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Eric Begbie

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Laying the Blame
By Eric Begbie
Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Someone is out to poison raptors. Who could it be?

Laying the Blame

A short story

by Eric Begbie

Sky Vixen soared high above Glenhabhain, riding the thermals with her sixty-inch wingspan, sharp eyes scanning the ground below for prey or carrion. The young red kite had spent the first two years of her life at Argaty, near Doune, where the birdwatchers had coined her name on the basis of a plastic ring, bearing the bold letters ‘SV’, which she wore on her left leg. But now, lured many miles from her home area by a mate, she surveyed the unfamiliar territory that surrounded the nest they had built together, high in the fork of a Scots pine.
Already two eggs, white mottled with reddish brown spots, lay in Sky Vixen’s nest. She knew that tonight she would add a third and then she would spend thirty-two days incubating her clutch. It would be a hungry time for the bird and, instinctively, she guessed that today could be her last chance to find a good meal.
From either end of the expansive moss the red kite caught the glint of the weak spring sunlight reflecting on optical glass. She could see that there were three humans watching her but it would have meant nothing to the bird to know that one was a policeman, one an animal rights campaigner and the third a gamekeeper, employed by the local estate to preserve the grouse and control predators. What she did recall, from her past life at Argaty, was that sometimes men put out rabbit carcasses on feeding stations to hold the raptors close to the observation points. Might one of her watchers, she wondered, bring her such a gift today?
                *       *       *       *       *
PC Tom Wylie had spent the morning in the library, reading about poisons. As Wildlife Crime Officer for the local force he knew all about the old poachers’ standbys such as strychnine, Cymag and alphachlorolose. The criminal of today, however, had a much wider armoury of pernicious substances, including many insecticides that could be purchased, in concentrated form, in any garden centre or agricultural merchants. It would be a black mark on his service record if he failed to recognise a poison when carrying out a search of a suspect’s premises.
Another black mark was the last thing Tom wanted. Last year he had failed to find enough evidence to bring charges against the man he suspected of poisoning two buzzards which were found dead on his patch. He had a fairly shrewd hunch about who had perpetrated the foul deed but no court would convict on the basis of a country cop’s sixth sense. Anyway, buzzards were ten a penny nowadays, he told himself. No great tragedy if a few got bumped off. But he had heard that a breeding pair of red kites had taken up residence in Glenhabhain and all hell would break loose if they came to any harm.
Back in his poky wee office at Divisional HQ, he had just finished a conversation with Forensics about field tests for neurotoxic pesticides when his phone rang again.
“Tam?” the voice at the other end enquired. “Bert Nicholson here. I saw something very strange this morning and it’s been niggling away at me.”
“Go on,” encouraged Tom, scratching his unruly mop of red hair. Bert Nicholson had been one of his most valuable sources of information since he took up the Wildlife Crime remit back in 2005 and he wanted to hear what was worrying the man.
“Well, I was watching a pair of Scottish crossbills going about their nuptials near the edge of Cushie Wood, just beyond the old stone bridge, when I heard a motor stop on the road. I had a peek through the trees and this guy had got out of a pick-up and was lifting a roadkill rabbit. Dropped it in the back of his truck. Just got a back view though. Couldn’t see his face.”
“Maybe he was a tink looking for a cheap rabbit stew,” suggested Tom. “There’s a group o’ them got their caravans out on the lochside road.”
“Nah. I’d walked past the spot earlier and that rabbit was well and truly mashed. Fur everywhere. Not even a traveller would eat thon.”
“Did you get the registration number?” the policeman asked.
“Sure did. And it was a dark green Subaru.”
Tom scribbled down the vehicle number and thought for a moment. “You still there, Bert?” he spoke into the mouthpiece. “I have an idea. Could you meet me at the stone bridge in about ninety minutes?”
                       *     *     *     *     *
Bert was already waiting at the side of the road when Tom drew up in his dark blue police Landrover. Together they walked along to where the rabbit had been run over and, sure enough, there were a couple of patches of fur still sticking to the tarmac.
“Let me get an evidence kit from the Landy,” said Tom. “DNA testing on humans is pretty routine nowadays and I can’t see why the same science fiction stuff shouldnae work with animals.”
Bert pushed his rimless spectacles up his nose and watched as the Wildlife Crime Officer used a thin spatula to lift the fur from the road surface and transfer it to a clear ziplock bag. Tom then wrote details of date, time and place on a self-carbon duplicate pad, asked Bert to countersign it and placed one copy, along with the ziplock bag into a larger pouch which he sealed with a non-reusable plastic tie.
“Oh. By the way,” he suddenly exclaimed, as if the matter had slipped his mind until then. “I checked out that registration number you gave me with the Swansea database. The pick-up belongs to your old enemy, Sandy Waugh.”
“Mr Waugh, eh?” Bert replied. “He must have changed his vehicle recently. Last time I saw him, when we had that wee argument about fox snaring, he was driving an old Daihatsu.”
He stroked his chin and went on, “That’s really bad news. There’s only one reason that man would want a dead rabbit….. and it widnae be for feeding ferrets.”
“Aye,” responded the policeman. “I’ve had my suspicions about him for a while. For the past couple of years really; since I took up this job.”
“He lives just outside the village at the foot of the Glen,” suggested Bert. “Why don’t we take a turn out there and see if his Subaru is at the cottage. If not we can carry on up to Glenhabhain.”
“Leave your vehicle here and come in the Landrover,” said Tom. “It means I’ll have the radio if we need to contact base.”
                              *     *     *     *     *
Not having found Waugh’s truck at his cottage, the pair continued up the single track road to Lochan Dubh and clambered the remaining quarter mile to the ridge that overlooked the Glen from the east.
“Well, there’s one o’ the kites,” announced Tom, pointing skywards and handing Bert his powerful police binoculars.
It took five minutes before they located the second raptor, sitting in the top branches of a dead birch down near the Habhain Burn. Suddenly Bert stopped his sweep with the glasses and adjusted the focussing wheel to try to get a clearer view. “Over there!” he hissed. “Just below yon derelict shepherd’s bothy.” He passed the binoculars back to the policeman and indicated the direction.
“That’s him. I’m sure of it.” said Tom before pausing for a few seconds. “Shit. He’s just laid something on the ground near that big boulder and now he’s walking up the hill.”
“Come on! If we go back to the main road, nick through the forest and then take the old gravel track as far as the sheep fank, we’ll only be a few hundred yards from that bothy.”

It took twenty minutes to drive round to the other end of the Glen and by the time the Landrover pulled up at the fank there was no sign of another vehicle. Grabbing a second evidence kit, Tom led the way, slithering down a stony scree and then following a fence-line towards the remains of the old shepherd’s shelter.
“Quick!” he urged, pointing to where a hoodie crow was already pecking at a rabbit carcass. As they approached, a red kite alighted only six feet from the spot and mewed a challenge to the crow. Bert picked up a large flinty stone and hurled it, together with a roar of expletives, towards the birds. The hoodie took a few dazed steps from the rabbit, raised a wing weakly and then keeled over. The kite gave an indignant hiss and lazily flapped up to the broken roof of the bothy.
Sky Vixen watched with a complete lack of comprehension as the taller of the men put on a pair of rubber gloves, carefully lifted her dinner from the ground and sealed it into a plastic bag. She looked on as the other man picked up the moribund crow, administered the coup de grace with a stout stick and handed it over to be placed inside another plastic pouch. It seemed she was going to have to face a hungry month sitting on her eggs.
                        *     *     *     *     *
Next day PC Wylie called on Bert Nicholson, ostensibly to take a statement but really to update him on developments.
“By the time I got back to the station with the evidence bags, there had been a phone call telling us exactly where we would find a poison bait and possibly a dead kite. Guess who made that call?”
“Then, last night we got a warrant and raided Sandy Waugh’s place. In his shed we found an opened sachet of carbofuron powder; from the bed of his truck we recovered traces of rabbit fur and, wait for it, in his cottage we discovered a load of pamphlets from a loony-left animal group. We’ll have to wait for the results from the lab but I’m betting that the rabbit we found will have been laced with carbofuron and that its fur will match that from the roadway and also Waugh’s pick-up.”
“Now that’s what I call a result,” replied the gamekeeper running his fingers through the mane of his springer spaniel. “I’ve always suspected that a lot of those alleged poisonings of birds of prey were down to tree-hugging extremists trying to lay the blame on keepers. I’ll have a word with the laird and I’m sure you’ll get an invite to one of our shoots next season.”
“Aye,” laughed the policeman. “Most likely as loader to the Chief Constable!”
“Oh, and just so you know,” Bert continued, “after I left you yesterday I came home and picked up the twelve-bore. Went back to Glenhabhain and shot a couple of fresh rabbits for those red kites. Just couldnae bear the thought of such magnificent birds going hungry. Used non-toxic shot of course.”

       Web Site: Heritage of Scotland

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Reviewed by Eric Begbie 4/12/2008
Laying the Blame is a short crime story centering upon a major problem in Scotland - the poisoning of birds of prey. There is a neat twist in the tail.

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