns. The ringleader would be one of the pair we had earlier caught operating the cage at the Horseshoe Falls on the River Almond. Mr X gave me the names for the other three, who were all well known to me as poachers, as well as being willing participants in other fields of crime when they thought there would be some pecuniary advantage.

The information was that the men would be leaving a particular address in a housing scheme in Perth at 3.00 am, and that they would be using a grey Datsun (now Nissan) car. I was given the registration number of the car, which always makes success a bit more viable. So far the information was good, and it was to get better. The men would drive down the A90 Perth to Dundee road and park off the road where there is access to the Perth – Dundee railway line. The car would be left there and the men would cross the railway line and make their way to the river bank, where they had a dinghy and a net hidden. They would only be there about an hour before heading back home.

Two complications followed. Firstly, the men would be wearing balaclavas so would not be recognisable. I thought I could cope with this problem since I knew in advance who the men were. The second complication was that they would leave everything hidden at the side of the river and return to collect their fish about midday. That way, if they were stopped by the police on their return to Perth during the night – as they might well have been – there would be no incriminating evidence in the car. They would take their chance on being stopped during the day but (a) this would be less likely as the police were liable to be tied up with other matters, and (b) only one person would make the run, so on aggregate the fine would be lower and all could pay a share of it. This was not an insurmountable problem and was a tactic of salmon poachers of which we were well aware.

One aspect of the information puzzled me. I didn’t know why the time they were leaving the house could be predicted so precisely, and why the poachers would only remain at the riverside for about an hour. It seemed a lot of effort to go to for an hour’s work. The reason, once I had been enlightened, was logical. It gave me further evidence that the poachers were tuned into the forces of nature and that this knowledge was essential if they wanted to successfully catch salmon. I learned from Mr X that twice a day in a tidal river there is a period referred to as ‘slack water.’ This is a period of about half an hour at each high tide when the force of the water coming down the river is counterbalanced by the pressure of the tide coming up the river, and results in the flow of the river being stopped. When a gill net is put across a river one end is fastened to the bank while the rest of the net is paid out from the dinghy until all of the net is in the water. The floats fastened to the top of the net keep it on the surface and the weights fastened to the bottom ensure that it hangs down into the water like a curtain. Slack water is an ideal time to put the net across the river as it will hang motionless, neither being swept downstream nor upstream. Likewise the dinghy will just sit steadily in the river without any controlling effort by its passenger. If the operators have timed their venture correctly there will be little or no movement of either the net or the dinghy, apart from that caused by the frantic struggles of the salmon swimming upstream that were unlucky enough to have been entangled by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the dingy starts to drift downstream, its occupant knows that slack water has passed and it is time for his counterpart on the bank to start to haul in the net. The information from Mr X was that 4.00 am was high tide, therefore the poachers would leave about an hour earlier, giving them sufficient time to reach their spot on the river and get organised to catch slack water. I was due to start at 10.00 pm so I decided to carry out some reconnaissance in the late afternoon to see how best to tackle this job.

I came on duty early, at 3.00 pm, not wanting to chance an earlier visit to the Tay at Kinfauns as there was a good chance that the motley crew would have fish to pick up that day around noon. I didn’t want to spoil the operation by being seen on my recce. I parked at a farm steading some distance away, having told the farmer what I was up to and trusting him to keep the information quiet. It was a Spring day and as I crossed the railway line to the area of scrub and trees between that point and the river, I was treated to a lovely chorus of birdsong from its many small feathered inhabitants. Though this avian orchestra would have had many more players at first light, I could hear the easiest of the birds to identify, the chiffchaff, pronouncing its name loudly and clearly, chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff.

The whitethroat was the next to be spotted since it is one of the few warbler species to sit on top of a bush and sing rather than skulk in the bushes. It chattered away its creaky, grating song, while in the background I heard another of the warblers in full flow. To my shame I’m never sure which of the warblers I am listening to. I think this one was a sedge warbler. It always reminds me of a motor bike engine that is not running too smoothly (in a much higher pitch of course). The engine is just about to give up, then it has a new lease of life until the next piece of dirt hits the carburettor and it begins to splutter again. My simile does the bird an injustice as it’s really a lovely song and many times on a night shift I have parked the police car in an area I know to be full of these birds, switched off the engine, and marvelled that many of them have flown from Africa to regale us with their sweet music.

In more recent times I had my grandson, Sam, out with me in the woods one day. He was either four or five at the time and I was trying to teach him to recognise bird song. We listened to several birds on our walk, starting with a blackbird, then a mistle thrush, a chiffchaff, a wren and a robin. He was interested to begin with but I had probably overdone his first nature study lesson and he was becoming bored. This fact was confirmed when I asked him if he could tell me the name of the bird singing on top of a young sitka spruce tree beside us. His reply? ‘It’s another bloody chiffchaff.’ Spot on. Bloody good answer Sam!

Back at the River Tay, there was a clearing of several yards between the edge of the scrubland and the river. At one point there was a clump of bushes thick enough to give cover and situated almost beside the river. If I placed someone in the middle of these bushes they would have a good view of what was happening upstream and downstream of their observation point. I checked first that this was not the hiding place for the poachers’ dinghy and net before settling on this as the best available outlook position.

On the return journey to my car I almost stood on a young roe deer fawn hiding in the undergrowth. I saw its mottled body just at the last minute and changed my route by a few degrees so as not to disturb it. It was well camouflaged and relying totally on its innate instinct to lie absolutely still unless flight became the better option. As roe fawns are born in May it was probably just a few days old and no doubt had a sibling lying close by, aware of my presence and hoping that the danger of a predatory human would pass quickly. This was my first encounter with a roe fawn. Even yet I have only found one other roe fawn and one red deer calf at that vulnerable stage when they rely on camouflage more than the speed that they will eventually develop.

When I came back to the police station I made contact with the water bailiffs from the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board and arranged to have the services of two of them. This was agreed and a 2.00 am meeting at Perth Police Station was arranged. A meeting at two in the morning would seem strange to most people, but water bailiffs, like police officers, are used to working round the clock. Criminals respect neither office hours nor weekends, in fact weekends and night-time are often their most productive periods. I intended to remain on duty for the operation, but needed the help of a police officer from the night shift before the trap could be set.

After the 2.00 am briefing, I sent the two water bailiffs, complete with a borrowed police radio, to hide in the clump of bushes I had identified at the riverside. Their remit was simply to wait, watch and report, nothing more. I told them that the poachers would be wearing balaclavas, which was nothing new either to me or to them, and assured them if they were in their place of concealment by 2.45 am they would not have long to wait.

At the allotted time, the night shift police officer who had volunteered to help took his own car and parked near to the target car, which was sitting outside the address given to me by Mr X. Like the water bailiffs, his task was to wait, watch and report. While we had been making our plans for a successful night’s work, the men in the house were probably doing the same. It was not possible for both of us to have the result we wanted. As the dawn of the next morning was breaking one group would be disappointed.

Just before 3.00 am, I parked at the farm I had used in the afternoon and walked up the hill for about quarter of a mile so that I had a vantage point overlooking the spot identified by Mr X as the parking spot for the poachers’ car. The watchers were in position. We just needed the participants to make their move.

Any police officer who has been involved in surveillance, or involved in simply waiting at a given point in anticipation of a crime taking place, knows that in at least half of the instances the long wait is in vain. The rest of the time, a long period watching and waiting may have some form of moderate success and just once in a while everything comes together exactly as planned. I was shortly to move to the drug squad, where much of the work involved surveillance. As examples of how differently things work out, one operation meant surveillance on a ship in Dundee Harbour for two weeks of 12 hour shifts in the expectation that someone was to come to the ship to collect three kilos of heroin that was on board. No-one arrived and we had to allow the ship to sail to its next destination, Rotterdam, where the latest intelligence indicated the transfer would take place. At the other end of the spectrum, we had received information that a particular vehicle was en route to Dundee from Manchester with a cargo of 5 kilos of cannabis resin. A colleague and I parked near the Tayside boundary at Dunblane to watch for the car on the A9. I had reversed the car into a good spot to watch the road and switched the engine off. The car that we were waiting for was the third one to come along the road. We arrested the person in the car, recovered the cannabis and went on, with me driving the car from Manchester that the dealers were expecting to see, to make the connection in Dundee. We arrested four dealers and recovered a carrier bag with £10,000. If only it worked out like that all the time.

‘Stand by, stand by,’ came the call from the officer watching the poachers’ car. ‘That’s five people coming from the target close and getting into the target car. One is out of the car again, he’s walked round behind it. He’s pulled up one of the metal drain covers at the side of the road and has put it in the boot.’ Five people were one more than we were expecting but so far so good. ‘That’s an off, off now, down the hill. Brake lights showing at the roundabout and the car has taken the second exit, heading in your direction.’ I updated the two water bailiffs of the position using the UHF channel. (The first message had been passed to me on the VHF channel, which the bailiffs couldn’t hear).

Less than ten minutes later I saw headlights appearing from the direction of Perth. The car slowed down, turned about on the road and headed back to the parking spot. My radio message to the bailiffs was, ‘Stand by, stand by, that’s the target car with us and parked up. Occupants leaving the car and walking westwards along the railway line. Now lost to my view and should be with you shortly.’ I was happy at this as I had walked along the railway line earlier and it took me towards a natural crossing point from the railway line into the area of scrub and trees that led towards the river.

‘That’s five men wearing balaclavas approaching the river. They’re pulling out a baker’s board from under a bush. The baker’s board has a net on it. They’re back into the bush. It’s a dinghy this time. They’re coming towards the river.’ The bailiff’s report was welcome news and things were going exactly to plan.

I had previously spoken with the night shift traffic crew and had told them of the information and the plan. I asked that they be available about 4.00 am to pull the poachers’ car on its way back to Perth. I updated them as to the current stage of the operation and said I would keep them informed so that they could get into position to stop the vehicle once that was required.

Once more the bailiffs were on the radio. ‘That’s the net getting tied to the bank. They’ve tied something to the bottom of this end of the net. It looks like a metal drain cover.’ So that’s what they wanted it for – an anchor next to the bank on the bottom edge of the net to keep it taut. ‘That’s one of them now rowing out into the river with the net. Looks like a waiting game now for half an hour.’

It’s interesting when something happens, like the taking of the drain cover, that’s not in the game plan. Some statutes, such as poaching game or throwing away litter, don’t have a power of arrest, and often this limits the action that police can take to obtain evidence sufficient to charge the person with the offence. It is always circumspect not to simply look at an offence in isolation but to take a more rounded view of all the evidence available. Occasionally, tucked away amongst the strands of evidence, lies a Common Law offence. Common Law offences range from breach of the peace to murder and include most crimes of dishonesty. All have an automatic power of arrest attached. In this case, had there not been a power of arrest for salmon poaching, the five men could have been arrested for the theft of a metal drain cover. When investigating crimes and offences it is always worth training the mind to think laterally.

‘That’s the net getting pulled in,’ reported the bailiffs. ‘They’ve certainly caught some salmon. They’re being knocked on the head. The net’s getting put on the baker’s board again. That’s now everything including the salmon back under the bush again and the targets are heading back towards the car.’

I was immediately in touch with the traffic crew, asking them to get into position to stop the car and to arrest the five occupants. The poachers returned to the car and were making back towards Perth a remarkably short time after leaving the river bank. I left the poachers to the traffic department and went to meet the bailiffs and help with the salmon and the fishing tackle. It had not been a great night for the poachers, only having caught eleven salmon, but being Spring fish, they would have commanded a good price.

Once we were back to Perth I went through to the cells along with the police officer who had kept watch for their car leaving the house at the start of the operation and who was going to report the case. The poachers were adamant they had done nothing against the law. They admitted they had been out looking for a place that they could take salmon on a future occasion, which accounted for their jeans being wet up to the knees, ‘but Mr Stewart, ask the traffic boys. Our car was clean when they searched it. We’ve done nothin, honest.’

This is a tale from my first book Wildlife Detective . See Wildlife Detective and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on

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Nests in the garden

Wren’s nest, probably unused, in nest box under the pergola

Robin chicks in ceramic nest box under the pergola

Young blackbird about to fledge in nest under the pergola

Grey wagtail chicks in a nest in the wall at the edge of the burn

Dipper nest in a pipe under the bridge

This is a great time of year, with many birds visiting the feeders, nesting in the garden and bringing up rather naïve fledglings just starting out on their short and perilous lives. We have just over 20 nest boxes and twelve feeders strategically placed round the garden. Every year three or four of the nest boxes are usually inhabited by blue tits or great tits, and there is a hole in the root of a tree stump that often houses the nest of a coal tit.

As I write, we are besieged by starlings. We seldom have starlings in the garden, yet they came in droves a couple of weeks ago to feed on grubs on the lawns – a posh term for my areas of grass. They left as quickly as they had arrived but are back in force again, many of them now brown youngsters. Unfortunately they guzzle the fatballs and mealworms in no time, the screeching of the first birds to arrive quickly attracting their extended family. House sparrows almost compete in numbers and, despite a trio of nest boxes constructed especially for them or tree sparrows and now housing a colony of bumble bees, they have never used them but now nest in the hydrangea petiolaris growing up the west side of the house. In the past three years this lovely climbing plant has accommodated nesting woodpigeons, collared doves, a chaffinch, blackbird and – best of all – a spotted flycatcher.

Spotted flycatchers have failed to appear this year, but other summer visitors are here: whitethroats and blackcaps.  I was weeding the other day at one part of the garden and must have disturbed a nesting female blackcap, which flitted round about me in alarm.  I suspect its nest is in thick honeysuckle on our fence separating the garden from neighbouring woodland. I’ve never found a whitethroat nest, though I suspect they will nest on the roughest part of the garden, a tangle of brambles, bushes and trees on a bank leading down to the burn.

I’m always amazed at the number of wrens’ nests I find. They all look fantastic to me and I’d love to know the criteria used by the female wren in deciding which one is best for her to rear a brood. There is a wren’s nest in a nest box under the pergola this year which looks ideal, though I don’t think it was used.  It is almost next to a blue-coloured ceramic nest box which is so garish that I thought nothing would use it. I was wrong and it is now home to a family of recently-hatched robins.

There are always dunnocks hopping around under the feeders. The adults have now been joined by two recently-fledged young, rather odd-looking with their light-coloured legs. We have been in this house 27 years now and I’ve never encountered a dunnock nest. I’ve also never found a greenfinch, siskin or goldfinch nest, yet there is at least one young greenfinch and one young goldfinch being fed here just now.  During recent winds three young siskins almost ready to fledge were blown out of a nest and sadly were dead on the grass below.

We had the beginnings of a rookery in the larch trees for a while but was probably an overspill from a nearby rookery and didn’t last. I wasn’t too bothered about that as rooks are noisy neighbours. A pair of carrion crows nested last year in a spruce tree and the year before that in an ash tree. They were showing interest in the spruce tree nest area very early in the season, bringing in twigs well before even rooks start to build, but they have moved out. They still visit but I don’t think they nested this year.

Bushes and a short hedge beside the vegetable garden are areas favoured by blackbirds and song thrushes. The blackbirds are normally successful but I’ve yet to see a fledgling song thrush hopping around. A nest last year was deserted after I unwittingly brushed against a bush in which a song thrush was nesting. The bird flew out in panic and unfortunately never returned. They are much more flighty than blackbirds, yet there was one this year that unusually allowed me quite close while it was rooting out large black flies to carry off to a nest just over the boundary.  Tragically I found it dead one morning underneath the sitting room window. Hopefully its mate would manage to rear some of the brood.

I’ve only known of one mistle thrush nest in the garden. I found the remains of the male one day which had been the victim of a sparrowhawk. I was amazed that the female managed to hatch the eggs, brood and feed the chicks and eventually manage to fledge a single chick. I was overjoyed to see it hopping around the garden. I was not overjoyed the next morning to find it lying dead, killed and discarded by a bloody cat!

The most unusual nest in the garden was the nest of a tree creeper I found when I was moving some portions of trellis. The tree creeper had nest in a V-shaped gap in between two if the portions. Thankfully it was well past the end of the nesting season when I found it so no damage done. With any luck the birds had fledged successfully.

Finishing with the burn that runs through the garden, there are normally dippers and grey wagtails active in and around the water. The dippers always nest under a bridge and the grey wagtails in a wall bordering the burn. I’ve seen no dippers this year and only saw a pair of grey wagtails one day earlier in the spring. The blue and orange flash of a kingfisher is also an occasional sight zipping up or down the burn.  I wonder if the extremely low level of water in the burn caused by the very dry spring has caused these species to move on. Hopefully their absence, like that of the spotted flycatchers, is only temporary.

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The poaching ghillie

In the 1960s and 1970s I was really enthusiastic about dealing with salmon poachers. My first case, in 1966 with six month’s service and when I was stationed at Dunblane, related to 43 salmon that had been taken in the River Deveron in the north-east of Scotland by the use of explosives. In fishing terminology I was hooked and when I was transferred to Perth in 1968 the salmon poachers on the Rivers Tay, Almond and Earn kept me busy, especially on the night shift. One case, though was just a wee bit different and is one of the many cases recounted in my book A Lone Furrow:

It came as a bit of a surprise one day when a couple of ghillies complained about one of their fellow boatmen.  Fishing was quite good on the river at this time but while most boats were managing to land 3 or 4 fish a day, one particular boat was reported to be landing a catch more akin to a trawler. Along with the then superintendent of the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board, Garry Gibb, I made some enquiries into the background of the skipper of the trawler and we decided to investigate further.

I was still a serving police officer at this time and had power of search and arrest if required, so Garry and I made for the river bank on this particular beat and lay concealed near the river bank with a set of binoculars each.  We had a good view of the ghillie and his two guests out on the river. It was a good fishing day, with not too much wind and very little sunshine so catches could be quite good under normal circumstances.  We had barely been there two minutes when we saw that circumstances were not normal:  the scene was reminiscent of poachers I had dealt with further downstream on the Tay at the Lower Harbour, when they were raking the fish with treble hooks and lumps of lead on the end of their line to make the line sink.  These fishermen were exactly the same, jerking the line viciously through the water in an attempt to foul hook salmon.  At least the salmon poachers I had dealt with in the past had the decency to wait until it was dark; these guys were blatantly trying to foul hook fish in daylight.  Each time they cast with their rods we could see that they had genuine lures – large spoons with treble hooks – on the end of their lines.  The difference between genuine anglers and these guys was that they were in no way trying to convince a salmon that the lure was an appetising morsel they should try to swallow; they wanted to rake the needle-sharp points of the treble hooks into the sides of the fish and get it on board the boat as quickly as possible. Not in the least sporting, in fact out and out poaching of the worst kind, since they were outwardly respectable salmon anglers.  And the ghillie was even worse, facilitating the whole episode and no doubt in for a hefty tip from the visitors after three days fishing.

Years later I compared the action we were taking with the action that would be carried out by police officers in Malta. In 2003 I spent a week helping to train police officers in Malta in wildlife crime investigation.  I very soon learned that they had plenty of wildlife crime to deal with as a high proportion of the Maltese population seemed to be involved either in shooting protected birds (in addition to those that they could legally shoot) or trapping finches and other small birds (both legally and illegally) for the wild bird trade.  As the police knew many of the criminals involved, I suggested that they conceal themselves at a vantage point – and there were plenty of those on the surrounding cliffs and other high ground – and watch what was happening through binoculars.  They could note who was shooting which protected bird then call on them the following day and charge them.  I was astounded when they told me that their law did not allow them to permit an offence to continue.  Once they saw an offence being committed they had to move in and deal with the offender.

This, to me, meant that they could only deal with one offence per day. When they saw the offence happening they could run or creep down the hill and arrest the person involved, while everyone else cleared out and got off Scot-free. Relating the Maltese dictum to my present situation I saw three men in a boat committing offences but if I did anything to try to stop them committing these offences, like showing myself and shouting to them to come ashore, all the evidence would be jettisoned overboard.  I therefore did nothing of the sort.  And continued watching.

The illegal fishing continued for an hour or more and we saw three salmon getting hauled into the boat.  Compared to a salmon legally caught by the mouth by the normal fishing method, the time taken to play and land these fish was minimal: five minutes rather than 15 or even 45 minutes.  The hooks obviously had a good hold in the side of the salmon and, using strong line, a fish can be landed in no time at all with little chance of it escaping.  The skipper was ready with the gaff and another salmon was added to the clandestine tally in the bottom of the boat.

In due course the boat began to head for our bank of the river and I thought it must be time for the crew’s lunch.  Within a few minutes they had beached the boat just downstream from our vantage point and began to unload the fish from the boat and carry them to the fishing hut.  When they were all inside the hut gloating over their fish it was time for Garry and I to move in, which we did. The three men got the surprise of their lives when we entered the fishing hut and identified ourselves.  There were a total of 10 salmon in the hut, not a bad haul for a morning on the Tay when other boats would be lucky to have a couple of fish. The telltale marks on the sides of the fish where they had been ripped by the hooks were obvious and any attempt they made at trying to talk themselves out of trouble was wasted.  They realised this when I told them we had been watching them for well over an hour and that they were all under arrest for salmon poaching.

Most poachers, especially nowadays, would be released from custody either to receive a summons in due course or on an undertaking to attend court at an arranged date within the next week or not.  This was not the case here.  The Swiss visitors were due to fly home in a couple of days, and the ghillie’s offence was deemed so serious that all three were kept for court the following day.  Charges were: (1) fishing by means other than rod and line, which meant that even though they physically had a rod and line in their hand in the case of the two Swiss visitors, and a gaff in the case of the ghillie, they were not using them in the legitimate manner; (2) two or more persons acting together to commit this offence, which was quite straightforward and is in fact ‘gang poaching’; and (3) unlawful possession of the fishing tackle in their possession and 10 salmon with marks consistent with being foul-hooked.

In the morning, at Perth Sheriff Court, all pled guilty and received substantial fines and the confiscation of their fishing tackle.  The ghillie, being employed by an estate, was sacked for bringing the name of the estate and the fishing beat into disrepute. This meant he lost his tied house, a lovely cottage within the grounds of the estate.  He moved out a few days later, and that night the house was burned to the ground.  Police enquiries were made but the officers involved in the investigation never managed to gain sufficient evidence to bring anyone to court.

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

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The former Tayside Police wildlife crime schools project

I’ve been posting kids’ drawings and posters on Twitter over the past couple of weeks. They originate from some of the enthusiastic and talented children from P5 to P7 in many of the primary schools across Tayside. The project originated around 1996 when I was frustrated by the amount of hen harriers being killed and was keen to both draw attention to this criminality and to try to reduce it.

I co-opted two primary classes in rural schools in areas of driven grouse moors into an educational project focussing on hen harriers. I also managed to persuade 12 different estates to allow me and constables Graham Bell and Bod Noble, plus Bruce Anderson of RSPB, to come on to the estate and find hen harriers nests, under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage, all this with a view to taking the classes out to see the fledgling hen harriers as they were being ringed.

This project was a success and in fact won an award sponsored by Scottish Natural Heritage, Grampian TV and Shell UK and presented at a ceremony at Grampian TV studios, Aberdeen, by Donnie Munro, then lead singer of the band Runrig.

The project expanded to encompass dozens of primary schools across Tayside, at its height just before my retiral in 2011 involving 2000 pupils. The pupils had to complete four projects each over the year: (1) draw an animal, bird, plant or insect, (2) write a short story ‘A day in the life of a police wildlife crime officer’ where they had to ‘investigate’ a wildlife crime of their own choice, (3) keep a spring or autumn nature diary over the period of a week, (4) and lastly, with adult help at home, answer a wildlife crime quiz. The drawing was sometimes varied to the design of a poster, with subjects including wild bird egg theft, raptor persecution or the plight of the wildcat. All of this was based on a 60-minute DVD on wildlife crime that I created with funding from PAW Scotland and which were distributed to the participating classes.

Here is part of a chapter on the project from my first book Wildlife Detective:

My working day is often lightened during the part of the year when the schools are taking part in the Tayside Police Wildlife Crime Project.  The project was growing year upon year and a lot of my time was taken up marking the four individual projects undertaken by the kids.  Though I try to vary the projects from year to year there is one part that is fairly constant; that of completing a nature diary.  I much prefer the kids to compile a spring nature diary.  In spring everything is being renewed after the long winter and changes in our environment are probably more easily noticed by young folks at that time of year.  Birds are nesting, lambs are being born, crops are being sown, buds are bursting out on trees and bushes, grass is beginning to grow and there is just a sense of new life everywhere.

The downside of springtime nature diaries is that there is inevitably too much of a rush immediately prior to the prize-giving, which is normally in early June.  In my experience, many teachers are notoriously bad at keeping to deadlines and I am lucky if I have half of a particular project submitted by the deadline I have set.  I get the excuse, “well we have so much going on in school just now, we are very busy.”  They may very well be busy but no more so than I am.  Late entries make me even busier.  It is not the first time I have been up till 2.00 a.m. marking spring nature diaries so that I can have all the class marks added up to enable me to decide the winner or winners in time for a press release in advance of the prize-giving.  Not surprisingly I have now gone over to autumn nature diaries – much less stressful, and deadlines can afford to be extended without resultant high blood pressure.

Despite some of the teachers not making the wildlife crime project the main focus of their work programme, that can’t be a criticism levelled at the children.  Some of these 9 to 11-year-olds put in a tremendous amount of work and produce first-class nature diaries, even though it may only relate to what they see in a city.  They obviously enjoy this type of work and many complete the diary as homework.  One teacher was kind enough to write me a short note saying that the project I had set had been the only homework that one boy in her class had ever completed.  I was pleased that the kids were enjoying learning about wildlife and its regrettable but attendant crime.  I am also of the view that wildlife crime provides an invaluable link between young people and the police.  They seem to relate to crime committed against animals and birds, appreciate that the police are doing their best to combat the crime, and seem to empathise with the problems both the police and the wildlife are experiencing.  I have given talks to school pupils in the past on drugs, vandalism and ‘rules for living’.  They turn off pretty quickly as it seems that they are being blamed by the police for this catalogue of social ills rather than being asked what they can do to help, as is the case with wildlife crime.

There are many hilarious moments in the marking of the diaries.  I encourage the kids to collect items from the wild and stick them in the diary with a wee explanation of what the item is and its significance.  They are normally very good at this but there are always a few disasters, like mushrooms stuck on to a page under a piece of sellotape.  By the time the diary comes to me the mushroom is just a black sludge that has soaked the six or seven pages underneath, obliterated any writing and in any case has made the pages stick together so that I wouldn’t have been able to read the writing anyway.  Another pupil had been catching bluebottles and had stuck four into the diary under sellotape to show me the back view, front view, side elevation from the right and side elevation from the left.  I think he was a budding architect.  My favourite entry, though not at the particular time, was in a diary I was marking during my evening meal.  The diary, so that I could read it, had to be next to my plate.  It was a very good diary with lots of detail and many interesting leaves and flowers stuck in by way of illustration.  One grey, furry, oval object was stuck to the page, with the proud caption, ‘This is an owl pellet my dad and I found in a wood’.  Owl pellets are grey, furry and oval so the pupil was nearly accurate.  Nearly, but not quite.  The grey, furry oval object just inches from my plate of food was fox shit!

Another project I set one year was to be entitled, ‘A day in the life of a police wildlife crime officer’.  I was encouraging the pupils to write about doing my job for a day and to put down on paper what they thought it would be like.  They had to use their imagination to investigate a wildlife crime of their own choosing.  Most of these stories ran to about 2 pages and many were absolutely hilarious.  I marked many of them on a train journey to and from a meeting on Conservation Priorities I attended in Peterborough and received many funny looks and a few enquiries from fellow passengers as to what I was doing and why I was always bursting into fits of laughter.

Like many police officers, the pupil-officers had due consideration for sustenance and very few stories did not include a stop for a cup of tea, sometimes even specific brews: I put on a kettle for my Nambarrie cup of tea. Even after a couple of hours ‘work’ they felt the need for food: I stopped to have some stovies at the cake shop or I went to have a KFC bucket because I was so hungry.  Most folks have breakfast before they start work, even with an early start, but what about: PC Smart gets up at 2 am to get an early start at work and to have a glass of wine before his wife gets up.  I know the author of this line’s father, an eminent TV cameraman who is not called Mr Smart, (the name is changed to protect the innocent – or is he?)  In any dealings I’ve had with the father the camera has always been rock steady but I teased the life out of him over his son’s account of the early glass of wine.

Now that the budding officers had been fed, under Health and Safety requirements they needed the proper equipment for the job: Having got the call I quickly took off my pink fluffy bunny slippers and donned my wildlife crime suit. The pupil omitted to say if this allowed her to fly through the air.  The kids’ language often fascinated me.  The word ‘donned’ is just the perfect verb for this situation.    In even more colourful language another author was describing how he was gathering together all his gear for the wildlife crime job in hand. I considered him a budding professor of English language:  I need all the accoutrements perchance I stumble across a creature in dire straits.

Once they got under way, the mini-police officers had no mercy when they caught the criminal: It was Freddy Melville, my twin brother.  I arrested him and he got the jail.  Even worse: After investigating a poisoning incident I found 10 bottles of poison in my dad’s shed.  I put him in handcuffs and took him to the police station.  I said, ‘I’m sorry dad but I have to do this.’  I then went home and had my tea.  Ah well, at least he apologised to his dad for arresting him.

There were some unusual investigations.  One mini-cop was investigating the taking of eggs from a bald eagle’s nest at Arbroath cliffs.  I suppose it’s just possible a pair of bald eagles may have been blown eastwards across the Atlantic without coming to the attention of twichers!  I also learned of a new way to poach salmon: I saw him giving a worm a poisoned jab and throwing it in the river.  Another sleuth, on having a golden eagle fall from the sky at his feet arrested a group of poachers that capture rare birds and break one wing and throw them off a helicopter. It takes all kinds!

Some ventured into international wildlife crime, though they may not always have been aware of that: I got a phone call about a komodo dragon that had fallen off an 8 foot high wall and died.  The person wanted me to check that it was dead.  I went there, took one look and said ‘Yes’.  A man of few words but obviously good with a stethoscope.  Another ‘officer’ who had probably strayed slightly off his beat, wrote: Finally I found a tiger that was poisoned.  It was in the east of India.  The tiger was creamy and brown in colour and was a male.  It had nine cubs. The fact that a male tiger had cubs intrigued me.  I also wondered if the author managed back from India for his meal break.

The previous escapade demonstrates that distance was no object to an intrepid wildlife crime officer.  What about this for a day’s work:  I was at Stanley Primary School giving a talk when a received a telephone call that a man was stealing eagle’s eggs at the top of Mount Everest.  I apologised to the pupils and set off for Mount Everest.  I didn’t have that much time; I had only 4 hours to get there.  There was a traffic jam half way there so I had to go the long way round, but it’s just 10 minutes longer.  When we caught the man I said we had done a good job and should have a drink.  We had to go by Taymount Wood on the way home because a badger was caught in a snare.  We saved the badger, which was good because it had children.  Three of the children had something wrong with them and died.  The one that didn’t die was the odd one out.  Well……what can I say!

Some of the accounts given require just a wee bit of thought. We found half a cracked egg under the nest (can half an egg ever not be cracked?) or I heard something like footsteps on a tree (I gather these sound slightly different to an expert from footsteps on the ground or even footsteps on the ceiling)

Penalties for those caught were sometimes pretty severe.  A certain Mr McIntyre has to serve at least life in prison for this wildlife crime. Criminals can also be excluded from vulnerable sites by the courts: The egg thief was fined and banned from all forests, rainforests, wood and jungles.  Sounds to me a good legal definition of any place that has trees!  Occasionally justice was meted out by the wildlife victim: A man called Billy went to an eagle’s nest to steal the eggs but the eagle swept him up really high and let him go. (it gets worse…..) So he got lifted again to the eagle’s nest and sadly got eaten.

Lastly, exasperated after a lengthy investigation to catch Horace Huckleberry, the UK No 1 egg collector, the wildlife crime officer-depute corners him.  As we all know the criminal always likes to have the last word: I was knackered when I eventually got to the tree.  I saw the silhouette against the sky and shouted to the egg thief to come down.  He said, ‘No way.  Bug off, I am trying to do some business!’

See Wildlife Detective and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on  If any wildlife crime officer would like further details to develop a similar project please email me.


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A lockdown day with birds in the garden

Part of the woodland in our garden

One of the garden hedgehogs

The young starling begging for food.

Food delivered!

The robin perched near me on the bridge.

The female bullfinch below the feeder. But where is her mate?

Despite being one of the ‘shielded’ folks because of immune-suppressing medication I’ve to take and consequently not being able to leave home there never seems to be enough hours in the day.  I have an acre and a half of garden, which includes larch, ash, alder and wild cherry woodland, two burns and a large vegetable patch. It is almost a full-time job l getting the various jobs done, especially with the veg. It was such a lovely sunny day yesterday (Wednesday 20th May) that I thought I’d take a day off my gardening duties and simply observe what was happening around me.

There’s a rookery nearby and there is one especially-persistent rook that tries to sneak in regularly. I’d forgotten to take the fat ball feeders in overnight and when I appeared out just after 6.00 a.m. it was just finishing the last morsel of fat ball in one of them. Though I quite like rooks and certainly appreciate this individual rook’s tenacity they can scoff a whole fat ball or a handful of mealworms in minutes. These bird foods are simply too expensive for big birds like rooks. I now buy my fat balls from a bird seed company. The discerning birds seem to like them much better than the cheaper versions sold in supermarkets and discount stores.

I checked the trail cam and there was some hedgehog activity during the night but the camera also captured the images of two cats, a striped one which I’ve never seen during the day and a black and tan furry cat which I know stays not too far away. Cat activity here seems to escalate when there are vulnerable young birds and that annoys me intensely.

There was a semi-tame female blackbird in the garden for at least four years until last summer. The last I saw of it was chasing a magpie away from its nest in some ivy. I don’t know what its eventual fate was but it was replaced by an almost equally tame male blackbird over last winter. As well as 10 feeders with a mix of sunflower hearts, wild bird seed, peanuts and fat balls I have two safe places beside cover in the garden where I put a handful of mealworms out every morning about 8 o’clock and which are topped up frequently during nesting time, bad weather or extremely dry weather. The male blackbird is now always in position awaiting his breakfast. He is feeding two well-grown chicks with full-length tails and his mate may well be incubating a second clutch of eggs.

I let the eight black hens and 15 khaki Campbell ducks out of their respective sheds and listened to the delightful song of a whitethroat in the woodland. We get whitethroats every year but I seldom manage to see them, yet I saw and photographed whitethroats frequently last year on Dupplin Estate when I was doing the research for my book Walking with Wildlife. Woodpigeons also cooed from the tops of the larches; a lovely sound when three or four are cooing together. There have been lots of pairs wing flapping during their mating ritual this year and several gathering twigs for nesting but I don’t know of any completed nests yet. I’m thankful these lovely birds do very little damage to the vegetable garden. A wren also trilled from on top of a honeysuckle covering a pergola and a blue tit flew past me and into a nest box.

We seldom get starlings but over the past week three or four have been visiting and digging in the lawn for grubs, some of the grubs very small and some very large. Word of this grub café has clearly spread and yesterday well over 50 starlings fed on the lawn all day. Most were adult, with a sprinkling of young. I watched the young being fed, though one poor wee soul ran (starlings run, blackbirds hop) from adult to adult begging for food but failed to find a parent. The starlings remained with us all day but they must go to bed early as they were gone by 5.00 p.m. As I write this at 7.30 a.m. they haven’t appeared.

I sat outside with a cup of tea for a while and was entertained by house sparrows trying to catch flies and moths. Several of them would launch themselves off the grass and pursue one of the insects, sometimes catching it and sometimes not. They’re not as adept at this as spotted flycatchers, which usually begin and end their aerial sortie from a branch and have a much better success rate.  Unfortunately these past two years we’ve not had the company of these migrants in the garden.

I’m amazed at how the house sparrow numbers have swelled over the past four or five years. At that time chaffinches were the most common bird coming to the feeders, then greenfinches, then various tits and siskins, with sparrows well down the list. Goldfinches and tree sparrows are occasional visitors. House sparrows are now the most common, with greenfinches now very scarce. There were no greenfinches over the winter but now we have at least two pairs and I saw one feeding a fledgling the other day. A female bullfinch has also recently appeared and feeds underneath the feeders with the dunnocks. It is unusual to see a single bullfinch as they are real lovebirds and most often seen with their partner. I wonder if they may be feeding a brood of chicks and he is feeding elsewhere.

The woodpigeons were now joined by collared doves, with at least two repeating their I don’t know song from the larches. A robin from one of our two pairs sat on the bridge over one of the burns. At least one pair has been successful with a first brood, and two young robins hop about the garden, their breast feathers now beginning to turn from brown to red. They nested this year in a nest box that I nailed on to another bridge and which was sheltered by cotoneaster.

About 10 p.m., when I was putting the hens and ducks to bed a blackbird and a song thrush were singing and a very pleasant day was rounded off by a flypast of a family of oystercatchers with their distinctive peep peep, peep peep, peep peep call. I also chased the black and tan furry cat out of the garden but I knew this morning from the trail cam that it didn’t stay away long…

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The trapping of stoats

Doc200 double trap

Red squirrel in rail trap with tunnel ends unprotected.

We have moved into a different era of trapping as a result of the Agreement on International Humane Trapping (AIHT). For those who are unaware, this gives certain fur-bearing mammals slightly better protection in that, if they are trapped, they can now only be caught in traps that are approved under the most recent (2018) Spring Traps Approval Orders, or live-catch traps in accordance with conditions of a general licence. Of the fur-bearing mammals in the UK beaver, otter and pine marten are already protected. Stoats, although not protected in general terms, may now only be trapped for the conservation of wild birds or the prevention of serious damage to livestock. In England, Wales and Scotland general licences have been issued by the relevant nature conservation organisations to permit this, and they took effect on 1st April 2020.

The permitted traps for stoats are DOC150, DOC200, DOC250, Tully and the Goodnature A24 rat and stoat trap. These traps have been tested and found to be satisfactory in excluding larger non-target species and instantly killing all species that can access the trap. In general terms these traps ‘must be set in a natural or artificial tunnel which is suitable for minimising the chances of capturing, killing or injuring non-target species whilst not compromising the killing or taking of stoat’.

There are no offences under the Spring Traps Approval Orders; they simply set out conditions that must be adhered to if traps are now set for stoats. Through the Humane Trapping Standards Regulations 2019, stoats have been included in a new schedule to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, schedule 6ZA. This schedule lists badger, beaver, pine marten, otter and stoat as animals which may not be taken by trapping or snaring. To set a trap for a stoat outwith the conditions of the relevant Spring Traps Approval Order would create the offence.

The legislation contravened is under the Wildlife and Countryside Act as follows:

Section 11   

(2) Subject to the provisions of this Part, a person shall be guilty of an offence if that person—

(a)uses any trap or snare for the purpose of killing or taking or restraining any wild animal included in Schedule 6 or 6ZA;

In the context of stoats this is quite clear – setting a non-approved trap to kill or take a stoat – though may be difficult to prove if contested in court.

(b)sets in position any trap or snare of such a nature and so placed as to be—

(i)in England and Wales, calculated to cause bodily injury to any wild animal included in Schedule 6 or 6ZA;

Again, in the context of stoats an example would be setting an unapproved trap in an area where there are known to be stoats since, if caught, they would most certainly sustain bodily injury. I have concerns over the term calculated as this is likely to give rise to legal argument in denial that stoats were the intended target species. This a term that, in Scotland, we managed to get changed to ‘likely’ under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.

(ii)in Scotland, likely to cause bodily injury to any such wild animal;

Using the term likely rather than calculated, I see this as more easily proved in court.

My interpretation of the legislation is that a stoat doesn’t have to be caught in an unapproved trap, simply that an unapproved trap was set in an area where stoats are known or reasonably suspected to be. I’d suggest that this covers a huge part of the UK. Of the many hundreds of thousands of Fenn-type traps that have been set in the countryside most have been set primarily to catch stoats. They are regularly referred to by keepers as ‘stoat traps,’ On this basis if Fenn traps are still being set then their presence is worth reporting to the police for investigation.

In the recent past, red squirrels have sometimes been victims of Fenn-type traps, especially those set on log bridges over a waterway. Though a red squirrel is not included in schedule 6AZ, it is on schedule 6, so the same legislation, Section 11(2), applies. The newly approved traps could still allow access to a red squirrel and would certainly kill it if it gained access, though I’m not sure if they would be so inclined to enter these more enclosed traps. Time will tell.

Lastly, I have seen several folks espouse recently that Fenn-type traps must be checked daily. If they are set in accordance with the Spring Traps Approval Orders there is no legislation that states the period of checks. The same applies to these newer replacement traps. Professionalism dictates regular checks. Unfortunately, not every trap user has this attribute.

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Memoirs of a wildlife crime officer – wild boar pie and a drug-sniffing turkey

Gordon Nicoll and Alan Stewart at the Wildlife Crime stand at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials, Blair Atholl in 2005 and thinking of wild boar pie!

To try to cheer folks up in these worrying times here is a chapter from my book A Lone Furrow:

DESPITE the level of enforcement in which Tayside Police wildlife crime officers become involved, I am convinced that education and awareness-raising must be on an almost equal footing. It may be because of these beliefs that I was appointed Chair of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW) Scotland Training and Awareness Group in early 2009. We have gradually built up a number of public events we regularly attend, the most valuable of which is possibly the Game Conservancy Scottish Fair, but has included over the years the Bowmore International Horse Trials at Blair Atholl and the Festival of the Countryside at Glamis Castle. There is great camaraderie among stall holders at these events and our stand is always well attended. As well as meeting the colourful and interesting characters who work in occupations associated with the events, who take part in pursuits that the events represent or who simply have come along for an enjoyable day out, we answer a huge range of questions about which the inquirer wouldn’t necessarily telephone us or come in to a police station to ask. I think our very presence there gives encouragement to those who look to us for support.

We seldom get a visit from anyone we suspect to be sailing close to the wind crime-wise, though there was an exception to this in 2009. I was on the stand at the Game Fair at Perth on my own when a young chap in his early 20s came in and started to talk about hare coursing. He admitted that he was involved in coursing but thought that the way he carried it out – with only one dog – was perfectly fair. I recognised him immediately as one of the half dozen or so rogues from Greenock and Port Glasgow who have regular nocturnal and nefarious forays to the Crieff area of Tayside. I asked where he went coursing and his reply, probably to annoy me, was, ‘All over Tayside.’

When I asked where he was from he lied, ‘Fife.’ We discussed coursing for a few minutes until other visitors came on to the stand and he decided to go. As he went down the ramp from the events unit I said, ‘See you then, John.’ It took him a few more steps until he realised I had referred to him by name. When he turned round he saw me smiling at him. Bewilderment was written all over his face. He was still puzzled when I saw him turn round for a second look after another ten paces.

These events also offer a good chance to sample some of the delightful cuisine of the countryside and a stand that sells wild boar pies and game pies does a roaring trade. The pies are about nine inches in diameter and about two inches deep. The wild boar pies in particular are scrumptious, so much so that I decided at one event we should have a bit for breakfast. There were two of us on the stand, my colleague Gordon Nicoll being another retired inspector. As a quarter of a pie is enough for one sitting, I called at the busy pie stand and asked for two quarters of wild boar pie. ‘I’m sorry but we can only sell half a pie or a whole pie’ was the response. I laughed and looked for some sort of reciprocal facial reaction but the vendor maintained a blank expression. Glaikit would be the apt Scots term.

Determined to have wild boar pie for breakfast and salivation beginning to trickle down my chin at the thought of a pie between my teeth, I tried again. ‘OK could I have half a pie please?’ ‘Certainly sir,’ the serious voice answered, as he proceeded to press a gleaming knife through the centre of a lovely meat-filled brown-crusted pie. I had a flashback to zoology lessons in school and the reproductive system of the amoeba, which multiplies by binary fission; splitting itself into two, then four then eight so that the world is suddenly filled with millions of amoebae. I had a vision of the wild boar pie, at the touch of Sheffield steel, suddenly becoming lots of mini pies, quickly multiplying so that there were plenty for everyone.

Coming back to my senses I said to Professor Glaikit as he was about to hand me half a wild boar pie, ‘Would you mind cutting that in two for me please?’ ‘Certainly sir’ he said, as the moment was lost over the top of his head.

At these events we normally have some sort of quiz for young folks, with everyone who participates leaving the stand with a wee prize of some sort. At one RSPB event a man from Fife came into the stand with three boys who would be about ten or so. When they saw the prizes they were keen to try the quiz and soon got to work on a quiz each, using their advance prize, a free Tayside Police wildlife crime pen. The first question was: Name three birds you could see in your garden. I was looking over the shoulder of one of the boys and saw him writing Canary. When I gently suggested to him that might be the wrong answer and that there were no canaries in the wild in Scotland, he answered, ‘Aye there are but. My neebor keeps them in a shed in his gairden an’ they’re aye gettin’ oot’

It got worse. Another question was: Name a bird in Scotland that eats fish. Three juvenile faces were blank and were looking for inspiration at their mentor, who I learned was not a father or uncle of any of the boys but another ‘neebor’. His knowledge of wildlife appeared slim and may even have been limited to the birds and the bees. If he had been part of a team competition he would have been as good as a man short. The boys contemplated for a while then one said, ‘It’s an os, os, os something or other isn’t it?’ I whispered to him ‘osprey’ in encouragement and he started to write. He either wasn’t a great speller or had short memory retention. He wrote os then started to struggle. Doctor Mensa noticed him starting to write and tried to help with the spelling. It had suddenly clicked with him and he said, ‘Yer right so far, son, it’s os…t…r…i… c…h.’ They still all went away with a prize!

As readers of Wildlife Detective will be aware, Tayside Police also runs a schools’ wildlife crime project every year with the pupils from P5 to P7 of schools who elect to participate. This project began in 1997 with two small classes in country schools taking part, and since 2004 there has been annual involvement of somewhere between 1500 and 2000 pupils. The only downside of this increase in numbers is the time it takes me to mark their projects, especially 1500 to 2000 nature diaries meticulously kept by each enthusiastic pupil over a 5-day period. For a time I was just about visible at my desk over the pile of boxes of nature diaries stacked on the floor and somewhat resembling high-rise flats hastily built by a team of drunken builders. The upside is the clear benefit to a large number of young people in observing and appreciating their environment.

Though not at all my area of responsibility, I was often asked by the pupils about the use of horses and dogs in policing. Most were aware of the use of police horses, which have a real threatening, and consequently deterrent, effect on a hostile crowd. The use of dogs is even more widely appreciated, with a variety of breeds now being used for crowd control, tracking, detecting drugs, explosives, money and even pesticides.  But we had a less well-known animal assistant. In my drug squad days we were searching a Dundee house for drugs. The suspect was a small-time street dealer and not the brightest button in the box. We were sure he would have a few ounces of cannabis for dealing in grams or other small amounts to his friends and neighbours, though never suspected him of being a dealer who could turn over much more than that.

As we started the search it was obvious that it would take some time. The house was a midden, with dirty dishes and clothing lying everywhere, and cupboards so crammed full of junk that they should have had avalanche warnings on the doors. It was the kind of house where you would wipe your feet on the way out. The bedrooms would have done justice to a tornado strike, except that an accompanying whirlwind would have removed – or at least disturbed – most of the dust and grime that coated the floor and chairs. The only item in the house that looked new and well cared for was the huge colour TV in the corner of what could loosely be described the living room. None of us were looking forward to a rummage through any of this, and there would have been plenty of volunteers to stand with the clipboard and keep the search log.

Jim Cameron, a detective constable at the time, and in more recent times a detective superintendent before he retired, was always the comedian in the team. His skills as a joker came to the fore when he earnestly said to the dim householder, ‘Look Clint, (or whatever his name was; it has always amazed me the number of drug dealers I’ve encountered named after a butch film star or football player who would have been flavour of the month about the time of their conception or birth) I think you should just tell us where you keep your drugs. That would save us all a lot of time. If you don’t, I’m going down to the van to get the drug-sniffing turkey.’ Jim went into detail about the superb olfactory senses of this non-existent beast; how it was more efficient than any dog since its nose was much more finely tuned; how it never missed drugs, especially cannabis, no matter how well hidden. ‘The only problem with the turkey that lets it down is the mess it makes. The bugger shits everywhere. It seems to get excited and just seems to crap all the time it’s searching. We’ve tried not feeding it before we take it on a job but it makes no difference.’

Unbelievably this efficacious tale worked. I forget now where the dumbfounded and duped man said the drugs were hidden but he directed us to them. It may have been that he only gave up a smaller stash of an ounce and had more elsewhere, but on that day it was good enough for us. More importantly we hadn’t had to reveal our secret weapon. It would keep for another day.

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

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Do rooks and jackdaws really need to be controlled?

Two of several rook nests in my garden

The tree harvester and the cleared roundel that formerly held an active rookery

Dozens of nests and dead young rooks lay among the felled trees

This morning I watched rooks busily breaking off twigs from larch trees in the garden. They clearly prefer live twigs to twigs already broken and lying on the ground. They nest in a rookery about quarter of a mile away and some of the rooks were carrying off surprisingly large twigs, at least twice the length of the bird. Manoeuvring these large twigs through the treetops caused them the biggest problem but once they were airborne they seemed to be OK.

During my time with Tayside Police I dealt with several crimes where rooks were the innocent victims. I recounted the most memorable (and frustrating) investigation in a blog dated 16th July 2013, and in my book, A Lone Furrow. Briefly, on 22nd April 2008, a complete roundel of trees containing a rookery was felled during nesting time and rook nests and dead chicks lay everywhere. We arrived as the operator was felling the last tree. He and the contractor were charged and we submitted a case to the procurator fiscal but, despite there being sufficient evidence in my opinion, it was not proceeded with.

I wrote in my book and in the blog: ‘Some of the nests were still attached to the branches that had been cut off by the harvester. What really amazed me was that the nests, instead of being made of twigs and small branches as are most rooks’ nests, they were made mostly of lengths of wire. The rookery was directly opposite a rubbish dump, and the rooks had found a ready supply of rusty wire in the dump to make their nests. I’d never seen this before and thought that they would have lasted for years, giving a much longer life span than twigs that in the course of time would rot. The main risk was likely to have been during a thunder storm; I wouldn’t like to have been a rook sitting on a wire nest when the night sky was illuminated by flashes of lightening’.

Some people are still of the view that rooks are pests and can be shot or trapped at any time. I wonder if this may have influenced the decision of the procurator fiscal not to proceed with this case. Thankfully with specialist prosecutors in 2020 much more au-fait with wildlife legislation, had this been reported now I’m sure it would have proceeded to court.

Looking back to the 1960s when I was working on farms there was never a complaint about rooks. They sometimes ate grain that had been flattened by bad weather just before harvest but farmers seemed much more in tune with nature and were aware of the benefits of rooks in eating leatherjackets and other grubs that were harmful to agriculture. I question that rooks and jackdaws need to be controlled at all. I become despondent when I see large numbers of rooks and jackdaws caught in multi-catch cage traps in June and July once the young are fledged and fending for themselves. I regret not taking stronger action against this when I was working; much of this slaughter was – and remains – outwith the conditions of general licences.

Under the revised general licences that took effect from 1st April 2020 Licence 1 allows the killing or taking of certain birds for the purpose of the conservation of wild birds. This list includes jackdaws but does not include rooks. Simplified, rooks cannot be killed or taken for the purpose of the conservation of wild birds.  Strangely, while I’ve no doubt that jackdaws take some eggs of other birds, I’ve never seen this but regularly have rooks in my garden taking eggs my ducks have laid outside.

Licence 2 allows the killing or taking of certain birds for the purpose of the prevention of serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables and fruit. Rooks and jackdaws are included in this list and both can be used as decoy birds in a multi-catch cage. A condition of use of both licences is that: ‘Trap operators must immediately release any unharmed bird found in any trap which is not a species covered by this General Licence’.

So a gamekeeper using a multi-catch cage trap to trap ‘pest’ species in order to conserve wild birds and using jackdaws as decoy birds is as likely to catch rooks as jackdaws. The question is, will the rooks be released? A farmer using a multi-catch cage trap to protect crops may use either rooks, jackdaws or both as decoy birds, however the damage must be serious and all other methods to protect the crops must have been tried and have been found to be ineffective. Though I’ve no doubt that some farmers do trap rooks and jackdaws, in my experience this is a practice invariably carried out by gamekeepers. If they are approached by the police can they answer the questions that would justify their use of the trap?

Interesting times ahead.

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Book review – Untangling the Knot, Belugas and Bears by Mike Potts

What a fantastic book! The first third of the book takes the reader to Alaska, the Bering Sea and Svalbard, places I would love to visit but unfortunately never will. The author writes of filming a caribou migration to the calving grounds. He moves on to the Yukon Delta with its incredible numbers of nesting waterfowl, including rarities such as the spectacled eider and the emperor goose.

On a tiny island in the Bering Sea we are treated to accounts and photos of 2,000 walrus, the males weighing up to one and a half tons, packed onto a beach. There are also encounters with pods of orcas and sea otters.

The story then moves to the southern coastal regions of Alaska, where the author is filming brown bears, often at a distance of only a few metres, as they feast on salmon running up the Mikfik River. He has a close encounter with a charging brown bear which almost tramples him, though it is simply trying to escape from another bear which is chasing it.

On Ellesmere Island the author is filming nesting red knot, and is amazed at the variety of other nesting waders. He also films beluga whales, which have an annual pilgrimage to a particular shallow inlet to scrape their skins on the bottom during a moult. Moving to Svalbard, Mike Potts films young guillemots and auks making their maiden flight down to the sea. Most make it safely but some fall short and become food for Arctic foxes or glaucous gulls. As Svalbard has a dense population of polar bears it is inevitable that the author has a few close shaves.

The reader is then taken to New Guinea, where the author is filming birds of paradise and for part of the time accompanies Sir David Attenborough. Both use an ingenious pulley system to allow them to reach the top of trees where the birds display. Rewards, as well as a variety of birds of paradise, include parrots, cockatoos, mynah birds and bower birds.

We’re off now to Africa, where the author is filming in Mali, one of the poorest countries, for a BBC Natural World programme Beyond Timbuktu. In contrast to the poor living conditions and the state of sanitation, the bird life is first class, especially the nesting water birds. The author has a filming first, managing to capture an African fish eagle catching a fish. This part continues with fascinating encounters with plagues of locusts in Central Mauritania and concludes with the filming of forest elephants, parrots, hippos and kingfishers in the Central African Republic.

On the Cape York Peninsula in the north of Australia the author goes in search of the beautiful eclectus parrot and the palm cockatoo. He also checks out a yellow-billed kingfisher, which nests in a termite mound, using the heat of the termite mound to incubate the clutch of eggs. He finishes his filming with bower birds, as part of the wildlife documentary The Art of Seduction, again meeting up with Sir David Attenborough, who presented the programme.

Cuba is the destination of the next assignment, where the author films spawning land crabs, humming birds, breeding flamingos, Cuban parrots and bats in hot, smelly caves. His endurance is tested by hordes of mosquitoes, endless bureaucracy and exorbitant fees.

Four shorter chapters at the end of the book deal with filming Komodo dragons, filming a variety of wildlife, including blue ducks, dalmatian pelicans and bald eagles in New Zealand, and many different humming birds in South America.  The author finishes with a trip to Antarctica, where he visits cabins used by explorers Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton.

The book is a virtual world tour with fascinating tales and photographs of some of the planet’s rarest or most interesting wildlife. It will give great encouragement to many budding wildlife film makers, though the author sets out many of the hardships and risks that are encountered: mosquitoes, endless bureaucracy, barely eatable food in some third-rate accommodation, and of course the ever-present danger from being in close proximity to some of the larger animals.

Untangling the Knot, Belugas & Bears. My natural world on film by Mike Potts.        Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG    £20.95

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The new general licences in Scotland – more thoughts

Letterbox trap on moorland with decent shelter, but on the ground.

Funnel trap with small shelter, but also on the ground.

I’ve been having a second read of the new general licences 1 and 2 that are to be implemented in Scotland from 1st April this year. I’m not against the use of general licence to control some birds that may at times be pests to some (apart from the continued inclusion of the jay) but this time, considering the changes are intended to make a police investigation, where necessary, a little more promising, I read them from the point of view of trying to secure a successful prosecution.

Those taking advantage of a general licence to allow them to kill protected birds (and bear in mind that all birds are protected, the general licence allowing a derogation from the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) should be absolutely clear of the conditions of the general licence. If a person is charged and goes to court the court should have absolutely no doubt that the licence makes clear the responsibilities of that person. I find it strange that, in the April 2020 licence, the following wording has been left out of introduction right at the start of the licence:

However, they (the general licences) should only be used as a last resort. Operators must be able to explain what other alternatives they have tried if challenged.

I think this is an absolutely essential sentence defining at the outset that the licence is a right to deviate from the law and the person must think about why he or she needs to do so and be able to justify the use of the licence to an investigating police officer and possibly a court.

On the issue of welfare requirements there is a new inclusion which states:

Shelter should be provided off the ground as birds are more likely to make use of it.

This is absolutely the case as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a corvid sheltering in a shelter on the ground. I also looked through my photos and none of the multi-cage traps has a shelter off the ground. So if a complaint is made to the police, as undoubtedly will be the case, that there is only a small box on the ground in a multi-catch cage the line about shelter off the ground is meaningless. The way it is written is simply a recommendation. Why not state that shelter must be provided off the ground.

Failing to provide shelter off the ground is not a situation that could ever lead to a prosecution but what will Scottish Natural Heritage do about it? In the part What restrictions apply to the use of this general licence it states that NatureScot reserves the right to exclude the use of a general licence where it is being otherwise misused. Will this lead to a licence being suspended?

A similar situation arises in the General Notes where at point 4 it states:

Authorised persons should not use the general licence within 500m of a designated site.

Hypothetically, a trap is subsequently reported to the police as it is only 100m from one of the designated sites. There is no offence as this is only written as a recommendation, with no use of the term ‘must’.

Further on in that section, at points 6 and 7, a person using meat-based baits in a Larsen mate or Larsen pod ‘will be asked to provide an annual return relating to the traps used and their location. The person will also ‘be asked for details of the type and number of non-target species caught and subsequently released.’ He or she might tell SNH to get lost. Why is this so woolly and what will happen if a person refuses to give such details?

I have real concerns about point 3 under What other trapping conditions are there? If a trap operator elects for whatever reason to use a ‘buddy system’, delegating the checking of the trap to someone else, SNH suggest the estate or farm are strongly advised to keep records of this in operation (whatever that means). Let’s say they don’t keep records and an offence in relation to the registered operator’s trap is reported to the police. The police interview the registered operator and he replies that someone else is operating the trap under the ‘buddy system.’ The police ask who this ‘buddy’ is and the registered operator makes a ‘no comment’ response. Bear in mind that if he is a suspect, as he may well be, he must be cautioned by the police that he need not make any reply to questions put to him. Possibly the end of the road for the investigation.

Let’s assume that records have been kept in relation to this ‘buddy system’ but the farm or estate decline to show them to the police. There is no power without warrant to obtain these records. Compare this to the Section 11E(4)(a) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in relation to the keeping of records of snares set, which states:

Any person who—

(a) is requested to produce the record kept under subsection (1) to a

constable; and

(b) fails to do so within 21 days of being so requested,

is guilty of an offence.

In a similar vein point 3 states:

The trap registration number which appears on the trap will be presumed to relate to the operator of the trap.

I’m not sure that this will have legal standing. Compare section 11D of the WCA, again in relation to snaring, provides that: The identification number which appears on a tag fitted on a snare is presumed in any proceedings to be the identification number of the person who set the snare in position.

This wording is considerably stronger than that on the general licence.

I accept that a general licence is not legislation but unfortunately this part of the licence, at least, doesn’t go much further forward in the identification of a person committing an offence in relation to the trapping of birds.

In relation to the humane killing of birds caught in multi-cage traps, if 30 or 40 rooks and jackdaws are caught in the one trap, as I have often seen, I have some doubts that each bird will be caught individually and ‘killed with a single swift action.’ I also suspect that if rooks are caught along with jackdaws, some rooks will be left in the cage as decoy birds, despite rooks not being included as a decoy bird in either a multi cage trap or a Larsen trap.

Scottish Natural Heritage staff have done well to make the changes now shown in the new licences and I accept that some drawbacks are not easy to identify during the planning and consultation stages, indeed I submitted a consultation response and only now see these weaker links in the wording that may stymie a prosecution. If SNH staff agree with me they may yet be able to close any loopholes.

I think it would be beneficial both for trap operators and for police relations with them if, in the first few months of the use of the new licence, police wildlife crime officers visit active traps along with the operator and confirm that the traps are being used within the terms of the general licence or licences, giving advice where necessary. I think this would be especially worthwhile when the operator is trapping jackdaws.

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