One of the early chapters from my novel Calls from the Wild to give a flavour of the content. PC Bob McKay, wildlife crime liaison officer for the Tayside Division of Police Scotland, visits a gamekeeper who is keen to report the activities of the new estate owner of Loch Garr Estate and his head gamekeeper, who are causing serious problems for his brother, a gamekeeper on that estate.
It was a lovely sunny morning when Bob headed up the A9 to Highland Perthshire to visit Mike Curtis on Inversnood Estate. He loved this landscape, the forested and craggy slopes as he passed Dunkeld. It was here at Inver that one of Scotland’s greatest fiddlers and composers, Niel Gow was born two-hundred years previously. Bob started to whistle the mournful tune Niel Gow’s Lament on the Death of his Second Wife but after a few bars his thoughts turned to Dougie MacLean who lives in the village of Butterstone just east of Dunkeld. He was now tunefully whistling Dougie’s well-known tune Caledonia, which he felt really should be Scotland’s national anthem.
The forests opened up to hills dotted with birch trees as Bob approached Pitlochry. He was fascinated by trees and would love to have seen Scotland a few hundred years ago before human intervention ‘improved’ the landscape by removing vast areas of Scots pine and other native trees. The trees had yet to come into leaf, which would further alter the panorama as springtime made its welcome entrance. A buzzard was soaring lazily in the blue sky off to his left; before long it would be ospreys that could be seen by observant drivers and their passengers.
Bob drove into the track leading to the gamekeeper’s cottage. Mike was hosing out his dog kennels and a mix of three black Labradors, two liver and white spaniels and a Jack Russell terrier barked at Bob’s arrival but stopped immediately at a command from Mike.
Bob considered Mike to be an excellent keeper. Not only did he play by the rules, he also had a great knowledge of all aspects of nature, including being able to name most small birds that many people would simply refer to as ‘wee brown birds.’ He was furious at the extent of persecution of protected species by some of his colleagues and the fact that their illegal activities negatively affected everyone involved in shooting.
‘Good morning Bob.’ Mike greeted him with a wave and a smile. ‘I thought you might like a tour of the hill and I could check some of my traps at the same time. But what about a cup of tea first?’
‘That’s perfect, thanks,’ Bob replied. ‘It’s a lovely day to be out and about and I’ve no urgent jobs on this morning.’
They went into the kitchen, where Mike’s wife, Margaret, had the kettle on the boil and some thin strips of venison ready to go into a frying pan.
‘Would you like a roll with venison Bob?’ Margaret asked. ‘It’s the best of roe deer venison.’
‘That would be lovely, thanks. I’ve not had venison for ages. The last time I had anything from a roe deer it was fried liver and it was delicious.’
They ate with obvious appreciation of the flavour of meat, a second breakfast for all three of them. As Bob wiped crumbs from his chin Mike got up from the table and put on his deerstalker. ‘Ready for the off then Bob?’
As the Land Rover bumped up the hill track Mike said, ‘I wanted to tell you about my brother Albert’s dilemma. He’s an underkeeper on Loch Garr estate near to Amulree. He’s been there for years and loves the area and the work on the estate. It’s about 5,000 acres and for most of that time there was only him and the headkeeper, Jock Scott. Shooting on the estate was walked-up grouse and deer stalking. Half of the estate is farmed in-hand and the other half is tenanted, with the tenant running about 800 blackfaced ewes.’ Mike slowed the Land Rover and bumped through a hill burn that crossed the track.
‘The estate owner has been quite happy with that but he’s getting on in years and got a good offer for the estate from Nigel Roberts who wanted a grouse moor of his own and has given up his land agent role.
‘Roberts took over the estate some months ago and wants big changes. Jock Scott has already left and been replaced by a new head keeper, Cyril Masterfield, from the north of England who’s not much older than a school laddie. They’ve also brought in a young under keeper, Charles Brock, from another estate where Roberts formerly gave management advice and they’re renovating one of the estate houses for him. They’ve also given Masterfield and Brock brand new Land Rovers and I’m damned sure they’re getting a bigger wage than Albert.’
‘Thankfully, I’ve only met Roberts once,’ said Bob. ‘He has the reputation of being able to produce big bags of grouse. I’ve heard one or two keepers and landowners singing his praises but others loath him, saying a lot of his methods are illegal and give grouse shooting a bad name.’
‘That’s exactly the point,’ Mike replied, ‘My brother is now being made to work all the hours under the sun. It’s clear that they want him out and replaced by a younger man. Albert is nearing 60, a few years older than me, and he’s not up to working 16 or 18 hours a day. It’s not right that he should be asked to do that anyway.’ Bob could hear the anger rising in Mike’s voice. ‘His wife, Lizzie, doesn’t keep too well and Albert can’t afford to be out all night.’
Mike’s face was reddening as his rage grew. ‘The two new guys have been shooting red deer and roe deer at night in the spotlamp and just leaving them lying, not even putting the bloody things into the food chain.’
Mike knew that deer, mountain hares and sheep get the blame for carrying the ticks which can infect grouse and give them the disease louping ill so guessed why the deer were being slaughtered.
‘Masterfield was even boasting that he shot a red deer stag last week, out of season of course, across the boundary fence on their neighbour’s land. They’re absolute bastards.’
The hill track Mike was driving on was now running parallel to the burn he crossed earlier. He stopped at a birch tree between the track and the burn and the two men got out. Mike pointed down to the burn where there was a log placed over the burn. In the middle of the log Bob could see a tunnel made of gridweld mesh with a trap in the centre of the tunnel. Bob recognised the trap as a Fenn Mk 4 trap and could see that both ends of the gridweld mesh were crimped in at either end to limit access to the tunnel to a mammal about the size of a rat.
‘Nothing in the trap today Bob but that seems to be a really good trapping site. In the last month or so I’ve caught three stoats and two rats. Because of new legislation I can’t use them where there are stoats from 1st April so I’ve a load of the new Tully traps to replace them.’
They drove on up the road for another hundred yards to where the remains of an old drystone dyke met the track. This time the trap was in a tunnel fashioned from the stones in the dyke.
Mike lifted the flat stone off the top of the tunnel to reveal a weasel with its body caught right in the centre of the two jaws of the trap.
‘If they’re set right these are great traps,’ said Mike. ‘I always set the trigger of the trap very lightly so that something even as light as a weasel would set it off. The trap would kill the weasel instantly. Hopefully the Tully traps will be as efficient.’
He removed the dead weasel from the trap and shoved it into a gap a bit further along the dyke. As Mike reset the trap Bob was wondering what harm a weasel would do to wildlife since it mostly catches and kills mice and voles, voles also being a serious vector for ticks and louping ill. He was a pragmatist; knowing what Mike was doing was legal, and part of his job, he said nothing.
When they got back into the Land Rover Mike took out a tin of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. He continued with the sorry tale of his brother’s situation.
‘The new headkeeper, Masterfield, came round to my brother yesterday and gave him a tub of Yaltox, telling him to get on and get rid of the vermin on the estate. It was clear to Albert he meant birds of prey as well as foxes and crows.’
Bob knew Yaltox as the trade name of the banned pesticide carbofuran. ‘What the hell did your brother say about that?’
‘He was dumbstruck. He’d heard this was happening on other estates where Roberts was involved. He’d read lots of stuff in the papers about crime on these estates, but he couldn’t believe he was getting caught up in this illegal gamekeeping. He phoned me and I told him to bury the tub of Yaltox and to cut open and put out some shot rabbits as if he had put some of the pesticide on them. If the other keepers look closely at the rabbits, they’ll see there’s no poison on them as the dark blue granules would be visible. They’d also expect to see one or two dead insects on the carcasses, though there’s not many bluebottles about yet, especially up at this height.’
Mike suddenly broke off, pointing. ‘There’s a female hen harrier over there hunting up that gully.’
Bob could see the brown raptor flying slowly close to the ground, stalling from time to time, turning and continuing into the wind. For a few minutes he watched the hunting technique of this magnificent bird, with the lovely white feathers on its rump and dark bars across the tail, and saw it suddenly drop into the white grass, probably for a field vole. It must have missed the vole and rose again and continued hunting for another 50 yards till it disappeared from view.
‘They’re fantastic birds, God knows how folk can kill them.’
‘They cause no problem here,’ said Mike. ‘We’re not high intensity but they’re hated on most intensively managed driven grouse moors. We’ve usually got a nesting pair in that sloping bank of long heather at the far side of that burn.’ He pointed to a slope about a quarter of a mile away. ‘They reared chicks last year, four I think. The laird sometimes comes up and watches the food passes – the male passing food to the female – from just a wee bit further along the hill road. The female comes off the nest in the heather for the food pass then goes back with the prey to the chicks. We’ve never gone to the nest during the nesting time, but I’ve passed it after the chicks are away. We never tell any of the raptor folks about it as we don’t want them disturbed.’
‘Getting back to your brother Mike, would he talk to me about all of this?’ Bob suspected the answer would be no as keepers are loath to give information or statements to the police that would put their job and tied house at risk. He hoped in this case, since Roberts obviously wanted rid of Albert to replace him with a young malleable keeper, that he might be one step nearer to charging someone committing criminal acts against protected wildlife.
‘I think he would, though I doubt if he’d want to be involved in anything that finished up with him giving evidence in court. He’ll have a hard enough job getting another job in gamekeeping at his age without being ostracised by his peers. I’ll phone him and get back to you.’ The short life of the cigarette long finished, Mike fired up the Land Rover and they set off to check a crow cage trap further out the hill.
They completed a circuit of the hill, checking the crow cage in which the decoy carrion crow still had no company in the trap. Bob was pleased to see that the mandatory sign in the trap was in order, showing the trap number issued by Scottish Natural Heritage. He also saw that the decoy crow had a fresh half-eaten rabbit and clean drinking water. The law was being complied with; he expected no less on this estate.
Before parting Mike said, ‘I’ll give you a call tomorrow morning Bob and tell you what my brother says. Hopefully things will work out for him and for you.’ They shook hands.
On the journey back to his office in Perth Bob contemplated Albert’s predicament. He hoped he could get evidence enough to get at least one of the three men he’d been told about to court.
Especially Nigel Roberts.
If you’ve enjoyed this chapter and are intrigued as to how the story unfolds see my blog at https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/ for details of this and my other books and of how to buy a signed copy. The sequel to this book, Cruel Intentions, is meantime with the publisher and will be available later in the autumn.