Book Review – Running South America with my Husband and other animals by Katharine Lowrie

RUNNING SOUTH AMERICA with my Husband and other animals is written by Katharine Lowrie, who ran, unsupported, the full length – 6477 miles – of South America with her husband, David. The pair ran for 332 days, with 113 days of rest and giving presentations. They shared the pulling of a home-made cart with their provisions, which weighed between 60 and 140 kilos. Their average running day was 20 miles and they went through ten pairs of shoes each, even though they ran part of the distance barefoot.

This was a remarkable achievement, especially considering Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world and the pair were in real danger of being shot; part of the Brazilian rain forest is controlled by indigenous people who let no-one on foot through their part of the jungle; and they were discriminated against in Argentina because they were English, causing them to pretend they were Scots.

Most nights Katharine and David camped outside, enduring stings and bites from termites, mosquitoes, flies, wasps and ants, including painful bites from fire ants. When they did get hotel accommodation it was often so dirty that the only obvious advantage was that it was dry. When they were running they endured extreme temperatures ranging from arctic conditions in Patagonia to extreme heat and excruciating humidity in Argentina, with shortage of water one of their main concerns. In Argentina they also ran through a hurricane and were pelted with sand and grit.

Their days were lightened by the variety and volume of wildlife that they encountered. Both being ecologists, they recorded 453 bird species and many unusual mammals. Their list included guanacos, rheas, macaws, capybara, king vultures, Amazon river dolphins, hoatzin, snakes, Darwin’s frog, humming birds, toucans and giant anteaters. One of the highlights was when a wild parrot landed on Katharine’s shoulder.

Katharine and David were amazed at the beauty of the Andes and the friendliness of many folks they encountered, especially in Patagonia. On the negative side they were aghast at the devastation caused to the rainforest by ‘improvement’ of land for farming, tourism and road building.

There will be few authors with so many talents. Katharine relates the story of their run in fascinating detail and with frankness and humour. She is also an athlete, a naturalist (having formerly worked with RSPB) and a quality artist, which is demonstrated in the beautiful sketches of wildlife throughout the book.

Running South America is an enthralling book and without doubt one of the best I have read.

(Whittles Publishing, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG, Scotland.  £19.99)

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Does shooting benefit rural areas?

Grouse moor in Perthshire. This habitat suits comparatively few bird species.

One of the many poisoned buzzards recovered on Edradynate Estate, Perthshire

I read an incredibly interesting article the other day by Dr Steve Carver, director of the Wildland Research Institute. I thought the article very fairly responded to the views of Peter Glenser, chairman of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation in an article written to show how shooting benefits rural areas.

Having read Dr Carver’s comments on various paragraphs of Mr Glenser’s article that he copied in to his response I agreed with many of them. I could neither agree nor disagree with others as I don’t have sufficient knowledge. It was unfair in any case to take sides without having read Mr Glenser’s article, which I got time to do this morning.

Over the years I have worked closely with BASC at many training days and meetings. I have found the organisation and the staff with whom I have worked to be fair, knowledgeable, professional and helpful. I agree only in part with Mr Glenser’s comments that,

Where land is managed for the benefit of game, other species naturally flourish. Songbirds are more common on land managed for shooting. They benefit from the hedges, game cover crops, predator control and the food put out for game birds.

At the weekend I was on land extensively managed for driven grouse shooting. I saw plenty of heather, one or two black grouse, a number of red grouse, one or two carrion crows, some meadow pipits and …… no other birds. Others can argue this better than me but a monoculture of heather suits relatively few birds.

Where there is a mixture of habitat, whether managed for shooting or not, there is generally a far higher mix of wildlife. Trees and hedges attract many bird species and I don’t doubt that game crops and the feeding of pheasants add considerably.

One of Dr Carver’s arguments is that unnaturally high number of prey species increases predator numbers, and the killing of the predators simply creates a vacuum into which other predators move. Predators and prey have co-existed for hundreds of years but it stands to reason that creating habitat and conditions favouring thousands of game birds must increase predators.

An example of personal experience of this comes from dealing with issues on Edradynate Estate in Perthshire over many years. It is the estate on which I have picked up more victims of poisoning than on any other, with buzzards being the main victims. Nevertheless during searches there were always buzzards soaring overhead. This was hardly surprising since an exceptionally high number of pheasants were released, making the estate the equivalent of a game bird supermarket for predators. To make life for the predators even easier there was a sickening number of dead game birds lying around, probably pricked or unpicked birds from the estate’s many shooting days. Hardly surprising that there were many more predators than normal, despite predator ‘control.’ The ecosystem in fact was completely artificial and totally unnatural. It may have benefited song birds but it certainly didn’t benefit raptors.

There has recently been a change of gamekeeper on this estate so maybe this will make a difference.

This brings me to another line in Mr Glenser’s article where he states,

Those who shoot are the true custodians of the countryside.

And in a later paragraph,

The countryside is a national treasure. Maintained by those who shoot for game birds and other quarry species, they benefit us all. We cannot let celebrity campaigners and those who want to ban shooting succeed.  Without it all of us would be impoverished.

It is unfortunate for those who shoot who do try to be genuine custodians of parts of the countryside for which they are responsible that their endeavours are tarnished and their good work completely negated by the criminal activity that goes hand in hand with some shooting estates. I’m afraid this completely invalidates the oft-heard remark that shooters (or gamekeepers) are ‘custodians of the countryside’. There are many parts of the countryside maintained by those who shoot which are most certainly not a national treasure, with many of us being impoverished through the killing of protected wildlife.

Shooting and conservation can co-exist. They can be of mutual benefit and, more importantly, could even be of benefit to the wider public.  Regretfully we are still a long way from that stage.

Dr Carver’s and Mr Glenser’s articles can be accessed from this link and are well worth a read:

https://countrysquire.co.uk/2016/11/25/right-to-reply-to-those-who-shoot/amp/

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A nasty individual (not the beaver)

One of the earliest beavers trapped in Tayside

I saw the other day a BBC news article from away back in October 2016 which read,

‘A landowner has put a £1,000 bounty on the heads of beavers he claims are felling trees on his estate’.

Briefly the landowner was complaining that there were beavers on his land and that they were felling trees. The article claimed he put up posters on his land stating,

Beaver sightings! At Woodlands Castle. Wanted dead or alive. £1,000 reward! For crimes against trees. Beavers have been cutting down our trees!

A beaver expert visited the estate and disputed that the trees had been felled by beavers.

The point is that even in mid-2017 there is no legislation as yet in any part of the UK that gives beavers protection from being shot. They have by and large been accepted by the Scottish Government as part of the fauna in Scotland and there has been at least one authorised release of beavers to the wild in England.

I tweeted in response to the article,

Beavers need legal protection as a matter of urgency

Various studies have shown that beavers can increase biodiversity by creating wetlands, can slow water flow, reducing flood risk downstream, have little negative effect on migratory fish travelling upstream and are vegetarian (see for instance Guardian article https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/19/eager-beavers-experts-at-recreating-wildlife-rich-wetlands-study-reveals?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Tweet )

It is accepted that in some cases there may be a downside to farming if they burrow through flood banks or flatten parts of crops. None of this should negatively affect gamekeepers but some have to stick in their tuppence-worth if there is any possibility that they might be able to kill a creature.  However this is all by way of introduction.

An ex-gamekeeper clearly took exception to my support for beavers. He hides on social media under the pseudonym of Rural Voice (@voice_rural) and claims to be,

Ex headkeeper now conservationist looking to protect rural workers jobs & lifestyles.

In five consecutive tweets directed to me he asked,

Is that why no prosecutions were made under your watch against Bamff estate?

Whilst you’re here Alan. Did you ever have problems with buzzard whilst trapping rabbits when you was a full time cop? Salt & pepper?

Come on @WildlifeBlog don’t be twitchy did you have problems with buzzards? Did you take DNA samples from Bamff beavers? Open up. Tell truth

Simple yes or no will be ok. Yer reputation is on the line here.

We don’t want to add you to bent cop who facilitated beaver release in Tayside do we. Tell us exactly your position.

These are too many questions or claims to answer on Twitter; much better for a response on my blog. I have nothing to hide and I will treat it as a poor attempt to blackmail me into giving up my support of environmental issues and condemnation of wildlife crime.

That the beavers originated from Bamff Estate is a statement from him, without evidence, that the beavers in the Tay catchment came from this estate near Alyth which was one of three locations in Perthshire where there are or were captive beavers. That is an issue of civil litigation that Bamff Estate might like to take up. I’m not going to elaborate on my thoughts on where the Tay beavers originated but along with one of the part-time wildlife crime officers from the former Tayside Police we made an extensive investigation, liaised with the specialist wildlife crime prosecutor at Perth and submitted a case to her against an individual charged with unlawfully releasing or allowing beavers to escape in to the wild. She made the decision that because of the wording in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 the case would not prove. Amendments introduced through the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act addressed these issues and had the same case been submitted subsequent to the 2011 Act the outcome would have been different.

No DNA was taken during the investigation. This approach was considered and we would have attempted it (with some difficulty) if the fiscal had considered it would help the case, but the stumbling block was always going to be the wording of the legislation.

This answers the other beaver-related points and is a classic example of how a police officer (or in my case at the time, a member of support staff) must work within the wording of the law; despite the fact that I was pleased to see beavers back in the wild in Scotland again it was our duty to investigate the possibility – even probability – that they had been deliberately allowed to escape or in fact released.

Rural Voice makes reference to rabbit trapping which I carried out in the 1970 and early 1980s. I’m puzzled as to why someone catching rabbits would have any problem with buzzards, but I see where this has come from. His reference to ‘salt and pepper’ is an inference to the use of pesticides on a bait. In 2015 I was at a meeting which was also attended by Alex Hogg, chair of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association. Hogg approached me and claimed he had been told by another gamekeeper (surprise surprise) that years ago I had used pesticides on baits. I forget what he claimed the baits were for but he threatened that I should ‘watch this space’, an inference that he would make this public. Since this was total nonsense I challenged him to go ahead which, at realisation of the risk of being sued, he never did.

So Rural Voice claims to be a conservationist. I see little on his Twitter account that shows this. It is full of hate against those who support almost any form of conservation or who speak up against wildlife crime committed on shooting estates. His tirade against me, especially the use of the term ‘bent cop’ (even though I don’t understand the context in his tweet) confirms to me he is a bitter and nasty individual and doubt very much if he is the voice speaking on behalf of very many in the rural community. If he thought I wouldn’t respond I will go even a stage further and include the contents of this blog in my next book, A National Disgrace: wildlife crime in the UK, due for publication later this year.

I met a really friendly and competent gamekeeper just yesterday which thankfully reminded me to keep my views on gamekeepers in perspective. They are not all the same.

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An obsessive hare courser

Hare coursers in a stubble field

The hare caught by Double D and picked by crows after failing to be recovered at the time

Double D’s dog’s paw mark showing it at full speed and alongside a hare back foot mark

Now that we are in the second half of July and the harvesting of grain has started, the dreaded scourge of hare coursing will become more common. Already I have seen a report from England of a farmer being beaten by a metal bar when he tried to protect his land from coursing. It is unfortunate that some of our worst wildlife criminals are obsessed with the need to course and kill animals with their large dogs. Provided they are caught at the time, coursers are normally dealt with efficiently by police. It is when they are gone by the time the police arrive that the chance to bring them to book is sometimes lost.

The following chapter from my book A Lone Furrow shows not just the extent of the obsession of a single hare courser but also the value of all incidents being monitored and collated either by either an individual or a team within the police:

 

The coursing of hares with dogs is one of the more common wildlife crimes in the east of Scotland. I have dealt with many hare coursing incidents under the older legislation, the Game (Scotland) Act 1832, where there was no power of arrest for the police, though bizarrely this was available to landowners and their ‘servants’. In the more recent Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 the procedure is much more straightforward for police officers. Though by 2002 I was in a support staff role with none of my former police powers, I nevertheless had an active advisory part in just about every hare coursing incident that took place in Tayside. In addition, I linked in with my colleagues in just about every other police force as most of the criminals involved in coursing regularly crossed force boundaries and were invariably involved in other spheres of criminality.

In Tayside in 2005 we devised an operation, Operation Lepus, to deal more effectively with the handful of people who consider coursing their right. One of the first tactics was to convince landowners, farmers and gamekeepers that we would take reports of coursing seriously and investigate the incidents as we would with any other crime or offence.

As an immediate consequence, many more incidents were reported: incidents where in the past the farmer or gamekeeper might not have bothered to phone the police as they expected that little of worth would happen, and it would be a waste of their time. In policing terms wildlife crime might have a lower priority but every offence that is reported to the police deserves to be considered for investigation. For some wildlife crimes the investigation might be minimal because of the extremely unlikely chance of the person being detected, but hare coursing is not one of these crimes.

For a start, when the offence is reported, the people involved are normally still at the scene and they can be caught provided police are able to get there quickly enough (clearly, this is not always possible). It is those cases where the police officers don’t catch the hare coursers in the act, or do catch them but don’t take the right action, where I can help out. Here are classic examples, all relating to the same person from Dundee, a compulsive hare courser who we’ll call Double D.

On a Thursday in early February 2006, Double D and a pal were arrested by two police officers after a report that they had been coursing. I discovered this on the following Saturday morning when I went in to the office to catch up on some paperwork. On learning from the Control Room that they had been released before their court appearance, I accessed and read the police report. I was not surprised that the fiscal had let Double D and his pal out before court as the evidence was paper-thin. Neither of the men had been interviewed under caution to establish why they were raking about fields with their lurchers, and no search of any sort seemed to have been carried out in the field for evidence – normally something that I would be asked to help out with. Though the fiscal had released the men, I decided to visit the scene and ask the arresting police officers if there was any further evidence before a decision was made whether or not to proceed with the case. I was determined to ensure that there would be further evidence to present.

I telephoned the farmer who had made the complaint and arranged for him to show me the fields in which he had seen Double D & Co, and the route they had taken. The ground being soft I was reasonably sure that we would be able to track them and I hoped the farmer would have time to come with me to corroborate anything that was found. As I neared his farm at Kirriemuir it started to snow quite heavily, the surrounding fields rapidly losing their everyday green, orange and brown colours under a dusting of snow. Buggeration! There was now no possibility of any tracking. Even though the spiteful snowfall lasted only fifteen minutes or so, and was no deeper than quarter of an inch, any tracks would be hidden. They were likely to have been faint in any case; now they would be invisible.

The farmer took me on the route that Double D and his pal had taken. He had seen them in four contiguous fields, with the dogs having chased a hare in two of them. The third field was newly ploughed and it would have been a dawdle tracking them had it not been for the snow. I was angry that the opportunity of gathering this evidence had been lost.

In the last field we visited, the farmer told me that the men walked through it diagonally and were met by the police at the top of the field. Right in the centre of the field, on the diagonal line, I could see two carrion crows picking at something. I would have put money on it that it was the remains of a hare carcass.

As we approached, the frustrated corbies abandoned their midmorning snack and, sure enough, it was the remains of a hare. Exactly on the route the farmer said the men had taken. More significantly from an evidential point of view, it was at the very point in the field where, once Double D popped his head over the skyline, he would have seen the police car at the top awaiting their arrival. My interpretation of the situation was that, unusual as it is with hare coursers, Double D was taking the hare home and had dropped it on seeing the police. The police would not have seen the hare, only the heads of the two men appearing over the horizon. I was frustrated that this valuable piece of evidence had been lost for want of a phone call to me at the time for some advice.

I took possession of the hare, though after the corbie’s feast its evidential value was almost zero and hardly worth examination by a veterinary pathologist. A fox had also fed on the carcass at some stage since the hare’s rib bones were eaten through, something a carrion crow can’t do. We could not categorically link the hare to the two men without having followed their tracks but I felt that the finding of the hare on the route the farmer said the men took – a route that would also be corroborated by the two police officers in due course – constituted a link, albeit a small link, in the chain of evidence.

I photographed all of the fields and drew a map so that the court would have a better idea of the layout of the farm and the relevant fields. This would also allow witnesses in court to point to various places where some particular activity of evidential interest in the case had taken place. I also noted a statement from the farmer to the effect that he had seen hare coursing on previous occasions and that, from his previous experience, Double D and pal had definitely been engaged in this activity rather than just walking their dogs. Even without having been grilled by the officers, I felt that the two men had some explaining to do if they expected the court to believe that they were simply out exercising their dogs. No-one would seriously expect a pleasant walk in the countryside with dogs to include a perambulation through the middle of a newly ploughed field. Both men were from Dundee where are many grass fields or parks within or adjacent to the city. To have rejected them for a walk in a ploughed field, with the associated build-up of sticky clay to footwear struck me as stretching the benefit of a sheriff’s doubt a tad too far. I concluded the farmer’s statement by asking him about the presence or absence of rabbits on the farm. Rabbits were scarce, and I was pleased that the farmer was aware that, at least during daytime, rabbits would not be found in the middle of any of the fields in question.

On the following Monday morning I made contact with the arresting officer, who gave me the bad news that the fiscal had dropped the case, deserted simpliciter being the legal term. I was damned if I was going to all this extra work for nothing and telephoned the fiscal to ask if the case could be resurrected. The reply was that the case was completely closed. Dead! I told him of the additional evidence and managed to get him to agree to allow us to submit a completely new case. This was great news – and in my experience a very unusual step for a fiscal to take. I was determined that every possible scrap of evidence would be included.

In the knowledge that their case (which should have been rock solid) had been tossed out, Double D and his pal would meantime be laughing all the way to their next coursing outing. I would like to have seen their faces when a new copy complaint – or summons as it is sometimes called – was delivered to their respective doors.

Once he had recovered from the shock, and after an initial plea of not guilty, Double D changed his plea to guilty. A plea of not guilty by his co-accused was accepted by the court. The outing cost Double D a fine of £150, not the highest fine by any means but £150 more than he thought he was going to have to fork out.

In late March, most likely before Double D realised he had not in fact wriggled free of his Kirriemuir episode, he featured again. Because I monitored hare coursing activity throughout Tayside, I was aware of the favourite farms certain individuals liked to visit for their coursing activities. Double D liked farms in the Kirriemuir and Glamis areas of Angus, and in the Abernyte area of Perthshire, all within a 15-minute drive of Dundee. I was also aware that he was one of the rare hare coursers who sometimes operated on his own.

On this particular occasion a man was seen walking through a field of winter wheat adjacent to the Perth to Dundee dual carriageway near Abernyte. He had two lurcher dogs with him which were off the lead and which eventually found and chased a hare. The two witnesses did not see whether or not the hare was caught as the dogs disappeared out of sight. They then saw the man and dogs reappear, this time with the dogs on leads, and walk towards a car parked near the dual carriageway. The witnesses managed to note the registration number of the car and while one called the police to pass in details, the other watched the man and dogs get into his car and drive half a mile to another farm, where within a short time he saw the man and dogs emerging from the car and the two dogs chasing yet another hare. The police attended the scene but the birds had flown.

This time the system worked and I was notified of the ongoing incident and of the registration number of the car involved. As is mostly the case in coursing, the car had been sold and was not registered to its current owner. This was another trait of Double D, to have a new car every week or so, none of which was ever registered to him. I felt we were a step ahead of him this time and I asked officers in Dundee to go to the area of Double D’s house and await him returning.

Within a short time I received a call from the Dundee officers to the effect that they had stopped the car in Dundee and it was indeed Double D & dogs. In a way we were a bit unlucky in that the two witnesses had gone out before the police who had attended the incident called at their house to note statements. We had only a resume of what had happened so had not really enough evidence to arrest Double D at that point. We could have detained him, a facility which allows the police six hours to decide whether or not a person can be charged, but if there is insufficient evidence he must be released before the end of the six hours. We didn’t know when the witnesses might return home so the instruction was for the Dundee officers to photograph and video the two dogs in case the court, in due course, might want to forfeit them. Double D had admitted being at the Abernyte farm, but stated he had simply been walking his dogs. His trousers were soaked up past the knees in a green slime, evidence that his ‘walk’ had not really been a good day out. We were losing nothing evidentially by allowing him to go.

I met the investigating officers later in the day at the farm. They and I managed to effectively track Double D’s route through the field. He had first of all been walking, then had started running, presumably to try to keep up with his dogs once they were on to a hare. The tracks of one dog, running flat out and with all toes spaced widely, were followed along an access track into the field, which ran between some buildings and a deep ditch. The tracks of a hare could also be seen at one point where the earth on the access track was damp. It was in line with the dog’s tracks but this did not necessarily prove that these were the tracks of the hare that was being chased. I suspected from the heel of the hare’s back legs making a deep indentation into the earth that it was travelling fast. What I could say to the court now was that a large dog had been running flat out along that access track, and that a hare had been running fast along the same track. I could not say that the dog was chasing the hare, only that it was a possibility. The tracks of the second dog could not be seen and it may well by that time have tired and returned to Double D.

The access track led to the public road, a narrow country lane. I could not see any relevant marks entering any of the fields off the road and it may be that the chase continued along the road. The road was bounded by a deep and wide ditch and unless the hare took to the ditch it would have been easily caught as it would not be able to jink about and avoid the dog. The greater speed of the dog would have prevailed and it would have caught the hare. However there was no evidence at the roadside of the hare having been caught and I suspect it had launched itself into the green foetid water of the ditch and saved its skin.

At the second location pointed out to us by the witnesses we tracked Double D and his two dogs from where he parked the car. It was not long before the marks of the dogs disappeared from their initial obedient walking to heel, but the field into which the dogs ran was stubble and the tracks were lost. We had a good search but did not find any evidence of a hare being caught and killed. The searches at both locations had further value in that we established that the fields were full of hares, probably the magnet drawing Double D repeatedly to this area. The farm is in the Carse of Gowrie, flat and fertile land with clay soil. Because the land is flat it is literally segmented with drainage ditches: wide ditches full of green water of an uncertain depth. Our tracking of Double D took us to one of these ditches. By our reading of the signs his dogs had managed easily to jump the width of the ditch. Double D had almost managed. Almost is not good enough and we could see that he had been just a few inches short and had slithered into the water, hence the green slime on his trousers. Without seeing the bottom of the ditch this let us know that it was probably at least knee-deep. Overall he’d not had a good day, and it was getting worse!

Countering a likely defence argument that rabbits were the intended target, there were no signs of rabbits anywhere apart from some evidence of their coming from the wood at the other side of the public road into one of the fields at the second site. Rabbit droppings, closely nibbled winter cereal and some scrapes in the ground were evidence of their nocturnal visits before they returned over the road to their burrows in the wood for safety during the day.

So what did we have against Double D so far? 1. Two witnesses seeing a man coursing a hare with two dogs. 2. The same man getting into a car, with the registration number noted, which moved to a different farm where one of the witnesses saw the two dogs coursing a hare within a short time of the man and dogs coming out of the car. 3. The man being stopped in the same car in Dundee with two dogs and being identified as Double D. 4. A degree of corroboration of events from the tracking, though less-so at the second farm.

Had these been the only cases we would probably only have gone for the first, corroborated, incident.

But more was to follow. The following week near the village of Glamis in Angus, a woman returning home one evening saw a man in a car on a narrow country road near her house. He was driving slowly and his machinations included reversing. When she reached home, acting on her suspicions she ran into the house for binoculars and watched the man who was by this time in a field of winter wheat accompanied by a large black lurcher dog. She watched the man walk down the side of the field nearest to her then turn and head into the centre of the field. A hare rose and the dog took off pursuing it determinedly back and forth across the field. The man was running to try to keep up with the dog, which eventually caught and killed the hare near the top of the field. The woman saw the man pat the dog on the head in return for its efforts, collect the hare, and put the hare and the dog into the car.

The woman had meantime phoned the farmer whose field this was and he and his son arrived on the scene just as the man was driving off. They attempted to block him by keeping to the middle of the road with their Land Rover but he came straight for them and they wisely made way for him to get past. They managed to get the registration number of the vehicle which turned out to be the same one Double D had been driving at his previous incident. The police attended but the man was long gone. They checked on the vehicle registration number but since it was still in the name of the previous owner their enquiry came to a dead end.

I learned of the incident the following day, and recognised Double D’s car registration number. I went to the scene and, accompanied by the woman who had watched him, searched the field. We found little in the way of tracks as the field was so dry but did find the spot where the dog had caught and killed the hare. I photographed the small area of flattened crop and collected some of the hare’s fur. This helped corroborate what the witness had seen. I then had Double D identified from a set of 12 photographs.

Double D was out again three evenings later. On this occasion a man and woman saw two dogs chasing a hare in the field at the other side of the road from their house near Kirriemuir. The dogs chased the hare for some time but disappeared after it into the next field where they couldn’t see the outcome. They saw three men on the road and knew they were connected with the dogs, one having a lurcher on a lead. This man released the dog (or it escaped from him) and ran off down the field that the first two dogs had been in, hotly pursued by the man.

Just before this happened the man was passed by a car with one male occupant who, seeing the men on the road, thought that cattle had escaped and slowed down. It was not just any male occupant who happened to be driving the car but a man who recognised the person who was just about to take off after his dog. He had recognised him from a previous coursing incident the year before, one in relation to which he was charged and appeared in court. How unlucky can you be if you are just out for a quiet bit of coursing?

In the meantime the three wayward dogs were rounded up and they and the three men piled into a car and drove off. They were not about to escape that easily and were followed by one of the first witnesses, who had jumped into his car to pursue the ‘Kirrie Three’ in order to get their car registration number. The registration number was passed to the police but, like the incident from three days before, the police enquiry concluded when the vehicle was found still to be registered to its previous owner.

I picked up the investigation in the morning and telephoned the witnesses. I learned from one of the witnesses about the incident the previous year and asked him in which month that had taken place. When I checked, I found that Double D had been caught and charged with a hare coursing incident that month. This was something positive to work on. I then met up with an enthusiastic young officer from Kirriemuir and we visited the witnesses to obtain statements. We also showed to the witness of the incident of the preceding year a set of 12 photographs that naturally included Double D. There are no prizes for guessing who he picked out.

We then did some tracking in the field. Luckily this field was easy to track in, being yet another ploughed field. We could clearly follow the tracks of the two dogs back and forward the field then across a dyke into a grass field where even the Lone Ranger’s pal Tonto would have had difficulty following the track. I was a bit surprised that we couldn’t see the tracks of the hare in the ploughing but I had no doubt from the zig-zag marks of the dogs that they had been after a hare. We then followed the track of the dog that had run from the roadside and of the man who had chased after it. The dog had run half-way down the ploughed field, turned sharp left, over a broken dyke and into a winter barley field where it seemed to have been caught by the man. Man and dog then walked back up the winter barley directly to where their car had been reported as being parked. Tracking is nearly always time well spent.

We had no idea who the other two men may have been but I considered we had sufficient evidence for yet another charge against Double D. There was no direct evidence that it was his dog that had been chasing a hare but he was art and part involved in the coursing of a hare. I considered that it would be better that the charges were all taken together. The slight difficulty was that two had taken place in Perthshire and would go to Perth Sheriff Court, while the other two had taken place in the part of Angus covered by Forfar Sheriff Court and should go there. I made contact with the specialist wildlife fiscal and asked if she would take all the charges together at Perth. She agreed, and also concurred with my next suggestion that we should arrest Double D as part of a continuing series of offences and bring him before the court.

The continuing investigation and reporting of the case was delegated to the officers who were involved with the first pair of charges and they called regularly at Double D’s door in Dundee to arrest him. He was either never at home or failed to answer the door, and after a week or so it would not be reasonable to arrest him unless he committed another coursing offence. Power of arrest diminishes with the passage of time. If a person is to be arrested some time after a crime or series of crimes then an arrest warrant should normally be applied for. The case was reported to the procurator fiscal and Double D would get a summons with the four new charges in due course.

These latest four incidents took place between 23 March and 4 April 2006. He inevitably entered a plea of not guilty and was due to go to trial in late October of that year. For whatever reason, after all the witnesses turning up at court on the October date, the trial was adjourned till January 2007. I thought we may have cured Double D of his addiction to hare coursing but he was identified by photograph yet again for another incident in December of 2006, this time using a greyhound and a spaniel, an unusual combination.

A few days before Double D’s January trial, I was contacted by the procurator fiscal who was to be prosecuting it. She told me that a plea to the first charge had been offered and wondered if we should just settle for that. This is really the procurator fiscal’s call but I was always glad when they discussed it with me before making a decision as there may be a particular reason that the police would want the full circumstances to be heard, the only way to do this being to run the trial. In this particular case I was aware that the mother of one of our witnesses had just died and that because of arranging the funeral he would not have been able to give evidence in any event, which would mean that either one charge would have to be dropped or the case would need to be part-heard, with another date set to complete the evidence. I have never liked part-heard trials as the impetus seems to be lost and sentences always appear to be less appropriate to the crime charged than would normally have been expected. Further, if this charge were to be dropped, not only would it weaken the case but this was the only charge in which we could prove that a hare had been caught.

I considered the options and asked the fiscal before she agreed to a guilty plea to the first charge only, to try again for a guilty plea to a second charge. If that failed I would have no gripe with a plea to one out of the four charges. This was not to be and when she phoned me back later it was to tell me that we were unfortunately only getting the offer that had originally been on the table. Though I was disappointed I was pleased for the eight civilian witnesses that they would now not have to appear in court, an experience that is at worst traumatic, at best tedious.

On the Monday morning of the case I went to the court to listen in to what the fiscal, the defence and the sheriff had to say. By good luck Double D’s case was first to be heard so I didn’t have too long to wait. The fiscal presented a summary of the circumstances to the court and handed a list of previous convictions to the sheriff. Double D has a considerable – and varied – record, including two convictions under the Game (Scotland) Act, analogous convictions for the purposes of this case. The fiscal was quizzed by the sheriff on the nature of these convictions but had no knowledge other than that offences under the Act relate to trespassing on land in unlawful search or pursuit of game, pretty much the same as in this case.

The defence solicitor told the court that in the charge to which his client pleaded guilty the hare being chased by the dogs had not been caught. He explained that the hare was never likely to have been caught as the dogs were not fit enough and they just enjoyed the chase. He then said that his client had since sold the dogs. These mitigating excuses probably impressed the accused though it’s unlikely that anyone else in the court – particularly the sheriff, who hears this twaddle day in and day out – believed a word. The excuses got even better. The defence contended that the Protection of Wild Mammals Act 2002 was really about banning fox hunting and that hare coursing was at the lower end of the scale. Furthermore, he was led to believe that the authorities turned a blind eye to hare coursing! Considering the publicity I had given to the media on Operation Lepus, for anyone in Tayside seriously to believe this they must have been on the moon all of the previous year.

The sheriff did not believe the stories and commented to the defence, ‘I hope you are not inferring that I should turn a blind eye to this.’ ‘No, M’Lord,’ the defence solicitor replied, ‘I am merely passing on the information I have been given.’ He may as well have added, ‘to keep my client happy.’ The sheriff addressed Double D and asked him to stand. He told Double D that with the penalties made available by the Scottish Parliament (6 months imprisonment and/or a Level 5 fine – £5,000) it was clear that Parliament considered hare coursing to be a serious matter and that he would deal with it accordingly. He fined Double D £400, the highest fine for hare coursing up to that time during the course of Operation Lepus and a satisfying conviction considering that Double D was unemployed and unable to pay a fine much in excess of that amount. I doubted that it would have been any higher had he pleaded guilty to two or even four charges.

In this particular case no account could be taken of Double D’s earlier conviction, when he was fined £150. The reason for this is that he had not yet been convicted when the four incidents relating to this case had taken place. The earlier conviction was able to be taken into account when his outstanding case for the December incident with the greyhound and spaniel came to court, though the conviction for the case with the £400 fine could not be taken into account, the reason again being that this case was still pending when he was charged with the latest offence. I was glad that I attended the court and heard the defence solicitor’s excuses. I was able to ensure that in double D’s next case the fiscal could tell the court at the outset that the charge was a result of an operation specifically to respond to regular complaints by farmers, gamekeepers and landowners about the scourge of hare coursing.

In due course Double D pleaded guilty to coursing with the unlikely mix of dogs, though this time was only fined £250. Though this seems a light fine, bear in mind that the sheriff was only aware of his £150 fine; and not the case where he was fined £400. Nevertheless within the space of a year Double D accumulated fines of £800 for hare coursing and still had another case pending. Some people just never learn.

 

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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‘Pest’ control practices filmed in the Peak District National Park – analysis

A self-locking snare

A free-running snare

Alerted by an article in The Mirror newspaper and other sources I watched a short film put together by a group known as the Hunt Investigation Team. This team had been filming covertly on Moscar Estate, a grouse moor in the Peak District National Park owned by the Duke of Rutland, and had put together film of a series of activities by men they described as the estate gamekeepers. (See https://huntinvestigationteam.org/moscar-investigation/ )

The team claimed that there are around 400 snares, presumably set for foxes rather than rabbits or hares, on the estate. This is a huge number of snares to check daily but experience shows that many of these driven grouse moors employ seven or eight gamekeepers, often under the control of a sporting agent rather than the estate owner. Nevertheless I would doubt that every snare is checked within the legal time frame.

The film shows many traps, snares and incidents that most folks would think are illegal, but in fact are legal if used or carried out with the permission of the landowner or agent. Some, though, may well be illegal and the police officers carrying out the investigation will have a much better idea after speaking to the witnesses and viewing the full range of film and photos. At first glance there may be the following offences:

A photograph of a snare set on a track looks suspiciously like an illegal locking snare. It is an old-style snare of the type with an option of two holes which, if the wire is passed through one hole it runs freely, but if it is passed through the alternative hole, the snare locks when tightened. My photographs demonstrate the two positions. With any luck the police will have been made aware and recovered the snares before details went public and the evidence disappeared.

There is a horrific sequence of a badger in a snare being released by a man with a semi-automatic shotgun. He fires two shots right beside the badger’s head to cut the snare. The badger runs off along a path and immediately runs into another snare. This time there are three shots from the shotgun to free it.

While badgers will not be the easiest animals to free from a snare, breaking the snare by shooting it is wild west stuff and certainly not the way to do it. It probably needs two people, one to secure the badger, probably with a forked stick, and the other to cut through the part of the snare that is round the badger’s neck, or slacken the snare and remove it completely. Obtaining proof that the badger in the film eventually ran off with two snares round its neck that are extremely unlikely to ever come off and would ultimately kill the badger would be hard to obtain but this is almost certainly the case. I don’t think this is unusual; I once heard a member of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association say at a meeting that if he caught a badger he would simply cut the snare and allow the badger to run off and take its chance.

Easier to prove is that the badger is subjected to extreme stress by these shots being set off right beside its head. They would be absolutely deafening and, since the badger is captive and temporarily under the control of man and being subjected to unnecessary suffering, this is likely to be a contravention of Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. If the snares used are locking snares there is little doubt they would kill the badger within a relatively short time.

The team further claim that a badger was shot and buried in a wood. That should be recoverable by the police provided they were informed before the story was made public. A post mortem examination should confirm the cause of death.

Another part of the film shows a jay in a Fenn trap. It seems that the jay is the decoy bird rather than a bird that had been caught in the trap. It is completely illegal to use a jay as a decoy bird in Scotland. I looked at the equivalent general licence that applies to England. The general licence does not include a jay as a decoy species but another current government document includes a jay as a decoy species. I had experience of this type of discrepancy in Scotland years ago in relation to multi-catch corvid cage traps. General licences were issued at that time by two different departments and the content was different. The prosecutor, rightly, did not proceed with the case as it was obvious the accused would claim he was using the document that suited him. The same will be the case with jays in England. I’ll bring this to the attention of Natural England.

The gamekeepers in the film were wearing masks, plus one was wearing nitrile gloves. They were reminiscent of criminals about to carry out an armed robbery. No-one wears a mask unless the intent is to commit a crime. What must decent gamekeepers and their representative organisations think of this film? They must be totally disgusted. Hopefully the estate will get a visit in due course from one of the organisations and if the duke is worthy of the title he’ll get rid of the whole bunch who have brought what I consider unprecedented disgrace to gamekeeping.

If the police manage to put a case to the CPS I’ll watch with interest to see if they and the court accept the covert footage.

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SNH Events – A Walk on a sporting estate in Glen Isla – comment

Highland moorland (Photo courtesy of SNH)

I note from my copy of Scottish Wildlife Trust Events and Activities July – November 2017 the following event:

Sun 30 July, 2.00pm – 4.00pm Glen Isla Sporting Estate Visit

A guided visit to a sporting estate in Glen Isla with the gamekeeper. Meet at Fergus (NO193682). Turn right off the B951 past Forter Castle.

The estate is not named on the SWT booklet but already I have seen on social media that several people have been criticising Scottish Wildlife Trust for organising such a visit.

While I regularly knock several sporting estates, especially grouse moors, and agree with the need to licence grouse moors (or indeed ban driven grouse shooting altogether) it is  currently legal and I don’t agree with dismissing a guided tour of an estate out of hand without knowing of any criminal activity that has taken place there. There are many grouse moors I would hate to see given any credibility but on the other hand I have had guided tours by gamekeepers in the past where I have been seriously impressed with what I have seen and by the knowledge of the gamekeeper.

On one grouse moor in Angus I was shown nesting barn owls and nesting kestrels. I also saw many buzzards flying around and also a goshawk. On a Perthshire grouse moor that was also rearing grey partridges I saw an even wider variety of raptors that included hen harrier, golden eagle and red kite. I was also amazed at the knowledge the keeper had of tree species and wild plants, most of which I couldn’t identify. On a low-ground shoot near to where I live there are several pairs of nesting buzzards, at least two pairs of nesting ospreys and at least one pair of nesting red kites. Lastly, on the Highland Perthshire estate on which I did a year-long survey and on which I based my book A Wealth of Wildlife, I identified 90 species of birds including hen harrier, white-tailed eagle, tawny owl, nesting red kites and many nesting buzzards. Golden eagle, peregrine and merlin were also regular visitors that I saw both before and after my year’s study but during that year their visits unfortunately never coincided with mine.

In my opinion to dismiss shooting estates and gamekeepers out of hand is wrong. There are many where because of the owner, the sporting agent or the gamekeepers I wouldn’t give the time of day but there are some where, even though the habitat is managed for grouse and could be altered to be of much more value to other species, a walk with the gamekeeper can be incredibly enlightening.

Until I know the name of the estate I wouldn’t think of making a judgement.

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The latest raptor persecution incident and comment on ‘pest’ control

Buzzard in Fenn trap (photo courtesy of former Northern Constabulary)

Reported by many sources was the trapping of a buzzard on the south slopes of Beinn Bhreac, which is in the Monadhliaths in Inverness-shire.  The RSPB report stated this is a grouse moor, which comes as no surprise, though the estate is not named.

The trap appears to be baited with a dead woodpigeon and, being set amongst moss, would be easy to conceal. Before it caught the buzzard it would be completely invisible and would only be found if someone inspected the dead pigeon.  I assumed the trap was a Fenn trap, though it is difficult to confirm this in the photo. It would be naïve to think that the trap was set by someone other than an estate employee. Since there are few predators away out on a grouse moor that cause problems for sheep farming it is reasonable to assume the person most likely to have set the trap would be a gamekeeper. Most farmers have little use for traps in any case.

That the trap was set at all beggars belief and confirms the arrogance of the criminal involved that (1) no-one would find the trap and (2) if they did, the police would not manage to obtain evidence to link it back to him.

I looked for responses from gamekeeping and landowning organisations. All I could see was a feeble couple of lines from The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association:

The SGA has a strict policy and condemns wildlife crime. Should any member be convicted of such a crime they will be removed from the membership. The SGA advocates legal solutions as the only means to solve species conflicts”. 

Why do they mention ‘species’ conflicts? The important conflict is not between grouse and raptors; the law makes that abundantly clear: raptors are protected and that is unlikely to change. It is surely between gamekeepers who put two fingers up to legislation and the law-abiding public, which of course includes law-abiding gamekeepers who must be heartily sick of being condemned alongside their criminal colleagues.

These organisations know at least as well as the police who the rogues are. They must also see this is yet more evidence to convince the Scottish Government to licence shooting. So why are gamekeeping and landowning organisations doing bugger all to deter these folk?

Reading a comment on the Raptor Persecution UK report on this incident it struck me that the law may not be as well-known as I thought. The person commenting wrote:

Are the police doing random checks to ensure compliance? I’d love to see the stats on that? The number of registered trap users who have been inspected? Sadly…probably not available because it’s probably not being done. So really they are not doing anything other than responding to complaints when the public report these very hard to detect crimes”.

Firstly Fenn traps do not need to be registered with the police, registration is limited to corvid cage traps and snares. Neither can the police do random checks to ensure compliance with any type of ‘pest’ control. A police officer can only enter land to inspect any of these traps when there is reasonable suspicion that they are being used illegally. The last line of the comment is entirely accurate. When Scottish Government get around to licensing, which I think is now inevitable, it would be wise to factor in a power to the police to inspect pest control methods as a condition of the licence.

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