CSI in the wild: Forensic scientists join fight to protect our wildlife
The forensic techniques typically employed in major murder investigations are the latest weapon in the fight against wildlife crime.
Police specialist Chris Gannicliffe has over 25 years of experience investigating some of Scotland’s most serious crimes.
Based at the Nelson Street Police Office in central Aberdeen, Chris examines evidence of wildlife crime provided by officers across the country.
With the increase in cruel “sports” like badger baiting and hare racing, this becomes a huge part of Chris’ forensic workload.
Speaking from his lab, he said, âWe use the same forensic techniques to investigate crimes against animals as we do against people.
âFor example, if a poacher put a dead animal in his car and left traces of blood, hair or skin, we can identify the animal and prove it was in his vehicle.
âWe would investigate the death of a bird of prey the same way we would investigate a homicide or assault. The same principles apply.
A major new crackdown on wildlife crime will be launched by police tomorrow.
Led by Chief Detective Superintendent Robbie Allan, who led the investigation into the Clutha helicopter tragedy, it will include a team of 150 specialist officers.
Edinburgh Crown Office prosecutors have also set up a specialized unit to tackle wildlife crime.
DCS Allan said: âScotland is a place where wildlife is expected to thrive.
âWe are committed to fighting and preventing wildlife crime.
âPeople don’t want to see their natural wildlife damaged or destroyed.
“Our fantastic wildlife also attracts thousands of tourists to this country and we don’t want that affected by wildlife crime.”
The Mail had exclusive access to a training course at Scottish Police College in Tulliallan, Fife, for 40 new wildlife officers.
One of the biggest issues they face is the age-old sport of badger baiting.
Once the preserve of the wealthy, it is now mainly practiced by criminal gangs who breed their own fighting dogs to take down terrified badgers.
Glasgow-based Detective Constable Craig Borthwick deals with up to six cases a week of injured badgers.
He said: âPeople come from the west of Scotland and the north of England to the Glasgow area to bait badgers.
âOnce they identify a burrow, they dig it up, then send the dogs to look for the badger.
âWhen badgers are caught, gangs fight them with their dogs – often to the death. If dogs and badgers are seriously injured, they are often shot afterwards.
Less seriously injured dogs cannot be taken to the vet as they may alert the police.
Instead, crooks subject dogs to painful DIY first aid, including sticking their wounds together.
Dogs are fitted with tracking collars used to track them after entering a burrow.
If the dogs die during battle, they are often beheaded to hide all traces of locators.
One family behind the badger baiting boom is the famous Murray clan of Larkhall,
Lanarkshire, which were linked to the murder of a police officer in 1983.
Last year John “Mint” Murray, 56, and his son John Jr, 33, were convicted by the Hamilton Sheriff Court of staging badger bait.
Officers found dogs, shovels and metal cages used in the practice after stabbing their homes. The couple had fun watching their dogs tear up badgers, cats and other animals.
They would also host drenched fight nights with friends from other badger bait teams from across the country and Northern Ireland.
The Murrays were banned from keeping dogs for 10 years and ordered to perform 250 hours of unpaid labor each.
One of the biggest concerns for police is the increasing number of attacks on rare birds of prey.
Sixteen red kites and six hawks were found dead in Conon Bridge, Ross-shire, in March last year after ingesting illegal poison.
The murders sparked public outrage and a reward of Â£ 27,000 was paid. He still has not been claimed and the police are still investigating the deaths.
Some attacks by birds of prey – or raptors – are blamed on a small minority of unscrupulous landowners and gamekeepers who shoot, poison or trap birds to protect valuable game such as grouse or pheasant.
Wildlife Liaison Officer Constable Malcolm O’May, based in Callander, Perthshire, specializes in crimes against birds of prey.
He said: âAlthough this is the lowest recorded crime in our region, it takes the longest because these are complex investigations.
“These crimes occur in remote areas where there are usually no eyewitnesses and no CCTV.”
Another growing problem is the price of the hare.
Between 2011 and 2013, 261 racing incidents were probed by officers across Scotland, more than a fifth of the UK tally.
Ian Laing, a former wildlife crime police liaison who now runs a country park in Lochgelly, Fife, is an expert on the cruel practice.
He added: âHare lesson has been illegal in Britain since 2002, although it is legal in other parts of the world. It is common in small industrial and mining towns and among the itinerant community.
âThe most popular time is after the harvest, when the fields have been cleared and the hares are exposed.
“The course involves lurcher dogs, specially bred to hunt and kill hares and it’s a very brutal sport, if you can even call it that.”
A recent survey showed that out of 53 hares that die while running, 18 were in fact killed by the owners of the dogs.
Ian said: âThey will grab the hare by the legs and then break its neck by hitting it on the ground.
“We also came across a case of running sheep where the head had been cut off and one of the gang members then played football with it.”
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