This is a story about the illegal use of rodenticides. It is also a story about one particular rodenticide called brodifacoum. There have been some serious incidents where dogs out for walks have died from ingesting brodifacoum due to its illegal use. And the misuse and deliberate abuse of brodifacoum is having a troubling impact on our wildlife too, on a scale not yet fully understood but it is now widely recognised as the biggest emerging poisoning threat to wildlife in the UK.
And this is a story of how brodifacoum was illegally and shockingly used on a National Trust owned grouse moor land in the Peak District National Park in 2021.
A crime committed on National Trust land, a grouse moor, open access land (where recreation users can go where they wish), and on a designated SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) within the country’s busiest National Park. And yet someone thinks it is fine to break the law without fear of consequences of who or what may come into contact with the brodifacoum.
The National Trust land called Hollingworth Clough in the Peak District National Park (RSPB)
On 18th February 2021, my colleague in RSPB Investigations was working in an area of grouse moors in the Peak District with a history of raptor persecution. This is an area which has concerned the RSPB for a number of years. A shot short-eared owl and a shot buzzard found in 2020 are examples of our concern
On the point of dusk, an individual was seen behaving suspiciously on the National Trust owned High Peak Estate on a moorland called Park Hall near Glossop. The National Trust land was leased to a nearby grouse shooting estate called Hurst and Chunal Estate. It appeared that the individual had waited until the point of darkness before walking out onto the moorland with a stick and then preceded to crouch down in a small area wearing what appeared to be white gloves. What they were doing was hard to tell. But the person after a few minutes headed back towards their vehicle, briefly stopping at a dry stone wall just before they got back.
The view of my colleague and the light made it difficult to be clear who this individual was and what they were doing at that point.
The following day, now in daylight, my colleague instructed myself and another colleague to the location where they had seen the odd behaviour. It might have been nothing and something innocuous that had been witnessed but we needed to know. We were guided to a location on the moor called Hollingworth Clough on Leygatehead Moor, part of Park Hall. The location contained several mammal holes. We shone torches into the holes and found that four of these holes contained pinkish square blocks. Both myself and my colleague were troubled and believed these to be rodenticide blocks and were concerned that this was an illegal usage of them out in the open where any willdife or pets could access them.
Some of the brodifacoum blocks found inside holes on the National Trust land (RSPB)
The blocks were seized. On our way out, our colleague guided us to the dry stone wall where the person had been seen stopping for a while before going back to their vehicle the previous evening. A pair of white nitrile gloves were found stuffed inside the wall. In my experience of pesticide abuse jobs, nitrile gloves can be used by suspects not wishing to have skin contact with the substances they were handling. It looked like these white gloves had been the ones seen on the suspect and disposed of after handling the blocks inside the wall. These were again seized. It had all become clear now. The rodenticide blocks, the nitrile gloves, the stick (to push down the blocks) and the premeditated waiting for the light to fade enough had come with a plan - to target wildlife illegally by a criminal - and do so on land popular with the public that reducing the chances of being caught was paramount for this person.
The job was then passed onto Natural England who lead on the WIIS (Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme) in England and also for the potential SSSI offences.
A long story short
The investigation did not really get going for sometime. But that is another story for a different time. We are grateful that fresh impetus from individuals in Derbyshire Police Rural Crime Team and Natural England took on the job in the last year to progress matters.
The blocks found down the holes were confirmed as brodifacoum by WIIS analysis. Readers familiar with the illegally poisoned white-tailed eagle in Dorset will know this substance and the concerns of how it is impacting wildlife in the UK. We are seeing it regularly in well above lethal levels detected in birds of prey that undergo toxicology testing, sometimes killing multiple birds of prey in the same location. This is both on a misuse and deliberate abuse scale, both forms being illegal and combining to put innocent wildlife and pets at risk. Brodifacoum is a product that’s usage is strictly regulated and products containing it should only be used internally or in and around buildings. You cannot shove it down holes in the open countryside as you wish. Dogs have been killed when people have done this. It is also a professional product that can require training to use. And yet here we were.
In July 2022, a search led by Derbyshire Police RCT (Rural Crime Team) and Natural England Enforcement Team with RSPB Investigations support was conducted on the moorland back at Hollingworth Clough and also a nearby farm premises. Brodifacoum was found on the search at the farm. The mammal holes re-visited also showed potential badger signs. Whether badgers were the target here back in February 2021 is something the suspect will only ever know, but it appears likely to anyone knowledgeable of wildlife persecution.
Enquiries were made by Derbyshire RCT after the search including interviews of suspects. Unfortunately, after a review, the police informed us that they could not bring criminal charges in this case. Natural England led enquiries have been also going on into issues around the usage of the brodifacoum in the area. We are grateful to the work done by both Derbyshire Police and Natural England on this case.
The mammal holes at Hollingworth Clough (RSPB)
The outcome and big picture
At an appropriate stage, the National Trust were informed of the investigation by Derbyshire Police into the crime committed on their land and on one of its grouse moor tenancies. We have also liaised with the National Trust to appraise them once it was suitable to do so. As expected, National Trust were appalled that a crime of this nature had taken place and they understood the unthinkable consequences if something had picked up the brodifacoum.
We now understand that the National Trust have recently not renewed the tenancy with the grouse moor tenant that had been in place at Park Hall and it is understood that the land will no longer be managed for shooting altogether. We are unaware at this stage if the brodifacoum incident we detected and this decision are connected. And we await further news on how the National Trust proceed with their future management of their land at Park Hall.
Meanwhile, the continued problem with the illegal usage of brodifacoum remains. It’s impact remains a huge concern across the country for our wildlife.