There will be few who do not utterly condemn the recent poisoning of ten red kites and four buzzards in Easter Ross. While I’ve no intention in discussing any detail of this case I’ve been flabbergasted by some comments on blogs regarding the police investigation. Some folks, without any evidence whatsoever, are automatically pointing the finger at shooting interests. Police, as professional investigators, are much more circumspect and I am sure they are keeping all options open. My experience of poisoning of birds of prey shows that in similar cases the offender may well be a gamekeeper, but could also be a farmer, a farm employee, a pigeon fancier or simply a butcher, baker or candlestick maker who has responsibility for a small shoot and operates mostly at weekends. To put all your eggs in one basket is blinkered, often biased and certainly fraught with danger. Police officers, as investigators independent of any political or pressure group agenda, seldom make this mistake.
Another blogger asked, “Do we know what the poison is?” By ‘we’ I assume he means the public, and of course at this stage of an investigation it is no business of the public. To release information specific to any crime while the investigation is live can potentially have fatal consequences for the case. As an example, if premises are broken into by a particular means and, when the suspect is caught, he makes an admission to the police describing this means of entry – a fact that would only be known to the person who carried out the crime – that would be crucial evidence. However if in the meantime details of this specialist method had been published, either by the media or in social media, the suspect could then claim that this is where he obtained the information; not because he had been the criminal involved.
It is because of these potential pitfalls that police are often reticent to make many crimes public knowledge until either after a conviction or until all avenues of investigation have been explored with negative result. In some crimes, including wildlife crime, there can be exceptions. Examples in wildlife crime may be where a bird has been found injured, possible from shooting or from having been in a trap, and may have moved some distance from where the offence took place. This is an ideal situation for a press release as soon as the bird is found. It means that a witness may come forward and it puts the crime in the public domain with minimal risk to a conviction. Another reason for an early press release is if there is a real risk to the public – or even pet animals – through traps set in the open or poisoned baits believed in an area regularly frequented by the public. In many other situations it is often better for the police to keep their powder dry until after initial investigations and searches have been completed.
I will watch the Easter Ross investigation with interest. Despite wildlife crimes in extensive rural areas being difficult to bring to a successful conclusion in court, we now in Scotland have a network of extremely experienced police officers and prosecutors. It is much more common now for these incidents to be treated as exactly what they are: another crime. That there is a specialist aspect to their investigation makes them little different to several other types of criminality where painstaking investigation and the use of forensics is often the key to a conviction.