RSPB Birdcrime Report 2015 – comment

Trap similar to that used by Wainwright. On this occasion the trap had caught a buzzard which had died of starvation

Trap similar to that used by Wainwright. On this occasion the trap had caught a buzzard which had died of starvation

I managed to get time this morning to read the RSPB Birdcrime 2015 report (which shows that some folk can be busy even when retired).  I can’t say I was impressed by the new format, the main reason being that any time I tried to open one of the links to Legal Eagle it was going to take forever to reveal the contents. This may be OK for folks with good broadband connections but many of us in the backwoods still have broadband that operates at a snail’s pace.

Having said that, the report showed that raptor persecution had barely slackened. As expected, the areas of driven grouse moors were demonstrably the worst. In relation to reported incidents of raptor persecution, Lancashire had 19, North Yorkshire, 40, Scottish Borders 20, Tayside 27, Grampian 23 and Highland 39. These six areas of the UK, all areas of driven grouse moors, had 170 incidents out of a UK total of 519.

I had been aware of the two goshawk incidents in the Peak District in 2013 and 2015 when men appeared at active goshawk nests in the middle of the night, and also in what appeared to be conditions of heavy rain. In the 2013 incident three of the first names of the men were known as they were heard speaking to each other. Since their motive is most likely to have been to get rid of goshawks that might cause them problems with game birds (they’d be no problem to a farmer) they are unlikely to have travelled far to the nest and through a combination of criminal intelligence and the use of the details in the firearm licensing department of the local police force I would have thought they should have been identified. Maybe they were of course but there may have been nothing at the scene to link them apart from a combination of names. They were just black shadows in the video though I wonder if voice recognition may have been possible. Crime intelligence is only of value if there has been a relevant input, which is often a failure of police officers and conservationists alike. The tree had been climbed, and according to French forensic scientist and criminologist Sir Edmund Locard every contact leaves a trace. However halfway up a tree is not the easiest place to carry out a scene of crime examination.

In the second incident four shots were fired, presumably into the nest. The men were seen scouring the area underneath, presumably to remove any evidence of dead birds of cartridge cases.

The two cases demonstrate how difficult it is to show that a crime against birds of prey has been committed and reinforce the view that the crimes discovered are indeed only the tip of the iceberg.

I picked up a case in the report that I had missed at the time. In February, 2015 a gamekeeper, Neil Gordon Wainwright of Norbury, Shropshire pleaded guilty to two pesticide offences and the insecure storage of ammunition. He was fined £500 with £115 costs. The circumstances leading to this were that RSPB Investigations staff had found a trap baited with two live quails next to a pheasant pen on land keepered by Wainwright. They installed surveillance cameras, which recorded Wainwright checking the trap, which was of the type typically used to catch hawks. The evidence was passed to West Mercia Police and in a subsequent search by police assisted by RSPB the trap and quails were recovered. Wainwright was later interviewed by a West Mercia police officer and an investigation support officer from NWCU. He admitted having set the trap but claimed he was trying to catch rats, stoats and mink. What utter tripe!

During the trial, with experts from RSPB Investigations and NWCU available, I don’t think there would have been any difficulty in proving the trap was set for hawks. Nor would there have been any difficulty for specialist avian vet Neil Forbes in proving that there was a welfare issue in relation to the two quails in the trap.

Following legal submissions about the admissibility of the RSPB video evidence the district judge ruled that the surveillance evidence was disproportionate in this case and dismissed the three related charges. I suspect he did that reluctantly since he ordered Wainwright to cover his own legal costs, telling him he had brought the prosecution upon himself.

This is the second case that has failed due to the archaic term in England of ‘trespassers’. The judge said said even when ‘trespassers’ acted with the best motives, that did not allow their conduct to be ‘unfettered’. There may have been another option to identify the criminal, which I’ll not publish but will discuss with RSPB Investigations.

In the various appendices to the 2015 report I see there are several pesticide abuse cases being investigated by Police Scotland where the type of pesticide has been withheld. In Scotland the police have three years from the date of the offence to get a case to the procurator fiscal (obviously less a few months for the fiscal to prepare the case for court). It is common in the investigation of any crime not to put specialist knowledge that only the person committing the crime may have into the public domain. In this respect it does not surprise me that pesticide details have been withheld. I am a bit surprised however that there are no details at all of four incidents; neither listing the species involved nor the area of Scotland in which the incident took place.

I like good mysteries….but only if I can solve them!


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A brighter future ahead for the investigation of wildlife crime?

The result of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for two Scottish estates is awaited with interest

The result of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for two Scottish estates is awaited with interest

There is a lot going on just now with the efforts of the Scottish Government and Police Scotland to tackle wildlife crime. It was summarised in part in the 2015 report Wildlife Crime in Scotland, published towards the end of 2016, with the Scottish Government making the following commitments for priority work ahead:

“We must protect the environment from those who seek to damage it for personal gain. We will increase the penalties for wildlife crime and consider the creation of new sentencing guidelines in line with recommendations from the Wildlife Crimes Penalties Review Group. Police Scotland will create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit to support the existing network of wildlife crime officers in complex investigations.

In order to safeguard vulnerable species from illegal persecution, we will carry out a review of prevention measures including the operation of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime and supporting Police Scotland in their work to target wildlife crime hotspots. We are prepared to introduce legislation where necessary.

We will consider the outcome of Lord Bonomy’s review into whether existing legal controls on hunting with dogs provide the intended level of protection for foxes and other wild mammals, while allowing for the effective and humane control of these animals where required.”

I was particularly interested in the commitment for Police Scotland to create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit. This appears in the report as a Scottish Government commitment so I wonder if we can assume that the Scottish Government, through PAW, will at least in part be funding it so might have some say over its format. If I can have a stab at it, the unit might incorporate a sergeant in charge and all six of the full-time wildlife crime liaison officers. Since the unit would be dealing with some of the more complex enquiries, particularly vicarious liability and wildlife crimes where a court might seek recovery of profit under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) this would require detective officers with fraud training and trained in the identification of assets for recovery. There are other specialist police services that would be required from time to time, such as scene of crime officers and search-trained officers but I doubt they would be part of this unit and could be called on as required, as could any of another 100 trained wildlife crime officers. I would see the unit having close links with the National Wildlife Crime Unit in respect of the preparation of intelligence packages and the expertise of one or more investigative support officers though again I suspect that would also be on an ad hoc case by case basis. It’s all very exciting and I’ll see how close my prediction is when it materialises.

There are several other developments on the back burner just now, not least the review of game bird shooting regulations in force in other countries. The review has been completed but results are not yet in the public domain. Hopefully this review, the review of satellite-tagged raptors and the outcome of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for Raeshaw and Burnfoot estates might all influence the outcome of the petition by Scottish Raptor Study Groups for the licensing of game bird shooting in Scotland. This currently sits with the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee.

Also relevant to game shooting is the intention of parliament, in the next few months, to look at the ownership and management of estates and hopefully ensure these details are included in a land register. In any other business this would equate to a chain of command. This needs to be done as a matter of urgency so that in vicarious liability cases the specific individual who is liable for activity on an estate can be identified and reported for prosecution.

We also have proposed increased sentences for wildlife crimes plus possible improvements to the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act (hunting with dogs) as recommended by Lord Bonomy, both of which I have written about earlier. In addition, on 6 October 2016, the Scottish Sentencing Council began work to create new sentencing guidelines for environmental and wildlife crime.

I have often said that trying to obtain evidence for a prosecution in many of the wildlife cases in which I was involved while a wildlife crime officer was about the biggest challenge in my investigative career. Gary Aitken, the fiscal in charge of the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit, hit the nail on the head when he said, “The criminal killing of wildlife species on land has been described to me as a murder investigation with a serious fraud investigation tacked on to the end of it.”

There seems a slightly brighter future ahead for the investigation of wildlife crime, and possibly even for its reduction. Let’s hope that these advancements are not hindered too much by the Brexit issues being forced up on us.

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Illegally-set traps on grouse moor in Aberdeenshire – comment

Bridge or rail trap set on an Angus grouse moor with no effort to limit access to legitimate 'pest' species

Bridge or rail trap set on an Angus grouse moor with no effort to limit access to legitimate ‘pest’ species

I have held back on commenting on the illegally-set bridge or rail traps found by walkers on what is reported to be the Glendye Estate in Aberdeenshire. On 17 January the walkers found a number of traps set on logs over burns where there was no restriction to mammals or birds that are not the legal targets of these traps. Photographs and details were published on an excellent blog – –  written by one of the walkers but unfortunately there was no mention as to whether the police had been informed.

Since 17 January the incident has been reported by others on social media and it would not have taken long for the phones of the keepers on the estate to be red hot warning them of the widespread public knowledge of these crimes. If they had set the traps they would be there in a flash to remove them.  I suspect that the police had been informed by the walkers since they had left the traps in the set position, leaving them liable to catch a mammal or bird, but that is only a guess since I thought from the blog that the writer seemed a very responsible person who, like many of us, has a hatred of wildlife crime.  In any event I did not want to add to the chance of the criminals being forewarned before the police had a chance to carry out their investigation. As I have said in other articles I believe in publication of criminal acts as early as possible after the discovery provided it does not hamper the police investigation.

The bridge traps in question appeared from the photos to be Fenn Mk IV traps set either in wire mesh tunnels with no restrictions on the ends to exclude mammals other than small ground ‘pest’ species, or simply with a single loop of fence wire over the trap. I have never encountered this latter method before and I can see no use whatsoever for the loop of wire. Either of the traps could easily catch protected species such as pine martens or even wildcats, and these larger mammals would be unlikely to be killed outright and more likely to be trapped by a leg and left dangling from the log.

The use of these traps in this illegal condition is pure laziness on behalf of the person setting them. Most of these traps I have seen lately have been set legally and it takes little effort to surround the trap with a proper wire cage. Gamekeepers state they are professionals and if a gamekeeper set these (and on any grouse moor regularly patrolled by gamekeepers it is hardly likely to have been anyone else) there is nothing professional about them.

Part of the SGA quote on the incident is:

‘all traps operated must be set in accordance with the strict guidelines governing their use’.

It’s a wee bit more than ‘guidelines’ that govern their use; it’s legislation. The criteria for setting these traps are not something that might be advisable to do, they’re conditions that must be followed. I bet that Bert Burnett is absolutely raging at this latest incident. There are many critics of Bert but I found when I was with Tayside Police that he did more than anyone else in SGA to discourage gamekeepers from breaking the law, especially in relation to raptor persecution.

Let’s hope that the police managed to get to the traps before they were spirited away.

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Evidence to the ECCLR Committee on the Scottish Govt Wildlife Crime Report – comment

Trapping and snaring offences were up from 19 in 2013/14 to 27 in 2014/15

Trapping and snaring offences were up from 19 in 2013/14 to 27 in 2014/15

I listened over the last couple of days to the evidence being given to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee of the Scottish Parliament in relation to the Scottish Government Wildlife Crime Report, 2015. I must say I was very impressed with the convener of the committee, Graeme Dey, and indeed all of the committee members. While some may have had their own agendas they were polite, put forward sensible and relevant questions and were extremely respectful to the various panel members who gave evidence; a complete contrast to the Westminster evidence on the petition for the banning of driven grouse shooting.

The police and COPFS were first and I wondered how the police would fare. ACC Steve Johnson and Detective Chief Superintendent Sean Scott represented Police Scotland. I don’t know them and I wondered, as is sometimes the case with senior officers speaking on wildlife crime issues, that they might just be figureheads with limited relevant knowledge. Mr Johnson transferred to Police Scotland in May 2016 and has only held the wildlife portfolio for a relatively short time, however in his former post of chief superintendent in Cumbria Constabulary he was also the lead on wildlife crime. Both officers displayed a knowledge of wildlife crime far higher than that normally shown by officers of those ranks. There were a few operational questions which they couldn’t answer, such as why four raptor-related crimes were not in the Scottish Government report yet were in the corresponding RSPB report, but at their level their role is primarily strategic rather than operational. I’ve no doubt they were well briefed by Sergeant Andy Mavin, who co-ordinates the Police Scotland wildlife crime officers but no matter how good the briefing there is always a question comes up that can’t be answered. I saw Andy sitting in the public bench behind the panel and I’ve no doubt that had he been beside Mr Johnson he could have fielded that and other operational questions.

I was a bit puzzled myself as to why these crimes were missing. I could see three of the alleged four crimes in the RSPB report. They were described as a crow trap baited with two live pigeon decoys, set spring traps beside a pigeon decoy and four shot buzzards (which could be argued would make six crimes), all discovered by the police in May 2014. It was stated during the evidence that the incidents had occurred on Raeshaw Estate, near Heriot in the Scottish Borders. Over a decade this has been one of the worst estates in Scotland for the discovery of wildlife crimes. I would have thought that, unless the publication of details of these crimes would jeopardise any proceedings it would have been in the public interest to do so. In any event this will be researched by Police Scotland and a written update given to the ECCLR committee.

I think there was consensus among the different organisations giving evidence (which included RSPB Scotland, Scottish Badgers, Bat Conservation Trust and Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, that more transparency was required. Rightly, Ian Thomson of RSPB stated that this did not mean knocking on the door of the estate owner (if he or she can be identified) and advising that there may be a shot, poisoned or missing bird of prey on the land. Personally, I would like to see every wildlife crime of interest put into the public domain as soon as possible, though at a time that would not thwart an investigation or without such detail as would jeopardise a prosecution.

Much was made of figures and tables and an interesting question was put by the convener as to whether, in relation to raptor persecution, is there a change in the behaviour of those who are involved. With fewer incidents of poisoning but more satellite-tagged birds disappearing the questioner wondered whether the criminals had got wise to the police methods of investigation and had changed the way they deal with birds of prey. This tends to happen in all areas of criminality, with the criminal trying to keep a step ahead of the police. I saw evidence of this comparing raptor persecution investigations between the early 1990s and when I eventually retired in 2015, by which time the recovery of evidence had become more difficult despite better forensic techniques. I can only speculate that this would be likely to continue.

The SGA fielded a spokesman who was a retired police officer, now a gamekeeper. He seemed a genuine chap and stated that he sees ‘a massive change on the ground’ in relation to raptor persecution. He also stated that the SGA does not condone the killing of birds of prey and have thrown five members out of their organisation. These are heartening statements but SGA is still reluctant to admit that gamekeepers are responsible for most of the raptor persecution reported, or that it may indeed be the tip of the iceberg. Various pie charts kept over the years clearly show that a preponderance of raptor crime is committed by gamekeepers, plus anyone who knows anything about the countryside knows that only a proportion of the raptors killed or illegal traps or poisoned baits set out are discovered. It is unfortunate that figures cannot be put on that proportion.

I was interested in the discussion as to whether the SSPCA should have additional powers to search for and recover evidence not directly involved in animal welfare. I agree with ACC Johnson when he stated that that SSPCA is a charity that deals with animal welfare and neglect, while the police investigate crime. He stated that the police have primacy in the investigation of crime and if SSPCA get increased powers there could be a conflict of interest, a lack of accountability plus they do not have access to some of the specialist services that the police have. I think I reached the conclusion that there may be some merit in slightly extending the power of SSPCA so that if during an animal welfare investigation they discover a wildlife crime, they may extend the investigation to include a search, there and then, for evidence which could subsequently be passed to the police.

I was interested in Mr Johnson’s experience that there is a correlation between the areas in which Police Scotland have full-time wcos and recorded crime. I certainly saw that when in post in Tayside. It serves to show that wildlife crime may not be increasing, but simply that the public are much more aware of it and know to report their suspicions to the police.  Having looked, however, at the Tayside wildlife crime statistics for 2014/15 I am not convinced that all wildlife crimes are being recorded. There were no badger crimes for that year, which is unusual, and there were only two bird crimes. Apart from any raptor-related crime I am sure that there will have been many more than two instances of birds’ nests being destroyed. There were two instances of cruelty to wild animals. I wonder if, in the days of so much CCTV, this includes the regular kicking and injuring/killing of gulls feeding on pavements by drunks making their way home. These might be recorded as bird crime, as might the shooting of swans with air rifles, but there again there were only two of those for the whole year. There were no cases of deer poaching being recorded, yet this was one of the more common wildlife crimes when I was working, as was hare coursing, yet only five incidents were recorded. Some of these incidents would no doubt be attended by officers who were not wildlife crime officers. I know that if no-one was caught at the time I used to have to chase the officers up for a crime report otherwise one would not have gone in. If this is the case Scotland-wide then the police are still very much under-recording wildlife crime.

There were many more interesting discussions, including fox hunting, bats, badgers, a register of estate ownership and vicarious liability. I was really pleased to see one of the Scottish Government’s commitments as:

‘Police Scotland will create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit to support the existing network of wildlife crime officers in complex investigations’.

This would be of major benefit and brings me back to an observation by Gary Aitken, who was the representative from COPFS, who said, in relation to vicarious liability that it was ‘like a murder investigation with a serious fraud allegation tacked on to the end of it’. In addition to such an investigation unit it would also be of huge advantage in the quick response to wildlife crime if all of the full-time wildlife crime liaison officers worked as a unit and could cross divisional boundaries as and when required.

I noted in the Scottish Government report that the police dealt with 19 trap and snare offences during 2013/14, which had increased to 27 during 2014/15. It may be on the back of this increase that the Scientific sub-group of PAW Scotland distributing a guide to police officers for recovering fingerprints and DNA from spring traps.

Lastly I was pleased to see in the report that September 2015 saw yet another continuous professional development seminar for wildlife law enforcement at the Scottish Police College attended by police, COPFS, UK Border Force and SNH.

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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”

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Book review: Natural History of Tenerife by Philip and Myrtle Ashmole

Natural History of Tenerife by Philip and Myrtle Ashmole

Natural History of Tenerife by Philip and Myrtle Ashmole

My daughter scanned through this book before I had read it and was immediately sold on Tenerife as a holiday destination for the near future. I think that sums up this remarkable book.

The book describes the colonisation of this volcanic island by wildlife from the time it rose from the sea, starting with plants and insects and up to mammals introduced for various reasons in more recent times. An excellent map at the beginning of the book displays the physical features and natural habitats on Tenerife.  The authors describe 30 or so interesting sites, one by one, within the book.

A good chunk of the book is devoted to these sites of ecological interest, which include coastal shrubland, laurel forest, pine forest and lava flows, this part incorporating creatures of some of the caves within the lava. The authors describe in detail the flora and fauna found in each site, a remarkable proportion of which are endemic to Tenerife or the Canaries. Interestingly the best routes and access points to these places are also given, making it much easier for someone on a short holiday to identify what is of most interest to them and maximise the benefit of their wildlife exploration.

The book is a botanist’s dream, detailing hundreds of different plants found on the island. I have never read a book with so many descriptive photographs identifying the many plants, which range from the smallest of flowers to tall trees. Chapters also identify the species of birds, mammals and butterflies, most of which are also photographed.

No book on a volcanic island would be complete without explanation of the geology. The book finishes with a chapter on the geology of the island and its relationship with other islands in the Canaries.

Natural History of Tenerife is a reference book that must be unparalleled in its field. In my opinion its value extends beyond the normal reference book because of its usefulness to the visitor to the island in finding and sharing the joy of its wildlife. I consider it a must for any Tenerife tourist with an interest in nature.


Natural History of Tenerife, by Philip and Myrtle Ashmole.  Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, Scotland. KW6 6EG.  £30

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The report assessing corvid traps in Scotland

A Larsen mate or clam trap. Note that this was one found being used illegally and has particularly strong springs and no gap at the top edges when sprung. It had been baited with a pheasant poult and on admission of the operator was set to catch a buzzard.

A Larsen mate or clam trap. Note that this was one found being used illegally and has particularly strong springs and no gap at the top edges when sprung. It had been baited with a pheasant poult and on admission of the operator was set to catch a buzzard.

A Larsen pod trap

A Larsen pod trap

In 2015 SNH commissioned a report to assess the nature and use of corvid cage traps in Scotland.  The field work, finished earlier this year, was carried out by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).  The project was overseen by a steering group of representatives from RSPB, BASC, SNH and Scottish Government.

My main concern was on how the field workers would view the use of Larsen mate traps, often referred to as clam traps, and pod traps. The clam trap is a wire mesh trap that, when set, rather resembles an open clam. The victim is lured inside and the cage springs shut.  The pod tap is a square or rectangular wire mesh structure with a gate at either end. The victim is lured in and both gates shut simultaneously.

Having seen these traps in use, plus almost all other designs involved in the trapping of corvids, most are used legally. Unfortunately they have the capability of being used illegally by those who might wish to catch birds of prey. My concern about the clam trap was that a large bird such as a buzzard is likely to be caught with its wings up in the air and sticking out of the top of the trap. A mammal such as a fox or badger might also be caught round the neck if it reached in for the bait. Since the attention of the Scottish Government and SNH was drawn to the illegal use of clam traps they have been restricted to being used with baits of eggs or bread only. The general licence also states that the trap must be securely pegged down so that it cannot be removed either by an animal caught in it or a predator. It also stipulates a maximum size of the trap and that the trap must not shut tightly along the majority of the length of the meeting edges. Stops could be used to good effect in preventing complete closure and the consequent trapping of wings or head.

In relation to the catching of raptors as by-catch during the trial the vast majority were buzzards. Observations found that buzzards were only caught in traps with meat baits and/or decoys.  This applied not just to the clam trap but to all of the traps tested. An occasional tawny owl was caught in a trap with eggs or bread, and a sparrowhawk was caught in a trap with a carrion crow as decoy. In this case the raptor, which takes primarily live birds, may have entered to try to catch the crow. It may be that the owls were trying to catch mice at the bread bait.

While I don’t think for a minute that there will be a cessation of the use of all of the varieties of corvid traps for criminal purposes I am more satisfied now that these traps, including the clam trap, can be used relatively humanely by operators that are intending to stay within the law.

For the 2017 general licence the use of meat bait in Larsen mate (clam) and pod traps will be permitted provided that those intending to do so register their intent in advance and provide SNH with a return of non-target captures. I must say I have my doubts that true returns will be made since evidence of heavy non-target catches are likely to result in the return to bread or eggs bait only but it is a good start.

In addition, during 2017, in conjunction with Police Scotland and Scottish Government, a code of practice for corvid trapping is to be developed. Also under consideration during 2017 is a discussion with Police Scotland on a revision of the trap registration system. I would hope that SNH may take ownership of the system and, as in snaring registration, ensure that the register shows the operator of the trap rather than the owner.

None of this will prevent abuse or misuse of corvid traps by those determined to do so. An increase in time allowed for police to investigate trapping offences (or better still an increase in full-time wildlife crime officers) plus more use of the current power of SNH to suspend the use of a general licence would not go amiss.

The report can be found at

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