An excerpt from Wildlife Detective on amusing out-takes from the primary schools wildlife crime project of the former Tayside Police
My working day is often lightened during the part of the year when the schools are taking part in the Tayside Police Wildlife Crime Project. The project was growing year upon year and a lot of my time was taken up marking the four individual projects undertaken by the kids. Though I try to vary the projects from year to year there is one part that is fairly constant; that of completing a nature diary. I much prefer the kids to compile a spring nature diary. In spring everything is being renewed after the long winter and changes in our environment are probably more easily noticed by young folks at that time of year. Birds are nesting, lambs are being born, crops are being sown, buds are bursting out on trees and bushes, grass is beginning to grow and there is just a sense of new life everywhere.
The downside of springtime nature diaries is that there is inevitably too much of a rush immediately prior to the prize-giving, which is normally in early June. In my experience, many teachers are notoriously bad at keeping to deadlines and I am lucky if I have half of a particular project submitted by the deadline I have set. I get the excuse, “well we have so much going on in school just now, we are very busy.” They may very well be busy but no more so than I am. Late entries make me even busier. It is not the first time I have been up till 2.00 a.m. marking spring nature diaries so that I can have all the class marks added up to enable me to decide the winner or winners in time for a press release in advance of the prize-giving. Not surprisingly I have now gone over to autumn nature diaries – much less stressful, and deadlines can afford to be extended without resultant high blood pressure.
Despite some of the teachers not making the wildlife crime project the main focus of their work programme, that can’t be a criticism levelled at the children. Some of these 9 to 11 year olds put in a tremendous amount of work and produce first-class nature diaries, even though it may only relate to what they see in a city. They obviously enjoy this type of work and many complete the diary as homework. One teacher was kind enough to write me a short note saying that the project I had set had been the only homework that one boy in her class had ever completed. I was pleased that the kids were enjoying learning about wildlife and its regrettable but attendant crime. I am also of the view that wildlife crime provides an invaluable link between young people and the police. They seem to relate to crime committed against animals and birds, appreciate that the police are doing their best to combat the crime, and seem to empathise with the problems both the police and the wildlife are experiencing. I have given talks to school pupils in the past on drugs, vandalism and ‘rules for living’. They turn off pretty quickly as it seems that they are being blamed by the police for this catalogue of social ills rather than being asked what they can do to help, as is the case with wildlife crime.
There are many hilarious moments in the marking of the diaries. I encourage the kids to collect items from the wild and stick them in the diary with a wee explanation of what the item is and its significance. They are normally very good at this but there are always a few disasters, like mushrooms stuck on to a page under a piece of sellotape. By the time the diary comes to me the mushroom is just a black sludge that has soaked the six or seven pages underneath, obliterated any writing and in any case has made the pages stick together so that I wouldn’t have been able to read the writing anyway. Another pupil had been catching bluebottles and had stuck four into the diary under sellotape to show me the back view, front view, side elevation from the right and side elevation from the left. I think he was a budding architect. My favourite entry, though not at the particular time, was in a diary I was marking during my evening meal. The diary, so that I could read it, had to be next to my plate. It was a very good diary with lots of detail and many interesting leaves and flowers stuck in by way of illustration. One grey, furry, oval object was stuck to the page, with the proud caption, ‘This is an owl pellet my dad and I found in a wood’. Owl pellets are grey, furry and oval so the pupil was nearly accurate. Nearly, but not quite. The grey, furry oval object just inches from my plate of food was fox shit!
Another project I set one year was to be entitled, ‘A day in the life of a police wildlife crime officer’. I was encouraging the pupils to write about doing my job for a day and to put down on paper what they thought it would be like. They had to use their imagination to investigate a wildlife crime of their own choosing. Most of these stories ran to about 2 pages and many were absolutely hilarious. I marked many of them on a train journey to and from a meeting on Conservation Priorities I attended in Peterborough and received many funny looks and a few enquiries from fellow passengers as to what I was doing and why I was always bursting into fits of laughter.
Like many police officers, the pupil-officers had due consideration for sustenance and very few stories did not include a stop for a cup of tea, sometimes even specific brews: I put on a kettle for my Nambarrie cup of tea. Even after a couple of hours ‘work’ they felt the need for food: I stopped to have some stovies at the cake shop or I went to have a KFC bucket because I was so hungry. Most folks have breakfast before they start work, even with an early start, but what about: PC Smart gets up at 2 am to get an early start at work and to have a glass of wine before his wife gets up. I know the author of this line’s father, an eminent TV cameraman who is not called Mr Smart, (the name is changed to protect the innocent – or is he?) In any dealings I’ve had with the father the camera has always been rock steady but I teased the life out of him over his son’s account of the early glass of wine.
Now that the budding officers had been fed, under Health and Safety requirements they needed the proper equipment for the job: Having got the call I quickly took off my pink fluffy bunny slippers and donned my wildlife crime suit. The pupil omitted to say if this allowed her to fly through the air. The kids’ language often fascinated me. The word ‘donned’ is just the perfect verb for this situation. In even more colourful language another author was describing how he was gathering together all his gear for the wildlife crime job in hand. I considered him a budding professor of English language: I need all the accoutrements perchance I stumble across a creature in dire straits.
Once they got under way, the mini-police officers had no mercy when they caught the criminal: It was Freddy Melville, my twin brother. I arrested him and he got the jail. Even worse: After investigating a poisoning incident I found 10 bottles of poison in my dad’s shed. I put him in handcuffs and took him to the police station. I said, ‘I’m sorry dad but I have to do this.’ I then went home and had my tea. Ah well, at least he apologised to his dad for arresting him.
There were some unusual investigations. One mini-cop was investigating the taking of eggs from a bald eagle’s nest at Arbroath cliffs. I suppose it’s just possible a pair of bald eagles may have been blown eastwards across the Atlantic without coming to the attention of twichers! I also learned of a new way to poach salmon: I saw him giving a worm a poisoned jab and throwing it in the river. Another sleuth, on having a golden eagle fall from the sky at his feet arrested a group of poachers that capture rare birds and break one wing and throw them off a helicopter. It takes all kinds!
Some ventured into international wildlife crime, though they may not always have been aware of that: I got a phone call about a komodo dragon that had fallen off an 8 foot high wall and died. The person wanted me to check that it was dead. I went there, took one look and said ‘Yes’. A man of few words but obviously good with a stethoscope. Another ‘officer’ who had probably strayed slightly off his beat, wrote: Finally I found a tiger that was poisoned. It was in the east of India. The tiger was creamy and brown in colour and was a male. It had nine cubs. The fact that a male tiger had cubs intrigued me. I also wondered if the author managed back from India for his meal break.
The previous escapade demonstrates that distance was no object to an intrepid wildlife crime officer. What about this for a day’s work: I was at Stanley Primary School giving a talk when a received a telephone call that a man was stealing eagle’s eggs at the top of Mount Everest. I apologised to the pupils and set off for Mount Everest. I didn’t have that much time; I had only 4 hours to get there. There was a traffic jam half way there so I had to go the long way round, but it’s just 10 minutes longer. When we caught the man I said we had done a good job and should have a drink. We had to go by Taymount Wood on the way home because a badger was caught in a snare. We saved the badger, which was good because it had children. Three of the children had something wrong with them and died. The one that didn’t die was the odd one out. Well……what can I say!
Some of the accounts given require just a wee bit of thought. We found half a cracked egg under the nest (can half an egg ever not be cracked?) or I heard something like footsteps on a tree (I gather these sound slightly different to an expert from footsteps on the ground or even footsteps on the ceiling)
Penalties for those caught were sometimes pretty severe. A certain Mr McIntyre has to serve at least life in prison for this wildlife crime. Criminals can also be excluded from vulnerable sites by the courts: The egg thief was fined and banned from all forests, rainforests, wood and jungles. Sounds to me a good legal definition of any place that has trees! Occasionally justice was meted out by the wildlife victim: A man called Billy went to an eagle’s nest to steal the eggs but the eagle swept him up really high and let him go. (it gets worse…..) So he got lifted again to the eagle’s nest and sadly got eaten.
Lastly, exasperated after a lengthy investigation to catch Horace Huckleberry, the UK No 1 egg collector, the wildlife crime officer-depute corners him. As we all know the criminal always likes to have the last word: I was knackered when I eventually got to the tree. I saw the silhouette against the sky and shouted to the egg thief to come down. He said, ‘No way. Bug off, I am trying to do some business!’
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