To start the new year, an amusing excerpt from my book Wildlife Detective –
The Buttonless Jacket Gang
Considering I was working in a city, poaching was more varied than that encountered in many county police stations. A call one morning from a gamekeeper, Ernie Bannister, just outside Perth alerted me to the fact that he had been visited by a group of professional rabbit poachers. He and his son had been driving through the estate about midnight when they had chanced upon three men climbing over a gate into a field. They stopped and spoke to the men, who told them they had been thinking about poaching some rabbits but now that they had been spotted they were aborting their night’s mission. The men had no dogs, no guns, no ferrets – and no buttons on their jackets. This could only mean their intention was to use a long net.
A long net is just as it sounds. It is a fairly fine net, made from cotton or twine, usually either twenty five or fifty metres in length and about three feet in height. It is set along the side of a wood on sticks placed about four or five metres apart. The top edge of the net is normally set about eighteen inches high with the bottom edge on the ground. There is therefore plenty slack in the net in which rabbits can become entangled. The whole length of a field can be covered, depending on how many nets are employed. If the net is set quietly the rabbits are undisturbed and remain feeding out in the centre of the field. Normally two people, each holding the end of a long string stretched between them, walk from the other end of the field towards the net dragging the string over the ground so that when the string touches a rabbit it heads towards the net as fast as it can go. Often a third person is left to run back and forward along the length of the net removing and despatching the rabbits before the net becomes too full and too stretched and begins to allow rabbits to escape underneath. Since this is all carried out in darkness and since a lightweight net is easily snagged on anything that protrudes from clothing, it is important to get rid of buttons and substitute them with string if required.
I was pleased at the keeper’s attention to detail. I was even more pleased that he drove round to the main road, the A9, and saw that there was a car parked and unattended at a field gateway. As keepers always do, he had meticulously noted the registration number of the car. He had gone even further and parked his Land Rover at a part of the road where he could watch for the men returning to the car. They returned about an hour later, turned the car about in the centre of the road and headed west.
Before the keeper contacted me in the morning he also summoned the other keepers on the estate and carried out a line search through the wood near the roadside opposite where the car had been parked. This was an astute move since they found the grand total of 99 rabbits, gutted and spaced out to cool on a grassy area just a few yards inside the wood. There was little doubt that the poachers had spotted the Land Rover and didn’t want to risk taking the rabbits to their car at that point. It was the month of December so they would come to no harm from blowflies and ground dwelling insects if left out for a night. Our opinion was that the men would return just after dark for their bounty. They had gone to a lot of bother and there was no way that the rabbits were going to be abandoned to the foxes in the form of a vulpine fast food take-away.
In the meantime I had carried out a check on the vehicle registration number noted by the keeper. It came back as an owner with an address in Larkhall. That night the keepers, a police colleague and I set up a watch on the rabbits from just before darkness fell. We had little time to wait, and before long a car came slowly along the A9 from the direction of Stirling, stopped nearly opposite us, dropped off two passengers, then drove off towards Perth. My assumption was that the driver would turn, wait for a few minutes to give his passengers time to collect the rabbit together then drive back along the road to collect them. It would only take a few seconds for the rabbits to be loaded into the back of the car and all would again be high-tailing it back to Larkhall.
We crouched motionless in a semi-circle round the rabbits. We heard the roadside fence grate as the wires on the fence ran through the supporting staples with the weight of the men crossing, then they were there, neatly surrounded by us, and loading the rabbits into bags. We waited a few moments until most of the rabbits were bagged – there was no use in us doing the work if our victims were obligingly doing it for us – then pounced. There was no escape for the two men. Detaining suspects in dark woodland at night unfortunately doesn’t include the right to stuff a hankie in their mouth. At that point their colleague with the car drove along the road and stopped almost beside us. One of our two long-netters shouted a warning and before we could do anything about it the car took off with a screech of tyres, the driver abandoning his two pals to their fate.
The charge on this occasion was under the Night Poaching Act 1828. Interestingly this legislation has powers for landowners and gamekeepers to arrest a suspect, but no such power for the police. A power of arrest exists under the Night Poaching Act for the police if three or more persons are involved, which had been the case, but the caveat is that at least one of the persons must be armed with some sort of weapon, even a walking stick. Since we had no evidence of a weapon they could not be arrested under the Night Poaching Act.
Much of the content of Game Acts was enacted in the 19th century and its aim was to give powers to landowners and their ‘servants’ to arrest poachers, seize game that they had taken, and convey the poachers to the police station. There they would be kept and appear before the court the following day, where a private prosecution would be taken by the estate factor. Nowadays all criminal cases in Scotland are the remit of the procurator fiscal, the public prosecutor. In any event, when we noted the poachers’ details they had nothing which could verify their identity; their pockets were as devoid of contents as their jackets were of buttons. Common sense prevails under Common Law, and police officers can arrest a suspect until such time as his identity is established beyond doubt. This would not stretch to arresting local criminals who are well known to the officers concerned but it most definitely applied to two men from Larkhall, dressed akin to scarecrows, that I had never set eyes on before.
The two were taken to Divisional Police Headquarters at Perth, where contact was made with Strathclyde Police to visit the addresses given and ensure that we had been given the correct names and addresses. Once their bona fides were established they were released to receive a summons to appear before Perth Sheriff Court in due course, where they were dealt with by means of a fine.
The Night Poaching Act 1828 is an Act which is seldom used nowadays. While I have no doubt that many poaching incidents did and indeed still take place at night most offenders either seem to escape detection or are dealt with under legislation that is more specific to the type of game they are taking, such as salmon, deer or hares. Coincidentally I did meet our Larkhall friends a few weeks later when I caught them ferreting rabbits without permission one Sunday morning on a farm on the east side of Perth. They still wore the same buttonless jackets that were their trade mark. This time they were dealt with under legislation designed to deal with day-time poaching, the Game (Scotland) Act 1832, the offence being to trespass on land by day in unlawful search or pursuit of game. They had amassed a catch of twenty rabbits by the time they were caught and again were fined by the court. I chatted to them about our previous encounter and the third person involved admitted that he had been the car driver who had sped off to safety. The two who had been caught held no grudge, stating that all three had chipped in and paid a third of the two fines each. Honour among thieves – and poachers.
(These incidents took place in the early 1970s. Thankfully legislation has improved and the game laws were repealed in 2011 and replaced with new provisions in the Wildlife and Countryside Act).
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