There has been much discussion recently about the use of masks by people who, for a variety of reasons, want to conceal their identity. If a person is not breaking – or intending to break – the law why on earth would he (occasionally she?) want to wear mask or a balaclava. The most recent incidents in the news relate to a masked man on a named estate in England trying to free a badger from a snare by shooting through the snare with a shotgun. It is not surprising, carrying out such a barbaric act, that he wanted to remain anonymous. Just this week there was a belated report of two masked men, one of whom had a firearm, in public woodland at an unidentified location in Scotland. It is reported that the men were within 30 metres of an unspecified raptor nest, which makes it more likely that this occurred in spring or early summer. There seems little reason for someone to be (a) masked, and (b) carrying a firearm at a raptor nest unless a crime was being committed.
Naturally being masked makes it much more difficult for witnesses to identify the individual. It is also extremely alarming for members of the public to encounter a masked person with a firearm. In both cases the circumstances suggest the men were likely to be linked to game management. Even if in neither case they were identified, the incident in Scotland provides more grist to the mill for licensing to be applied to shooting. An own goal!
In one instance, in relating to salmon poachers, being masked did not work. I thought I would include a short story from my first book, Wildlife Detective.
In the 1970s, while I was with Tayside Police and working from Peth, we were plagued with salmon poachers using foul-hooking methods during the night on Moncrieffe Island, a large island in the centre of the River Tay at Perth. At this part of the river there is a deep holding pool, locally known as the Friarton Hole, that in autumn usually accommodated many hundreds of salmon. Here is this short excerpt –
The advance of modern technology changes all aspects of policing for the better, and the challenge of catching salmon poachers was no exception. The change for us was a piece of equipment that had been used by the Armed Forces for many years. Policing budgets are miniscule compared to those of the military and we, as the poorer relations, have to wait until prices are more acceptable to the public purse. This wonderful and expensive piece of ultra-modern kit went under the name of the image intensifier, now more commonly known as night vision equipment. I had first seen a very advanced form of this equipment demonstrated by the military during a high-power NATO conference at Gleneagles Hotel. It allowed us to see landscape on a hillside several miles away in different shades, depending on whether we were looking at woodland, grassland, ploughed land or even cattle grazing the hillside. The Irish song Forty Shades of Green came to mind as green was the predominant colour, with a wee bit of purple thrown in. The NATO equipment must also have had a heat-seeking capability. Looking a bit closer we could see rabbits sitting on the grass round the hotel, and I was amazed when they hopped off that their footsteps remained visible three or four hops behind them. Knowing how well insulated rabbits’ feet are with thick fur I could hardly believe that equipment could be so sensitive as to pick up this tiny amount of heat.
I later used a crude and elementary version of this equipment with a colleague, PC Vince Smith, when we spent a few nights hiding under bushes on a hillside. This was nothing to do with either poaching or wildlife but was in fact during the time in the late 1970s when we in Scotland were under a degree of threat by the Scottish Republican Army. At that time, because of the activities of a relatively few fanatics who, at any cost, wanted Scotland to be separate from the rest of the UK, police were on a raised level of alert. Amongst the threats of this small but determined group was that the oil pipeline running down through Scotland would be blown up. This gave the police additional responsibilities in maintaining regular patrols and checks, especially at the vulnerable points on the oil pipeline where there were valves above ground. Police checks were also regularly made at sites where explosives were stored as they were seen as likely targets to be hit by the Scottish Republican Army in its search for explosives with which it could further its violent aims.
Vince and I were watching one of these explosives stores one night as there had been intelligence that this particular one was to be targeted. None of the barmy brigade arrived but we spent our time watching roe deer, foxes, rabbits, owls, mice and other creatures of the night as they went about their business. It was late autumn and very cold but, between the night-time show and the quaffing of a quarter bottle of whisky we had taken with us, the cold and the time were forgotten as we marvelled at the secret lives of beasties that were unaware of the presence of two pairs of friendly eyes intruding on their privacy. Now having had the experience of night vision equipment I could see another very appropriate use for it.
Shortly after our stake-out in pursuit of the Scottish Republican Army, I borrowed the same piece of kit as we had used and went with another colleague down to the Friarton Hole. Instead of sneaking on to Moncrieffe Island, this time we sneaked down to the Perth side of the river and looked across towards Moncrieffe Island. The bank there was lined with nine or ten poachers, all of whom were casting into the river with their treble hooks and lead and ripping the line through the water with the eventual and inevitable consequence of striking a fish. We recognised most of them and had to pass the single piece of equipment back and forth between us since in Scotland every important piece of evidence has to be corroborated.
We watched all of them at various times foul hooking and landing salmon, and we were astonished how quickly the fish was on the bank. Clearly their line was ultra-heavy duty and none of the sporting ‘playing’ of the fish that is the real thrill of legitimate angling took place. The fish was hooked and pulled through the water to the bank just as hard as its captor could yank in the line.
We made notes as best as we could in the darkness of what was taking place and by whom, and had a good laugh at our efforts of trying to write in straight lines once we reached artificial lighting. The cases against those we had observed were almost foolproof since we had witnessed their deeds from start to finish. There was no need to trek on to the island to catch them: we simply knocked on their doors the next day and charged them.
The poachers were gutted and we were accused of using underhand methods to catch them. I suppose most of them thought the whole poaching scene was something of a game and it was fine by them so long as they were only caught occasionally. They were content to be on the winning side but when the tables turned and their substantial financial gains were under threat through technological aids they were thoroughly pissed off.
Pleased with our success we tried the same technique the following night but what we saw was completely different. The green, almost extra-terrestrial images in our night vision equipment were still there but were wearing balaclavas so that we could not see their faces. They wrongly assumed that if we could not identify them facially they would be safe to continue their nefarious practices. They really hadn’t thought through their anti-surveillance measures sensibly. If they had considered whether or not they could identify their brother, father, cousin or uncle from a distance of about 75 metres wearing a balaclava, the answer would have to be in the affirmative. We knew these characters just as well as they would have known their relatives or friends and there was little difficulty in identifying most of them. We knew them by the clothing they wore, by their height and build, by a number of idiosyncrasies that were unique to them, and in one case by the collie dog that regularly accompanied one of them.
For a second successive day many of them had a ‘chap at the door’ that was the forerunner to another court appearance and fine. The poachers were now on the back foot and their activities were severely disrupted. The situation on Moncrieffe Island became much quieter and any other poacher that we did catch was wearing a balaclava just as an extra precaution.
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