I thought I’d follow up on my recent blog and explain to critics of the police just how difficult it is to gain a conviction when a poisoned bird of prey is found. There are of course condemnations that are justified and I was astounded that in the Black Isle red kite and buzzard poisonings that a press release went out a couple of days before a search of farm premises, and that the National Wildlife Crime Unit expertise was neither used during the search nor in the planning stage. That said, most pesticide abuse investigations are now carried out professionally, by experienced wildlife crime officers, though in many cases without much hope of getting anyone before a court.
The most common example is a bird of prey found dead, suspected to have been poisoned, and reported to the police. In Scotland – I am not so sure of the procedure elsewhere but it should be little different – the following will invariably take place:
- Timeous and discreet recovery of the bird and a search in the area for any bait that may have killed it
- A check of the Scottish Intelligence database to determine the history of the area or any suspect
- A check with NWCU to establish any knowledge they have, and probably to ask advice or assistance from the investigation support officer
- Possibly a check with Scottish Government Rural Payment Inspections Directorate as to ownership or tenancy of land and any previous knowledge they may have of pesticide abuse
- Probably a check with RSPB Investigations to see what knowledge they may have that could assist
In many cases nothing further is found and this is when a difficult investigation becomes even more so. A poisoned victim found on estate X does not necessarily mean that someone on estate X is responsible. Assuming poisoning appears to be the crime, establishing a cause of death of the bird is essential. At least in Scotland, this can often be established within 24 hours with a visual examination by an expert from Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture, an experienced wildlife crime officer or RSPB Investigations. In advance of a proper examination for pesticides this may suffice for a search warrant to be granted but without a suspect and recent criminal intelligence giving reasonable cause to believe that this is the person involved this avenue is also at an end. Even if further victims are found it adds little to the evidence.
If a bait is found this may help, as it helps to confirm the farm or estate where the crime is taking place but it is still not sufficient to prove who set out the bait. I have been involved in cases where baits and victims have been recovered, both involving the same pesticide, traces of the same pesticide have been found in the suspect’s vehicle and on his clothing and, infuriatingly, that has still been insufficient for a prosecution. An admission of guilt in cases such as this could swing the balance but hardened criminals – and, strangely, gamekeepers – are well instructed to make no comment when questioned by the police.
I cannot think of a case where anyone has been convicted of the crime of poisoning a bird when only the victim of poisoning has been found. The initial investigation could lead to other convictions, such as possession of pesticides but it is extremely difficult to link these pesticides to the death of the bird. A poisoned bird of prey found, even with an admission from a suspect that he set out (untraced) bait that killed it, could be problematic. An admission on its own is insufficient to convict unless the admission shows some specialist knowledge that only the perpetrator of the crime would know. This is why in a live case the type of pesticide found on a bait or in a victim is not released by the police. It could also be argued that how would a person know if, or demonstrate to a court’s satisfaction that, his bait actually killed the bird. If the bait and victim have a unique mix of pesticides that he could specify then that would be feasible, but if it is a single commonly-used pesticide like carbofuran or alpha-chloralose then he may think he is responsible, but would a court accept that as proof beyond reasonable doubt?
In my experience police wildlife crime officers work their socks off to get enough evidence- within the law as it stands, not as some might like it to be- to report a case to the wildlife specialist procurators fiscal. In turn they are equally as keen to get a case to court but can only proceed with the case if there seems a reasonable chance of a conviction.