A report on Twitter of a red kite shot and injured in Shropshire reminded me of an investigation in which I was involved following the shooting of two red kites and the poisoning of another three in Perthshire over a short period of time. The following is part of a chapter from my first book, Wildlife Detective:
Let’s consider the criminal mind in relation first of all to the two kites that were shot. Shooting a bird in most cases means that the bird is either killed instantly or incapacitated to the extent that it can be caught and killed by the perpetrator of the crime. If a bird is on the ground when it is shot, and it is injured, in most cases it will not be able to take off. It can therefore be caught. It is in the interest of the person shooting the bird to ensure that no-one is aware that a protected bird has been killed so it is likely to be recovered and disposed of in a manner that ensures that the police never become aware of it. If the bird is in a tree, it normally falls out of the tree and is hidden, buried or whatever in a manner in which it is unlikely to be found and subsequently handed to the police. If the bird is flying it normally falls out of the sky and again, at least in most cases, is easily caught and disposed of. It is fair to say that in most cases a person who shoots at a red kite will be able to get rid of the evidence to avoid conviction. In summary, most red kites that are shot will never feature in a police investigation. I am confident that anyone arguing against this theory will either be naïve or biased.
Setting poisoned bait is slightly different. Firstly I would doubt that any poisoned bait would intentionally be set for a red kite, but this does not escape the fact that a red kite, a golden eagle or a collie may be the victim. A red kite feeding from poisoned bait stands the same chance of being killed as any other victim. Since most victims – at least in my experience – die within about 100 metres of a bait, it has a far higher chance of being picked up by the person who set out the bait rather than anyone chancing upon it. I hesitate to give a proportion but I have no doubt that most victims, including red kites, will be picked up by the criminal setting out the bait and will never find their way into the chain of evidence in a criminal investigation.
Could our two shot red kites have been the only two red kites shot in Perthshire in more than a decade? I think not. Could they be two out of ten, two out of twenty, two out of forty? We will never know. Could we have been extremely competent in recovering the only three poisoned kites in Perthshire? Again I think not. Three out of twenty? We will never know the true figure but our red kites are increasing at an abysmally low rate compared to those in the Chilterns.
Our two shot red kites had different fates. The first, in the Crieff area, had the lower mandible and tongue shot off so that it died a lingering death of starvation. The crime was almost impossible to investigate as the bird may have been shot near to where it was eventually found dead or it may have travelled a considerable distance after it was shot. The most likely weapon was a .22 rifle and I just have a gut feeling it was a young person let loose with a .22 who was the culprit. We will never know the truth, and it may even be that whoever aimed the rifle at the bird and pulled the trigger thought that he missed the target entirely, though that does not lessen his culpability.
In the second incident the bird was found hanging in a tree. It was almost certainly shot while sitting in the tree as its injuries would be almost immediately fatal and it could not have flown into the tree after the shot. It became entangled in the branches almost four metres from the ground, which may be the reason the criminal could not recover and dispose of the body.
There was a suspect, who we interviewed shortly after the recovery of the bird. The suspect denied shooting a red kite but stated that he often shot carrion crows out of trees with his .243 rifle. We made comment firstly that .243 ammunition was expensive, but this was countered by the suspect stating that getting rid of a carrion crow was worth the cost. We then commented that crows are black, while red kites are predominantly light brown. The suspect countered – and this was corroborated by his wife – that he was colour-blind. He could offer no explanation to counter the fact that, even if both targets look the same to a person who is colour-blind, the kite was wearing a large plastic tag on each wing that would have been clearly visible through a rifle scope. He became very uncomfortable when told that a bullet fragment had been recovered from the red kite and that we were considering gathering in all the estate rifles for test firing to try to match one with the bullet fragment recovered. Of course I intentionally forgot to mention to him that the bullet fragment had insufficient detail for ballistic comparison.
That may have had some bearing on why I learned the following day that his .243 rifle had accidentally fallen from his shoulder and over a crag. It was buckled and broken and could not be test fired. We didn’t believe the suspect’s story and we were thwarted by the lack of powers to detain him and bring him to a police station, it being prior to the improved provisions under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. It may be that the estate didn’t believe him either, as he left his employment and moved out of the area very soon after the incident.
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