Silent witnesses: investigating wildlife crime in Scotland

Welcome to the latest Naturally Speaking blog post. This post was written by Research Associate Caroline Millins a qualified veterinary pathologist and researcher in wildlife disease epidemiology. Here Caroline describes work that was featured in her most recent research paper, but also gives the broader story to becoming involved in wildlife pathology.

Golden eagle by Juan Lacruz [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Golden eagle by Juan Lacruz [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Silent witnesses: investigating wildlife crime in Scotland

Seeing wildlife in its natural habitat makes me happy, whether it’s the garden birds I hear on my commute to work at the University of Glasgow, or sighting iconic species such as white tailed sea eagles whilst holidaying on the Isle of Mull. However, as a wildlife pathologist I also encounter wildlife in completely different circumstances – I carry out post mortems on mammals and birds for both disease surveillance, and to investigate suspected cases of wildlife crime.

A-poisoned-golden-eagle - Murdo Macleod
Dead golden eagle. Image credit: Murdo Mcleod

The first golden eagle I ever saw was not soaring in the sky above me. It was lying awkwardly, damp and dishevelled on a post mortem room table. This was in the early days of my pathology training in the Saskatchewan prairie, Canada.

A once magnificent, adult golden eagle had been submitted for post mortem examination, suspected of being shot dead. This upset me quite a lot. Our examination confirmed that the eagle had indeed been shot. Based on the entry and exit wounds we could track the route the bullet took through the bird and record the fractures and fatal organ damage in pathological detail, but we never found out who committed this crime.

Forensic veterinary pathology is the process of collecting and recording evidence during a post mortem examination to be used in court (think ‘Silent Witness’, with wildlife instead of human victims). But wildlife crime investigations face many challenges, from the detection of a carcass through to prosecuting the offenders. There’s only a small window of opportunity to detect a carcass before decay and scavengers remove the evidence, and as carcasses are often distributed over a wide area, for every case detected there are probably many more which remain undiscovered.

When I arrived in Glasgow to start my PhD program I jumped at the chance to become involved in a project to assess the contribution of forensic pathology to wildlife crime investigations. In a study that we published recently, we tried to establish which wildlife species were being targeted in Scotland, and the types of crimes being committed. As part of the study we were also interested to find out how many cases led to a successful prosecution, and how the forensic veterinary pathology and toxicology examinations contributed to this.

Bob Elliot holding poisoned golden eagle - credit RSPB
RSPB’s head of investigations, Bob Elliot, with poisoned golden eagle. Image credit: RSPB

We received reports from post mortem examinations of many different mammal and bird species from all over Scotland—almost a third of these were confirmed as crimes, raising significant conservation, animal welfare and domestic animal health concerns. Birds of prey (raptors) were the most common submission and included several endangered species that have been the focus of conservation management programs, including red kites, hen harriers, golden eagles and white tailed sea eagles.

The continued persecution of these raptor species threatens their recovery, and sadly, since publication of our study wildlife crime investigators throughout Europe and America have contacted me, revealing this to be a widespread problem.

Most of the birds we received had been poisoned, some had been shot and a leg trap was used on one bird. The poisons used to kill raptors are hidden in bait on hillsides, and are lethal to any bird or mammal that ingests them. This indiscriminate method of killing leads to the death of other scavenging species like foxes, and likewise cats and dogs if they come in to contact with the bait.

Fenn trap. Credit: Richard Irvine - University of Glasgow
A Fenn trap being used illegally by setting in the open, typically where raptors perch. Image credit: Richard Irvine – University of Glasgow

Other crimes included illegal use of snares and cases of deer and hare coursing. There were several disturbing cases of people beating wildlife to death, including a resident tame fox at a golf course which was beaten to death with a golf club, and a seagull being kicked to death in a coastal town.

We found relatively low rates of prosecution of these wildlife crimes; though this may be an underestimate because it was also a challenge to track cases through to prosecution. Case tracking is a key issue and is now becoming more stream-lined through the merging of the eight separate police forces in Scotland into Police Scotland, and a proposal by the Scotland-based National Wildlife Crime Unit to make a database of confirmed wildlife crimes that would allow analysis of trends and distribution of such crimes.

Recent changes to legislation means that landowners themselves could now be prosecuted for crimes carried out on their land by their employees, contractors or agents, where previously a specific perpetrator had to be linked to a carcass. However, a recently developed forensic technique to detect fingerprints on feathers and eggs may now assist in identifying individual perpetrators. Scottish Natural Heritage also hope to deter the abuse of licenses that are issued to gamekeepers to control birds—such as crows—judged to be harmful to game species; estates where raptor persecution has been detected will now have such licenses withdrawn.

It seems that the odds are stacked against wildlife, but there are many reasons to stay positive. The Scottish Government is a strong supporter of tackling wildlife crime in Scotland as they recognise the risk it poses to conservation and our natural heritage. We have excellent facilities to investigate these crimes with the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and dedicated wildlife crime liaison officers throughout the country. Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) houses both the analytical chemistry laboratory, which carries out testing in suspected poisoning incidents, and the countries first  dedicated Wildlife DNA Forensic laboratory.

We can all play a role in combatting wildlife crime by remaining vigilant when out walking or biking in the countryside. If you suspect criminal activity, such as a dead raptor on a hillside or someone you suspect of deer coursing (often reported as dogs barking and lights flashing in a woodland at night), you can report this by dialling the non-emergency number 101 and asking to speak to a local police wildlife crime officer (in an emergency always call 999). The police recommend that you do not remove carcasses as this can disturb evidence, but instead make a detailed note of the location.

Further information

Our study was carried out in collaboration with the Scottish Agricultural College: SAC Consulting which carries out the majority of wildlife post mortems in Scotland; the National Wildlife Crime Unit based in Scotland; and SASA, who carry out toxicology testing.

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