A conviction in a poisoning incident

The freshly shot buzzard is excavated

The freshly shot buzzard is excavated

The poisoned buzzard in the pheasant release pen. It died shortly after.

The poisoned buzzard in the pheasant release pen. It died shortly after.

The remains of the pheasant poult bait recovered in the pheasant release pen

The remains of the pheasant poult bait recovered in the pheasant release pen

The tub with a mix of carbofuran and alphachloralose recovered from the gamekeeper's pocket

The tub with a mix of carbofuran and alphachloralose recovered from the gamekeeper’s pocket

The shot buzzard recovered from the back of the Land Rover

The shot buzzard recovered from the back of the Land Rover

I wrote a chapter in my book A Lone Furrow entitled A spate of Poisonings.  That is certainly what we have in Scotland just now. There is no question that these cases are extremely difficult to bring to a satisfactory conclusion but the last case I discussed in this chapter did have such a conclusion. At least of sorts.

I wrote –

In September 2008 I was contacted by a couple of people who will always remain anonymous, concerned about the bragging of a gamekeeper who had recently moved from Invercauld Estate, Glenshee, to be a keeper on a low ground shoot near Longforgan, Perthshire (which I am not going to name as in due course the evidence showed that the shooting tenants did all they could to ensure that their employee worked within the law.)  It appeared from my informants that the nickname already given to this man was ‘The Terminator;’ a man who wouldn’t put up with any bird or mammal that posed a threat to the rearing of his pheasants. Since locals to his area had given him this dubious title, I’ll stick with it. From my local knowledge, I knew the ground on which The Terminator worked to be rich in a wide variety of wildlife, including badgers. The specific information was that he was using the pesticide alphachloralose to ‘control’ birds of prey.

I have known for many years one of the shooting syndicate who employed him and my impression is that he would neither encourage nor condone the use of pesticides or any other illegal activity. More and more landowners are now in this mould, though it’s unfortunate that a few remain who despise biodiversity and want little else on their land except a monoculture of grouse or pheasants.

 

When illegal practices are taking place, be it wildlife crime or any other aspect of criminality, it is usually not long before the police know about it.  My information began to build up and within a few days I had another phone call about two dead buzzards that had been seen on one of the farms keepered by The Terminator.  It was Sunday lunchtime and I was unable to get a wildlife crime officer either to make enquiry or to go with me. Since it was a time when the keeper was less likely to be about I had a quick look myself.

I had been directed to the birds, one of which lay about 200 yards from a wood on top of a hill.  I found it easily enough: it was below a telephone pole in the middle of a steep field running down from the wood. It had probably been there for several weeks and had been partly predated by a fox or some other creature. My experience told me that it was most likely that it had picked up a poisoned bait in the wood and glided down to the pole.  It had probably perched there and when it had become too ill, had toppled off on to the ground. This was a scene I had encountered many times.

I walked up to the wood and found a brand new pheasant release pen just inside the woodland edge. Fox snares were set round the pen and there was obviously a legal pest control programme in place. I had a walk through the wood, since the second buzzard was meant to be at the far end.  A jay flew ahead of me screeching at my intrusion into its sanctity and my disrespect at disturbing its life.I caught an occasional glimpse of its white rump as it kept a safe distance ahead of me. Jays are the wariest of birds, and are especially beautiful considering most of their corvid cousins are black. Jays seem almost pink in colour and have the most vivid blue feathers on their wings; feathers that are often used by fishermen in the creation of flies to tempt a trout or salmon. It is these special moments that bring some joy into what might otherwise be a negative reason for being in the countryside.

The second buzzard seemed to have disappeared, and the one that I had picked up proved negative for either shotgun pellets or pesticides. Nevertheless my informants were adamant they were correct in their assessment of what was taking place so I arranged a low-key search of the wood in a bit more detail than my earlier quick walk through in the company of Garrulus glandarius, an appropriate name for the jay as a bird that always has plenty to say for itself.

In this isolated countryside, a car lying at the roadside would be noticed by anyone with a suspicious – or guilty – mind. I therefore dropped off one of the wildlife crime officers, PC Shaun Lough, along with Ian Thomson of RSPB, for a search and I made a patrol of the roads in an unmarked car to see if I could see anything of interest that might further the investigation.

After a couple of hours I met up with Shaun and Ian.  They had been searching in the area of the pen when they saw a small square of disturbed ground.  They gently excavated the earth, to reveal a recently dead buzzard. Not far away they excavated another square of earth, to discover the remains of a buzzard on which a myriad of subterranean beasties had feasted, almost reducing the carcass to a skeleton.  This was handy, since a small, perfectly circular, hole from a shotgun pellet was easily seen in the skull.

While the two searched another wood I nipped down to Dundee Airport with the freshly-killed buzzard and, courtesy of the security staff, ran it through an x-ray machine that was more used for looking for weapons or explosives than a few pellets in a bird carcass. Pellets there were, and not a few; the bird had been at fairly close range and had upwards of thirty pellets in it.  These showed as small white dots on the black and white image, and small black dots on the coloured (brown) image, an image that made the buzzard look as if it had been in the oven for an hour and was ready to serve at the table. I hadn’t had lunch and this thought made me quite hungry!

So what could we do with this evidence? We could approach the suspect and reveal the strange burials beside the pheasant release pen that was operated by him. He was unlikely to make any admission, and we would have shown our hand. I trusted my informants, yet there was still no evidence of the abuse of pesticides to kill wildlife. A much better plan was to wait. This is a strategy that is in force in relation to a few shooting estates where we have strong suspicions of illegal activity but not enough to approach any suspect with any prospect of a prosecution or a conviction. It is a strategy that is used UK-wide, including in all of the incidents earlier related in this chapter. Aged 63 as I write, I might not have time to wait 5 years, but hopefully there will be a successor who will have that time and more. Patience is a virtue, no more than in the investigation of wildlife crime.

Patience paid off.

In this case, the following August 2009, a Saturday this time, I had a call at home from a couple who had been walking in the wood round the new pheasant pen earlier described and had found a distinctly unwell buzzard inside the pen. They’d taken the bird home and I advised them to contact Shanwell Animal Rescue Centre in Dundee to collect it, but they phoned back a short time later to tell me the bird had died, and had vomited before eventually keeling over. I already had some suspicion that the bird had been poisoned; the vomiting confirmed it in my mind.

I collected the dead buzzard (and the vomit – oh the thrills of a wildlife crime officer’s job!) and arranged a search for the next day. If it is possible to act quickly in a pesticide abuse case this has a better chance of success.  I dropped off the searchers again, this time PC Charlie Everitt of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and Ian Thomson. The result was the recovery of a well-predated pheasant poult from the pen that I was sure would be the bait.

Buzzard and pheasant poult were examined and very quickly Elizabeth Sharp at SASA was able to tell me that both had traces of carbofuran. I was a bit surprised that this didn’t tally with my information, as the pesticide should have been alpha-chloralose, but it was a positive result and we needed to keep up the momentum. In this case there was sufficient evidence for a warrant to be granted to search a shed I was told was used by The Terminator, where I suspected the pesticide may be kept.

A week later a plan was about to be put in place, and PCs Shaun Lough and Colin Proudfoot were in situ before daylight beside the pheasant pen awaiting the arrival of the suspect. I met another police officer, Peter Lorrain-Smith, not a wildlife crime officer but co-opted for the job in hand, Ian Thomson of RSPB and Willie Milne of Scottish Government Rural Payment and Inspections Directorate (SGRPID), both partner agencies in the investigation of pesticide abuse, outside the Perth police station.  Daylight was breaking and as I was just about to get in to my car a peregrine shot over my head, not 30 yards above me. I just had time to gather my senses when a second peregrine followed the first. Unusual in a city environment, I suspected they were a parent and a chick from a nest site on the edge of Perth and were on patrol for early morning town pigeons that might do for a breakfast snack. (Not long after this I heard of a pigeon taken by a peregrine in Perth’s High Street, to the delight or bewilderment of shoppers. More recently an adult female peregrine came off second-best, and after a stoop at a High Street pigeon it crashed into a shop window and broke its neck.) The four of us left the office and waited in a car park a mile away from the pheasant pen.  We were able to view the wood and the pen with binoculars and awaited the arrival of the key player in the drama that we hoped would unfold.

By 9.00 a.m, two hours after we had parked, there was no movement of our suspect. My information was that he fed the pheasants – still in the pen on 9 September, this rather late time of the year – just after daylight.  Not today he didn’t. I decided to send out two scouts, Jim and Willie, who wouldn’t be known to the suspect, to see if there was any sight of him. In half an hour the two returned, saying that his landrover was parked at the roadside at the other end of the estate, and that he was probably in the wood adjacent to the vehicle, though they had never seen him. In policing always expect the unexpected.

The unexpected happened.  A quad bike suddenly appeared heading for the wood that held the pheasant pen, and I alerted Colin and Shaun, who I thought might be pretty cold by that time and would welcome some movement to warm them up. They phoned me a minute or two later to say that it was not our suspect on the quad bike, but a person who apparently fed the birds in that pen on a Wednesday. Bloody Hell.

We left Shaun and Colin with the ‘temp’ and the rest of us drove round to where the landrover had earlier been seen. No landrover. We went to the shed that was covered by the warrant for a search to take place, but no sign of anyone there.  It was an open shed and not the place I would have thought that game rearing equipment would have been stored in any case. We continued on up a dirt track and found a brand new shed that was much more like a safe place to keep equipment.  Better still, there was a Landrover in the process of parking near the shed.

Peter and I drove across to the landrover and I introduced myself to its occupant.  This was our suspect. I told him why we were there and asked Peter to caution him. When I made him aware of the recovery of the buzzard and the bait from his pheasant pen he admitted that he had put the poisoned poult in the pen as he was ‘getting hammered with buzzards.’ I asked what he had put on the poult, and he said it was a mix of alpha (alphachloralose) and Yaltox (carbofuran). Next I asked him where his supply of the pesticide was and he took his jacket from the landrover and produced a small tub from one of the pockets, handing this to me. I carefully opened it and saw half an inch or so of dark blue granules at the bottom. I suppose at that point our suspect realised that there was no going back.

The warrant we had did not cover a search of the unlocked landrover, but in the circumstances we were entitled to search it using powers that Peter, as a police officer, had under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. In any event there was no need to use these powers. The Terminator anticipated what was about to happen and said, “Well you’ll find this anyway.” He went to the back door of the vehicle and in the manner of a magician producing a rabbit from a hat took out a dead buzzard. “I shot this earlier with the .243,” he admitted. This was the .243 which was propped against the passenger seat of the Landrover, along with its smaller cousin, a .22.

We now had a clue to the use of two pesticides, though the contents of the tub were yet to be tested. If indeed the tub contained alphachloraIose and carbofuran we would need to get the buzzard and the bait found the previous week re-tested to see if there was evidence of both pesticides in them. This turned out to be the case.

We also had to confirm, so far as was possible, that the buzzard had been shot with a high-powered rifle.  I took the bird to Perth Prison, where the staff kindly allowed the use of their scanner. An x-ray confirmed that there was some serious damage to the buzzard; much more than would be the case if it had been shot with a .22. Since I’ve shot plenty of rabbits with a .22 I was happy that I knew the difference. If the case went to trial and the fiscal wanted a more detailed examination of the bird this could always be done by a veterinary pathologist at a later date. My preliminary examination, which cost the public purse nothing, would suffice meantime.

As it happened no further evidence was required. The gamekeeper – or by now the ex-gamekeeper – appeared in Perth Sheriff Court on 15 February 2010 and pleaded guilty through his defence solicitor to intentionally shooting a buzzard and to possessing a quantity of two pesticides with which he could commit an offence. His pleas of not guilty to a charge of intentionally or recklessly poisoning a buzzard and to possessing two rifles with which he could commit an offence were accepted by the Crown.  I was not in court, but according to a newspaper report, the sheriff told the defence solicitor that, ‘Anyone employed as a gamekeeper would be aware of very considerable restrictions there now are on the damage and destruction of wild birds. Anyone in that position would be expected to know it was illegal.’ He was not prepared to sentence that day and wanted the ex-gamekeeper to appear before him for sentence. Could this mean jail?

There are regular calls from a variety of organisations for a person convicted of killing birds of prey, by poisons or otherwise, to be jailed. There is absolutely no doubt that some deserve this fate, though getting the evidence to have them standing in a dock is fraught with a whole range of difficulties, as readers who have come this far in the book will understand. Statistics kept by RSPB over many years show that the occupation of the majority of people convicted of bird of prey persecution is that of a gamekeeper. Most gamekeepers don’t have previous convictions, and most people with a clean record, as it were, don’t get jailed the first time they are found guilty of a crime or offence, unless for a crime at the top end of the scale such as murder, robbery, rape or maybe the poisoning of an extremely rare bird such as a golden eagle.  There is no doubt that if a gamekeeper were to be jailed for killing birds of prey that would send out a very strong message and would act as a deterrent to others. But for a gamekeeper to be imprisoned it needs to be either for a series of wildlife crimes of the worst type or, as I have said, the person having a previous record.

The man dubbed by his neighbours as The Terminator appeared for sentence in due course.  I was not in court to hear any pleas in mitigation put forward by his defence, though I knew the defence would major on this being the first time the ex-keeper had found himself on the wrong side of the law. On the first charge, that of shooting the buzzard, he was fined £400.  He was admonished on the charge of possessing the two pesticides. An earlier motion by the prosecution for the forfeiture of his .243 rifle and telescopic sight, claimed to be worth £1,000, was withdrawn.

A newspaper reported the presiding sheriff in the case to have told The Terminator just before sentencing, “You may not have appreciated how serious the courts take the illegal destruction of wildlife. I think you will be aware of that now.”

Not everyone will agree.

See A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on alanstewart164@btinternet.com

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