The Sledmere poisons case – the chemicals involved

The liquid chemical mevinphos, under the trade name Phosdrin. Handing this pesticide terrified me, even more so if it had been decanted into an innocuous container such as a sauce or juice bottle.

The liquid chemical mevinphos, under the trade name Phosdrin. Handling this pesticide terrified me, even more so if it had been decanted into an innocuous container such as a sauce or juice bottle.

For some time now I have been aware of the case pending against a former gamekeeper from Sledmere Estate in Humberside. Following the recovery of a buzzard on the estate that had been poisoned by the banned pesticide aldicarb, police carried out an investigation and recovered a number of pesticides that were linked to the possession of the recently retired headkeeper. Two of these pesticides proved to be aldicarb, (the same pesticide as killed the buzzard and one much more commonly used in raptor persecution incidents in England and Wales than in Scotland), and carbofuran, probably the most commonly-abused pesticide and by far the most commonly abused in Scotland in recent years despite being banned in 2001.

Not only did the man have these two carbamate-based pesticides, but also had a pesticide banned well before carbofuran: mevinphos. This pesticide, usually found under the trade name Phosdrin, is one I used to recover in the early 1990s when I was wildlife crime officer with Tayside Police. While the first two are extremely dangerous but are in granular form, making them slightly less risky to handle, mevinphos is in liquid form. It is without doubt the most dangerous and frightening pesticide I have ever handled, when a spillage on to the skin or even inhaling the fumes could kill. In the 1980s a Tayside gamekeeper that I once knew was found dead at his home after handling this chemical. It seems he got some on his hands and somehow it was then transmitted to his lips with fatal consequences. Another keeper I knew had been using mevinphos and as he was driving his Landrover he thought the window was steaming up but in fact it had been his eyes glazing over. He told me that he immediately stopped and washed his hands and face in a burn, which possibly saved him. A third Tayside gamekeeper was admitted to hospital with hallucinations after using mevinphos. He later told me while he was in hospital he thought his dog was having pups under the hospital bed, then the dog was walking along the ceiling. He fled from the hospital and tried to swim a nearby river, almost drowning in the process. These examples, all from illegal use of this pesticide and all from just the one Scottish county, shows how deadly this chemical is and how seriously its use – or even its possession many decades after it was banned – should be treated.

Not content with having three deadly pesticides, the fourth one found was strychnine. This is a white crystalline chemical that was used extensively for poisoning moles underground before it was also banned. Like the carbamates, a few granules is enough to cause death, though in my experience this substance is less commonly used to kill birds of prey but I have several times encountered it used to poison domestic animals such as cats and dogs. Like the earlier poisons, the victims have a horrendous death, with muscle spasms eventually causing the heart and lungs to sieze up. I know less about the law in the other parts of the UK, but in Scotland there are likely to be circumstances with the use of these chemicals where the Crown may consider the common law crime of culpable and reckless conduct, (a subject on which I have earlier written) which has the potential to take a suspect to one of the higher courts – sheriff and jury or High Court.

The last pesticide recovered by the police in this man’s arsenal was alphachloralose. This is generally a white powder that kills victims by lowering the body temperature so that they die of hypothermia. It is the safest to handle, but nevertheless is illegal to use apart from by trained pest controllers for pigeons or small mammals and in formulations of generally about 7% purity. When used illegally it is usually found in almost 100% purity and I have little doubt that this would be the case with the sample recovered.

So we are talking about some seriously deadly substances here, not only to wildlife but to humans. It is always difficult for the police to make the link between a victim of a pesticide being killed by the same pesticide as found in someone’s possession, but the question must be asked as to why this man had a whole range of pesticides that have never had any legitimate use in game management yet have been traditionally been used to poison wildlife on shooting estates. Was he trying to collect the whole range as someone would collect stamps or postcards? I doubt it. It would be extremely naïve not to believe that this man has been using these chemicals for illegal purposes for many years, nevertheless this was not a charge that was proved to the court.

The charges for which the man was convicted related to the storage of these five chemicals. The penalty of the court was a six months conditional discharge (in other words there would be no penalty provided he stays out of bother for six months), and a £15 (that’s fifteen pounds) victim surcharge. Having explained the dangers of these chemicals I’ll leave readers to consider this penalty for themselves.

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