Salmon poachers, explosives and Cymag

Salmon leaping from a pool

Salmon leaping from a pool

Cymag tins. This product has been banned since 2004

Cymag tins. This product has been banned since 2004

An excerpt from my first book, Wildlife Detective:

My first salmon poaching case greatly influenced my career, virtually making me a specialist in dealing with poaching cases overnight. The circumstances turned out to be unique in my fifty years of policing; I have still not heard of another police officer having a similar case. It was sparked from the most basic of good policing practice, observation, inquisitiveness, evaluation and most importantly of being aware of crime trends. This is how it came about.

Each police force had its own weekly bulletin, which gave details of some of the more serious crimes committed, criminals arrested, criminals wanted for interview or criminals travelling into other force areas to commit crime. Times have changed for the better and all of this information is now available to the bobby on the beat at the touch of a computer key. It can all be accessed virtually in ‘real time’ without the need to wait for a week on a bulletin. In any event I read in the Stirling and Clackmannan Police Bulletin that two of their salmon poachers, both from the village of Fallin, were travelling each weekend to the River Deveron near Turriff to take salmon from the river. Their names and addresses were given, as was the fact that they were using a grey Mini van with the registered number WAG 844.

That weekend in October I was day shift and out on patrol on the A9 in a Jaguar police patrol car. I had with me a police woman with just weeks under her belt as a police officer and, as I had just started in May, our combined police experience was little more than six months. Much of the patrol consisted of parking somewhere with a view of the passing traffic and looking for something of criminal or road traffic interest that we could get our teeth into. We were nearing the end of our shift on the Sunday afternoon when a grey Mini van approached travelling in the direction of Stirling.

As the police car driver I had the better view as it was approaching from my offside and I saw that there were two men in the van. While every other driver with a clear conscience has a look at a police car as they pass, these men stared straight ahead. Pretend we don’t see the cops and with a bit of luck they may not have seen us. Even without bearing the number plate WAG 844 this would have been a vehicle to have a closer look at, but with this number plate its fate was sealed. The men had 43 salmon in the back of the van and told us that, as regular salmon anglers, they had just had one of the best fishing weekends of their lives. Conditions had just been right for worm fishing and the fish had been snapping at the worm almost as soon as it had been cast into the pool. Fishermen are experts at tall tales and it got better. They said they had caught so many fish they didn’t know what they were going to do with them all and would we like a couple! Our response was that we would like more than a couple: we wanted them all. We also wanted the two people that were in charge of them who we were arresting for unlawful possession of salmon.

Fish poaching has now been consolidated into one piece of legislation, the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 2003, but at that time it was covered by the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Act 1951. Unlawful possession of salmon or sea trout is always the best starting point for an investigation, and other charges can be added in if and when more information becomes available. Once the men were charged and safely in a police cell we would begin the search for more evidence as to how the fish had been taken. It was also interesting that the men had £300 each in their possession. This was a lot of money in 1966 and I had a strong suspicion that they had sold a number of the fish they had caught and the 43 we had was only what was left.

Police can never be experts in everything that they deal with and, depending on the particular investigation, experts in other fields are regularly called in to assist before a case goes to court. This is nowhere more relevant than in the field of wildlife crime, which of course includes poaching. In this particular case I called in water bailiffs from the Forth District Salmon Fisheries Board. Their examination of the fish showed that each one of the 43 had a mark in its mouth consistent with having been caught by a hook, but all of us were convinced the men could not have caught so many salmon legally. We were sure the salmon had been taken by the use of Cymag. This is the trade name for sodium cyanide, a white powder which gives off hydrogen cyanide gas when exposed to moisture. If a quantity of Cymag is thrown into a river at a fast flowing part upstream of a pool holding salmon, the salmon will effectively be suffocated, will thrash about on the surface, and once dead can be easily scooped out of the river as they float downstream. If we had to place bets on the way the fish were taken, this is where the smart money would have been placed.

On the Monday morning the men were due to appear from custody at Perth Sheriff Court. (Dunblane, where I was based, had its own sheriff court but it only operated on a Wednesday). An arrangement would be made with the procurator fiscal to leave their case till the last of the morning’s cases. In the meantime, at 8.30 am, I was waiting at the doors of the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Faskally, Pitlochry, with a random sample of six of the salmon in the boot of the police car. This laboratory has some of the leading Scottish experts on matters relating to freshwater, and their evidence is essential in proving that salmon have been taken by Cymag. The fisheries experts got to work on the salmon and before long they had a result. If I had placed a bet on Cymag my money would have gone down the drain. My first salmon poaching case and it was a method of taking fish almost unknown in Scotland; they had been taken by explosives. All of the blood vessels, including the capillaries, had been ruptured by the detonation of some sort of explosive in the pool. I was flabbergasted but this evidence was sufficient for another two charges to be added, those of taking the fish by proscribed methods, which included the use of explosives, noxious substances or electrical devices, and the fact that two or more persons had been acting together in this activity.

The two accused pleaded not guilty and later faced trial at Dunblane Sheriff Court. I don’t know whether or not the sheriff, Sheriff Prain, had a particular interest in salmon poaching cases but the trial lasted till well after 6 pm, something I have not heard of since. They were both found guilty and were fined £30 each, with the alternative of 30 days imprisonment. Despite the fine being at the lower end of the scale, even in 1966, neither paid the fine and I got the satisfaction several months after the trial of arresting them both for a second time and taking them to Perth Prison. There were two important lessons from that case. The first was to appreciate the lengths to which criminals committing crime sometimes go to cover their tracks, even to the extent of marking the mouth of each of the fish with a hook so that they looked as if they really had been caught legally. The other was never to make assumptions before the full facts have been established.

Since this incident in 1966 I have seen the effect of explosives during specialist training courses designed for that purpose. In one of the demonstrations some explosive was set off in a pond. The resulting waterspout went nearly 50 feet into the air and when I saw it I thought back to the River Deveron and how effective a tool explosives would be to an unscrupulous salmon poacher. As for Cymag, it was taken off the market in late 2004. Its legitimate use in the gassing of rats and rabbits had come to an end, probably because of the real risk to the health of those using it. Its effects are of course fatal, though if caught early enough the drug amyl nitrate can sometimes ameliorate its effects.

Its effects were demonstrated in an incident in 2005 when a gamekeeper found several part-filled Cymag tins left behind by his predecessor. For whatever reason he decided to put all the powder into one tin, and in so doing was badly affected by the toxic hydrogen cyanide fumes. An ambulance was called and, as is the case with fatal or potentially fatal accidents at a workplace, the police were informed. For my part, as wildlife crime officer, I arranged for experts from the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (SASA) in Edinburgh to collect and make safe the Cymag. Meantime I phoned one of the previous manufacturers of the substance, Zeneca, a company based in Grangemouth. I spoke to a woman there, explained the incident that had just taken place, that a man was seriously ill from the effects of Cymag and was being taken to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, and was there any further information she could give on Cymag that might be of assistance to the hospital.

She said she would need to speak with someone else first and could I hang on. I hung on. She came back to the telephone after a few minutes, and I must confess I was more than a little stunned by what she had to say. Very politely and in a matter-of-fact manner she said, ‘I have to ask you first of all if the man was prescribed the Cymag by his doctor?’


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

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