The Importance of being Observant; an excerpt from my book ‘A Lone Furrow’

Bertha Loch near Perth. Mr Nasty was fishing from within the trees at the far left hand end.

Good policing is very much about using your eyes and your ears. It’s about knowing what car is regularly parked at a specific location, or ought not to be on the go in the middle of the night; who is about at certain times and at certain locations; the opening and closing times of premises; known or suspected criminals and their usual associates and much more besides. Once the police officer is aware of what is normal, anything out of place or different is of interest. The investigating of wildlife crime can benefit from using the same principles but in a very different context. A very practical example in the late 1970s was the catching of a man intent in removing as many fat brown trout from a Perthshire stank (a loch or pond which has been stocked with trout and from which there is no entry to other fish or exit for those stocked) as he possibly could by the use of a bubble float and worm.

I had a call from the landowner, who had seen the man making towards the loch carrying a fishing rod. The elderly landowner had encountered this poacher on a number of occasions and described him as ‘a very nasty piece of work’. I knew the poacher well and was of the view that the description of him given by the gentlemanly farmer had erred very much on the side of caution. I attended with a very young colleague, ‘brand new out of the box’ sometimes being the term used to describe such a rookie officer. We parked the police van a good distance from the loch so that the sound of the engine would not alert the poacher and walked quietly up through a gully towards the south shore of the loch. The loch was about 300 yards wide and just a bit under a quarter of a mile long but we had no idea where Mr Nasty had decided to fish. About 100 metres short of the loch I signalled my young colleague to stop and indicated that I was going to creep along on my belly to the lochside to see what was what. The young officer was as yet untested in stalking and I wanted to ensure that I could see without being seen.

We were in the first week of May and I had some difficulty concentrating on our poacher because of the sounds of the wildlife in the woodland. The staccato hammering of the great-spotted woodpecker was the most noticeable. As this mechanical drumming reverberated through the wood like gunfire I couldn’t help wondering how it managed to batter on the trunk of a tree without finishing up with an incredible headache. I could hear a blackbird, the repetitive lilt of the song thrush, a robin, the soft cooing of a woodpigeon (that often sounds as if it has been interrupted before it finishes, like a poem with part of the last line missing), the impressively loud crescendo of a tiny wren, and at the side of the loch, the lovely, melodious sedge warbler.

The sound of a cuckoo, possibly just landed after its long migration from North Africa, drifted across the loch. I have read At the Water’s Edge by Sir John Lister-Kaye, a man with knowledge of wildlife second to none, and a parallel command of the English language. His eloquent description of the cuckoo in his book surpasses anything I could hope to write:

In the distance throat-pouting cuckoos would float pairs of muted minims into the air like audible smoke rings, notes that seem to hang there, directionless and slightly sinister as if, along with the hawks, cuckoos have been forbidden to sing.

Regaining concentration, when I peeked through the reeds at the side of the loch I could see twenty of thirty mallard and probably about the same amount of tufted duck swimming happily at the east end. That was where Mr Nasty wasn’t fishing. Invariably these waterfowl are at the west end, which is a much more sheltered and quiet end, and I suspected they had been flushed to the less popular end by Mr Nasty. I looked towards the west end of the loch and could see three or four coots swimming about on the north shore. They are more tolerant of humans and in most cases will quite happily carry on their business a couple of hundred metres from a fisher. My guess was that Mr Nasty was on the south shore somewhere near the west end of the loch. At the west end there is woodland right down to the shore for the last 150 metres of the loch. Between where I was and the start of the woodland a field came almost to the loch side and there was little if any cover. I watched a woodpigeon flying directly up the middle of the loch making for the west end. As it came towards the wood it turned slightly left as if intending to land in the trees but shortly after its gradual left hand turn it suddenly veered off to the right and began to gain height. It had obviously spotted Mr Nasty in the trees; had he been in the field there would have been a reaction much earlier from the pigeon.

Now that I had located Mr Nasty – though had yet to see him – we needed to catch him. This entailed back-tracking, walking along the bottom of the field that ran up to the loch, entering the wood and walking slowly and quietly up to where the birds – or indeed lack of birds – had indicated the poacher was located. I told my apprentice that as we neared our goal he must be extremely quiet and not be standing on any branches that would alert Mr Nasty to our surprise visit. He did very well and, just less than an hour later, we were about 20 metres behind Mr Nasty, who was watching his bubble float bobbing on the surface of the loch waiting for it to be pulled partially under the water if a trout had a nibble at the wriggling worm on the hook somewhere near the bottom. We closed in further but when he was almost within our grasp he turned round and saw us. Quick as a flash he took a cigarette lighter from his pocket and a flame flicked from it briefly as he melted the line, casting the bubble float and skewered worms adrift.

He needn’t have bothered as even without the bubble float and the hook we had enough evidence to charge him with attempted theft of trout, these being the property of the person who had stocked the loch, the elderly farmer. I could see no fish hidden round about him but again the absence of fish was not important. I don’t believe for a minute he had caught none but I wasn’t bothered.

We had caught him; that was what mattered. I arrested him and had to suffer the usual tirade of abuse that went with being anywhere near, far less arresting, this man. He really was an extremely nasty piece of work.

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

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