A second prize in a red kite poisoning investigation

The first of the three red kites found on Glenturret Estate. (July 2007)

The first of the three red kites found on Glenturret Estate. (July 2007)

The third of the three red kites found on Glenturret Estate (October 2007)

The third of the three red kites found on Glenturret Estate (October 2007)

I noticed that a photo of a poisoned red kite that I took for a wildlife crime investigation had been used to illustrate an item on Twitter giving advice on recognising and reporting suspected bird poisoning incidents. It was good advice and I was pleased to see the photo used, especially since it was credited to NWCU. I had written of the poisoning incident in A Lone Furrow and thought it worth repeating the relevant part of the chapter on my blog. In this chapter I had been going over poisoning incidents year by year and had come to 2007 ……..

2007 was no better, though the circumstances were completely different. All five incidents were in Perthshire and, unusually, all involved red kites. These birds feed differently to other species. If anyone has ever seen red kites at one of the several feeding stations in the UK – a diversification from farming carried out by entrepreneurial farmers to augment their income and to provide a huge amount of pleasure to the public – they would see that the kite swoops down and picks up a morsel of food, without even landing in some cases. The bird then eats the morsel in the air or flies off to a nearby tree to eat the food at leisure. This different feeding strategy means that a kite that is poisoned may not be found as near the bait as may a buzzard. This demands a different investigation strategy by the police.

We had a suspect in the first of these cases, a kite that was picked up on Invercauld Estate at the Spittal of Glenshee in January 2007. Because it had rotted away almost into the ground, it had probably been dead since the spring of 2006. Search warrants are difficult to obtain and, contrary to the impression some folks have, the police can’t just run out and get a warrant to search someone’s premises or house on a whim. When we have a suspect we keep an eye on that person and very often they feature in other wildlife crimes. Evidence can build up and in time may become sufficient for a warrant to be granted. (As it turned out our suspect in this case, a beat keeper on Invercauld Estate, moved soon after to a low ground shoot between Perth and Dundee. He was not there long when information began to come in that he was poisoning buzzards.  We managed to nail him for killing buzzards and he was fined and sacked). With the death of the second red kite, found north of Perth in June, this would probably have been poisoned in springtime, but this time there was no suspect. Four years later I still have no idea who may have killed this bird.

In June a red kite was found on Glenturret Estate in west Perthshire, this time fairly fresh, maybe dead a month or so. We had no real suspect but made a search in an area about a mile or so radius from where the bird was found. This was much wider than we might search for a bait if the bird had been a buzzard, golden eagle or white-tailed eagle. After the search we were no further forward and the investigation was put on hold, though an interesting aspect of the investigation was the proprietary mix of pesticides, carbofuran and isofenphos, traced by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture when the bird was examined. The period of inactivity didn’t last long, and in September another dead red kite was found on the boundary of the same estate but more than a mile from the first. It was beginning to decompose and could well have been killed around the same time as the first bird. This second incident tended to narrow the field down for suspects, and this was narrowed down further when a third kite was found in October in the very same area. All three birds had died of the same mix of pesticides, it was likely that all had been killed about the same time, and it was extremely likely that the same person had been responsible.

Finding the criminal and establishing sufficient evidence to convict him was always going to be difficult. If a gamekeeper was involved, as statistics show is very often the case, it is hard to prove a case even when there is only one gamekeeper responsible for that area. Some large estates, particularly intensively managed grouse moors, now have seven or eight gamekeepers plus a sporting manager, which, if they are thought to be involved, complicates the enquiry considerably. However prosecution doesn’t always have to be the route that the police go down. A person being charged is one option, but if it looks like evidence is going to be impossible to obtain, stopping the criminal activity is as important, especially where rare and reintroduced birds are concerned.  On the estate on which I thought the answer lay I knew the owner, factor and head keeper well. I knew that the estate policy was to work within the law, yet no matter how often this is reinforced with employees, not all take heed. I spoke to the head keeper, and discussed my suspicions with him. He agreed to make his own enquiries and get back to me. He knew his employees better than I did and may well have had his own thoughts on the matter. The deal was that if he got the matter sorted it would end there.

He worked quickly, and I had a call from the factor that evening stating that the head keeper had found out who had been responsible: one of the under keepers. I confirmed my deal with the factor and we agreed to meet the next day with the ‘suspect,’ since the factor wanted to speak with him and wanted me to do likewise. It is important to have mutual trust and this is what made this route possible. The outcome was that the underkeeper was immediately sacked, is no longer involved in gamekeeping, and there has been no more poisoning in that part of Perthshire. I considered that a second prize, but a success nevertheless. The public seldom know of this work that goes on behind the scenes to try to safeguard wildlife, which is why I get so annoyed at blogs and other negative comments by people who don’t realise the difficulties of getting convictions and the work police wildlife crime officers and others put in to try not only to enforce the law but to prevent people breaking wildlife laws in the first place.

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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