Alan Stewart seems oddly out of place in Perth’s main police station, an unassuming man in his early sixties in jeans and a baggy jumper. It only when he answers his mobile phone to discuss his latest case in urgent tones that I realize that this man’s mild manners belies a steely law enforcer. I overhear him discussing the illegal collection of hundreds of fresh water mussels from a Perthshire river before he hangs up, shaking his head.
“All wildlife crime is difficult to detect because it usually happens in the middle of nowhere,” he laments. “No case is straight forward until we can train sheep and deer to give evidence in court.”
For over forty years now Alan has been investigating wildlife crime in Scotland with a mix of diligence, patience and humor. He started out pursuing game and salmon poachers in the 1960s and remembers countless long vigils behind bushes at nightaiting to jump out and catch them in the act. They would often the rebuke the then fresh-faced officer for being on duty out of normal working hours.
How times have changed. Since Alan was made the Wildlife Crime Officer for Tayside in 1993 he has developed a sophisticated, intelligence driven, detection unit that can coordinate with any other force in the UK at the click of a mouse. He simultaneously investigates all manner of wildlife crimes, from egg theft to poisoning, snaring and hare coursing. He has even recently dealt with a case of illegal moss collection for Christmas wreaths. “If there’s a commodity to be harvest then it brings out the baddies,” he quips.
Modern policing has brought some spectacular results. The greatest advances have been in the capture and prosecution of the most determined, not to mention senseless, of wildlife criminals; egg thieves. In 1997 a national database of wild bird egg collectors was set up, allowing police forces to seamlessly share information about suspects.
The initiative, codenamed Operation Easter, has proved so successful that its database of known collectors has shrunk from over 140 to a hardcore of around 40. “Egg thieves are easier to catch now….and recent legislation to toughen up the penalties for wildlife crime has helped dramatically improve the situation,” commented Alan. In 2007 the penalties for wildlife crime were doubled to a maximum £10,000 fine and or one year in prison.
Alan is the first to recognize that punishment is only one aspect of his fight against wildlife crime. He spends much of his time giving talks as part of the Wildlife Crime Road Show to game fairs, garden centers and schools to raise awareness of the issue. He also gives practical advise about what to look out for and what to do if you suspect a crime has been committed. “Do not under any circumstances attempt a citizens arrest,” he warned. “Just gather as much information as you can and give me a call…my mobile phone is on seven days a week.”
Although the nature of this work keeps Alan indoors more and more these days he has by no means hung up his spurs. He still relishes the thrill of catching wildlife criminals in the act and is quick to tell his of his most memorable recent arrest. Called out to investigate the report that a gamekeeper was leaving poisoned eggs out for birds of prey Alan spotted a bottle of Le Perrin sauce amongst some cartridges on the front seat of the keepers landrover.
He pointed out the bottle, to which the keeper nervously replied that he carried it around with him to spice up his take out Chinese meals. Calling his bluff Alan said, “well if it is Le Perrin sauce then you won’t mind if I pour some of it onto my hands and lick it then.” The keeper quickly admitted that it was in fact Phosdrin, a deadly pesticides that is as harmful to humans as it is to wildlife.
After more than 40 years on the beat Alan is convinced that wildlife crime is on the wane in Scotland. “Although the figures probably show that it is getting worse this is because we are getting better at recording it.” By no means does this mean that it wildlife crime will ever be eradicated. In fact Alan is worried that current economic downturn could prompt a spike in cases. “If people are hard up we might find that there are more wildlife crimes committed as there is a commercial entity to be exploited.”
You would think that after so long fighting wildlife crime Alan would be about ready for retirement. He has after all already written his hugely entertaining memoir, Wildlife Detective, a life fighting wildlife Crime. He also has some fairly bushy laurels to rest on. In 2006 Alan was granted WWF’s highest accolade for his tireless work, a one-off Lifetime Achievement Award.
Retirement isn’t Alan’s style. He is far too busy promoting his second book, The Thin Green line, Wildlife Crime in Great Britain and Ireland to consider slowing down. He has to ensure that the wildlife crime intelligence database is constantly updated and that his Wildlife Crime Road Show stays on the road. And then there is that mobile phone of his that just won’t stop ringing. It’s incessant chime breaks up our meeting – another call, another wildlife crime to investigate.
Scottish Wildlife Trust Magazine, 2010