The use of x-rays in wildlife crime investigation

A buzzard shot from close range. Airport x-ray clearly showing the shotgun pellets

A buzzard shot from close range. Airport x-ray clearly showing the shotgun pellets

A shot goosander. This prison x-ray clearly shows the shotgun pellets

A shot goosander. This prison x-ray clearly shows the shotgun pellets

A prison x-ray of an oystercatcher that had been shot with air air rifle. The x-ray helped the veterinary pathologist to recover the pellet

A prison x-ray of an oystercatcher that had been shot with air air rifle. The x-ray helped the veterinary pathologist to recover the pellet

I was really annoyed last week to read in a comment to a blog reporting the six buzzards found in Aberdeenshire-

‘Let’s hope that they are not sent off to the airport for x-ray as has been common practice for raptors found in this area for many years. If shooting is suspected then they should be professionally examined for evidence of gun shot by a qualified vet.’

Another armchair detective! Here we have a chap making a comment like this without having had any experience of preparing cases for prosecution.

In wildlife crime investigations over the years I have used x-rays from vets, x-rays from an airport and also from a prison. There is little difference in the quality; in fact those x-rays from the airport and prison have the option to change colour which sometimes makes the item or items that you are looking for even more clear. Other advantages are that in days of austerity the cost to the public purse is nil, and if a case goes to court no vet is required, cutting the witness list.

Shotgun pellets in an x-ray can be easily identified by a primary school pupil, far less a qualified vet. If the bird or mammal has been in the centre of the shot pattern there are normally a large number of pellets visible. In an unusual case where two barnacle geese were shot, the first, hit with a heavy pattern of pellets, dropped immediately. A second goose flew on for about 200 yards before dropping. An airport x-ray showed it had only been struck by a single pellet.

Bullets and airgun pellets are no more difficult to detect and are usually clearly visible inside the body. Taking several x-rays at different angles can then give a veterinary pathologist an almost 3D image and allow easier recovery of the bullet in case it needs to be matched to a suspect’s rifle. A bullet that has passed right through a victim normally leaves fragments of lead if a bone is struck, but this is one for a veterinary pathologist in any case to be able to prove the cause of death to a court.

In the investigation of crime it is amazing how many armchair detectives there are, offering advice and guidance but mostly criticism. I wouldn’t think of telling an engineer, a baker or a candlestick maker how to do their job. Even if the procurator fiscal was not satisfied with the prison or airport x-rays then the option is always available to have them re-done by a vet, though that has never happened. Neither has there been any criticism or negative comment by a court. It seems everyone is happy that the system is competent and professional apart from Mr Blogger.

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