An excerpt from a chapter in my book, Wildlife Detective, where I describe a number of poisoning incidents –
In another of the 1998 poisonings, a hill walker was on West Glenalmond Estate in Perthshire in October of that year when he chanced upon the shepherd for the estate. They exchanged pleasantries and the conversation came round to birds of prey. During the chat the shepherd told the hill walker that he had earlier that day found a dead golden eagle. The eagle apparently appeared to have died in the past few days and the shepherd told the hill walker that he suspected that it had been killed rather than having died of old age or disease. A couple of weeks later the hill walker was on the estate again. This time it was his turn to find evidence of poisoning, which was in the form of a dead buzzard lying near to part of the carcass of a mountain hare. He was highly suspicious and reported his find to RSPB. RSPB investigations officers had still not quite got used to the police fulfilling their statutory responsibilities in the investigation of wildlife crime. Instead of reporting this incident to the police, they went on to the estate, recovered the bait and the victim, and had them examined for pesticides.
To repeat the point, a charity carrying out a police function is a situation that was entirely unsatisfactory but in many ways the police in Scotland had brought this about themselves. A working protocol has since been agreed between the Scottish Police Service and RSPB Scotland, SEERAD, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish SPCA and Scottish Badgers, all organisations with which the police work in partnership on wildlife crime issues. Such a situation would not occur now except in extreme circumstances when police resources were unable to attend and the matter was one of urgency.
I was informed that the buzzard and the mountain hare both tested positive for the pesticide carbofuran and began an investigation. My first point of contact was with the shepherd, from whom I gleaned the story about the dead golden eagle. He also told me that a couple of weeks after he had found the eagle he was gathering sheep in the vicinity of a crag where peregrines traditionally nest when he noticed one of his dogs sniffing at a dead grouse. He went over to examine the grouse as it looked alive. He was amazed to see that it was dead, but sitting up in a life-like position with a length of wire stuck into the ground and under its head. He suspected that the bird would be a poisoned bait to attract the peregrines, since they prefer to kill their prey rather than take carrion. In fact this type of poisoned bait had been found before, and was usually laced with a pesticide of some sort on the back of the neck, as peregrines take the head off their victim before starting to eat it. Pesticide in this position would be ingested by the bird and would most likely kill it.
Though all of this was not known to the shepherd, he knew enough to realise that one of his valuable dogs could have been poisoned. He told me that he was absolutely raging and went straight to the gamekeeper, whom he suspected of setting out the bait, and asked if he would pay for a replacement dog if it had been poisoned.
Along with several police officers I made a search of part of the estate for the dead golden eagle and for any other baits or victims of poisoning, but nothing further was found. Though I had been given the rough location of the dead golden eagle, after several hours searching we had to admit defeat, suspecting it had been found and disposed of. Enquiries continued and at their conclusion, the gamekeeper on the estate was charged with setting out the poisoned mountain hare carcass, killing a buzzard and attempting to kill a peregrine by setting out a baited grouse.
By the following July the trial of the gamekeeper had not started, a delay which is regrettable but not unusual. I had been keeping in touch with the shepherd as he was seriously concerned that his job and his tied house would be at risk now that he was involved in a case against another estate employee. When I phoned him one day, by coincidence he had been on the part of the hill where he had originally found the dead golden eagle the previous October. Coincidentally he had chanced upon it again. This time he marked the exact location and that evening took me and a police colleague, PC Graham Jack, to the spot.
There was little left of the body of the magnificent eagle, though most of the feathers were still intact and attached to the body. We photographed it and collected it as gently as we could so as to keep it relatively intact, putting it in a large polythene bag. It was then transferred to SASA in Edinburgh, where the scientists incredibly managed to find sufficient traces of carbofuran to conclude that the bird had been poisoned. As the carcass of the eagle had been lying out on the hill in all weathers for nine months this was an amazing result. The finding of the golden eagle also meant that there was an additional and extremely serious charge.
The day of the trial eventually came. I had discussed the case several times in the preceding months with the procurator fiscal. He was of the view that as cases go, the evidence was slim but might be sufficient for a conviction if everything went well. He was aware of the predicament of the shepherd and intended to call him as first witness. There is nothing unusual in crucial evidence, albeit from the weakest link, being led first when the evidence of that witness is pivotal to the success of the case. If this witness fails to provide the necessary evidence then valuable court time can be saved by abandoning the trial at an early stage. This is preferable to leading the evidence of strong witnesses first and the case failing after several hours because of poor evidence from a key witness.
The shepherd gave evidence-in-chief, which is the evidence as led by the procurator fiscal. His evidence in court fell well below the level of evidence given to the police in his statement and it was clear to all that he was trying to save his livelihood and his house. The case was immediately deserted by the fiscal without the need for cross-examination by the defence solicitor.
Police officers are philosophical and realistic. All of us are aware that evidence has to be presented in court to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt. This had not been the position here so the accused had walked free.
The shepherd remained in employment for a further year – then was made redundant. Having no job had the inevitable consequence of having no home.
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