A Case of Slack Water – salmon poachers run out of luck

Removing salmon taken by a net

Removing salmon taken by a net

Water bailiffs with a salmon net

Water bailiffs with a salmon net

For those who have had their New Year’s Day walk and are now sitting with a glass of malt or even a cup of tea here is a tale from my first book Wildlife Detective to relax with for a few minutes…

I was back in CID as detective sergeant when I had a call at home one day from Mr X, one of my informants.  He had reliable information concerning four men who would be going out poaching that night to the River Tay at a part east of Perth near the hamlet of Kinfauns.  The ringleader would be one of the pair we had caught operating the cage at the Horseshoe Falls on the River Almond.  Mr X had names for the other three, who were all known to me as poachers, as well as being willing participants in other fields of crime when they thought there would be some pecuniary advantage.  The information was that the men would be leaving a particular address in a housing scheme in Perth at 3.00 a.m., and that they would be using a grey Datsun (now Nissan) car.  I was given the registration number of the car, which always makes success a bit more viable.  So far the information was good, and it was to get better.

The men would drive down the A.90 Perth to Dundee road and park off the road where there is an access to the Perth – Dundee railway line.  The car would be left there and the men would make their way to the river bank, where they had a dinghy and a net hidden.  They would only be there about an hour, then head back home.  Two complications followed.  Firstly the men would be wearing balaclavas so would not be recognisable.  I thought I could cope with this one since I knew in advance who they were going to be in any case.  The second complication was that they would leave everything hidden at the side of the river and return to collect their fish about midday.  That way they thought there was less likelihood of being stopped by the police.  This was not an insurmountable problem and was a tactic of salmon poachers of which we as police officers were well aware.

One aspect of the information puzzled me.  I didn’t know how the time they were leaving the house could be predicted so precisely, and why the poachers would only remain at the riverside for about an hour.  It seemed a lot of effort to go to for an hour’s work.  The answer to this question satisfied me and gave me a further insight into the specialist part of nature that the poachers were tuned in to and which dictated their response if they wanted to successfully take salmon.

I learned from Mr X that twice a day in a tidal river there is a period referred to as ‘slack water.’  This is a period of about half an hour at each high tide when the force of the water coming down the river is counterbalanced by the pressure of the tide coming up the river, and results in the flow of the river being stopped.  When a gill net is put across a river one end is fastened to the bank while the rest of the net is paid out from the dinghy until all of the net is in the water. The floats fastened to the top of the net keep it on the surface and the weights fastened to the bottom ensure that it hangs down into the water like a curtain. Slack water is an ideal time to put the net across the river as it will hang motionless, neither being swept downstream nor upstream. Likewise the dinghy will just sit steadily in the river without any controlling effort by its passenger.  If the operators having timed their venture correctly there will be little or no movement of either the net or the dinghy, apart from the frantic struggles of the salmon swimming upstream that are unlucky enough to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When the dingy starts to drift downstream, its occupant knows that slack water has passed and it is time for his counterpart on the bank to start to haul in the net.

The information from Mr X was that 4.00 a.m. was high tide, therefore the poachers would leave about an hour earlier, giving them sufficient time to reach their spot on the river and get organised to catch slack water.

I was due to start at 4.00 p.m. so I decided to carry out some reconnaissance in the late afternoon to see how best to tackle this job.  I came on duty early, at 3.00 p.m., not wanting to chance an earlier visit to the Tay at Kinfauns as there was a good chance that the motley crew would have fish to pick up that day around noon. I didn’t want to spoil the operation be being seen on my recce.

I parked at a farm some distance away, having told the farmer what I was up to and trusting him to keep the information quiet.  It was a Spring day and as I crossed the railway line to the area of scrub and trees between there and the river I was treated to a lovely chorus of birdsong from its many small feathered inhabitants.  Though this avian orchestra would have had many more players at first light, I could hear the easiest of the birds to identify, the chiffchaff, pronouncing its name loudly and clearly, chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff.   The whitethroat was the next to be spotted since it is one of the few of the warbler species to sit on top of a bush and sing rather than skulk in the bushes.  It chattered away its creaky, grating song, while in the background I heard one of the warblers in full flow.  To my shame I’m never sure which of the warblers I am listening to. This was the one, I think a willow warbler, that always reminds me of a motor bike engine, in a much higher pitch of course, that is not running too smoothly, is just about to give up, then has a new lease of life again until the next piece of dirt hits the carburettor and it begins to splutter again. My simile does the bird an injustice as it’s really a lovely song and many times on a night shift I have parked the police car in an area I know to be full of these birds, switched off the engine, and marvelled that many of them have flown from Africa to regale us with their sweet music.

Coming briefly into more recent times I had my grandson, Sam, out with me in the woods one day.  He was either four or five at the time and I was trying to teach him to recognise bird song.  We listened to several birds on our walk, starting with a blackbird, then a mistle thrush, a chiffchaff, a wren and a robin.  He was interested to begin with but I had probably overdone his first lesson and he was becoming bored.  This fact was confirmed when I asked him if he could tell me the name of the bird singing on top of a young sitka spruce tree beside us.  His reply?  “It’s another bloody chiffchaff.”  Bloody good answer Sam!

Back again to the River Tay, there was a gap of several yards between the edge of the scrubland and the river.  At one point there was a clump of bushes thick enough to give cover and situated almost beside the river.  If I placed someone in the middle of these bushes they would have a good view of what was happening upstream and downstream of their observation point.  I checked first that this was not the hiding place for the poachers’ dinghy and net before settling on this as the best available O.P.

On the return journey to my car I almost stood on a young roe deer fawn hiding in the undergrowth.  I saw its mottled body just at the last minute and changed my route by a few degrees so as not to disturb it.  It was well camouflaged and relying totally on its innate instinct to lie absolutely still unless flight became the better option.  As roe fawns are born in May it was probably just a few days old and no doubt had a sibling lying close by, aware of my presence and hoping that the dangerous predatory human would pass quickly.  This was my first encounter with a roe fawn.  Even yet I have only found one other roe fawn and one red deer calf at that vulnerable stage when they rely on camouflage more than the speed that they will eventually develop.

When I came back to the police station I made contact with the water bailiffs from the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board and arranged to have the services of two of them for the operation.  This was agreed and a 2.00 a.m. meeting at Perth Police Station was arranged.  A meeting at two in the morning would seem strange to most people, but water bailiffs, like police officers, are used to working round the clock.  Criminals have neither respect for office hours nor weekends, in fact these are usually their most productive periods.  I intended to remain on duty for the operation, but needed the help of a police officer from the night shift before the trap could be set.

After the 2.00 a.m. briefing, a sent the two water bailiffs, complete with a borrowed police radio, to hide in the clump of bushes I had identified at the riverside.  Their remit was simply to wait, watch and report.  Nothing more.  I told them that the poachers would be wearing balaclavas, which was nothing new either to me or to them, and assured them if they were in their place of concealment by 2.45 a.m. they would not have long to wait.

At the allotted time the night shift police officer who had volunteered to help took his own car and parked near to the target car, which was sitting outside the address given to me by Mr X.  Like the water bailiffs, his task was to wait, watch and report.  While we had been making our plans for a successful night’s work, the men in the house were probably doing the same.  It was not possible for both of us to have the result we wanted; as the dawn of the next morning was breaking one group would be disappointed.

Just before 3.00 a.m. I parked at the farm I had used in the afternoon and walked up the hill for about quarter of a mile so that I had a vantage point overlooking the spot identified by Mr X as the parking spot for the poachers’ car.  The watchers were in position, we just needed the participants to make their move.

Any police officer who has been involved in surveillance or involved in simply waiting at a given point in anticipation of a crime taking place knows that at least half of the time the long wait is in vain.  The rest of the time a long period watching and waiting may have some form of success, and just once in a while everything comes together exactly as planned.  I was shortly to move to the drug squad, where half of the work involved surveillance.  As examples of how things work out, we carried out surveillance on a ship in Dundee Harbour for two weeks, 12 hour shifts, in the expectation that someone was to come to the ship to collect three kilos of heroin that was on board. No-one arrived and we had to allow the ship sail to its next destination, Rotterdam, where the latest intelligence indicated the transfer would take place.  At the other end of the spectrum we had received information that a particular vehicle was en route to Dundee from Manchester with a cargo of 5 kilos of cannabis resin.  A colleague and I parked near the Tayside boundary at Dunblane to watch for the car on the A9.  I had reversed the car into a good spot to watch the road, switched the engine off…..  and the car came along the road.  We arrested the person in the car, recovered the cannabis and went on to make the connection in Dundee with me driving the car from Manchester that the dealers were expecting to see, arrested four dealers and recovered a carrier bag with £10,000.  If only it worked out like that all the time.

“Stand by, stand by” came the call from the officer watching the poachers’ car.  “That’s five people coming from the target close and getting into the target car.  One is out of the car again, he’s walked round behind it.  Bloody hell he’s pulled up one of the metal drain covers at the side of the road and has put it in the boot.”  Five people was one more than we were expecting but so far so good.  “That’s an off, off now, down the hill.  Brakes lights showing now at the roundabout and the car has taken the second exit, heading in your direction.”

I updated the two water bailiffs of the position using the UHF channel.  The first message had been passed to me on the VHF channel, which the bailiffs couldn’t hear.  Less than ten minutes later I saw headlights appearing from the direction of Perth.  The car slowed down, turned about on the dual carriageway and headed back to the parking spot.  My radio message to the bailiffs was, “Stand by, stand by, that’s the target car with us and parked up.  Occupants leaving the car and walking along the railway line in the direction of Perth.  Now lost to my sight and should be with you shortly.”  I was happy at this as I had walked along the railway line first as well as it took me towards a natural crossing point from the railway line into the area of scrub and trees that led towards the river.

“That’s five men wearing balaclavas approaching the river.  They’re pulling out a baker’s board from under a bush.  The baker’s board has a net on it.  They’re back into the bush.  It’s a dinghy this time.  They’re coming towards the river.”  The bailiff’s report was welcome news and things were going exactly to plan.  I had previously spoken with the night shift traffic crew and had told them of the information and the plan.  I asked that they be available about 4.00 a.m. to pull the poachers’ car on its way back to Perth.  I updated them as to the current stage of the operation and said I would keep them informed so that they could get into position to stop the vehicle once that was required.

Once more the bailiffs were on the radio.  “That’s the net getting tied to the bank.  They’ve tied something to the bottom of this end of the net.  It looks like a metal drain cover.”  So that’s what they wanted it for; an anchor next the bank on the bottom edge of the net to keep it taut.  “That’s one of them now rowing out into the river with the net.  Looks like a waiting game now for half an hour.”

It’s interesting when something happens, like the taking of the drain cover, that’s not in the game plan.  Some statutes, such as poaching game or throwing away litter, don’t have a power of arrest, and often this limits the action that police can take to obtain evidence sufficient to charge the person with the offence.  It is always circumspect not to look at an offence in isolation but to take a more rounded view of the evidence available.  Occasionally, tucked away amongst the strands of evidence, lies a Common Law offence.  Common Law offences range from breach of the peace to murder and include most crimes of dishonesty.  All have an automatic power of arrest attached.  In this case, had there not been a power of arrest for salmon poaching, the five men could have been arrested for the theft of a metal drain cover.  When investigating crimes and offences it is always worth training the mind to think laterally.

“That’s the net getting pulled in.”  The bailiffs were on the radio again.  “They’ve certainly caught some salmon, they’re being knocked on the head.  The net’s getting put on the baker’s board again.  That’s now everything including the salmon back under the bush again and the targets are heading back towards the car”.

I was immediately in touch with the traffic crew, asking them to get into position to stop the car and to arrest the five occupants.  The poachers returned to the car and were making back towards Perth in a remarkably short time after leaving the river bank.  I left the poachers to the traffic department and went to meet the bailiffs and help with the salmon and the fishing tackle.  It had not been a great night for the poachers, only having caught eleven salmon, but being Spring fish, they would have commanded a good price.

Once we were back to Perth I went through to the cells along with the police officer who had kept watch for their car leaving the house at the start of the operation.  The poachers were adamant they had done nothing against the law.  They admitted they had been out looking for a place that they could take salmon on a future occasion, which accounted for their jeans being wet up to the knees, “but Mr Stewart, ask the traffic boys, our car was clean when they searched it. We’ve done nothin.  Honest”

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

 

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