Tayside’s first pesticide abuse conviction

The poisoned eggs on the hillside, as photographed by the ornithologist

The poisoned eggs on the hillside, as photographed by the ornithologist

The tub of Alpha-chloralose in the boots

The tub of Alpha-chloralose in the boots

The Lea & Perrins sauce bottle containing Phosdrin (mevinphos) in the Land Rover

The Lea & Perrins sauce bottle containing Phosdrin (mevinphos) in the Land Rover

Tayside’s first pesticide abuse conviction, as recounted in my first book, Wildlife Detective:

In June 1995, a field ornithologist was walking on the hills on Farleyer Estate, Aberfeldy, Perthshire, when he found two hens eggs lying on a bare patch on the heather moorland. The eggs were in the middle of nowhere and there was not a hen to be seen! The ornithologist was well aware of what to look for in relation to poisoned baits and it was his view that the eggs were baited with a pesticide of some sort and had been left out to provide a fatal feast for a pair of ravens that he had earlier observed in the area. The witness photographed the eggs and it was interesting that he left one where it was and collected and wrapped the other one up to bring to the police station. There is no doubt that this saved us considerable valuable time in the enquiry but it was a dangerous thing to do. The collecting and delivering of potentially toxic evidence by a witness is something the police would never recommend. If for instance he had made contact with me from the hill, had told me of his suspicions and I had asked him to bring the eggs in for examination there would have been two major flaws in that instruction. The first, and by far the most important, is that he could have run the risk of being contaminated by the eggs during the handling of them. Secondly, he would have removed all the evidence from the scene of the crime – from the locus in police parlance – and since he was on his own the fact that the eggs had been there in the first instance would not have been corroborated.

Since under Scots law all main pieces of the evidential jigsaw require corroboration in some form or other, this would have been a bar to using the eggs to any effect in a courtroom. A defence lawyer could easily argue that the ornithologist did not find the eggs on Farleyer Estate at all but had simply injected them with pesticide in his own home and brought them to the police simply to cause trouble. There would be no prosecution argument that could stand against such a theory.

Though he shouldn’t have touched the eggs, what the ornithologist did was in fact ideal. He effectively gave us a chance to get a quick test carried out on the egg that he brought in, while leaving the other one to be collected when there was corroboration available. Tests for pesticides are carried out free of charge by Science and Advice for Scottish Agricultural (SASA) in Edinburgh. The scientists there are extremely experienced and professional. They are also extremely busy so those of us who put specimens there for examination supply as much information as possible to enable them if possible to home in on the correct chemical on their very first test. We also try not to harass them for a quick result except where this may make all the difference between a successful case and a failure.

In this case we were keen for a quick result. We had also spotted a minute quantity of white powder adhering to the egg near where the culprit made the hole in the shell to insert the chemical and mix it with the contents. When we looked slightly later the powder had gone, but it was enough for us to suggest to SASA that the most relevant test to start the series of tests should be for Alpha-chloralose.

Alpha-chloralose – sometimes referred to simply as Alpha or chloralose – is permitted for the control of birds, mainly feral pigeons, by approved persons who are licensed under Section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is also available in a very low concentrate form as a rodenticide for the control of mice indoors. Alpha-chloralose acts by slowing the metabolic rate of the body, causing the victims to suffer thermal shock, and ultimately die of hypothermia. When this chemical is recovered by the police it is never in the low concentrate form and invariably is almost pure.

The day after the two hen’s eggs were found by the ornithologist, we set off to recover the second egg from the hill. The search began almost in the shadow of the magnificent mountain near Kinloch Rannoch, Schiehallion. As I got out of the car the first bird I saw was a female hen harrier flying over from the direction of Schiehallion making for the estate from which we were about to recover a poisoned bait. I couldn’t help but wonder if the harrier would breed successfully that year or in fact if it would still be alive in a few weeks’ time.

The route in to where the eggs had been found was steep. I was extremely fit on the hill at one time but several years of driving a desk had taken its toll. I managed to keep up with the others but at the expense of keeping quiet, listening to the conversation and saving the valuable energy that I had for breathing rather than speaking.

The journey up the mountainside was exciting in respect of bird life. Though my lungs were under pressure I could still see well enough and there was enough oxygen getting to my brain to register accurately what I was seeing. Meadow pipits were everywhere and I thought that if the harrier survived, at least it would have plenty food. Meadow pipits to me are the moorland equivalent of wildebeest on the African plains. They are abundant and seem to be the staple diet of many of the moorland predators. I remembered sitting on a hillside one day and seeing a merlin gliding along two or three metres off the ground. A meadow pipit chose the wrong time to fly up from the heather and took off when it saw the merlin. The merlin seemed to have the ability to switch on turbo-charging and it just accelerated up to the pipit, grabbed it neatly in one talon and that was the end for the pipit.

The other bird that was much in abundance, especially as we were following the line of an old drystane dyke up the hill, was the wheatear. Male wheatears, in their resplendent grey and black, look like they have just come out of a tailor’s shop, complete with their coat and tails reminiscent of a morning suit for some posh event or other that they are just about to attend. Seen close up they are incredibly smart, and this image is enhanced when they fly off in their typically undulating flight displaying their brilliantly white rump, flashing like a beacon between alternate periods of wing-beat and glide.

The last highlight was a wren – probably with a mate on a nest somewhere in the drystane dyke – that chattered its warning call as we approached, bobbing up and down like a small brown version of a dipper and with its short tail sticking up at right angles to its tiny body. The sheer volume of the song (and also the warning call) of the wren always leaves me lost for words. It is incredible that one of our smallest birds can be such a noisy wee devil. As we passed the nest, the wren flew out in a semi-circle to land behind us again chattering at heaven knows how many decibels in defence of its nest and its mate. I realised how easy it would be for egg collectors to find rare birds’ nests and plunder their eggs since most birds have an inbuilt defence mechanism that unfortunately betrays their most treasured possessions. It is strange that one of our smallest birds could be so brave as to defend its nest, while one of our largest birds, the golden eagle, would slip off the nest without a sound while approaching humans were still half a mile away. It would watch from a distance but would display none of the aggressive and threatening behaviour of the brave wee wren.

At the top of the hill I managed to draw breath. There was even a short distance when we had to go downhill, which was a real treat. The hen’s egg was exactly where the map drawn by the ornithologist indicated it would be. It lay there on a small grassy patch surrounded by heather, a domestic entity completely incongruous in surroundings that were almost wilderness, a trickle of albumen bubbling from the small hole in the shell through which the poison had been inserted. The egg was photographed in situ before being carefully wrapped in packaging and placed in my rucksack. As is still the case, this is the point that I finish what is left of any sandwiches and coffee in my rucksack. This serves the joint purpose of making space for any new arrival in my rucksack and ensuring that the nourishment I get will be beneficial rather than detrimental to my health.

As often happens in these cases we had a strong suspect already in mind. A new gamekeeper had been employed on Farleyer Estate but before his arrival there we had been alerted to several suspicious or illegal incidents on the estate where he was formerly employed. Taking all the circumstances together there was sufficient evidence to allow a sheriff to grant a search warrant and we paid our suspect a visit eight days later.

Many investigations into wildlife crime are carried out as joint investigations with other relevant agencies. In this particular case the team consisted of another police officer and me, plus two members of staff from the then Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department (SOAFD) now Scottish Government Rural Payments Inspections Directorate (SGRPID). This government department has a remit to investigate the use, misuse and abuse of pesticides and the experience of their staff is invaluable. With the police and SOAFD staff there is a mix of different experience and skills that maximise any opportunity that arises to obtain evidence to submit a solid prosecution case to the procurator fiscal.

When we called at the gamekeeper’s house the place was deserted. A small storeroom adjacent to the kitchen door was open and when we looked in there I saw a pair of hill boots on the floor. Inside one of the boots was a white tub and, remarkably, there was a label on the tub stating that the contents were Alpha-chloralose and that it had been bought in a particular store in a town in Ireland. I gently opened the tub and saw that it was half-full of a white powder that had all the appearances to suggest that the labelling accurately reflected the contents.

At this point the suspect appeared in a Land Rover, which he parked near his house. He was cautioned and agreed that the tub contained Alpha-chloralose and also that it was his property. He was asked about the eggs laced with the substance found out on the hill and immediately admitted that it was he who had put them there.

This interview was too easy. After years of interviewing suspects I have reached the conclusion that no-one tells the truth right away. A suspect always waits till he or she is backed into a corner, has assessed the evidence known to the police by the questions they ask or the information they have, realises there is no escape, then tries to make the best of a bad job by throwing in excuses and reasons that assuage and mitigate his or her involvement. There is one notable exception: when the person hopes that the police will grab with both hands an admission to a lesser evil then go away quickly, rubbing their hands in the satisfaction of an easy result. To the chagrin of this particular suspect it doesn’t always work that way.

We knew that something more serious was lurking somewhere in the wings and a short while later a search of the Land Rover justified our perseverance. On the front passenger seat of the Land Rover was a cardboard box. This box mostly contained shotgun cartridges but also held a bottle of Lea and Perrins sauce. I’m not a great fan of Lea and Perrins sauce but I knew that this was not quite the standard colour – dark green rather than black. Apart from Phosdrin, all of the pesticides I had encountered up till then were in powder or crystalline form. I asked him if it was Phosdrin but he said it was Lea and Perrins. A feeble excuse came forth that was related to spicing up Chinese carry-out meals that were a bit bland, but it was a last-ditch attempt that the suspect knew was going to fail. To call his bluff I suggested that I would pour a drop on to my hands and taste it. That was the crunch call and there was a reluctant admission that the bottle contained Phosdrin after all.

This was probably the first-ever successful case of pesticide abuse through Perth Sheriff Court and the penalty was substantial. The gamekeeper pleaded guilty and was fined £2500. I thought this would send out a message strong enough to stop in their tracks those who used this method of indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife. The future showed that this was not to be the case.

 

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

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