A tale of two peregrines

(An except from my book A Lone Furrow)

Remaining on the theme of falconers’ birds, there was an unusual situation one day in north Perthshire when a gamekeeper saw a peregrine sitting on a grassy mound amongst the heather on the hill. He wondered why it didn’t fly off and as he approached he saw that it had jesses attached to its legs. Realising it was a falconer’s bird that had failed to return to its handler he crept quietly closer and managed to catch it. He then put it in a run, which earlier in the season had been used to house partridges and had been left on the hill. His next move was to phone me to report that he had the bird in case its owner contacted the police.

Peregrine on Kinnoull Hill, Perth. (Photo courtesy of Neil Macdonald)

There had been no report of a missing peregrine but in any case I let Constable Graham Jack, as the divisional wildlife crime officer for the area, know about the bird and he set off to collect it to take it to a local falconer to be looked after until it could be re-united with its owner.

I’d love to have seen the next stage of this moorland drama. Graham met the gamekeeper and the two set off to the run that was a temporary home to the bird. But the run was empty. They checked round the run-in case there had been a hole through which the bird had escaped but the run was intact. No escape route and not a trace of the peregrine that he had put there not an hour before. It was a complete mystery and had the two scratching their heads in disbelief. It was not until later that all was revealed.

The peregrine had a radio transmitter fitted on its tail that had gone unnoticed by the keeper. The falconer, unaware of what was happening a few miles away over the hill, was tracking his peregrine; tracking which ultimately led to the partridge run and the recovery of the bird. Initially the falconer was as puzzled at his peregrine being inside a partridge run as the keeper and Graham were at its failure to be there. He soon realised that his bird had been caught and rescued and in due course made contact with the police. It was a comedy with a happy ending.

Later the same year a wild peregrine was not so lucky on another Perthshire estate. It was found on the ground by a walker, who quickly realised, since the bird was flapping along the ground to get away from him, that it was unable to fly. It’s amazing how many kind souls there are who would never leave an injured bird or animal, and take the trouble to catch it and bring it either to the police or an animal rescue organisation. In this case the walker was aware of a man who kept birds of prey and took it to him to see if the bird could be saved.

Since peregrines must be registered if kept in captivity, the falconer let me know that he had it, reporting it as an injured wild bird that he would take to a vet with a view to eventually rehabilitating it to the wild, and which he would also register with Animal Health at Defra. The falconer explained that it was an immature bird, an easy identification since adults are predominantly blue and immature birds are predominantly brown. One wing was damaged at the tip.

The peregrine was examined by Alistair Lawrie, the specialist bird of prey vet at Falkirk. Alistair x-rayed the bird and was able to say that it had been shot. Its wing was injured in two places, at the elbow and at the wrist, and at both places traces of lead were evident in the x-ray. The prognosis for the bird was poor. Though it would have no problem in surviving, it would never be able to fly again. A peregrine is master of the air and probably our fastest bird, being able to reach speeds well in excess of 100 miles an hour in a stoop from high above a prey species such as a pigeon or grouse. This predator at the top of a food chain had caught its last wood pigeon and was now destined to a life in an aviary.

The vet’s opinion was that when shot, this injury would make the bird lose height quite quickly so it was likely that it had been shot not too far from where it had been picked up. It was in good condition so had not been shot too long before it was found, otherwise through lack of food it would have deteriorated in condition rapidly. It could walk, but is unlikely to have walked very far as it was in woodland. Even in the open, birds of prey, unlike game birds, are not inclined to walk since they rely on flight. A river bounded one part of the woodland, which would restrict it even further.

An investigation was carried out by Graham Jack and several people interviewed. Its proximity to the river, the boundary between two different estates, complicated the issue as it could possibly have been shot on one side and landed on the other. There had been some visiting goose shooters on one side of the river, and there were gamekeepers on the estates on each side. There was no evidence to point to one person more than another (there may even have been others we could have been considering but were unaware of) and the case was never solved.

It was revealing that one of the keepers when interviewed told Graham that he couldn’t stand birds of prey that were scavengers. ‘But peregrines, they kill in the air. I would never shoot them.’ Could this be interpreted that he would shoot buzzards?

And would he have considered as a scavenger the buzzard I saw chasing a woodpigeon for two miles before catching it?

A Lone Furrow. Tales from when I was a wildlife crime officer. (£10) For a signed copy. contact me at wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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Fox killed in hunting incident, Port Glasgow – comment.

The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 is a shambles. It was a hurriedly cobbled-together private members bill with so many complex exceptions that it is almost unworkable.

Red fox, photo courtesy of Bill McIntosh
Red fox. Photo courtesy of Bill McIntosh

I’ve summarised a report that was in the Greenock Telegraph on 31st December:

Police are probing reports of an illegal fox hunt in Port Glasgow after a member of the public reported seeing a dog killing one of the animals.

Residents in the Alderbrae Road area of the town complained to police after fox hunters were seen on quad bikes and Land Rovers near to a public cycle track.

One man said he saw a fox being killed by a dog.

The land is owned by Ardgowan Estates, who say they did not give approval for a hunt.

Sir Ludovic Shaw-Stewart said: “The land belongs to Ardgowan Estate and although permission was not granted to hunt on estate land it is apparent from discussions with the hunt and police that the hounds strayed onto the land mistakenly.

“Having discussed the situation with the police we don’t believe there has been any criminality.”

But police have confirmed they are investigating the incident.

It is seldom possible to judge exactly what has happened from a news report but the following seem to be facts:

People were hunting foxes

They were using quad bikes and Land Rovers

They were using hounds

A fox was seen being killed by a dog

At some point they were hunting on land where they had no permission

The difficulty for the police is always in determining whether or not there has been an offence committed under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002.

The relevant offences are:

Section 1(1) A person who deliberately hunts a wild mammal with a dog commits an offence.
Section 1(2) It is an offence for an owner or occupier of land knowingly to permit another person to enter or use it to commit an offence under subsection (1).

The news report appears to show an offence has been committed under subsection (1). If there is an offence under subsection (1) the landowner of Ardgowan would have committed an offence if he had given permission.

Section 2(1) of the Act relates to hunting with permission: A person who is, or who has the permission of, the owner or lawful occupier of the land on which the stalking, searching or flushing referred to in this subsection takes place does not commit an offence under section 1(1) by using a dog under control to stalk a wild mammal, or flush it from cover (including an enclosed space within rocks, or other secure cover) above ground for the purpose of-  

(a) protecting livestock, ground-nesting birds, timber, fowl (including wild fowl), game birds or crops from attack by wild mammals;
(b) providing food for consumption by a living creature, including a person;
(c) protecting human health;
(d) preventing the spread of disease;
(e) controlling the number of a pest species; or
(f) controlling the number of a particular species to safeguard the welfare of that species,
 

But these folks were hunting without permission so it seems they may have been committing an offence under Section 1(1). Or were they, because that subsection states that the offence is to deliberately hunt a wild mammal with a dog. Does it make a difference if they had strayed unintentionally on to land where they had no permission to be?

The other interesting phrase is that the dog (which includes multiple dogs) being used should be under control.

Section 10 defines control

10. (4) For the purposes of this Act, a dog is “under control” if-

(a) the person responsible for the dog is able to direct the dog’s activity by physical contact or verbal or audible command; or
(b) the dog is carrying out a series of actions appropriate to the activity undertaken, having been trained to do so.

From the news report it seems that the hounds strayed onto the land mistakenly. If that is the case why were they not called back in accordance with the term under control? The answer to that is most likely that they couldn’t be so weren’t under control.

But of course S.2(1) above relates to hunting with permission, and these folks had no permission to be there.

The news article states no shots were heard being fired, which of course doesn’t mean that no-one was carrying a gun.

S.2(2) makes an exception if a fox is killed accidentally:  Where a person is using a dog in connection with the despatch of a wild mammal, being of a pest species, with the intention of flushing the wild mammal from cover or from below ground in order that it may be shot or killed by lawful means, that person does not commit an offence under section 1(1) by virtue of the dog killing that wild mammal in the course of that activity.

This is a frequently-used ‘get out of jail free’ card and may have been the case here, where the hounds took off after a fox on to land where they shouldn’t have been. But of course we come back to the under control requirement.

Even if the police think there is sufficient evidence to charge someone in connection with this incident the legislation allows plenty of escape routes for even a half-decent solicitor.

The legislation is a bloody shambles and the quicker it is brought up to date with the recommendations in the review by Lord Bonomy the better. The recommendations will not prevent the work of genuine foot packs of hounds working as ‘pest’ control but should make convictions much easier against mounted hunts that use the various exceptions to their advantage.

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Timeline of wildlife legislation in Scotland

I recently listened to an interview on Planet Pod entitled Wildlife Crime – Failed by the Law. One of those being interviewed was Dr Ruth Tingay of Raptor Persecution UK. Ruth spoke at length of some of the failings which often prevent a suspect for a wildlife crime being taken to court. With her expertise in raptors she majored on the failings that prevented many (even most) raptor killers being convicted, charged or even identified. Failings in legislation or those who investigate, prosecute and sentence wildlife-related crimes have for years limited appropriate convictions, and of course continue to do so.

Snares can no longer be set where the victim is likely to be fully or partially suspended or drowned.
Snares must no longer be set where the victim is likely to be fully or partially suspended

Though many of the failings described related to England and Wales the podcast got me thinking about improvements in wildlife legislation in Scotland. There are major advantages here in having our own government and making most of our own laws. When creating or changing legislation the Scottish Government is very inclusive of folks that are affected by the proposed new law, including those who have to administer it. When I was working I was on several groups under both a labour and SNP government and the various Ministers for the Environment in each government were all very supportive of improvement.

I thought back to 1995 when general licences were very lax, with some being issued by the then Scottish Executive and some by the then agriculture department. There was an immediate shake up after we had an investigation in Tayside where the general licence covering crow traps issued by the agriculture department differed from that issued by Scottish Executive. That meant the end of our case as the suspect would obviously claim he was acting under the more loosely-worded licence.  I phoned Scottish Executive staff and the agriculture licence was immediately withdrawn.

Rooks now can’t be trapped to protect wild birds, though they can be trapped to prevent serious damage to crops.

In 1998 freshwater pearl mussels received much better protection, and it became an offence even to disturb them. Legislation covering wild bluebells was also improved, with it being made an offence to sell them.

As police officers we had to work, when dealing with hare coursers, under ancient poaching legislation that had paltry fines and didn’t even have a power of arrest. The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 was really created (poorly, and in a rush as a private member’s bill) to deal with mounted fox hunting, but it was perfect for dealing with hare coursing and many more convictions resulted.  As it turned out we in Tayside had the first conviction for fox hunting under the new legislation in 2003 when we caught a man trying to hunt foxes with two dogs, a spotlamp and two squeakers on Broughty Ferry beach near Dundee.

It was frustrating when dealing with most wildlife crime suspects that there was no power of arrest under the main pieces of legislation. This came in 2003 under the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act. In the same year ancient legislation dealing with the poaching of fish was consolidated into one Act: The Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act.

2004 saw the first major change in wildlife legislation with the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act. I had been part of the group assisting Scottish Government to prepare this legislation and my most satisfying moment came when I and another wildlife crime officer on the group persuaded the legislators (with great difficulty) to change this:

If a constable suspects with reasonable cause that any person is committing (or has) committed an offence under this Part (of the WCA), the constable may without warrant search or examine any thing which that person may then be using or have in his possession.

to this:

search for, search or examine any thing which that person may then be using or may have used or may have or have had in his possession.

In addition to dramatically improving the power of search for the police, this new Act put the responsibility on to the police to enforce legislation regarding protected sites, tightened up offences committed against wild birds and mammals, augmented the term ‘intentionally,’ which is often impossible to prove, with ‘or recklessly,’ and changed the term covering the method of killing or injuring some birds and mammals from ‘calculated’ to ‘likely.’ Many loopholes relating to the use of snares were also removed, particularly the need for regular checking and removing any mammal caught, whether live or dead, at each inspection, and it became an offence to possess certain pesticides that were regularly used to kill wildlife.  White-tailed eagles were given protection from disturbance or anyone damaging their nest under the new schedules 1A and A1 (more species were later added.) Lastly the time bar for taking prosecutions under the Wildlife and Countryside Act was increased from 2 years to 3 years.

2010 saw the completely useless Conservation of Seals Act 1970 repealed and replaced by the Marine (Scotland) Act. The repealed Act had no conservation value and was virtually a licence allowing grey and harbour seals to be shot.

The same year the Snares (Scotland) Order brought in the use of stops on snares, banning drags on snares or the setting or snares where the animal caught is likely to be fully or partially suspended or drowned. These offences would later be incorporated into the WCA.

The next major series of changes came in 2011 under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act. This Act banished for good the centuries-old poaching legislation and incorporated it all under the WCA, with vastly increased powers and penalties. ‘Game birds’ simply became wild birds under the WCA though they still were permitted to be shot outwith the close seasons. Even the lowly rabbit had protection, though not yet the fox. Close seasons were created for brown hares and mountain hares and single witness evidence for some offences was taken from the old poaching legislation and continues for these offences under the WCA. This single witness evidence includes for hare coursing but, probably through a legislative error, corroboration is still required for an attempt at hare coursing.

Training courses were required for snaring and all snares were required to have a tag with a number issued by the police. Records of where snares had been set were required to be kept and produced to a constable if requested. Much-needed changes were also made to legislation covering non-native invasive species, with a ban on moving mammals without licence to parts of the country where they were not already present. The 2011 Act also brought in vicarious liability (which has since been expanded to cover more offences.) There were also improvements to the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 and the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.

Around 2010/2011 there were various meetings of stakeholders in relation to changes in general licences, a couple of which I attended in my wildlife crime officer capacity. A couple of years after those meetings the general licences were changed to facilitate them being withdrawn on the basis of reasonable suspicion, on the balance of probability, that a person or a farm/estate was involved in certain wildlife crimes. This sanction could not be used retrospectively and it is disappointing that it has not been used more often.

2018 saw the enactment of the Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Act, giving powers to the police or certain authorised inspectors to enforce the new offence of using a wild animal in a travelling circus or causing or permitting it to be used.

In 2019 the beaver was added to Schedule 2 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations 1994, giving it (almost) complete protection. While it is right in my view to remove beavers which are causing a particular problem to farming interests a high number have now been shot under licence to accommodate farmers. Some have also been trapped and relocated outwith Scotland. Hopefully the public outcry resulting from both methods of resolving farmers’ issues may result in less being shot and more being relocated within Scotland.

Despite the deluge of extra work for the Scottish Government caused by Covid 19, 2020 saw the enactment of the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act. This valuable piece of legislation saw vastly increased penalties for wildlife crime and animal welfare, in more serious cases up to 5 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine. Importantly the level of fine now brings certain offences into the category of serious crime, meaning that the police can apply under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 for authority to carry out surveillance on ‘private’ land. This lack of this facility in recent years has meant that several wildlife crimes committed against birds of prey have not been able to be prosecuted. In addition, under the 2020 Act, the difficult issue of re-homing seized dogs at an early stage in proceedings has been resolved.

Lastly, at a last-minute intervention, mountain hares were granted protection. In November 2020 Scottish Government decreed that as from 1st March 2021 mountain hares would be added to Schedule 5 of the WCA, could only be killed under licence and that the reasons for licences to be granted would be limited. During the same announcement by Scottish Government they will start work immediately on consultation to licence driven grouse moors. We’ll have to wait and see how effective a licensing situation will be.

So we have done not too badly in improving legislation to deal with wildlife crime in Scotland. We also have 5 procurators fiscal dedicated to a Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit (WECU). I’d also like to see the Scottish Government granting extra funding to Police Scotland to create a cohesive wildlife crime unit that can work across Scotland rather than the current piecemeal situation where not all areas have a full-time police officer dedicated to wildlife crime investigation.

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Licensing of Grouse Moors – some thoughts

I watched with interest on Thursday afternoon as Marie Gougeon MSP, Minister for Rural Affairs and Natural Environment, gave a long-awaited update on the Werritty report. I have seen more crime committed against our wildlife on driven grouse moors than most and wasn’t in the least surprised that Ms Gougeon announced that the Scottish Government are to license driven grouse moors forthwith. The Werritty report had made a tentative suggestion that this be deferred for five years to see if the persecution of our raptors ceased. There is ample evidence that the killing continues despite calls (but little effective action) by many gamekeepers and landowners for it to stop. Birds of prey are still being found shot or trapped, (though in fairness less now being found to have been poisoned). Signals from satellite-tagged golden eagles and hen harriers are still suddenly disappearing over or near driven grouse interests, with the finger of suspicion pointing squarely at game management. The criminal activity has now tarnished the reputation of game managers almost beyond repair and I, for one, am glad that this part of the shooting industry will now be licensed.

In addition to licensing driven grouse moors, muirburn is to be licensed, as is the culling of mountain hares. The use of medicated grit is now to be governed by guidance on best practice. Recent legislation banned the use of some traps on moorland where stoats are likely to be present, though new traps have been approved. There is little control over the use of these traps and some other traps and the Scottish Government propose to ‘amend the legislation to strengthen the use and monitoring of traps.’

There has been a show of anger from shooting interests, with claims that it will make their business unprofitable, that it would be ‘a seriously damaging blow to fragile rural communities.’  I’m maybe missing something but I can’t see how either of these two claims would follow from any of these sanctions. Neither has any evidence been put forward to substantiate them. I would have thought that licensing in particular would tighten up illegal practices because of the risk of having a licence withdrawn. That would go a long way in helping the rock-bottom reputation of game management and should be a relief to those that are law-abiding. I know that some keepers quietly welcome licensing as a means of curbing the folks in their midst who think that the law does not apply to them.  

Alex Hogg of the SGA is quoted as stating, ‘I am angry beyond expression at the way a community of working people is being treated today in this country and the strain they and their families are constantly having to face as they cope with never-ending scrutiny and inquiry driven by elite charities with big influence over politicians and axes to grind against a people who produce so much for Scotland yet ask little back.’

He is stating he is angry at folk who want the law to be obeyed and protected wildlife to be left alone. Would it not have been much more appropriate to be angry at the folk who have caused this inevitable situation: the rogue gamekeepers who carry out the illegal killing and the rogue landowners or sporting agents who allow or encourage this to happen. Bear in mind that I worked for 18 years as a wildlife crime officer and a further three years as intelligence officer with NWCU. I know exactly what was happening on driven grouse moors in Scotland and the north of England. Is it not these criminals who are the enemy of decent landowners and keepers, not ngos, charities and conservationists?

I’ll finish with three paragraphs I wrote for my book Killing by Proxy (Thirsty Books, 2017) when I was considering the possibilities for licensing:

Most other countries have an individual hunting licence system. We have tried that already in the UK in the form of a game licence, and it was scrapped some years ago. In any case hopefully the Scottish Government should be considering the loss of the right to shoot on a particular piece of land as well as the loss of the right of an individual to shoot.

So what we need from this game shooting licensing review is a sanction that will stop landowners and sporting agents in their tracks from directing, encouraging or turning a blind eye to raptor-related crime. The landowners, whether they be addressed as Lord, Lady, Sir or just plain Mr or Ms are the key to this problem of killing birds of prey. If they really want it stopped in case they risk going to jail or the suspension of the right for shooting to take place on their land then they will most certainly devise a means to ensure their employees comply with their instructions.

The European Commission has called for ‘well-regulated hunting’ with, amongst other conditions, full compliance with the law. They correctly state that ‘management aimed at raising artificially high yields of one species can be detrimental, particularly if it is linked to illegal persecution of birds of prey’.  Most other countries have encouraged their hunters to be, in addition, conservationists. Phrases are used in other countries such as ‘long-term balance to be achieved between man and the environment’If game management plans were to be adopted here, as they are in some other countries, they could specify measures for the improvement of habitats as agreed possibly between SNH and landowners; that they must not merely focus only on game species but must produce a balanced plan that will also benefit a large number of protected species.

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A Vulture Landscape, twelve months in Extremadura by Ian Parsons

When I was asked to review A Vulture Landscape, twelve months in Extremadura, I was initially hesitant. I know very little about vultures apart from the fact that the numbers of some species have crashed dramatically, principally because of the chemical diclofenac, though this is mainly in Africa and Asia. I’ve never been to Extremadura but when I ran Operation Easter from the former Tayside Police and more recently from the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit, monitoring wild bird egg thieves across the UK, I was very much aware that this was one of the hotspots our egg-thieving criminals targeted. The chance to read Ian Parson’s book therefore became very appealing.

A Vulture Landscape by Ian Parsons

Ian paints a fascinating picture of the landscape in Extremadura and the huge variety of birds that can be seen. Reading the book I felt I was alongside him when he sat and patiently watched what was going on around him. The smaller birds, as interesting as the author made them, were just the supporting cast; vultures were the stars.

Extremadura is home to griffon vultures, Egyptian vultures and black vultures, but other huge birds such as the Bonelli’s eagle and booted eagle are sometimes seen along with the star cast. The book relates how the vultures, after roosting overnight on cliffs and quarries, await the day heating up, producing thermals, before the vultures begin their day’s business of seeking out carcasses. Once aloft on thermals they can sail for hours with barely a wingbeat, spreading out across vast areas of Spain. They are the complete masters of flight.

The author explains the amazing system that vultures use that enables a large number to home in on a carcass. Each bird monitors the nearest vulture or even black kite for a change in its flight pattern that might indicate it is making towards a food source. By closely scrutinising neighbouring flight patterns dozens of vultures from miles around can react and benefit in a share of dead stock.

The book covers a year in the life of these amazing birds, month by month. Any reader who starts off from a view that vultures are horrible repulsive birds will begin to see them in a completely new light. They are shown to be magnificent birds which carry out a free service in cleaning up carcasses, in so doing reducing the risk of disease which could cause a threat to human life.

A Vulture Landscape is well illustrated with very clear colour plates. It is written by an author who is an expert in his subject and is a delight to read. I’d have no hesitation in recommending the book to anyone who has even a flicker of an interest in birds; it would not disappoint.

A Vulture Landscape, twelve months in Extremadura, by Ian Parsons. Published by Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG.  £17.99

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The tale of three wee hedgehogs

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

An adult hedgehog feeding in the garden

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

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

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

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

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

The first tiny hedgehog weighed in at 300g

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

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

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

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The scandal of stag hunting – some thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c)the animal is a protected animal, and

(d)the suffering is unnecessary.

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

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

Research and observation

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

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

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

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

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

   (a)which belongs to the hunter, or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody Hell!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fact as fiction – ‘Snared’, by Bob Berzins

Snared, by Bob Berzins.

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

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

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

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

Snared can be bought through Bob’s website at www.bob-berzins.co.uk

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