I’ve had a busy but interesting week. Monday and Wednesday were spent working at the National Wildlife Crime Unit offices in Livingston. On Tuesday I gave a talk to the Forfar Ladies Group at the Forfar golf course. A lovely two-course lunch was included. I then changed venue, back to Perthshire from Angus and went to the Birnam Hotel for a pre-dinner talk to 100 or so water bailiffs mid-way through their two-day conference. That of course involved a three course dinner. When I got home about 10.00 pm that night I was exhausted, not from talking but from eating. Thursday evening was a talk to just over 60 farmers at a seminar at St Andrew’s University, but more of that in another post.
The bailiffs’ talk reminded me that I had never blogged about anything to do with salmon poaching, so I now address that failure with a tale, in two parts, from my book Wildlife Detective:
If Low’s Works’ Pool (referred to in an earlier chapter of the book) is the first problem for salmon making their way up the River Almond, Horseshoe Falls is the next. As its name suggests, this is a waterfall in the shape of a horseshoe. It is not much higher than the weir at Low’s Work’s Pool but, due to a partial collapse of the rocks in the centre of the falls, the highest volume of water cascades over this central part. Since this is the easiest route for the salmon, most ascend the falls at this point. Just before this incident I had developed another very good informant. He was a huge chap with a weak voice that was in inverse proportion to the bulk of his frame. To look at him, anyone would expect a very gruff voice when he spoke and it was mildly amusing when the words were emitted in a sort of soft squeak. Like Mr X, (an informant I had discussed in an earlier chapter) I had given him a warning shot across the bows for a relatively minor infringement of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Act 1951 when he really could have been charged. He was relieved, if not grateful, and said he may be able to help me from time to time. Since he went on to be a professional wrestler I’ll refer to him as Big Daddy.
Big Daddy had passed on one or two pieces of information that were of moderate interest. So far, rather than ease the passage of his fellow poachers into court, he was giving me intelligence that added to the overall poaching picture. As is the case with most aspects of crime, there are comparatively few crimes where the police do not know the identity of the perpetrator, but knowing who has committed a particular crime and being able to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt are two completely different things. In the meantime Big Daddy was increasing my knowledge of The Complete Guide to Poaching and Poachers in Perthshire.
It is uncommon for police officers to give out their home telephone numbers to informants, but I had developed a degree of trust with Mr X and Big Daddy. Weighing up the odds of them causing hassle to my family, and deciding that the risk was in my favour, I passed them my telephone number. Had I not done so they only had to consult the telephone directory in any case as, unlike some police officers, I had never felt the need of an ex-directory telephone number.
I was night shift at the time of a particularly interesting phone call from Big Daddy. He made contact one evening as I was in the middle of dinner and said that he could give me a good job when I came on duty that night. The first point of interest was that he knew I was night shift. I suppose I was mildly flattered that he knew my shift pattern: it reinforced the view that of the four shifts – or teams of police officers covering the Perth area – our shift clearly posed the biggest threat. His information was that two salmon poachers, both well known to me, would be using a cage at the Horseshoe Falls that night. Policing is a lot more efficient and effective when reliable information of a crime is received before the occurrence of the crime. It allows planning to take place, assessment of the risks involved, assessment of the likelihood of success, the number of officers required to deal with the particular crime, and the fine tuning of proactive measures to catch those that are involved.
To gauge the veracity of the information my first question to Big Daddy was, ‘How do you know that these two will be at the Horseshoe Falls with a cage tonight?’ The reply surprised me but satisfied me that he was telling the truth. ‘I was with them last night. There was a great run of fish on and we had over a hundred. It was a good night’s work but I left the sale of fish to the other two. When I got my cut this afternoon they had fiddled the money. They said the price had dropped as some of the fish were starting to go red. I knew this was crap as most of the fish were fresh-run and silver. I said I couldn’t make it tonight. They’ve just pissed me off so you can have them.’
I had only once encountered a cage and realised that it was a very efficient tool with which to take a large quantity of salmon. The cage is made of wire netting or gridweld mesh and although dimensions can vary, the most efficient size to operate would be roughly four feet square and about eighteen inches high. The principle of the cage is that the fish enter by a funnel in the centre of the side of the cage that is facing downstream, rather like the entrance to a lobster pot. Once they are inside the cage they try to escape round the edges of the cage.
They are unable to find the end of the funnel, which would allow them to regain their freedom, as it protrudes into the centre of the cage. If a cage is situated with the funnel entrance facing downstream and at the point where most of the fish are running up the river, the operator will have a bonanza. In the case of the Horseshoe Falls the optimum place to station the cage was at the broken part right in the middle.
I phoned my inspector, Fred MacAulay, at home, explained the position to him, and asked if I could come out that night in camouflage gear along with another officer. I got the green light and immediately contacted another shift officer, PC Peter Murray, to ensure he came to work suitably dressed. By 11.00 pm, an hour after we had started our shift, the inspector had dropped off Peter and me at the side of a country road about two miles from the River Almond and the Horseshoe Falls. It was a lovely night, mid-October, cold but not frosty, enough cloud cover to keep us well hidden but just enough light to allow us to navigate reasonably well through the fields towards the river. I knew this area reasonably well and knew that the hardest part would be descending through the larch wood that lay between the last of the fields and the bank of the River Almond.
Part 2 tomorrow