Update on our garden wildlife

The hedgehog’s route from the wood, through the hens’ enclosure and across the blue bridge to its nightly banquet of mealworms and sunflower hearts, washed down with a bowl of water

‘Our’ red squirrel

There has been a small amount of rain today (12th July) at the end of an exceptionally long dry spell of weather. The weather has been too good for being indoors writing blogs and I have made much progress in the garden. With a garden of 1.5 acres it is quite difficult to keep up with tasks but I’m not too far behind now.

The dry spell has made life very difficult for creatures that depend on worms, slugs and other invertebrates for food. I’ve been feeding mealworms to the two pairs of blackbirds four or five times a day. Between feeds they have been hopping about on the parched grass in search of worms, which are currently far too deep for them to access. The pair with the tame female that has been here for at least five years reared two broods this year. I only ever saw one fledgling from the first brood at the stage when they develop their full-length tails and it unfortunately flew into the conservatory window and was killed. The second brood has been more successful and there are at least three still being fed by mum and dad.

There has been a pair of song thrushes regularly searching the garden for food. They are much shyer birds and more reluctant to come to food that is on offer by humans. I have not seen any fledgling song thrushes and I suspect they will have died of starvation either in the nest or soon after fledging.

Of the other birds that have successfully nested there are plenty of young blue tits, great tits, robins, dunnocks, chaffinches, siskins, house sparrows and wrens. Young coal tits and spotted flycatchers are absent this year (no spotted flycatchers arrived, though house sparrows renovated and adapted their last yea’s nest in wisteria against the west gable of the house), Because the level of the burn running through the garden is so low dippers and grey wagtails, here earlier in the year, have disappeared.

Hedgehogs, like some of the birds, are also having a hard time finding food.  I leave the gates open from the hens’ enclosure at night once the hens are to bed and at least one hedgehog appears round about 10.30 pm toddling through the hens’ run, across the blue bridge over the burn and straight for a pile of sunflower hearts and mealworms I leave out (with a bowl of water) under one of the bird feeding stations. It does not deviate from its regular route and, once on the grass, glides across like it is a wee spiky toy on wheels.

We have red squirrels on and off, sometimes up to three at a time. After a few squirrel-less months there is presently one coming almost daily to two of the peanut feeders. Unlike earlier squirrels this one seems not to have learned to use the squirrel feeder, though sits on top of it regularly.  I have the lid partly open to encourage it but so far the only takers are coal tits, which squeeze in through the gap and fly off with a peanut.

I was surprised the other day to find a full-grown toad hopping through the hen run. The hen run and the wood above it are almost as dry as a desert just now, with a real dearth of foxgloves this year. The toad seemed to know where it was heading and made straight for the burn, passing our black rock hens that were looking on in amazement at this strange intruder in their midst. The toad jumped in to the water with a splash and immediately looked far more at home. Even with the scarcity of water in the burn it is a far better environment than parched woodland.

Postscript: Two hedgehogs at the late-night banquet now. The one that appears from the wood is slightly smaller and darker than the other. No antagonism towards each other and they clearly know each other. Would be nice is one is a female with wee bristly hedgehogs somewhere in the garden.


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Two red kites poisoned in Northern Ireland – comment

Poisoned red kite found on an estate near Aberfeldy in Perthshire.

What a tragedy in County Down in Northern Ireland reported in the media just the other day. A female red kite was found dead on a nest, still covering her eggs, while the male of the pair was found unwell close by and died soon after being discovered.

The incident took place on 24 April, with the bodies being passed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for toxicology examinations.  The results showed that both birds had ingested a pesticide that has been banned EU-wide since 2001: carbofuran.

The RSPB are to be commended for trying to save the three eggs by fostering them on to other red kite nests. Two fostered to one nest failed, while the result in the second nest is uncertain, though the nest did eventually contain one chick.

Emma Meredith, the long-time wildlife liaison officer for PSNI, made a really important point in her press appeal for information, stating, “Carbofuran (is) an incredibly dangerous substance and one which can kill birds of prey but also a child, family pet or any adult coming into contact with it.

Over the years birds of prey and pets have been frequent victims of pesticides set out illegally. We need look no further than a case currently being investigated by Police Scotland in the Aberfeldy area of Perthshire where two buzzards and three working dogs were poisoned. If the use of this (and other) deadly pesticides continues there is a real risk of a human death resulting. A very small amount of these carbamate-based pesticides being ingested could be fatal. Other pesticides such as strychnine and mevinphos are even more deadly and all result in the most painful and horrendous death for the victim.

It seems that we continue to take three steps forward and two back in dealing with raptor persecution. Every time the situation looks as if it is improving we are hit with the report of yet another criminal act. The consolation is that at least in Scotland there is some hope on the horizon of a means of dealing effectively with criminals who commit crimes against raptors in particular (even though the process of reaching a conclusion is painfully slow).

In the remainder of the UK the Government thinks – no, pretends – the present laws and their means of being enforced are perfectly adequate.

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Theft of golden eagle eggs in Cairngorms

Golden eagle egg and chick

I was saddened to read that a clutch of golden eagle eggs has almost certainly been stolen from a nest in the Kincraig area of the Cairngorms. A lot of great work targeting egg thieves has taken place over the past 21 years since the launch of Operation Easter by Tayside Police. This operation quickly developed into a partnership between all of the UK police forces, the RSPB and the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit. It depends on the sharing of intelligence and, where possible, the proactive use of that intelligence. The operation dramatically increased the risk of egg thieves being caught and changes in the law in England and Wales in 2000 and in Scotland in 2003 meant that, if caught taking eggs or with an illegal egg collection, they were most likely to be sentenced to a period of imprisonment.

It is almost impossible to eliminate any specific crime and it is no surprise that at least a few egg thieves remain. Press reports indicate that the nest targeted near Kincraig was a tree nest. Invariably the act of climbing a tree leaves evidence from climbing gear sufficient to conclude that if the eggs are missing they have been stolen. There would also have been a chance that DNA could have been left on the tree but it is likely to have been lost due to weather. The incident was reported to the police on 11 June, though the chances are that the eggs were taken soon after being laid, which would be late March or early April. I’m a bit surprised that no-one noticed that there was something amiss during the intervening period but no doubt there will be a reason.

I must commend Police Scotland – and in particular the wildlife crime officer for the area, PC Dan Sutherland – for the press coverage of this incident. It was reported timeously with, as it should be, the police leading the press coverage and other relevant organisations, in this case Scottish Wildlife Trust and RSPB, assisting with comments. It was covered by television, national and local newspapers, social media and – importantly – on the Police Scotland website. It was treated just like any other serious crime, and I wish this was the case with all wildlife crimes.

Though the criminal may not be caught and be able to be charged with the taking of the eggs, there is a strong chance that in due course his egg collection will be recovered. The penalty for taking or possessing eggs illegally is the same and he (can’t think of any women egg thieves) can look forward to a term of imprisonment.

The bad news this week was tempered by the good news that a pair of white-tailed eagles on the island of Hoy on Orkney had hatched at least one chick on their cliff nest. This pair, the first to nest there since 1873, initially arrived on Hoy in 2015, being at that time the 100th pair in Scotland. They are thought to be four or five years old and, probably due to their inexperience or young age, this is the first year of a successful nesting attempt. We look forward to news of the chick (or even two) fledging later in the year.

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The Uists; a fantastic place for wildlife

Lapwing and chick, North Uist June 2018

Oystercatcher and chicks, North Uist June 2018

Shelducks and brood, North Uist, June 2018

Short-eared owl, North Uist, June 2018

Red deer stags in garden of our cottage, North Uist, June 2018

Common seals, Berneray, June 2018

My wife, dog Molly and I are on the last day of our week on North Uist. The birdlife and scenery are fantastic here, spoiled only by the random dumping of old cars, tractors and other machinery.

Of the more interesting birds, the first to be seen was a golden eagle, which was no more than quarter of a mile from the cottage we were staying in. My attention had been drawn by a carrion crow swooping down at something on the ground. On further investigation a golden eagle flew up but unfortunately disappeared over a ridge. According to the visitors’ book in the cottage golden eagles and white-tailed eagles have been frequently seen flying over the cottage. This is hardly surprising as where we are situated at the very north of Uist is only a few minutes glide from the mountainous Island of Harris.

Many of the lochs have a pair of shelduck, most of them now having a brood of ducklings in tow. I watched two broods, one of three and one of seven, on the shoreline at the RSPB reserve at Balranald. Over the course of the week they had gained considerably in size and in diving ability; in fact with the larger brood it was difficult to count the ducklings as they were as much under water as on the surface.

A loch in North Uist and one in South Uist held a single black-throated diver. On the South Uist loch the bird was at the far end of the loch near the shore. We watched it for a while but while we were having a coffee it suddenly disappeared. I wondered if it had come of the nest for a dip in the water and had returned to the shoreline nest when we were distracted. It would ne nice to think that was the case. There were no red-throated divers on this visit though there was a single great northern diver well offshore at Balranald.

One lovely-looking small and very shallow loch with reeds at either end at Baile Shear hald an amazing variety of ducks for its size. These were two mallard drakes, a male shoveler, a pair of tufted ducks and a pair of wigeon. The icing on the cake was a single black-tailed godwit. This bird was wading up to the very top of its long legs. It’s russet-coloured head and neck were very clear, possibly making it a male, though the loch was nearly a quarter of a mile away so it was hard to be sure. Viewing from half that distance would have been perfect.

Sightings of short-eared owls were common, quartering the heather or rushes rather like giant butterflies.  Even more common a sight were the hen harriers. They were all males that we saw – at least six different birds in all – and it was lovely to see their hunting technique, quartering low to the ground, suddenly turning, almost stopping then diving to the ground if they had spotted a prey item.

One day my attention was drawn to a group of half a dozen lapwings and several redshank flying round in a panic about some threat. I stopped to watch. The birds were just over a field breadth away, in the corner of a rushy part of the next field. The lapwings were repeatedly diving down nearly to the ground attacking the threat. Seven redshank then sat on fence posts as observers. I could hear the lapwings but couldn’t hear the redshank, though I’ve no doubt they were piping their alarm call from the sidelines. The lapwings gradually whittled down to three determined attacking birds and after a full ten minutes a male hen harrier rose from the rushes with a decent sized bird clutched in its talons. I’d guess from the determined lapwings that it was one of their chicks.

This would be a good meal for the male to deliver in a food pass to a female hen harrier. It was unfortunate for the individual young lapwing but it was only one of many thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of young lapwings, oystercatchers, redshank, common sandpiper and snipe that were visible in the fields. It is a great pity that even small pockets of this rich habitat are now missing on the mainland. Similarly it is a pity – indeed a disgrace – that hen harriers have been decimated on the mainland to make way for driven grouse shooting.

It was good to see a fair number of corn buntings on North Uist. Sympathetic farming benefits this species here, as it now does in several parts of the mainland. The numbers of at least this farmland bird seem to be gradually improving.

I was disappointed not to have heard or seen a corncrake on this visit. On previous visits they seemed plentiful and every so often their crek, crek call could be heard as you drove along a road. I spoke with a local woman and asked her if she had heard any this year. She said she had not but her sister had said that she couldn’t get a wink of sleep the other night for a corncrake on one side of the house and a cuckoo on the other side.  The sister lived beside the Westford Hotel, which was not far from where our conversation took place. We drove to the Westford Hotel and parked up for a while. Not a single crek was heard, though the cuckoo was still voicing its presence.  We’ll need to wait till the next visit to hear or see a corncrake.

There is not such a variety of mammals on the outer isles as on the mainland but we were treated to two red deer stags in the garden of the cottage. They remained unperturbed by my presence or that of our wee dog Molly, even at 20 yards away. Also unperturbed by humans were a small number of common seals that regularly haul out at low tide next to one of the villages on the Isle of Beneray. I was happy to photograph them at 50 yards away but a couple of chaps with large lenses walked over the rocks to about 10 yards away, with the seals being content to snooze on in the sunshine. A bigger group of 75 grey seals were hauled out at Loch Aineort on South Uist. They have been there on all of my visits, and this is also a great place to see golden eagles and otters, though not on this occasion.

The next visit can’t come quickly enough.

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Book Review – Understanding Animal Behaviour by Rory Putman

Understanding Animal Behaviour by Rory Putman

The author states at the outset that this is a book for the interested non-specialist. It is by no means light reading, especially in the first part, which covers the way in which animals perceive their environment and what determines how they respond to it.  The more technical language, however, becomes better understood by the reader once an example is given. Subjects discussed range from how a maggot responds to light intensity to the motor actions of a bird building a nest and the inflexible sequence in which it does so.

As an amateur naturalist I’m not sure that I grasped everything in the first part of the book but it set the scene for the second part, which gave many examples that I have already witnessed. This part explains the evolutionary forces that have shaped and developed particular behaviours, including why some animals live in packs while some prefer to live on their own; why some have more than one mate while others are monogamous; why some have only one young at a time and others have litters or broods, and many more fascinating facts, scientific studies and theories.

The book finishes with an extremely valuable question and answer section.

I thought I knew quite a lot about the rutting of fallow deer but I now have many new aspects of their rut that I intend to look out for.

This is a book that would seriously augment any type of study of animals, and amateur naturalists like me will also learn much from its pages. It is made all the more interesting by the extremely professional black and white illustrations done by the author’s wife, wildlife artist Catherine Putman.

Understanding Animal Behaviour by Rory Putman.  Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, Scotland, KW6 6EG.  £18.99

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Chris Packham’s interview with grouse moor informant.

Poisoned buzzard beside poisoned woodpigeon bait on driven grouse moor in Tayside

That really was an interesting interview by Chris Packham of the person giving him what was obviously first-hand information of some of the criminal activity that takes place on many driven grouse moors ( see https://t.co/dSu7SGhQRy ) It corroborates what I have seen over many years as a police wildlife crime officer, what some keepers have told me and also much of the intelligence that is fed into the National Wildlife Crime Unit. Much of it is almost word for word of some of the text from my book Killing by Proxy: wildlife crime in the UK today.

The informant confirmed that hen harriers, marsh harriers, peregrines, short-eared owls, tawny owls, buzzards, sparrowhawks and sometimes even merlins are being killed on many estates. I suspect the informant worked in England otherwise he would have added golden eagle and white-tailed eagle to the list. In fairness he stated that some keepers are changing but at too slow a rate, and that the level of criminality often depends on how commercial the enterprise is.

What stood out for me was the alleged level of involvement of some sporting agents. Sporting agents have been around for years but certainly, over this past 20 years, they seem to have had responsibility for the ‘improvement’ of many grouse moors, bringing them from poor production of grouse to intensive driven grouse shoots. My experience of those employed in these situations is exactly as described by the informant: refurbished houses, larger than average salaries and new vehicles. The informant describes the keepers employed as ‘young kids’ who work all day with little sleep. What he didn’t say was that the original keepers, to make way for these ‘young kids’, were paid off and, according to some, were pressurised into leaving.

Of course producing a monoculture of grouse at high density means eliminating any creature (often labelled as vermin) that either preys on grouse or are likely to disturb them and move them from a drive or drives on a shooting day. As the informant said, lots of money is paid to shoot the grouse and neither the sporting agent nor the headkeeper want drives ‘knackered by harriers.’

He also spoke of the number of mountain hares that are culled and the number of driven grouse moors that are ring-fenced, with everything inside the fence killed. My expansion of that is that the fences are double electric fences which restrict public entry to the estates as well as keeping deer out, and that in some cases all – or at least most – of the deer have been killed off inside the fence. These fences also prevent the deer moving around in winter to places that give the best shelter in bad weather and for all of these reasons I’m really surprised that estate owners are allowed to put up such fences.

The informant retuned several times to the subject of sporting agents. He, like me and many others, sees some of these agents as the principal cause of criminality on driven grouse moors. They are also the main factor that anchors gamekeeping practices in Victorian times. He speaks of ‘a well-known agent’ (and I know exactly who he is referring to) who he alleges gives a written warning to his gamekeepers if he sees certain species on the moor. I and others have sought out this documented evidence for years and failed to find it. While I have no doubt that warnings are given I doubt that anyone in a supervisory capacity would commit this to print.

Intelligence is the key to jailing a rogue sporting agent, but so few witnesses of criminal activity on driven grouse moors are willing to come forward. Over the years I spoke to many who had been badly treated by sporting agents. I’ll conclude with what I think is a relevant couple of paragraphs on this subject from Killing by Proxy:

Apart from one gamekeeper, they were too frightened to stand up in court and be counted. The one lengthy, horrifying and convincing statement noted and signed could therefore not be corroborated. More recently the tide has started to turn as the negative publicity of the criminality and the public anger were recognised by the more reasonable and sensible folks involved in the game shooting industry.

Had more intelligence been passed to the police that would have been a good start. Had evidence been given by the older gamekeepers who were ousted to be replaced by young compliant keepers that would have been a great step towards a court case. Had much more support been given to the gamekeepers who had been (or were being) encouraged or directed to carry out criminal acts, they could have provided evidence (as opposed to intelligence) in the form of witness statements or the recovery of illegal items and a case could most certainly have been submitted for prosecution.

This could have been achievable by the concerted action of the various shooting and land-owning organisations that have pretty much buried their collective heads in the sand for years, with no public acknowledgement and only half-hearted condemnation of what is taking place. The extent of the criminality, if proved, could have culminated in a considerable jail sentence. Even in 2017, using the common law charge of conspiracy (which is not time-limited as are statutory offences), it is still not too late for this to happen.

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The tale of a drug-sniffing turkey

Turkey (probably not drug-sniffing)

One of the pupils’ drawings in the Tayside schools wildlife crime project.

This short piece is an excerpt from my book A Lone Furrow. I had been writing about the schools’ wildlife crime project we ran in Tayside during the time I was force wildlife crime officer there. It concentrated on P5 – P7 pupils and in the latter years of the project involved 2000 pupils. Each class received an hour-long DVD on wildlife crime and over the course of a year had to submit 4 individual projects. These usually consisted of a coloured drawing of a bird, mammal, insect or wild plant found in Scotland, though this was sometimes changed to a poster drawing attention to some wildlife crime or issue such as raptor persecution or the plight of the Scottish wildcat; a short story where the young author related his or her investigation of a wildlife crime; a nature diary kept over a week either in spring or autumn; and lastly a wildlife crime quiz based on the content of the DVD which had to be completed at home with adult help. This was the last part of the relevant chapter in the book:


Though not at all my area of responsibility, I was often asked by the pupils about the use of horses and dogs in policing. Most were aware of the use of police horses, which have a real threatening, and consequently deterrent, effect on a hostile crowd. The use of dogs is even more widely appreciated, with a variety of breeds now being used for crowd control, tracking, detecting drugs, explosives, money and even pesticides.  But we had a less well-known animal assistant. In my drug squad days we were searching a Dundee house for drugs. The suspect was a small-time street dealer and not the brightest button in the box. We were sure he would have a few ounces of cannabis for dealing in grams or other small amounts to his friends and neighbours, though never suspected him of being a dealer who could turn over much more than that.

As we started the search it was obvious that it would take some time. The house was a midden, with dirty dishes and clothing lying everywhere, and cupboards so crammed full of junk that they should have had avalanche warnings on the doors. It was the kind of house where you would wipe your feet on the way out. The bedrooms would have done justice to a tornado strike, except that an accompanying whirlwind would have removed – or at least disturbed – most of the dust and grime that coated the floor and chairs. The only item in the house that looked new and well cared for was the huge colour TV in the corner of what could loosely be described the living room. None of us were looking forward to a rummage through any of this, and there would have been plenty of volunteers to stand with the clipboard and keep the search log.

Jim Cameron, a detective constable at the time, and in more recent times a detective superintendent before he retired, was always the comedian in the team. His skills as a joker came to the fore when he earnestly said to the dim householder,

‘Look Clint, (or whatever his name was; it has always amazed me the number of drug dealers I’ve encountered named after a butch film star or football player who would have been flavour of the month about the time of their conception or birth) I think you should just tell us where you keep your drugs. That would save us all a lot of time. If you don’t, I’m going down to the van to get the drug-sniffing turkey.’

Jim went into detail about the superb olfactory senses of this non-existent beast; how it was more efficient than any dog since its nose was much more finely tuned; how it never missed drugs, especially cannabis, no matter how well hidden.

‘The only problem with the turkey that lets it down is the mess it makes. The bugger shits everywhere. It seems to get excited and just seems to crap all the time it’s searching. We’ve tried not feeding it before we take it on a job but it makes no difference.’

Unbelievably this efficacious tale worked. I forget now where the dumbfounded and duped man said the drugs were hidden but he directed us to them. It may have been that he only gave up a smaller stash of an ounce and had more elsewhere, but on that day it was good enough for us. More importantly we hadn’t had to reveal our secret weapon. It would keep for another day.


See A Lone Furrow and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy, plus a free copy of another of my books, The Thin Green Line, contact me on wildlifedetective@gmail.com

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