Carbofuran and the claim it was for use against rats!

A tub of carbofuran

A tub of carbofuran

The golden eagle poisoned in Note 2

The golden eagle poisoned in Note 2

A racing pigeon enthusiast recently convicted of possession of carbofuran he claimed he used against rats reminded me of a situation years ago when, as Tayside Police wildlife crime officer, I and a local police officer were searching for evidence of two buzzards, suspected to have been poisoned, that a gamekeeper had found and buried in a dung midden.  The story, which I recounted in Wildlife Detective (and which concluded with a pigeon fancier being charged with keeping a banned pesticide), reads:


In March 2003 a gamekeeper in Angus called at Montrose Police Station with a dead buzzard he had picked up on his ground. The bird had been recently killed and appeared in otherwise good condition. He left the bird with the police, saying that this was the third dead buzzard he had found in less than a week. I made contact with him, initially by telephone, and he gave me further details. All three birds had been found in the same field and he had buried the first two in a dung midden in the adjacent field. For those not quite so conversant with country matters a dung midden is an extremely large and rotting heap of cow shit and straw. I collected the dead buzzard from Montrose and together with PC John Robertson, a divisional wildlife crime officer based at Carnoustie Police Station, went to make a search of the area. We agreed that John would search the woodland edge at the bottom of the field for any dead birds that may be there, while I would make a search of the midden for the two that the gamekeeper said he had buried there. This was a decision I came to regret.

I searched round the edge of the midden first to see if there was any obvious disturbance, which I intended to then excavate further using my green wellies as I had no spade or fork with me. After several unfruitful bouts of burrowing round the fringe, I turned my attention to the top of the midden. The midden had been there for several years and was unusually soft. It may or may not surprise readers that I have been on the top of many middens in my life. All, up to this point, were solid and supported my weight. I soon found that, conversely, this midden was soft and didn’t support my weight. If the same conditions were encountered beside the sea the term would be quicksand. Could this be referred to as quickdung? Quickshit?

Quick was not a term that could be applied to me, except for the quick loss of altitude into the mire. My tempo then changed to very slow, as I became stuck up to the knees. For anyone who has worn wellies they will know that the knees are above the tops of the wellies, which of course means that any liquid above the tops of the wellies can then run down inside. It being early March, the first feeling was a cooling down of my legs below the knees as the vile liquid filled my wellies. My first instinct was to lift one of my legs to escape the midden’s clutches but my foot started to come out of my welly. The wellies were Nora make and over £30 a pair. I didn’t fancy leaving them in the bowels of the midden so I shoved my foot back down again. Eureka!  I remembered the theory of displacement from physics at school, about the volume of liquid displaced by an object submerged or floating in it. The volume of my foot and lower leg then came shooting up my leg, some inside and some outside my trousers. I saw that the colour of the liquid that came up the outside of my leg was dark brown with a plethora of bubbles. I had no reason to suspect that the liquid scooting up the inside of my leg was anything different. When the bubbles burst they gave an insight into the smell of the liquid. I was now well aware of the texture, consistency, colour and smell of the inner sanctum of the midden. I just needed now to escape from it. With my wellies.

I tried raising one foot a bit, then the other, but the gain with the first leg was negated as soon as I tried to move the second leg. I then tried to completely remove one leg. This was extremely slow but I felt myself making progress. In my determination not to leave my best green wellies behind I had also to curl my toes. This was at last achieving success and after a few minutes steady pulling my right leg was free. As it became free I fell on my backside, a position that would have been inevitable anyway if I were to go home complete with two legs. I then tried to extricate my left leg from my damp sitting position. Doing this with my left toes curled was okay to start with but as my left leg became slightly higher it became more difficult then became impossible. There was nothing for it but to leave my left welly behind, albeit temporarily.

I continued huffing and puffing – in my predicament I still managed somehow to think of the story The Three Little Pigs and the wolf ’s Herculean efforts to blow their house down – and my left leg came free of my welly like a best champagne cork, though the liquid resembled anything but champagne. It was a fairly simple but very unpleasant matter then to put both hands a few inches into the ripe slurry, gain a grip of my lost welly, and gradually ease it from its tomb. On reflection I should have done that with both of them and my Houdini escape could have been expedited. Suffice to say that the search for the two buried buzzards ended there. I can also recommend Nora wellies to anyone who intends to or suspects they might sink into a midden. Nora wellies are unlined. I washed them out there and then in a burn, then later washed them out at home with hot water. Being unlined wellies, any smell that would have reminded me of our joint adventure was exorcised.

I took the buzzard to Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (now Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture) at Edinburgh for examination for pesticides.  The report received within a few days showed that the buzzard had died from eating bait contaminated with carbofuran.  The chemists at SASA were also able to say that the gullet of the buzzard contained what appeared to be pigeon feathers.  Since it is normally the bird’s last meal that kills it, it is probable that the bait had been a pigeon.

Discreet enquiries were made in the area and suspicion centred on a pigeon fancier who had a pigeon loft on a nearby farm.  PC John Robertson and Willie Milne from SEERAD called on the loft owner and told him of the poisoned buzzards.  The man denied that the setting out of baits was anything to do with him and agreed to a search of his loft.  In the loft, the officers found a small plastic cylindrical pill container with traces of a blue substance, the shade of blue being the same shade as cabofuran.  The loft owner claimed that the substance had been for killing rats and mice.

The blue traces in the pill container were sent to SASA for examination and there was confirmation that the traces were of carbofuran.  We now had one confirmed dead buzzard killed by carborfuran, two further buried dead buzzards that I really didn’t want to think about, and a pigeon fancier with a pigeon loft half a mile from where the buzzards were found and who had a container with traces of carbofuran.  The pigeon fancier had to be re-visited.

PC John Robertson and I called on the pigeon fancier a few mornings later and advised him of the SASA findings.  He admitted that he had poured the blue granules from the pill container down a rat hole.  I advised him that rats would not eat carbofuran on its own; that it would need to be on some palatable substance that the rats would eat.  He then said that he had put the granules on a piece of bacon and put the bacon in a rat hole.  There certainly had been a rat problem at the back of the pigeon loft though I didn’t fall for his bacon story.  He denied putting any carbofuran on a dead pigeon and also said that he was not having any trouble at his loft with birds of prey.  In view of his last statement, I wondered why he had a plastic eagle owl stuck on a pole not ten metres from his loft.

Before we left we charged the pigeon fancier with laying out bait that poisoned a buzzard, possessing an article capable of being used to commit a crime against the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, namely the container with dark blue traces, and storing a pesticide, carbofuran, other than in its original container, an offence under the Food and Environment Act 1985.

Before the case came up I had an interesting discussion with the procurator fiscal about the container with the dark blue traces.  The fiscal was initially doubtful if the contents of the container were sufficient in volume for a charge, after all it was virtually just a dark blue powdery residue visible in the container.  My response was, “If I filled the container with warm water, left it for a few minutes and gave it to a dog or a person to drink, would there be a risk of death or ill health to the dog or the person.”  The answer was in the affirmative and my point was made.

In court, the pigeon fancier pleaded guilty to the pesticide storage offence only.  This was accepted by the fiscal and he was admonished: a conviction that is recorded but without a penalty.  He was 68 years of age and had never been in bother with the police before.  I thought the result was reasonable taking account of all the circumstances and that he could only be sentenced on the most minor of the charges.

Though I’m sure the last meal of the buzzard we recovered was a dead pigeon, it was not beyond reasonable doubt that the buzzard had picked up a rat that had died or was dying of carbofuran poisoning.  If we had managed to recover the other two buzzards from the depths of the midden we may have had a clearer idea.  If only the keeper had reported the finding of the first buzzard rather than the finding of the third buzzard.  Three steps forward, two back.  But still progress.

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  1. Penalties for unlawful storage or use of certain pesticides under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 are poor. Until 2005 there was not an offence of possession of certain pesticides, which includes carbofuran, and which is punishable by a fine of up to £5000 and/or 3 month’s imprisonment. (This offence, so far as I am aware, exists only in Scotland.) It has made a huge difference in the number of cases reaching court and the level of fines that can be imposed.
  2. On another occasion when a man – a gamekeeper this time who we suspected of poisoning a golden eagle and attempting to poison peregrines, both times with carbofuran, – showed a jar of dark blue granules to the estate shepherd and stated it was for rats. It is extremely unlikely that rats would eat neat carbofuran, and there is little point in putting a banned substance on a bait for rats when there are legitimate proprietary poisons. The shepherd gave us this information then went and told the suspect we were coming to search his sheds!
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