BBC Scotland Out of Doors – the shot hen harrier

An easy x-ray to interpret - a cormorant shot by a shotgun

An easy x-ray to interpret – a cormorant shot by a shotgun

There was a first class report on BBC Scotland Out of Doors this morning by Bob Elliot, head of investigations at RSPB.  Bob was explaining how far forensic science has advanced in relation to wildlife crime. The example being discussed was that of a female hen harrier found dead on Thorney Grain moor in Colsterdale in the Yorkshire Dales on 5 July.  The bird had a fractured leg and it was suspected it had been shot. In my time with Tayside Police I have had many birds and animals x-rayed and the evidence of shooting is usually easily seen in the form of shotgun pellets still in the body or very small fragments of lead left in the body after a bullet has passed through. In this case there were no such obvious signs.

Still working on the likelihood of shooting as the bird’s cause of death, the Zoological Society of London, where the bird had been sent by North Yorkshire Police for a post mortem examination, concluded that the bird is likely to have bled to death due to its injury, and in any case would have been unable to hunt, condemning it to starve to death. The ZSL then passed the bird to the University College of London Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science, Stanmore, where some pioneering forensic work was carried out. The scientists were able to photograph a cross-section of the leg bone and analyse one of the fragments. The foreign bodies were shown to be of a radio-density consistent with metal, probably from a metal projectile. By fixing the bone fragment in a block of resin, and grinding and polishing the block down layer by layer, one of the particles was reached. The particle had entered the leg bone, had been deformed by impact, and was primarily composed of lead. The inevitable conclusion was that the bird had been shot.

Such advances in forensic work relating to wildlife, as shown here and also at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), are huge steps forward. We are also exceptionally lucky in Scotland in that work carried out by the new SASA forensic science department is done free of charge for the police, cost invariably being a limiting factor in these days of tightening police budgets.  But the difficulties for the police in obtaining evidence beyond reasonable doubt in wildlife cases remain, with identification of the person responsible being the most challenging hurdle, no more so than in the killing of birds of prey. Theories, assumptions, guesses and prejudices do not constitute evidence. The hen harrier in this case was found on a grouse moor. Gamekeepers on grouse moors are blamed for the decline in hen harriers numbers, and science tends to confirm this is the case. However a bird with a damaged leg could potentially still fly some distance and may not have been shot on the estate on which it was found.

Looking in more general terms at dead and injured birds of prey found on grouse moors, and working on the initial basis that the person responsible may have been a gamekeeper, some grouse moors have 7 or 8 keepers. The ideal situation is for a suspect to be interviewed ‘cold,’ in other words without any warning that might create an opportunity for the disposal of evidence or the concoction of an alibi. It is an organisational nightmare for the police to interview that number of suspects simultaneously, especially if they may be out at work and scattered over many thousands of acres. Search warrants may also assist, but these legal documents are not handed out willy-nilly: there must be current intelligence or evidence that gives reasonable grounds to suspect that the particular person or people have involvement in the crime. This, of course, is not always available.

Even in interview of the gamekeepers on some grouse moors, very often they claim (if indeed they say anything more than “no comment”), that they do not have their own ‘beats’ and that they all just muck in. Naturally this makes it much more difficult to link a crime to an individual. A press release has little chance of gaining evidence; it’s not as if there are likely to be many witnesses out on the hill apart from sheep and deer. It is a completely different situation to a press release asking for witnesses to a mugging in a city street to come forward. In any case for the police to release details of the finding of a dead or injured bird of prey before they have a chance either to obtain search warrants or interview suspects gives an early warning to the very suspects that need to be taken by surprise. Nothing is as simple as some of those who criticise from the sidelines make out.

So despite the fact that the net is tightening on those who kill birds of prey, many holes in the net still require to be plugged. The police across Scotland have almost 100 wildlife crime officers, some full-time and most with many years of experience of dealing with wildlife crime. They are assisted by other statutory and charitable organisations, particularly in regard to bird of prey crime, Scottish Government Rural Payment Inspections Directorate and the RSPB and SSPCA.  There are now three very capable prosecutors dealing with all wildlife cases, and rapidly building up formidable experience. Conservationists – especially those involved in the monitoring of birds of prey – and the land owners and gamekeepers not involved in this intolerable and inexcusable slaughter (which are the majority despite some protests to the contrary) need to realise they are in fact on the same side. They need to report suspicious incidents, at the time and to the police. They also need to report their suspicious, to the police or to the National Wildlife Crime Unit, that certain individuals are involved. This information is assessed and goes into the melting pot of intelligence, held on the Scottish Intelligence Database and available to every police officer in Scotland. It may just be the crucial factor in enabling a sheriff to sign a search warrant.  It is only through working together that an end to this scourge of Scotland may be achieved.

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