The second part of Alan Stewart, The Wildlife Detective's guest blog - The Early Days.

22 March 2018

The second part of Alan Stewart, The Wildlife Detective's guest blog - The Early Days.

I was introduced to the policing of wildlife crime very early in my career. It was a type of crime that seldom takes place nowadays but shooting game from the roadside was very common when I was based at my first Perthshire police station, Dunblane, away back in 1966. Groups of men (never women) very often from Stirling or the Glasgow area drove around the back roads shooting pheasants, partridges and hares from the roadside, usually with a .22 rifle or less-commonly with a high-powered air rifle.

The gamekeepers were on the ball and either passed in the details and location of the vehicle, or in many cases arrested the team of poachers and brought them to the police station. It is a complete contrast to the insignificance of game birds now. They are almost valueless and estates can hardly give them away, far less sell them. This year they have frequently been found dumped by the barrowload in the countryside.

Poaching offences were ten a penny in the 1960s and 1970s. I have dealt with dozens of these roadside shooting cases, an even greater number of salmon poaching cases and many deer poaching cases.  At the Scottish Police College police officers were well-taught in game and poaching laws, the Protection of Birds Act 1954 and the Protection of Animals (Scotland) Act 1912, which mainly concerned domestic animals. All of this knowledge was regularly used by police officers – except for the Protection of Birds Act.

Though offences are still commonly committed against wild birds, especially birds of prey, in the 1960s and 70s they were systematically being poisoned, shot and trapped by gamekeepers. I had never heard of a complaint being made to the police about this type of crime until the 1980s, which was very much around the time that awareness-raising began in relation to all types of wildlife crime.  The laws in the 1960s and 70s were very much in favour of offences against the landed gentry, with a power of arrest for certain game poaching offences given to gamekeepers but not (at least in Scotland) to police officers. Courts could sentence an offender to imprisonment for salmon or deer poaching but not for poisoning a golden eagle. It was not until 2003 (in Scotland) that a police officer could arrest anyone for poisoning a golden eagle, and 2004 before courts could imprison a person for the same offence.

The first poisoning case that I dealt with which resulted in a conviction was in 1995. In June of that year a field ornithologist had been walking on the hills on Farleyer Estate, Aberfeldy, Perthshire, when he found two hens eggs lying on a bare patch on the heather moorland.  The astute witness photographed the eggs. He left one where it was and collected and wrapped the other one up to bring to the police station. There is no doubt that this saved us valuable time in the enquiry but it was a dangerous thing to do.

The collecting and delivering of potentially toxic evidence by a witness is something the police would never recommend. If for instance he had made contact with me from the hill, had told me of his suspicions and I had asked him to bring the eggs in for examination there would have been two major flaws in that instruction. The first, and by far the most important, is that he could have run the risk of being contaminated by the eggs during the handling of them. Secondly, he would have removed all the evidence from the scene of the crime and since he was on his own the fact that the eggs had been there in the first instance would not have been corroborated.

Though he shouldn’t have touched the eggs, what the ornithologist did was in fact ideal. He effectively gave us a chance to get a quick test carried out on the egg that he brought in, while leaving the other one to be collected when there was corroboration available. Tests for pesticides are carried out free of charge by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) in Edinburgh. In this case we were keen for a quick result. We had spotted a minute quantity of white powder adhering to the egg near where the culprit made the hole in the shell to insert the chemical and mix it with the contents but when we looked slightly later the powder had gone. It was enough for us to suggest to SASA that the most relevant test to start the series of tests should be for Alpha-chloralose. This turned out to be the case.

The day after the two hen’s eggs were found by the ornithologist, we set off to recover the second egg from the hill. The search began almost in the shadow of the magnificent mountain near Kinloch Rannoch, Schiehallion. The hen’s egg was exactly where the map drawn by the ornithologist indicated it would be. It lay there on a small grassy patch surrounded by heather, a domestic entity completely incongruous in surroundings that were almost wilderness, a trickle of albumen bubbling from the small hole in the shell through which the poison had been inserted. The egg was photographed in situ before being carefully wrapped in packaging and placed in my rucksack.   

As often happens in these cases we had a strong suspect already in mind. A new gamekeeper had been employed on Farleyer Estate but before his arrival there we had been alerted to several suspicious or illegal incidents on the estate where he was formerly employed. Taking all the circumstances together there was sufficient evidence to allow a sheriff to grant a search warrant and we paid our suspect a visit eight days later.

When we called at the gamekeeper’s house the place was deserted. A small storeroom adjacent to the kitchen door was open and when we looked in there I saw a pair of hill boots on the floor. Inside one of the boots was a white tub and, remarkably, there was a label on the tub stating that the contents were Alpha-chloralose and that it had been bought in a particular store in a town in Ireland. I gently opened the tub and saw that it was half-full of a white powder that had all the appearances to suggest that the labelling accurately reflected the contents.

At this point the suspect appeared in a Land Rover, which he parked near his house. He was cautioned and agreed that the tub contained Alpha-chloralose and also that it was his property. He was asked about the eggs laced with the substance found out on the hill and immediately admitted that it was he who had put them there. This interview was too easy. After years of interviewing suspects I had reached the conclusion that almost no-one tells the truth right away. A suspect waits till he or she is backed into a corner, has assessed the evidence known to the police by the questions they ask or the information they have, realises there is no escape, then tries to make the best of a bad job by throwing in excuses and reasons that assuage and mitigate his or her involvement.

There is one notable exception: when the person hopes that the police will grab with both hands an admission to a lesser evil then quickly depart, rubbing their hands in the satisfaction of an easy result. To the chagrin of this particular suspect it doesn’t always work that way. We knew that something more serious was lurking somewhere in the wings and a short while later a search of the Land Rover justified our perseverance. On the front passenger seat of the Land Rover was a cardboard box. This box mostly contained shotgun cartridges but also held a bottle of Lea and Perrins sauce.

I’m not a great fan of Lea and Perrins sauce but I knew that this was not quite the standard colour – dark green rather than black. Apart from Phosdrin, all of the pesticides I had encountered up till then were in powder or crystalline form. I asked him if it was Phosdrin but he said it was Lea and Perrins. A feeble excuse came forth that was related to spicing up Chinese carry-out meals that were a bit bland, but it was a last-ditch attempt that the suspect knew was going to fail. To call his bluff I suggested that I would pour a drop on to my hands and taste it. That was the crunch call and there was a reluctant admission that the bottle contained Phosdrin after all.

This was probably the first-ever successful case of pesticide abuse through Perth Sheriff Court and the penalty was substantial. The gamekeeper pleaded guilty and was fined £2500. I thought this would send out a message strong enough to stop in their tracks those who used this method of indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife. The future very much showed that this was not to be the case.

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