The Brechin freezer (Part 2)

A selection of passerines from the freezer. They would test even a good taxidermist's skill.

A selection of passerines from the freezer. They would test even a good taxidermist’s skill.

At the finish, I had a pile in front of me comprising a pine marten, red squirrel, wildcat, a badger’s head, kestrel, short-eared owl, barn owl, buzzard, lapwing, three swallows, house martin, skylark, greenfinch, wren and song thrush. The suspect was asked if he could account for how he came by all of these. His answer was that he had found the pine marten dead under a tree and that all the rest had been road kills he had found at the roadside on his various travels. While it is generally speaking an offence to be in possession of a protected bird or animal, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 allows a defence if the person possessing the items shows that the bird or animal had not been taken or killed at or from a place in Scotland otherwise than in contravention of the relevant provisions. In plain language it means that a person can keep an otherwise protected animal or bird provided he can demonstrate that it had died naturally or had been killed accidentally. Some take the specimens to a vet for a cause of death but in most occasions that can’t be determined with accuracy without a post mortem examination, which of course could ruin the specimen for taxidermy. In most cases I am happy with a phone call about the circumstances of the find and note it in my diary.

It was possible that some of the birds or animals could indeed have been road kills but I was extremely doubtful about the three swallows and the house martin. I have seen most of the remainder of the species at some time or another lying on a grass verge or flattened on to the road surface but one person finding three swallows and a house martin was stretching credulity a tad too far. It can sometimes be difficult for a person to satisfy police that he has legitimate possession of protected birds and animals, even though the standard of proof is at civil proof level, in other words on balance of probabilities. In any event I had doubts aplenty and I took all of these creatures back to Perth with me for further enquiry.

Despite there being some onus on a suspect to prove his innocence, in other words a reverse burden of proof, I knew that in these days of human rights and fairness the procurator fiscal would not entertain a charge in relation to any of the animals or birds unless we could establish a cause of death. My first problem was with the wildcat. Was it a wildcat or was it a hybrid? The law protects pure bred wildcats but cats that are conceived as a result of a midnight union between a pure-bred wild tomcat and a domestic moggy or vice versa have no legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Digressing for a minute to discuss this it is extremely difficult to get a conviction for someone killing a wildcat. The police have first to prove that the cat was indeed a pure wildcat, and it was killed in the knowledge that it was a pure-bred wildcat (intentionally is the term in the Act) or without taking any basic precaution to determine if it could have been a wildcat or with complete disregard as to whether or not it was a pure-bred wildcat (recklessly is the term in the Act). Either of those concepts is fraught with difficulties in proof and it is not surprising that there has never been a case heard in court in Scotland on any aspect of crime committed against a wildcat.

My first telephone call was to Dr Andrew Kitchener, curator of mammals in the National Museum of Scotland, at Chambers Street, Edinburgh. Andrew agreed to see the wildcat the next day to determine if it had come from a pure bloodline. My next telephone call was to Professor Ranald Munro, veterinary forensic pathologist at the Royal (Dick) Vet School, Edinburgh. Ranald agreed to examine all of my subjects and wherever possible give me a cause of death. Lastly I put a call through to Dave Dick, RSPB Scotland, asking if he and his colleague, Keith Morton, could formally identify the bird species involved. I wanted no arguments in court on the species of birds involved and whether or not they were wild birds as defined in the Act. It is perfectly possible to cover all the difficult angles in an investigation and yet get caught out in court on something that is quite elementary.

All of us met in Edinburgh the following day and I left the wildcat with Andrew Kitchener, who thought at first sight it was a hybrid, but that he would have a better idea once it had thawed out. I was pleased that Dave Dick and Keith Morton concurred with my

identification of the bird species and we left Ranald Munro to his extremely skilled and complex work in finding out how such small birds as a goldfinch and wren met their demise many months or even years after the event. Ranald is lucky in that he works with his wife, Helen, also a veterinary pathologist, since the evidence of two pathologists is necessary bearing in mind the rule of corroboration of the main facts in any case in Scotland

The investigation of wildlife crime is little different from the investigation of any other sort of crime. The principles are the same in drawing the case to a conclusion that can result in charging a person and bringing him or her before the court, or in fact exonerating a person of any blame. In the murder of a human, two pathologists would be used to determine the cause of death, forensic odontology may be used to establish bite marks or other impressions made by teeth, forensic anthropology may be used to age and identify bones, and entomology may be used to establish the aging of insect larvae on a body. The only slight difference in wildlife crime is that in some cases the experts may be trained in veterinary medicine rather than human medicine.

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