Crime against nesting wild birds

The tree felling machine was just cutting the last tree as we arrived

The tree felling machine was just cutting the last tree as we arrived

Dozens of nests and dead young rooks lay among the felled trees

Dozens of nests and dead young rooks lay among the felled trees

Part of a chapter dealing with nesting bird-related incidents from my book A Lone Furrow

The next case was also marked no proceedings, though I’m still not sure why. In any event we as the police did our bit and the prosecution part is the remit of the procurator fiscal. The police are not always given reasons why a case takes a particular direction.

In April 2008 I received a phone call from a man who passed a small piece of woodland on a knoll on route to his work in Forfar. He saw that trees were being felled round the edge of the woodland on the first day but thought little of this. He was aware that there was a large rookery in the centre of the wood but the forestry work was nowhere near it at that stage. When he passed the following day most of the trees had been felled and the machine harvester felling the trees was still busy at work in the centre of the wood. Rooks were flying in panic everywhere since most of their nesting trees were gone.

We lost no time. I was lucky that Constable Doug Ogilvie, one of the divisional wildlife crime officers, was temporarily in an office job in Divisional Police Headquarters in Perth. I grabbed Doug and we set off for Forfar. . … in time to see the very last tree being felled! The machine operator had cut the bottom of the tree and was pulling it up through the claws of the harvester that strip the branches and cut the trunk into specified lengths. We spoke to the operator, who said he was told to do a job and was just getting on with it. He knew there were rooks’ nests in the trees, admitting there would have been at least thirty. He gave the name of his employer and left with the harvester to go to another job.

Doug and I rummaged among the brash from the fallen trees. There were dead young rooks everywhere and we photographed a selection of them. Some of the nests were still attached to the branches that had been cut off by the harvester. What really amazed me was that the nests, instead of being made of twigs and small branches as are most rooks’ nests, they were made mostly of wire. The rookery was directly opposite a rubbish dump, and the rooks had found a ready supply of rusty wire in the dump to make their nests. I’d never seen this before and thought that they would have lasted for years, giving a much longer life span than twigs that in the course of time would rot. The main risk was likely to have been during a thunder storm; I wouldn’t like to have been a rook sitting on a wire nest when the night sky was illuminated by flashes of lightening.

Doug and I then traced the owner of the harvester. He admitted seeing the rooks but said that he had never received any guidance about wildlife and forestry operations. He referred to the rooks as vermin and appeared to disregard their presence in the trees. It was clear from speaking to him that the felling was to take place regardless.

Next we saw the forestry manager. He had seen the rooks, and admitted there were between 30 and 100 nests but didn’t think in late April they were on eggs or rearing chicks. He gave the order to fell the trees. We also obtained statements from staff of the nearby golf course. Their estimate of rooks nesting in the wood was in excess of 100. They were not particularly enamoured by the rooks and the associated noise but knew they were protected and were content to live and let live.

All foresters work in the countryside and probably all class themselves as countrymen. Even a person brought up in the centre of a city cannot fail to see and hear rooks, the most gregarious and noisy of birds, collecting on their communal nesting site from December, by February picking their nest site that they will use for breeding, and during March collecting sticks to either build up a nest from the previous year or build a completely new one. They are raucous birds that draw attention to themselves. The huge nests they build are in trees usually bare of foliage at the time and are easily visible. When the chicks hatch in April they are almost as loud as their parents as they call for food.  Living beside a rookery can be a noisy experience. For a while we had eight nests in our trees at home and the noise was deafening, yet these ‘countrymen’, in late April, ignored up to 100 rooks, their nests and chicks.

I was disappointed when the case was not proceeded with, but I’m always mindful of the fact that the role of police is the investigation of crime and ends when the case is passed to the procurator fiscal, whose remit is the decision on whether or not to prosecute. However in this case a reason would have been appreciated.

After a case dealing with rooks, which many people consider as pests, it is probably appropriate to conclude with a word on wild birds and their protection. We must begin from the base line that ALL wild birds are protected. Some, at times, can be pests, and indeed rooks can be pests to me when they steal my ducks’ eggs. Under one or more of four general licences issued annually by the Scottish Government these pest species can be dealt with by ‘authorised persons’, generally the owners or tenants of land where the problem is occurring. In certain circumstances this could be you in your garden. Only the birds listed on the general licence can be dealt with and only for the reasons and by the methods given in the general licence. In general terms the licences cover the protection of wild birds, livestock, serious damage to growing or stored crops, protection against disease, for public safety reasons and for air safety.

Putting this in perspective so far as rooks are concerned, the most likely reason for rooks to be controlled is because of damage to growing or stored crops. They do take some wild bird eggs or chicks so these reasons can’t be excluded. I’ve been in regular communication with a man who is acting on behalf of neighbours who allege they have had rubber picked from car windscreen wipers and from double glazing by rooks. This type of damage is not covered by any of the general licences, nor is it a reason for which Scottish Natural Heritage can issue a specific licence. I’ve sent the man copies of the three main general licences (the air safety one certainly doesn’t apply in this case) to ensure that whatever action he takes will be within the terms of the licence. The same rooks feed in nearby fields and he has now engaged the co-operation of a local farmer, who, if they start eating newly sown grain in the springtime, will allow the use of cage traps on his fields to reduce the numbers.

On a more conservational theme, an interesting call came in to me from a raptor worker one day in May 2009. He was in a bit of a panic as a Kinross-shire farmer was about to start work in extending the size of a quarry so that he could build a house. The face of the quarry that had to be scraped back to make more room for the house held a kestrel’s nest, and even if the machinery did not destroy the eggs the bird was likely to desert because of the close proximity of the JCB. I visited the farmer and we had a look at the quarry. I climbed up to the nest to verify that indeed there were eggs; sure enough there were six. I explained the legal position to a rather disconsolate farmer, who reluctantly agreed to hold off for a bit. Since the quarry was quite large I gave him a guide as to how close he could come to the nest with his work, provided he started at the end furthest from the bird so that it gradually became used to the noise. That allowed him at least to do some of the work, for which he was grateful. The kestrel was also grateful and fledged five young from the nest.

Lastly, a case that turned out to be somewhat worrying. In the early summer of 2008 I had a call from a detective officer who was dealing with family protection issues at an address in Dundee. She related that in a young child’s bedroom a pigeon had for some strange reason decided to set up home under the child’s bed, entering and leaving by the window, which I assumed must either be permanently open or broken. It was now incubating two white eggs. For some reason the officer had initially contacted SSPCA, who gave the advice that ‘legislation prevented the incubating pigeon being moved’. While it is correct that all wild birds are protected I’ve already outlined the general licences issued by the Scottish Government that allow derogation from the law. The one that covers protection against disease was more than adequate in this case, with the respiratory disease psittacosis being a very obvious risk. After my advice the pigeon that laid in the oddest of circumstances was evicted and the nest and eggs were binned.

See A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on

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