CSI in the wild: Forensic specialists join fight to protect our wildlife

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FORENSIC techniques usually deployed in major murder investigations are the latest weapon in the fight against wildlife crime.

Police specialist Chris Gannicliffe has more than 25 years’ experience probing some of Scotland’s most serious crimes.

Based at Nelson Street Police Office in the centre of Aberdeen, Chris examines evidence of wildlife crime supplied by officers from across the country.

With cruel “sports” like badger baiting and hare-coursing on the increase, it’s becoming a huge part of Chris’s forensic work load.

Forensic scientist Chris Gannicliffe

Speaking from his laboratory, he said: “We use the same forensic techniques to investigate crimes against animals as people.

“For example, if a poacher has 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.

“We would investigate the death of a bird of prey in the same way as we would investigate a homicide or an assault. The same principles apply.”

A major new crackdown on wildlife crime will be launched by police tomorrow.

Headed by Detective Chief Superintendent Robbie Allan, who led the probe into the Clutha helicopter tragedy, it will feature a team of 150 specialist officers.

Prosecutors at the Crown Office in Edinburgh have also set up a specialist unit to tackle wildlife crime.

Badger baiting gang’s dog covered in blood

DCS Allan said: “Scotland is a place where there is an expectation that wildlife will flourish.

“We are committed to dealing with and preventing wildlife crime.

“People do not want to see their natural wildlife harmed or destroyed.

“Our fantastic wildlife also attracts thousands of tourists to this country and we do not want to see that affected by wildlife crime.”

The Mail was given exclusive access to a training course at the Scottish Police College in Tulliallan, Fife, for 40 new wildlife officers.

One of the biggest problems they face is the centuries old sport of badger baiting.

Once a preserve of the rich, it is now mainly practiced by crime gangs who breed their own fighting dogs to maul the terrified badgers.

Detective Constable Craig Borthwick – based in Glasgow – deals with up to six cases a week of injured badgers.

He said: “People are coming from across the west of Scotland and the north of England to the Glasgow area for badger-baiting.

“Once they have identified a sett they will dig it out then send the dogs down to find the badger.

“When the badgers are caught, the gangs then fight them with their dogs – often to the death. If the dogs and badgers are badly injured, they are often shot afterwards.”

Baiter’s dog confronts a terrified badger

Dogs who are less seriously injured cannot be taken to a vet because of the risk of them alerting the police.

Instead, the crooks subject the dogs to painful DIY first aid including superglueing their wounds.

The dogs are equipped with locator collars used to track them after they go into a sett.

If the dogs die during the battle they are often beheaded to hide any trace of the locators.

One family behind the badger baiting boom is the notorious Murray clan from Larkhall,
Lanarkshire, who were linked to the murder of a policeman in 1983.

Last year, John “Mint” Murray, 56, and his son John Jr, 33, were convicted at HamiltonSheriff Court of staging badger baiting.

Officers found dogs, shovels and metal cages used in the practice after swooping on their homes. The pair got their kicks from watching their dogs tearing badgers, cats and other animals to pieces.

The would also host boozy fight evenings with mates from other badger baiting crews from across the country and Northern Ireland.

DCS Robbie Allan

The Murrays were banned from keeping dogs for 10 years and ordered to carry out 250 hours of unpaid work each.

One of the biggest concerns for police is the growing number of attacks on rare birds of prey.

Sixteen red kites and six buzzards were found dead in Conon Bridge, Ross-shire, in March last year after ingesting illegal poison.

The killings sparked public outrage and a £27,000 reward was put up. It remains unclaimed and police are still investigating the deaths.

Some attacks on birds of prey – or raptors – are blamed on a small minority of nscrupulous land-owners and gamekeepers who shoot, poison or trap the birds to protect valuable game such as grouse or pheasant.

Wildlife Liaison Officer Constable Malcolm O’May, based in Callander, Perthshire, specialises in crimes against birds of prey.

He said: ”Though it is the lowest recorded crime in our area it takes up the biggest amount of time because they are complex inquiries.

“These crimes happen in remote areas where there are usually no eyewitnesses and no CCTV.”

This massive hole shows the lengths the baiters will go to capture their prey

Another growing problem is hare-coursing.

Between 2011 and 2013, 261 incidents of coursing were probed by officers across Scotland, more than a fifth of the tally across the UK.

Ian Laing, a former police wildlife crime liaison officer, who now manages a country park in Lochgelly, Fife, is an expert in the cruel practice.

He added: “Hare-coursing has been illegal in Britain since 2002 though it is legal in other parts of the world. It is common in small industrial and mining towns and among the travelling community.

“The most popular time is after harvesting when fields have been cleared and the hares are exposed.

“Coursing involves lurcher dogs, specially bred to chase and kill the hares and it is a very brutal sport, if you can even call it that.”

One recent survey showed that of 53 hares who die during coursing, 18 were actually killed by the dogs’ owners.

Ian said: “They will grab the hare by its legs then break its neck by hitting it off the ground.

“We also came across a case of sheep coursing where the head had been cut off and one of the gang then played football with it.”

Source: The Daily Record

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Crime Scene Officer and Fingerprint Expert with over 7 years experience in Crime Scene Investigation and Latent Print Analysis. The opinions or assertions contained on this site are the private views of the author and are not to be construed as those of any professional organisation or policing body.