Lewis Story 10 – The connection is made.

 

 

 

 

“John, someone called Connor was on this morning, from Inverness Hospital…very keen to talk to you”.

“Mr Connor…Constable Macleod in Stornoway…right…right…Dear God!…right right..well, I’ve already done a bit of asking around….not a hint of anything connected to…right…right…well look, the Fiscal’s going to have to be informed right away…two weird deaths in a row..aye…aye…well, whatever else, I’d better make sure my paperwork’s all in order, this is going to go ballistic!….oh, aye…that reminds me, don’t be telling anyone about this at the moment…!

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Ewan arrived at the massive Victorian red brick building, after a short bus journey from the BNT offices in the centre of the city. Dear God, what a racket. After months of hearing only the calls of wild birds and the sighing of the constant island wind, the Glasgow traffic noise was almost unbearable. Flashing lights, double-decker buses, the constant movement of people and vehicles was physically unsettling. For the first time in his life he realised what it must have been like for his 19th century predecessors, walking into the bedlam of tenement life, from their lonely cottages. Swapping the handloom or horse and plough for the constant buzz and clang of the mill machinery. The Saturday night neighbour’s singaround, for the city dancehall.

Still expecting everyone he passed, to nod and smile a greeting and still dressed in his outlandish hill gear, Ewan was an unusual sight even here. For this was a highly unusual place – gigantic dinosaur skeletons reared up above models of the cities recent pride – the ships and engines of a fading manufacturing past. At least the urban mayhem was left behind, replaced by the unique whispering echoey sound of voices, rising up to the immense stained glass domes high above.

He walked over to the young woman standing behind the “Reception Desk”.”I’m looking for Fergus Roberts?” “Certainly, who shall I say is asking?”” A Mr Caldwell from the BNT”.

The man who appeared from behind the Stegosaurus could have been one of Ewan’s colleagues – casually dressed, to a fault, as his mother would have put it. His relaxed Glaswegian “Nice to meet you, ah’m Fergus” quickly followed by “you’ve goat an unusual feather for me?” immediately dispelled any worries about this being some overbearing speccy nerd. He was also obviously enthusiastic about his work. Ewan’s only worry, was that he might have come on an embarrassing wild goose chase – he smiled at the goose reference, as he shook Fergus’ hand.

“Follow me”. They then plunged into a bewildering series of high ceilinged corridors, lined with glass cased specimens of…well, just about everything..native American headdresses..tatty stuffed gannets…obscure bits of machinery….lumps of rock with celtic patterns. Eventually, Ewan had to admit to himself that he had no idea in what direction he was being led – an alarming and humbling feeling, after his recent boasts about his wonderful navigational skills round the misty hills of Lewis.

A dark stained wooden door with a plaque, “Department of Natural History” on it. Fergus welcomed Ewan in and pointed to a long bench, next to lines of cabinets reaching up to almost ceiling height. Like an old fashioned library but with drawers where bookshelves would normally lie.

“Let’s see it then!” Ewan pulled the slightly tatty black feather out of his “poacher’s pocket” and placed it on the bench. “Mmmm, it’s seen better days. You were right though, its certainly not a british species….you found it in a cave on Lewis?…no habitation nearby?…no one with exotic pets?…no other feathers near it.?.”Fergus was holding the feather and turning it round against a desk light as he fired off question after question. After a long pause…”Interesting…I’m inclined towards parrot species..but there’s not many black ones…”A longer pause…”Now…lets have a look at the Johnstone Collection?”

He walked over to the end of the third row of cabinets and disappeared round a corner. Ewan cautiously followed ,feeling slightly overawed by the atmosphere of old fashioned academe – he realised that the furniture, lino floor and even the dull green and brown paintwork were identical to that of his village school. He hoped he wouldn’t find his old headmaster sitting on his high stool, with tawse draped over the front of a lectern style desk….and remembered that the 1870-built school was long gone, as was the headmaster.

He came out of his reverie fast though, when he saw the assistant curator pull out a wide cabinet drawer, to reveal four rows of wings. Wings of every shade and colour, wings of every size from minute to magnificent; wings of iridescence until finally, the largest, wings of jet black.

“Ah ha! Thought so….Probosciger aterrimus ..the Palm Cockatoo, aka the Goliath Atatoo.  Johnstone was one of those turn of the century naturalist explorers, also went in for a bit of early oil exploration, prospecting up jungle rivers in a canoe..and appearing months later with piles of rocks, bird skins and bird’s eggs..your lot wouldn’t have liked him…specialised in New Guinea. That and the tip of North Australia’s the only place you’d find one of these beauties.” Fergus was in his element. He carried on his erudite monologue while lifting up a black wing and holding Ewan’s feather next to it. “See that? Same curve, exact length…lucky you came to me…you’d have gone round the bend finding a match for this beauty…where did you say you got it?”…”…Oh..and before you say it, yes I am sure…100 per cent…couldn’t be anything else!”

“In a cave, out on the Western Isles”

“Really?…wouldn’t last long up there…freeze to death…neither would I right enough! Cup of tea? Right I’ll just shut this – bloody moths get in before you know it if you’re not careful. Nightmare for a collection like this. Come into the office”.

Pleased but puzzled to have partially solved the mystery, Ewan, sat quietly as this walking encyclopedia regaled him with tales of Johnstone and his ilk; during the making, pouring and sipping of milky tea out of museum crested white china mugs.”…but that was all before do-gooders like the BNT stopped it all…present company excepted!…” Ewan started to drift off into his own thoughts but started concentrating again, just as Fergus switched to a new subject.”…mind you, there’s still some amazing blokes out there..just read about a guy called Dumbacher, a yank  scientist…discovered a poisonous bird in New Guinea!..turns out it gets the poison from eating a wee blue beetle. The weird thing is…it’s the same poison you get in tree frogs…you know, the ones the natives put in their blow pipes to kill monkeys…amazing!”…”Wish I had some of thay birds in the collection…”…what’s the matter!?”

“Jesus!” Ewan had jumped to his feet. “Poisonous blue beetles!…Sorry Fergus , I’ve got to go…”

 

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The huge black parrot sat on top of a snapped- off tree, holding an equally large dead branch, in its massive bill and continued banging it loudly, against its temporary perch. Oblivious to the patient near-naked man, creeping towards it, along the edge of the jungle clearing, it bent to its task, hoping to attract a female from out of the surrounding forest. The man was under the tree now and slowly raising a long thin tube to his lips…a short “huff” sound and the parrot toppled from the tree still holding the branch and hit the ground, with an audible thump. The man ran across to the bird and stuffed it into the sack hanging from his belt – hoping that the poison had been just enough, to disable the bird without killing it. He smiled as he thought of the food and clothes he could trade for it – as a young man, he would have taken it home as a prized food item itself and worn its head crest as a trophy, perhaps even holding a pig-feast in honour of his catch but times were changing and the jungle was rapidly shrinking. He had walked for two days, before he heard the bird…

Lewis Story 9 – Stoat leaves the building…

 

The boxes had been kept in a neat row at the back of the lean-to. No one ever came here but just to be sure, on every visit, Gordon had checked for footprints in a wide arc round the hidden inlet – an old trick he’d been taught by the headkeeper in Morayshire, when setting out his baited gin traps. All clear….Thank god that nosey bugger of a birdyman came to me first and thank god the Minch was calm – that rib was flat out all the way and back. Macaskill!…must have been a heart attack…not surprising with his lifestyle, climbing about the Pairc with a bellyful of whisky most like..well, hes poached the last of my stags!

Can’t be too careful he thought, pulling the door closed behind him and putting the padlock in the pocket of his thick tweed jacket. Budge had been as good as his word and a lovely thick pile of used £20 notes, now packed the old biscuit tin lying snug up in the rafters. The only job left was getting rid of the packing cases and their soiled contents – a nice little bonfire on the shore should do it.

The fire had to be watched carefully, he didn’t want any sparks flying up onto the surrounding heather – had enough of that kind of embarrassment as a trainee keeper, when he thought he’d “help out” the shoot, by starting his own wee bit of muirburn, an hour before a westerly gale blew up. Steep parts of that mountain had no cover yet, ten years on.

No fear, with this fire though, the mess from the mix of used straw, bird excrement and remains of  their food was taking some time to catch light – although the wooden boxes were going up a treat. The thick smoke was starting to pour out into the Minch when the two small insects scuttled out, between blackened stones and headed for the nearest cover – the thick warm tweed of Gordon’s socks.

The climb up to the neck of the jacket was nothing, to a creature with a life cycle, involving the regular ascent of standing dead wood, of rain forest giants, but it still took the full half hour between Gordon leaving the fire and putting the dogs in the back of the 4 by 4, before the first beetle made it. It was just bad luck that the second one got to the summit ,as Gordon was twisting round to reverse on the narrow track…..

 

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John Macleod was no different from anyone else. He didn’t like dead bodies, he didn’t like being near them. He was also like most experienced policemen – he had seen his fair share, in his time. RTAs, suicides, work accidents but mostly just old folk, who never woke up, in their beds or their armchairs. He could hold his own in the macho, ghoulish game of “what was your worst stiff!?” – a competition that seems to occur at every late night gathering of cops, after the training college bar has shut. The jokes always stopped at the Morgue though.

Every contemporary cop show, from weekly soap opera, to high quality thriller, has the same pathologist in it, it seemed to Macleod. A wise-cracking elderly man, usually with a beard, much given to world-weary sighs and raising of an eyebrow. Always ready to chat with the detective, always ready with an opinion, keenly interested in the, “case in hand”.

None of the Inverness cops wanted to meet their local version. Dr Finlay Connor was nobody’s fool. He had “all the bedside charm required of a pathologist” as one witty local Depute Fiscal described him. No jokes in there. No backchat, no discussion of the case. Just a wheeling in, of the deceased, an exchange of papers and a final, “good morning officer”.

It was then, with more than a little surprise, that Macleod found himself being closely questioned by this man, across the corpse of Gordon Stoat, the second body he had had to accompany off the island, in the last fortnight. Connor [a man so feared that even the local police hadn’t given him a nickname] had been expecting him and had asked him to wait, while he carried out a quick inspection of the body.

“Did you know this man….eh…constable?”

“Aye…he was the local keeper at Pairc”

“Did he keep any…eh…exotic pets…of any sort?””Do you know…?”

“Exotic pets?…”

“Yes….amphibians?…frogs…….?”

“Not that I know of…just his dogs…” He was about to make a joke about his taste in bright green exotic tweeds ..but then remembered who he was talking to…

“Right…right…” Connor looked puzzled…”What about the last man…Macaskill…?”

“No..no!” That was so funny that he risked a bit of humour…”You wouldn’t give Lachie  an animal to look after, he would have cooked it and ate it!”.

“Right…right…its just that I got the lab results back, from Glasgow, this morning..I wasn’t happy with cause of death for Macaskill…looked a bit like a heart attack but the whole body seemed to have shut down instantaneously…now they’re telling me, there’s traces of batrachotoxin of all things…fantastic what they can find, with the new GCR equipment!”

“Batotoxin?”

“Batrachotoxin …Sorry…it’s a nerve poison…usually found in South American tree frogs…you know, the ones they use to make poison arrows from?”

“..and that killed him?”

“Oh yes…its just about the most poisonous substance known to man…certainly the most poisonous natural substance….a tiny amount, even on the skin…and you’re dead in seconds…”

“My God…can you tell how he ….did he touch one of these frogs or…what?”

“You tell me!….Well, I looked at the body again…. before you came in…nothing obvious…the thing is, all he would have had to do, was touch the stuff………………..what’s worrying me is…[he looked at the police label on Stoat’s body]…that Stoat here is showing the same post mortem signs…of course, I’ll look him over properly but there’s something very odd going on here…two big healthy men drop dead in the same area of Lewis, within a couple of weeks of each other..and one of them we know is killed… by a rare tropical poison?…”

Macleod left shortly after this, in a very thoughtful mood. Frogs?? Tropical frogs?? There wasn’t even a pet shop on the island. He had visited the only pet shop in Inverness, on his way back to Police HQ – no luck there, although the guy behind the counter had been very helpful..

”no call for that kind of stuff up here”…between screeches from the annoying big black parrot behind the counter..” …they need special tanks, live crickets for food, lights on all the time…”

He decided to keep this one to himself…it just wouldn’t be worth it, for the grief he’d get in the canteen…over here and in Stornoway.

Lewis Story 9 – The Klondyker, Budge and Stoat.

The Klondyker

Marta Kalnins was an imposing figure of a woman – she had to be. Captain of the 2500 ton [5,000 ton deadweight] “Aristotle”, a whaling ship turned fish processor – otherwise known as a “factory ship”. Her crew of 50, were almost all misfits in their own countries – who else would sign on, to live in those conditions?

She was in a thoughtful mood. At least they get to go home, every six months or a year, I’ve been on this pile of junk, for more than two years. Half-way round the world and back, picking up fish from Shetland to the South China Sea, by way of West Africa and the Indian Ocean.

Still, I’m going back a rich woman. At last, I’ll be able to tell that piece of drunken rubbish I got for a husband, to piss off, maybe even buy a new flat, with a room for mother. I never thought I’d get homesick for Riga!

The ship was slowly gliding into its anchorage in Loch Broom, the lights of at least another dozen floating giants twinkled across the water in the growing dark. Ullapool – the pubs would still be open for her crew – but what Marta was really looking forward to, was the good quality vodka and companionship of the other captains. She would soon be crossing the water in the orange “liberty boat”, getting dropped off at a nearby ship for a night of catching up on all the gossip …and all in her own language!..months of speaking Russian and pidgin English to her polyglot crew, had left her desperate for the sounds of home.

What she wouldn’t be gossiping about though, was the tale of her lucrative encounter with some Thai fishermen and the strange cargo, needing fresh fruit and nuts each day…down in the locked room out of bounds to all but her and her chosen conspirator, the only other Latvian onboard….and now she was well rid of it. A fine little “nest egg”, in a foreign bank account…she smiled at her rare joke.


How Budge met Stoat..

“You make your own blooody look “ was one of Roger’s favourite pithy Yorkshire phrases but even he was surprised by how lucky he had been, in meeting up with Gordon Stoat. On the face of it, they had very little in common – they came from very different backgrounds at different ends of the country.

Roger came from a place where keepers were thought of as the enemy and toff’s lackeys – chasing you off the moors when you were a lad, looking for golden plover eggs with your mates and when you got older, chasing you out of woods when you were after a pheasant or two, with your air rifle.

Stoat grew up as a Perthshire farmworker’s son, who had helped on grouse drives since he was a small boy with an unquestioning, or almost unquestioning, acceptance of his place in the rigid hierarchy, of the local estate.

What they shared though, was a thorough hatred for “antis” – the growing band of conservationists, who had changed in their lifetime, from being laughable sandal-wearing ecofreaks and “bearded paranoiacs”, to a force able to change the law of the land and with the ear of governments. Gordon nodded in agreement, when he read his weekly Shooting Times, railing against the unjust persecution of gamekeepers, who were only trying to protect the countryside by shooting, poisoning and trapping the hated predators, That’s how it had always worked, how dare these people tell us what to do!?…For his part, Roger felt a shiver of fear, which soon turned to anger, every time he read of some poor bird trapper or dealer hung out to dry, by the same bleeding heart do-gooders. If these poor people in the jungle want to sell us their last parrots, in order to make a living, why shouldn’t I buy them? We’ve bought thousands of them for decades now, think of the pleasure they bring to folk, keeping them in their homes – they live much longer in a cage anyway!..If I want to make a few bob out of it, why shouldn’t I?

What brought them together was a chance remark in a Doncaster pub. A lad he had known back in his schooldays was boasting to his pals that he knew a keeper – “oop north, in the Highlands like”, who could get him anything he wanted….”pergs, merlin ..even a bloody eagle chick if it were needed”…no questions asked, give ‘im cash in ‘and and ee lives in middle o’t bloody nowear, so theres no woon watchin’”…” hes out on won o’ them ‘eebrides eyelans… yi cood be in and owt in a boat in minutes”….

It only took a couple of whiskies and Roger had Stoat’s name and phone number, from the mouthy falcon thief. When Gordon got the call he wasn’t too happy – someone had obviously blabbed, about his little peregrine chick racket – but he soon cheered up when he heard Roger talking about serious money. If was the “antis” setting him up, they’d never have come up with this weird idea!…and very little risk…no climbing about dangerous cliffs and getting clawed to bits, by peregrine chicks while their mother flies past your ear, at a hundred miles an hour….a couple of days of feeding big budgies and a grand in cash!

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Lewis Story – 8..The Session and Roger Budge…

Against the window, dark behind – occasional faces peering in – young folk blankly uncomprehending, disinterested. Contrast of internal room…all eyes on the players. Button accordion player, eyes on the wall, fingers dancing on the buttons [just like the addicted one- armed- bandit player in the bar next door, who has won £15, feeding it all back in]… 

Young woman, maybe 26 or 27, baggy clothes, fiddle much older than herself..straining with concentration tight as the strings…but the “Star,” is a grizzled old man, still large but almost visibly shrinking, under his incongruous baseball hat – reminding Ewan of a tramp he’d seen in the city, wearing a “heavy metal” tee-shirt pulled from a binbag, left by the kindly middle-aged mother at the Day Centre. 

This man would launch into a perfectly timed growl along to the music, the words forming beautiful patterns and images like smoke rings from a fog….shifting tales, of long dead sailors grog, ploughboys cold weather lives, factory workers grind. Every line with pathos, impossible in a younger, healthier voice. 

The guitar player unsure…simple chords imitating the “Old Maid” piano thumping style of 1950’s accompaniment to traditional tunes, heard on a scratchy 78…His shiny strings on the almost antique guitar, echoing the baseball cap on the old singer…. 

…Music shifting on the surface, but the sureness of the old melody, never in doubt, never in danger, from the box and voice, weaving their hypnotising spell. Even the roar from the public bar – when a mistake was made by a drunken youth, looking for excitement and opening the unknown door – could not break this spell. 

Until the song drifts to an untidy conclusion and flourish of instruments, recalling the natural edge of an ancient forest, fading out at the tree line, on tundra or mountainside…something wild but perfectly balanced. A second’s pause, then a chorus of applause, banging of tables, tapping of pint glasses and calls of approval, from round the room.

Ewan had amazed himself by forgetting for a few minutes what he had seen out there in the cave…but then, insinuating itself back into his mind and keeping unstable the fiery mix of whisky and guinness in his belly…something niggled….it wasn’t the dead, staring eyes of the man he now knew as Lachie Macaskill and who he realised, he had seen propping up the public bar a few nights before….it was something else…something about the shiny beetle in his film canister and the exotic black feather…

South Yorkshire – the recent past

Roger Budge had a great sense of humour – he was always telling people about it. He found almost everything in life, highly amusing – even when those around him, were unmoved or even sickened by some event, Roger laughed. He had always been like that. A big man, he had been the school bully, in the shabby mining village in south Yorkshire, where he grew up. “Educationally challenged”, as he would be described nowadays, his only asset in childhood was his size – he literally threw his weight about..but all that changed when he moved up to the Big School in Doncaster. There was always someone bigger. He grew bitter and withdrawn, a figure of fun to the city kids – a lumbering easy target, with his country hick accent and mumbling incomprehension. At an early age he was starting to look for ways to get his own back on the world.

When he was thirteen, his uncle Alec died. He had liked uncle Alec and enjoyed visiting his red brick cottage, with its smoky fireplace which was always lit, even in summer. Alec fascinated him, with tales of travel to exotic places during his days in the merchant navy. He found a gullible listener in Roger, no matter how exaggerated or unlikely the tale. Mementos bought in tropical ports – the stalls on the quay, mainly, between the ship and the nearest pub – were randomly placed around his small living room. But the biggest attraction for the boy was the big green parrot in its metal barred cage, which sat on top of a scarred wooden sideboard, surrounded by a layer of sunflower seeds and bits of old apple. The boy was the obvious choice to look after “Arthur”.

Now known, throughout the hothouse world of parrot collectors, as the King of Cockatoos [his own words of course, his staff called him by a similar but far less complimentary title] , Roger had bought his first parrot when he was sixteen. A ring-necked parakeet –Psittacula krameri -….he always memorized their latin names and used them frequently, a habit he carried on into adulthood, thinking that it made him sound like an expert. He swapped it, for a kid’s bike he had nicked from the neighbouring village, a couple of weeks before, and hidden round at Alec’s empty cottage.

He also began buying “Cage and Aviary Birds” every week , dreaming of the day when he would be able to buy more exotic parrots, from the long list of classified ads at the back. That was in the good old days, before CITES and those bloody conservationists, had spoiled everything – Appendix this and that, rules and regulations, bans and restrictions. He read with particular interest, the letters pages, where a long line of disgruntled dealers and owners, bitterly complained about the RSPCA and RSPB. It seemed that these people were always harassing honest birdkeepers and dragging them unfairly into court .Roger, already full of spite and bile, believed all of this implicitly – these were his people! He had come home.

[Historical note re parrot keeping – As a trading, sea-faring nation it is not surprising that Britain has a history, of the keeping of exotic birds as pets. One of the most famous “characters” in 19th century literature is Captain Flint, Long John Silver’s parrot. Famed for their ability to mimic human speech – “pieces of eight!, pieces of eight!” – the African Grey Parrot was, until the total ban by the EU on import of any wild caught bird, trapped and traded in vast numbers. Between 1994 and 2003 the official number of birds in trade was 350,000. There have been many cases of illegal trade in this species discovered throughout the world, including the UK – with no quarantine against dangerous disease such as psittacosis and no regard to the bird’s welfare, while being transported.

An even more damaging trade however, has been the trapping and illegal export of large rare parrots, such as Macaws and Cockatoos. Several species of these birds had restricted populations, even before modern wealth and cheaper and easier transport to the developed nations brought their populations to critical levels. One species, Lear’s Macaw from Brazil went down to 140 individuals in the wild before intense protection stepped in. Trapping for trade was recognised as one its main threats. Even birds which were relatively common in the wild have been rendered endangered by trade – until recently, the Moluccan [aka salmon-crested] Cockatoo was being trapped at the rate of 6,000 per year. It is now an annex 1 CITES species – the highest legal protection – but is still illegally trapped and traded.

Until the EU ban finally finished them off, UK bird traders lobbied government very hard using arguments such as  – “we are helping sustain the lives of very poor people, they have no other income” – independent investigations showed, that such people would trap all the costly species until there were none left…and then start looking for other sources of income. Of course, such people are also powerless against the wholesale logging of their forests – the only chance for many such places, is to retain their rich wildlife, to give them value as nature reserves and as a source of food and shelter for the local people.]

 

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Lewis Story 7

Gordon Stoat knew his place – he might talk defiantly and loudly when in some mainland pub at the Association meetings  – but when the boss was about, the land-rover had to be clean, his tweeds immaculate and even the scruffy Border terriers, had to get a bath. As he never tired of telling anyone who would listen, he didn’t get days off, at this time of year. No Sabbath Day for him.

When he first arrived on Lewis, he thought he had finally reached the top of his “profession” – single-handed keeper, lording it over 20,000 acres of mountain and moor. He looked back on ten years of fetching and carrying, for three tyrannical head keepers. “Stop complaining son, in my day we had to walk everywhere, no quad bikes for us” – as they sat all day in their polished landrovers, watching the hills for “vermin”, or the busybodies from the RSPB, their eyes as sharp as the hawks they so detested. When the last tyrant had ordered him back out in the rain to, “find that bloody harrier and stamp on its chicks” – even after Gordon had warned him, of seeing two strangers with binoculars on the hill, he had snapped. After telling him, that he wasn’t going to risk having his name in the papers, or even going to jail under the “new law” – the tyrant stared straight at him and said, “you’ll do what you’re bloody told, there’s plenty more where you came from”. Gordon knew it was true – out of the 30 other lads at the College only a handful had found work, on a “real shooting estate”.

…and that was it, he knew his days were numbered, on the beautiful, grouse- infested Grampian moor. The seed had been sown, the tyrant would no longer trust him and what’s more, he would pass that on to the Factor, or even the Laird….no head keeper’s job here, when the tyrant finally set his last snare…which would be bloody years away anyway..

So…Lewis. The hoodies and ravens everywhere, took a bit of getting used to. No foxes though – strangely, he found that he missed them, even though he had spent most of his waking hours [and some only half-awake!] planning or carrying out their execution. Mink were the big problem – and polecat ferrets. The former, were the ancestors of animals, let go ,when the “get- rich- quick” scheme of farmed fur coats, turned bad, as fashion and public distaste wrecked the business – given their freedom by an employee, too “soft-hearted” to kill all his charges in cold blood, although he had quite happily watched them spend their miserable lives, in tiny cages. Once released, these American cousins did well – within 30 years they were gobbling up any eggs, chicks or slow- moving adult birds, on the chain of bird-rich islands to the south.

Polecat ferrets though, were deliberately let go by a misguided estate owner, in the mistaken belief that his rabbit problems could be solved, by bringing in the ultimate furry mercenary – within a week one of “his crofters”, had dumped a pile of dead hens on the doorstep of the Big House, the new boys on the block having decided that killing chickens in a back garden, was easier than chasing rabbits down holes on the machair.

So Gordon found himself back at what he knew best – out at all hours, fighting a battle he would never win, against small furry creatures. All for the boss and his pals, having a few more over-fed foreign pheasants and partridge to shoot, when the winter holidays came round.

And then there were the locals..!

 

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The Zoo Keepers…

Since I retired from the fray in 2007, I have restricted my thoughts on wildlife conservation politics to commenting on a couple of blogging sites and other social media. I have studiously avoided criticising my old employers and fellow colleagues in the RSPB. When I was in the job, things were tough enough fighting off the complaints from disgruntled wildlife criminals, arrogant landowners and their lackeys, police officers and others in the justice system who felt that wildlife crime was at the bottom of their list of priorities – without being pestered by retired colleagues with special knowledge.

I’m pleased to see that at last those at the top are grasping the nettle of bird of prey persecution and openly walking away from a couple of the shooting establishment’s time wasting and distracting “partnerships”. The penny has dropped/the public pressure grew too great and the obvious fact that those we are up against are not interested in any compromise, over their criminally underpinned traditional “sports”, has finally got through to the decision makers. To the extent that they have realised you cant negotiate with such people, who are past masters at obfuscating and procrastinating in order to stay exactly where they have always been – the power over what lives and dies, thrives or fails in our countryside….more of that below!

This blog however, is a break with my line re non-interference [if anyone reads it!] as I am almost certainly going against not only an RSPB policy but also that of the scottish government’s nature advisors. I may be expressing views that will go against those of some of my old friends in the Raptor Study Groups – but I will not be surprised if there are substantial numbers of those folk who agree with me.

My first and greatest love in wild birds is the Golden Eagle..since I met my first one close-up in 1982 to the present day, thats also been my personal “red line”. My old colleagues will remember that I never forget a killed eagle – I would pull out all the stops to get their deaths properly recorded, investigated and if at all possible, to see justice done. The recording and investigating part I achieved, justice was very seldom achieved.

When I heard of the suspicious death of “Fred”, the satellite tagged chick from the only successful Borders nest site in recent times – that old feeling kicked in. I knew this nest site, it was located/discovered by a local bird ringer. When he told me about it and I visited the site it was one of the best days of my career. It was such a big deal that I didn’t even tell my RSPB bosses, for some years…and for many years it produced young, sometimes twins. Until in 2007 one of the pair was found poisoned near its nest – the subsequent very public investigation produced the usual angry denials locally – but since then [after a replacement bird quickly appeared] all has been well between the estate and conservationists. So the suspicious death of Fred will have been particularly hard felt in some unexpected quarters.

The shooting industry, true to form, have not accepted the “suspicious death” tag and are particulary aggrieved that it is being attached to the grouse shooting industry. What a surprise. They may have got away with that kind of denial back in the early 1980s [when I first started building on the recording and investigating work started by my predecessor, Pete Ellis] but the hundreds of reports of raptor killing, coupled with court cases and government led studies, since that time – mean that such denials are now heading towards the ludicrous. What has triggered this blog, is a statement from within the shooting industry, that this may damage the rapport built up over the imminent release of translocated golden eagle chicks into South Scotland. My thoughts on this “reintroduction/reinforcement” of golden eagles have been simmering away, since I first heard of it becoming a serious proposal….but the death of Fred was the last straw.

 

I live in “South Scotland”, I have done all my life. I was the RSPB’s Species Protection Officer in the 1980s, which meant I was the holder of much of that organisation’s information on rare birds, such as golden eagles for the whole country. I had taken part in the 1982 national survey on golden eagles, in Perthshire and Argyll…and on the Western Isles follow up work in 1983…I helped organise the next survey in 1991..I had my own “patch” of about 20 home ranges in Central Scotland, which I monitored right up until 2007. Before we had full time staff out there, I did some eagle monitoring on the Uists and Lewis and Harris for several years. I kept up with academic literature on any recent studies of the species. So..I know the bird and I know its ecology, over a wide variety of habitats from the hebridean islands down to holes in the vast conifer plantations of Dumfries and Galloway. This is a bird which can survive in most places, if it’s left alone.

Which brings me onto my other, better known “hat” within conservation – as an investigator of wildlife crime. I was RSPB Scotland’s Senior Investigation Officer for around 20 years. I know how people kill eagles and why. I studied that, first hand, close-up. I helped the police and Procurators’ Fiscal prepare cases against suspected eagle killers. I talked to suspects while their homes, worksheds and land was being searched for evidence…but most importantly, because this is where the real proof lies, I spoke to informants within the “shooting community”. I should say at this point that the “suspects” were almost universally estate gamekeepers. [to be fair there was the odd shepherd/farmer in the early years, but wildlife crime in that area dropped off drastically after the first high fines and publicity]. These informants ranged from disgruntled or ex, wives and girlfriends, to sacked gamekeepers, retired gamekeepers, fellow estate workers, tenant farmers neighbours and shooting tenants and clients. Now, Im not naive, I knew that amongst that list there were people who held grudges and would exaggerate, there were those who would be boasting in order to try and shock…the ones who were most believable though, were the ex gamekeepers. They would tell me in calm voices about how many dozen raptors they had killed or seen killed in a season, how it was done, why it was done – usually along the lines of “everyone did it, you would have looked strange or suspicious to fellow keepers if you held back”….At first I couldn’t believe what I was being told – tales of 20 eagles killed in a year on eastern Highland estates, 5 here, 5 there….almost always juvenile or immature birds [easily distinguished by their white feathers]…but then I was starting to match up the “holes” in the known successful breeding population, which we were getting better at monitoring. The terms “sink” and “black hole” for eagles were starting to be used.

But..to get back to the present and golden eagle chicks about to be released in South Scotland, as part of a joint RSPB/SNH/FC and local landowner’s scheme. A line from the press release on the project states..”The 2014 report published by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) found that Southern Scotland could potentially support up to 16 eagle pairs. Presently, there are no more than 2 to 4 pairs, with limited nesting success”…I have no problem with that conclusion. My main question is “why arent they there already?”…..Since I started full-time work on Species Protection in 1984, Ive been aware of the mixed fortunes involving perhaps, a half dozen separate areas across South Scotland where golden eagles have attempted to nest…a few still do..sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Just as important, I have been aware of many reports of young birds appearing in areas with no recent records of eagles..and then disappearing..It has been obvious for decades that young eagles have moved south and east from the productive areas in the west and north, into South Scotland and indeed as far down as Northumbria. What has happened to these potential breeders? Did they all simply return to their natal areas?…or?…“They shoot every eagle that tries to overwinter on these moors, they hunt them down until they get them, they call them “turkeys”” – [a newly retired grouse moor keeper talking to a birdwatcher and a police officer, SE Scotland 2002; from my book “Wildlife Crime” published by Whittles Press].that’s why they aren’t here already! Those “overwintering birds” will include the tiny numbers, put out by the tiny resident population, at present in South Scotland. As the story about the “Fred” site shows, if one adult dies in a safe area of South Scotland [it became safe because of prompt Police action re the poisoned adult] then it will be replaced fairly quickly from our country’s expanding northern populations. ..but then it also shows what happens as soon as you move out of such a safe area.

So….what do we do to get a self-sustaining, larger population of golden eagles in South Scotland? To me the answer has always been obvious, you stop people killing them. You stop people killing them by the application of the Law. Which, as I never tire of saying, has never been properly tried, without fear or favour, in Scotland. While we keep tinkering with this problem, instead of facing it full on, it will never be resolved.What happened to the suggestion of giving SSPCA full powers under the Wildlife and Countryside Act? The one practical solution Ive seen over the past 40 years. The Police are not the answer, not unless there is a radical change in their direction and application of resources, and a complete separation of the units involved with wildlife, from the community who are causing the crimes. Using a long established and experienced [in court work particularly] charity, would free up Police resources for other work too…but no, the usual suspects came out against it, including those directly involved in the shooting community.

So..the solution thought up by the, no doubt frustrated, authorities..is to release more eagles into this compromised landscape with the blessing of the largest landowner [Buccleuch Estates] and the scottish landowners union [sic] the SLE. Call me cynical [I would say “experienced” is more accurate] but having seen gamekeepers ignore the wishes of their own bosses, when it comes to “vermin control” matters, I don’t see Buccleuch or the SLE having much influence over those dyed in the wool raptor killers, who still exist out there. The problem has not gone away, just ask those raptor workers monitoring our dwindling hen harrier populations. No, what is likely to happen here, is that one or two of the larger estates will allow a pair of eagles to nest. This will enable them to show off their conservation credentials and help stop any real prospect of the demise or even control [licences?], of managed grouse moors. Clever move. Meanwhile the harriers, peregrines, ravens and buzzards will continue to “fail” but no one will notice while everyone is looking at the eagle pair.

I didn’t write this in order to undermine a conservation project which will involve some very hard work by some very dedicated decent folks – I wrote it because I care about eagles. I will be delighted to be proved wrong but I have seen or heard very little, regarding the fortunes of or indeed attitudes towards, our large raptors to make me optimistic. The title of this blog is the Zoo Keepers..that is all that we are, if we allow the shooting community to continue to set the parameters over our populations of wild birds in Scotland.

Lewis Story 6

 

The feather 

Ewan was parked close to a bridge over a burn where the old road had been cut off. The new EU funds had lead to a spate of road building, on the island and the new wide highway from Stornoway to Tarbert, had cut the journey time in half. Mind you, even in high summer, half an hour could go by without a single car or lorry. In the evenings after the “rush hour”, when the workers from the airport, offices and shops had all dispersed from the Town, you could hear bird song all around. Fantastic…skylarks, pipits, wagtails, oystercatchers…even the triple “chew, chew, chew” of the rare and elegant greenshank, flying onto nearby pool…and then at dawn and dusk, his favourite…red throated divers croaking and wailing, as they flew from the fishing grounds of Loch Seaforth, up onto their nests on tiny lochans, on the moor.

He turned the long black feather over, again and again, in his hand. Like all the members of that small exclusive band, full-time raptor workers in Scotland, he was heavily “into feathers”. They could tell you so much. A single feather below a roost could not only tell you the species of bird, that had been sitting there but its age, sex or even its state of health past and present. “Fault bars”, faint lines across a feather, could show where a chick in a nest had stayed hungry, when it should have been growing, wear on the end of a tail or wing feather could show when an adult bird, had rubbed against its own nest while incubating eggs and chicks.

He would dearly have loved to show this feather to Mick…Mick the doyen of feather enthusiasts and a legend among fieldworkers. The year before Ewan had invited him to look at a big stick nest he had found in a Border’s wood…after climbing the tree like a monkey [wearing wellies!] and poking around for a good ten minutes, he descended and announced, that the nest had started life as a sparrowhawk nest, been taken over as a squirrel drey but was now being used as a feeding platform, by an itinerant immature female goshawk of the Finnish race. In a world full of posing “wildlife experts”, Mick was the real thing.

But Mick wasn’t here…Ewan was sure he had never seen a bird in Britain, with a feather like this – he wasn’t even sure if he’d seen anything like it in a book. Was it a tail feather?…it was at least 10cms long and 2cms wide…what was really odd was the curve…like a very skinny blackcock tail. No, it was weird…very weird. Anyway, what was it doing in a coastal cave, on the shores of the Minch…in perfect condition? Oh yes…and next to the body of the man he now knew as Lachie Macaskill?