Recently there have been a number of depressing reports of shot peregrines. These amazing thunderbolts of evolution are clearly not appreciated by everyone, and soon we will no doubt be getting reports of eggs and chicks being taken from nest sites. This appears to be signs of a worry upturn in recent years.

This set my mind back to when I arrived at the RSPB in 1991. Since the start of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, some ten years earlier, it was believed that significant numbers of high value species like peregrines and goshawks, were being taken from the wild and laundered into the captive falconry market. However, proving it was another thing. Even the best detective would find it hard to distinguish a bird taken from the wild from a genuine captive bred bird. We needed help.

When I was back in school, and later on studying biochemistry in university, I was fascinated by DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The structure of this elegant molecule, with its double helix structure joined by some three billion nucleotide base pairs, was famously unravelled by Watson and Crick in the 1950s. Carrying over 20,000 genes it forms the blueprint for life with an inconceivable near two metres packed into each of our cells; and a total length in our bodies which would exceed the width of our own solar system. Mind-boggling, especially for something totally invisible to the human eye.

The first ‘genetic fingerprint’ was produced in 1984 by Professor Jeffreys at Leicester University. A short while later, in 1986, DNA profiling was first used to aid a criminal investigation. This linked semen stain samples, collected from two rapes/murders in a small village in Leicestershire. This secured the conviction of the perpetrator, and also exonerated an innocent man implicated in the murders and led to the first DNA mass screening project. Since then the technology has continued to evolve and human DNA technology is now a core part of criminal forensic science, having helped solve thousands of serious crimes.

This goshawk was shown to have been taken from the wild thanks to DNA profiling (Guy Shorrock)

Encouragingly, it has also played an increasing role in wildlife crime. The last private prosecution taken by the RSPB started just before I joined. An individual from Liverpool had claimed to have bred goshawks in captivity. However, the DNA profiling told a very different story and showed the chicks were not related to the declared mother. Despite a paltry fine of £100, the revolution had started with this invisible detective now on our side. Here at last was a forensic tool that would start to give some meaningful answers. Around that time we were highly fortunate that the then Department of the Environment (now Defra), had started to look at whether DNA techniques could be used to support the registration of birds kept in captivity and had funded Nottingham University to develop DNA profiling in some birds of prey. Defra kindly allowed us to take advantage of this work for criminal cases, which we duly did.

With my own background interest, I naturally leap straight in. Professor David Parkin and Dr Jon Wetton quickly became two of my heroes as their work started to expose the false breeding claims of several falconers and that significant numbers of peregrines & goshawks were being taken from the wild. Importantly, it also showed which breeding claims were genuine. Whilst having the technology was essential to expose what was taking place, what was also vital was the government’s own bird registration scheme. This did three crucial things:

1. It ensured individual birds were identifiable by uniquely numbered rings
2. It told us where the birds were being kept
3. It told us the familial relationships allowing us to compare suspect birds with declared parents, siblings & even grandparents.

For the next few years I was heavily involved in most of the cases, running around the country to help the police execute warrants to allow the necessary blood samples to be taken. These included two high profiles cases that led to custodial sentences for the laundering of large numbers of peregrine falcons. The game was up and the illegal falconers knew it.

DNA profiling resulted in jail for a man laundering numerous wild-taken peregrines (Guy Shorrock)

Not surprisingly we also saw a significant drop in the number of peregrine nest sites being raided for their chicks. I suspect this remains the most effective use of a forensic technique to tackle wildlife crime in the UK. I also believe that the high profile nature of these cases was a significant catalyst in the development of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW). In early 1996, a PAW Forensic Working Group was set up to develop the use of DNA and other forensic techniques in wildlife crime. With an eclectic mix of scientists, Crime Scene Investigators and law enforcers, I have been fortunate to have worked on this group since its inception. In relation to DNA, the group has been blessed with a number of dynamic and talented geneticists.

 With those heady successes during the 1990’s to expose raptor laundering we were hopeful the government would expand the scheme to cover a number of highly-threatened species, in particular a number of globally threatened parrots. Once registered, efforts could be made to develop new DNA profiling methods. Unfortunately in the new millennia the government let us down very badly. Despite the obvious potential of the bird registration scheme, and the support from police, RSPB, FWG and JNCC, the government’s own scientific advisors, a fairly acrimonious deconstruction of the scheme started. There was the issue that the cost of the scheme was partly covered by the tax payer. The legislation is supposed to be about protecting wild birds, but rather than increase registration fees, the government appear to pay more heed to the concerns of bird keepers, and dismantled much of the scheme. By 2008 just nine birds of prey were required to be registered. Whilst this included peregrine, unfortunately it reduced the level of of registration controls.

In a classic ‘I told you so’ this short-sighted move has come back to bite us. With the price of peregrines increasing in recent years, it appears there are increasing signs that chicks are again being taken from the wild for the captive market in the UK and abroad. For example, in 2015 an RSPB covert camera filmed this man taking a peregrine chick from a site in South Yorkshire – the crime has not been solved. So, a problem we thought we had got on top of appears to be resurfacing. With the reduced registration controls on peregrines actually finding the suspected wild-taken birds and their alleged relatives has now become far more difficult. Despite all the advances in DNA technology, we are now less able to catch people laundering peregrines than we were 20 years ago – hardly progress.

So whilst the use of DNA profiling to check breeding claims has sadly not fulfilled its early potential, on the other hand the use of DNA testing in other areas of wildlife crime goes from strength to strength. This is exemplified by the work being undertaken by the Wildlife DNA Forensic Unit based at the SASA laboratories near Edinburgh, led by Dr Lucy Webster, a member of the FWG. Thanks to support from a more long-sighted Scottish Government, Police Scotland is fortunate to have free DNA forensic testing available in wildlife crime cases. The lab continues to produce vital evidence in a wide range of cases including illegal trade, raptor persecution and poaching, amongst others.

Species identification has come in useful in a number of raptor persecution cases. In 2002, I was involved with a pole trap on a grouse moor in County Durham - this is a powerful metal spring trap illegally set in the open, in this case on a stump, to catch birds of prey. We suspected this barbaric device had been placed for a hen harrier we had seen hunting nearby.

DNA testing confirmed this pole trap on a grouse moor had caught a short-eared owl (Guy Shorrock)

Following some RSPB surveillance and a subsequent police investigation, two gamekeepers were convicted for use of the illegal trap and the illegal killing of a short-eared owl. I had recovered the body of a short-eared owl buried in the peat on another part of the moor and suspected this had been removed from the trap. There appeared to be blood and tissue on the jaws of the traps and I arranged for it to be submitted for DNA testing to a government laboratory near York. This was the first time this method had been used on a spring trap and confirmed the DNA of short-eared owl, and also tawny owl (probably an earlier victim), was present. This was powerful evidence and no doubt helped prompt the guilty plea by both men.

There have been other cases. In 2004, on a pheasant estate in Buckinghamshire, my colleague filmed a man bludgeon a common buzzard to death which had been accidently caught in a cage trap, rather than release it. The body was removed and never recovered but DNA testing on blood spots on the floor of the trap confirmed its identity and two gamekeepers were later convicted. In 2013, spring traps were recovered in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. DNA testing by SASA confirmed the presence of sparrowhawk, common buzzard and short-eared owl on the traps. However, the gamekeeper, who had admitted illegally setting these, passed away before the case could be brought to court.

RSPB recording a set pole trap on the Mossdale Estate, North Yorkshire (Guy Shorrock)

More recently, you may remember the controversy relating to three pole-traps which were found on the Mossdale Estate in North Yorkshire in May 2016. The gamekeeper filmed by RSPB tending these traps was mistakenly given a police caution following a procedural error. This was particularly disappointing in light of the excellent response from three Wildlife Crime Officers (WCOs) who had attended our initial report and recovered the evidence. From our examination of the spring traps, we strongly suspected two of them had caught birds on previous occasions. The police agreed these could be submited for DNA testing and they were transferred to SASA in Edinburgh where the necessary examination and sample collection could take place.

DNA testing by SASA found raptor DNA on two illegally used spring traps (Guy Shorrock) 

The results confirmed the presence of kestrel DNA on one trap, and DNA of a falcon species, most likely merlin, on the other. So it was clear that these traps had been used illegally prior to our involvement. This new evidence was passed to police, and yet again their WCOs, supported by the new Rural Taskforce, set about an investigation to uncover the truth of what had taken place. Clearly we did not know how long the DNA had been on the traps - though in an outdoor environment the presence of heat, water, sunlight, and oxygen can cause DNA to decay fairly quickly. We also didn’t know at what location the spring traps had been previously used. Without an admission to the previous setting of these traps it was not possible to bring action against any individual. So whilst providing yet more disturbing insights into the uplands of North Yorkshire, in this case the DNA evidence did not allow us to hold anyone accountable.

There is no doubt wildlife forensics is becoming increasingly well established. In June this year a week-long international conference will be held by The Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS) in Edinburgh. The programme combines workshops, presentations, discussions and social events designed to allow wildlife forensic practitioners and students to meet each other and communicate with the broader law enforcement community. There is also a special one-day International Wildlife Forensics Symposium, that will bring together key stakeholders working in policy, enforcement and science to discuss the application of wildlife forensic science.

All this augurs well for the future. As DNA methodology continues to develop, it will be important for the statutory agencies to be alert to what may be possible when investigating cases. Our invisible friend will no doubt have more surprises within its double helix in the years ahead.