The Poisoned Golden Eagle and the Man from Lewis – an except from ‘The Thin Green Line’

Poisoned golden eagle (though not related to this case)

Tub of the banned pesticide carbofuran

The Thin Green Line

It’s too wet for gardening today and I’m stuck in the house. The car could do with a wash but it’s my least favourite job and I’d much rather do another blog. Since disappearing golden eagles and the illegal use of pesticides have been in the news recently here is a tale from my second book, The Thin Green Line:

THE POISONED GOLDEN EAGLE AND THE MAN FROM LEWIS

The Outer Hebrides, possibly because of the absence of commercial game management, is almost free from the scourge of poisoning wildlife that affects much of mainland UK. In October 2005 Constable Martin Macrae was stationed at the village of Balallan, (Gaelic: Baile Ailein meaning Allan’s town) which has the distinction of being the longest village in northern Scotland. It is four miles from end to end along the head of a sea loch and developed due to a mixture of crofting and fishing. As the wildlife crime officer for the Outer Isles, Martin was made aware of the tragic poisoning of a golden eagle at Coduinn on Morsquil Estate on the Isle of Lewis. Tests at the Scottish Agriculture Science Agency (now Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture) in Edinburgh confirmed that the bird had died from eating the pesticide carbofuran, the main pesticide of abuse in Scotland. The scientists at the lab were also able to state that the contaminated bait that had been eaten was a rabbit.

Martin suspected that the culprit had been a crofter trying to (illegally) control the raven population to protect his sheep flock. As would happen on any mainland poisoning investigation he called in some help, this taking the form of staff from the then Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD), now the Scottish Government Rural Payment Inspections Department (SGRPID). He also called in some help from Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland. The estate was searched, as were some crofts, but after all this Martin was no further forward.

The following month Martin and a colleague were carrying out a completely unconnected enquiry on Lewis in relation to a firearm certificate renewal. Part of this process entails a check of the firearms held by the applicant, and also the security of the place they are kept. In this case this gentleman – we’ll call him the Man from Lewis – wished to renew his certificate to possess a .222 rifle. The rifle was examined by the officers and he was asked the reason he required it. ‘For deer control,’ was the answer. Only roe deer in Scotland can legally be shot with a .222 rifle, and under the Deer (Firearms etc) (Scotland) Order 1885 the bullet needs to be of an expanding type of not less than 50 grains, with muzzle velocity of not less than 2450 feet per second and muzzle energy not less than 1000 foot pounds. Worse, there are no roe deer on the Outer Isles, with the only species being the biggest, the red deer. This was the first of the Man from Lewis’s problems. This was explained to him, and he changed his mind. ‘It’s for shooting vermin. Ravens,’ he said. Ravens are one of the two members of the corvidae family that are completely protected, the other being the chough. He had no licence to shoot ravens and now had a second problem.

Martin and his colleague continued their questioning and asked the red-faced islander if he had shot any red deer with the rifle but the answer, not surprisingly, was in the negative. The same answer was given when he was asked if he had shot any ravens. The question then had to be asked as to why he needed authority to have a .222 rifle.

If there was some doubt beginning to emerge that the firearm certificate was close to being revoked and the rifle seized by the police, the next find sealed its fate. On a shelf at the back of the gun cabinet Martin spotted a jar that was half-full of dark blue granules, innocently labelled ‘celery.’ In the recoveries made by the police of illegally-held pesticides they are invariably decanted into a container such as a coffee jar, a juice bottle or a smaller receptacle such as a 35mm film tub. In many cases the label of the original product remains and in one case in Tayside in 1995, while still a police officer, I recovered the most deadly of all pesticides, the liquid pesticide mevinphos, in a Lea and Perrins sauce bottle, two products of a similar colour. In that case there was a real risk of death to anyone who ventured to open the bottle and I charged the person concerned with the common law charge of culpable and reckless conduct.

Because of the infamy of carbofuran as a killer of wildlife it is well-known to all wildlife crime officers. Martin asked the Man from Lewis what the substance in the jar was, but he said he couldn’t remember the name. Maybe, maybe not, but Martin knew that he would be aware of its illegal use. He asked him what he had the granules for. ‘It was for the turnips.’ was the answer. It was the stock answer, sometimes varied to ‘It’s for the carrots.’ He elaborated. ‘You spread it on the turnips.’ Wrong! ‘You hand-spread it on the turnips when the stem is about four inches tall.’ Worse! Whatever you would do with carbofuran you wouldn’t want to handle it. Whatever other outcome there may be he could now safely say goodbye to his firearms certificate.

There have been countless instances throughout the UK where the police have recovered pesticides in circumstances where they are perfectly well aware that they were held for an illegal purpose. The main legislative difficulty was that until recently this was not an offence in itself. It was an offence to use the pesticide in circumstances outwith its government approval, or to store it outwith the terms of approval on the container, most usually violated by transferring it into another container. Even so, these offences were under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 and only incurred a moderate monetary penalty. It was not until 2005 – and only in Scotland – that possession of the most commonly abused pesticide became an offence in its own right, though there was an exception if the person could show that he had a good reason for possessing it. Carbofuran is top of the list of ‘prescribed’ pesticides, as they are termed, because of its widespread abuse.

So Martin had a coincidental recovery of carbofuran while investigating the poisoning of a golden eagle, the very bird many visitors go to the Western Isles to see. Whether or not the Man from Lewis had played any part in this crime his excuse that the carbofuran was for nurturing turnips was a lie. Though the approved use for the chemical was as an insecticide on root crops, including of course turnips, it requires to be drilled into the ground by machinery to place it in a position to kill soil-dwelling pests.

The charge of possession of a banned pesticide now carries a penalty of £5000 and/or 6 months imprisonment. The Man from Lewis was fined £50. Had there been evidence he was involved in the killing of the golden eagle this penalty would have been considerably increased, though in fairness to him he may not have been in any way involved and his possession of carbofuran purely coincidental. And unfortunate!

At least ravens and red deer would be safeguarded against being shot by a .222 rifle!

 

I’m happy to post out a copy of The Thin Green Line (RRP £11.99) free with the purchase of any other of my books. See https://wildlifedetective.wordpress.com/books/

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