Having been involved in many wildlife crime investigations on Glenogil Estate, Angus, while wildlife crime officer with Tayside Police I note with interest that a case submitted by SSPCA officers has not been proceeded with by the Crown. The case relates to the snaring of a deer (dead in the snare) and two foxes, one dead and one still alive, in September 2014. The basis of the case submitted was that William Curr, the Glenogil gamekeeper allegedly responsible for the snares, had failed to inspect the snare which had killed a deer, failed to keep a record of finding a deer in a snare and failed to check another snare for more than 24 hours, during which time a fox became trapped and died of dehydration.
So from previous investigative experience and from news reports what may the chronology of the investigation have been and why may it have failed?
- The Onekind field officer was alerted to a dead deer which had allegedly been found in a snare
- He visited the estate ‘to look for legal snares as part of the Onekind campaign to expose their cruelty’
- He appears to have found the dead deer in the snare, a line of set fox snares, a dead fox in a snare and a fox, still live, in another snare. The live fox had been caught round the abdomen and the snare had cut in to the flesh. It appears these incidents were corroborated as a report states that ‘the witnesses called the SSPCA.’
- An inspector of the SSPCA attended and humanely despatched the injured fox
- The three carcasses would have been seized so that it could be established whether or not they had been in the snares for more than the permitted period of 24 hours (snares must be checked at least once at intervals of not more than 24 hours and anything caught must be removed). It appears the fox found dead had died from dehydration, unlikely to have occurred within 24 hours.
- The tag details on the snares would be noted (this gives a number registered by the police as the user of the snare and indicates for which species the snare is set)
- A check for the DNA of the suspect may have been carried out on the snares (though for a DNA sample from the suspect, unless already on record, he would need to have been detained or arrested by the police)
- A request would be made to Police Scotland for the snare tag details, including records of which species had previously been caught and where they were caught. These records must be produced to a police officer, if requested, within 21 days.
- The suspect, Curr, would be interviewed regarding the incidents, though is not required to comment.
- A report is then submitted to the procurator fiscal
- The case was due for trial on 9 May, but on 10 March the Crown Office indicated it was not going to proceed with the case.
Assuming, evidentially, all the points have been covered, the stumbling block MAY have been procedure. There have been wildlife cases in the past where the Crown Office or court has not accepted the evidence of a person going on to land to look for offences, which is different to a person being on land for the purpose of a leisure or study activity and stumbling across such evidence.
In this case, if indeed this is the reason the Crown dropped the case, might the procedure have been much more failsafe if the Onekind field officer had informed the police of the likelihood of a dead deer in a snare and had accompanied a police officer to the scene (as indeed I have done successfully with the Onekind field officer). In the circumstances this could have been carried out without application for a search warrant.
It is frustrating that many wildlife crimes are so difficult to get to court, far less to obtain a conviction.
In response to this post, the former Merseyside Police wildlife crime officer posed the following question on Twitter:
“Alan, which legislation says only police can look for evidence of a crime? Who decides correct procedure – parliament or PF?”
It is far too long an answer for Twitter, and much better answered by Crown Office rather than me. There is no legislation stating that only police can look for evidence of a crime but I’d suggest whether that evidence is accepted or not by a court is down to proportionality. Scotland seems much tighter in this regard than England and Wales. I see several investigations carried out by ngos (without any powers) in England and Wales, where access is taken to land to gather evidence. I doubt they would get to court here yet are often successful in England and Wales.
The principle here seems to be that if a wildlife crime is suspected of having taken place on land (and I’m meaning a farm or estate) the evidence should be gathered either under warrant or such powers as police officers or SSPCA have available to them. Scottish courts seem not to like ngos with no formal powers or members of the public accessing land for the purpose of obtaining evidence of a crime, though the slightly confusing fact is that occasionally that evidence is accepted and a conviction follows.
Remember that the reason above is only my best guess at why this case failed. I may be wrong and we may never know in any case.
An earlier post I did on an English case (surveillance rather than search but the same principles of proportionality apply) can be found at https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/?s=rspb+surveillance