It's all a bit fishy

"Meet me at 20:00 hrs.

The next evening, at 19.58, two 4WD vehicles pulled up at an empty car park on the outskirts of Grangemouth. Eight huge men in camouflage gear spilled out onto the tarmac, eyeing me suspiciously but saying nothing. As they checked their kit, one finally broke the silence, gruffly telling me "At least you’re on time" before gesturing that I should climb into the truck.

An hour later we were holed up in a fox-hole on the treacherous mudflats of the Firth of Forth, scanning the water with army regulation night-sights for the tell-tale signs of the enemy. As midnight came and went, the only sounds on the estuary were the crackle of the two-way radio and the distant hum from far-off factories which filtered across the dark night tide.

The quiet was reassuring, but misleading. Tonight there were no signs of the poachers or of their buoys bobbing in the water or

illegally cast nets scooping up the precious silver haul of salmon. Just days before this particular outing, the mudflats had been the scene of a violent confrontation: on one side there were the police, sniffer dogs and a posse of water bailiffs; on the other a gang of six poachers who, when challenged, fought back before disappearing into the faceless backdrop of Stirling, smashing up two water bailiffs’ cars as a casual afterthought.

Welcome to the front line in the increasingly vicious war on poaching.

According to the police, poaching is the second most profitable criminal activity in Scotland after the drugs trade. Stand aside prostitution, car theft and counterfeiting; the poachers are coming through, taking millions a year out of the Scottish economy in the process. "What gets me," Superintendent Bill Cunningham of Forth District Salmon Fishery Board told me, "is that people seem to think that there’s something innocent and romantic about salmon poaching."

It’s true. To the non-angling public, poaching is regarded as a romantic country pursuit, practiced by shady but lovable rogues who steal from the rich to give to the poor. It conjures up an image of a crafty old Highland crofter slinging out his well-worn net over a darkened river, no doubt with a fattened pheasant stuffed under his jumper.

That idealised image doesn’t square with the truth. There is an identikit modern poacher: he is a full-time criminal; he is from the city; he is part of a criminal network which is probably also be involved in selling drugs. "One-for-the-pot" chancers are few and far between. One of the most troublesome gangs operating on Cunningham’s beat is "a group of smackheads who’ve worked out that poaching is easier and more lucrative than dealing drugs".

Technology has revolutionised poaching. As the number of wild salmon caught has fallen from 2117 tonnes in 1967 to 198 tonnes this year, so its price has soared up to 8 per pound in Home Counties restaurants, and 5 in Edinburgh. The advent of lightweight mono-filament nets that fit in jacket pockets means even the clumsiest gang of poachers can clear a pool of over a hundred 10lb autumn fish in minutes, pocketing up to 8000 in the process. Those nets, coupled with declining stocks have ensured that poaching is more lucrative than ever. "In fact," says Cunningham, "we have five gangs of professional poachers, with up to eight men in each, on my patch and none of them would go out unless they could guarantee getting at least 100 fish in a night."

After a quarter of a century in the navy, Cunningham became the Superintendent for the Forth District Salmon Fishery Board, one of two dozen such men charged with co-ordinating the fight against poaching in Scotland. His job description is to prevent illegal fishing activity over a mammoth sixteen hundred miles of riverbank from Balquidder, in the foothills of the Trossachs, to Dunbar in East Lothian. Helped by one full-time bailiff, ex-gamekeeper and deerstalker Chris Foley, he is assisted by 12 volunteer water bailiffs who "may be out in the freezing cold many nights of the year, yet do it for no more than a drink at Christmas from the Board. Some are anglers, some are concerned about the environmental impact of poaching - and yes, maybe some even like the adrenalin - but we couldn’t do this job without them".

Water bailiffs have the power of search and arrest under the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act, but the ever-present threat of violence means that, on big stake-outs, Cunningham enlists the help of local police. Yet despite the proven links between poaching and organised crime, getting sheriff courts to take the offence seriously remains difficult, no matter how persistent the offender.

"In a recent case at Falkirk Sheriff Court, the defendant was one of a gang and had been caught stringing a net under Kincardine Bridge," recalls Cunningham. "The sheriff summed up with the comment, ‘Well, it’s hardly the most serious crime in the world’, and promptly admonished him, even though he had pled guilty in the first place."

The only exception is a poacher unfortunate enough to meet a sheriff who happens to be an angler himself. The biggest fine ever handed down was four years ago, when a well-known Borders poacher was fined 5000 in Duns Sheriff Court for being discovered in illegal possession of six fish. Less than a month later, Cunningham caught the same individual in possession of nine salmon, but the offender was let off with a 300 fine at Haddington Sheriff Court.

"I’ve had many cases," the Superintendent explains, "where the court has not even confiscated their nets."

Criminal poachers - those who have no wish to actually eat the fish - have even used the vermin poison, Cymag, which removes all oxygen from the water, killing every creature for miles downstream. The sickening sight of the white bellies of a flotilla of dead trout, eels and minnows bobbing down a ‘cymagged’ river is an unforgettable sight.

The economic impact of poaching is unseen, but it can gut communities. Scottish salmon angling is worth in excess of 100m to the economy; fishing on the Tweed alone brings 12.5m into the Borders each year. For every fish landed by an angler, he or she spends 2000 in local hotels, shops and restaurants. A successful strike from a gang of poachers can remove 150 salmon from a river system, denying fragile rural economies of anything up to 250,000 in a single night. Around rivers like the Ayr and Dumfriesshire’s Nith, which have been particularly badly hit, the impact can be severe. The average poaching fine is 300, irrespective of the number of fish caught.

Someone who was no stranger to repeated arrests by water bailiffs and thousands of pounds worth of fines was the notorious East Lothian criminal, Ted Ingle. He poached salmon throughout the Lothians and beyond before being battered to death in his Tranent home by his baseball bat-wielding partner, Rosie Blake, in 1994. His two remaining sons, Edward and Andrew, are themselves carrying on the dubious family trade. "Let’s just say that these particular individuals are very well known to us," says Cunningham. Regulars in Edward Ingle’s East Linton pub have gone on record, relating how Ingle bragged that he nets (literally) over 1000 a week from his poaching exploits, despite being repeatedly brought before the courts.

Earlier this year Edward spoke about his father’s life, attempting to portray him as a lovable rural rogue; a man who would, in his son’s words, "take tatties and cabbages from the fields and give them to the old folks in the pub". "He thought the law was a joke," said Edward. "He was once up in court for poaching and he had a boot-full of salmon in the car outside. He was fined 180 and he rushed off to sell the fish to pay the fine."

Like father, like son. Edward works as an abseiler in the oil industry. "The first night back from the rigs, I go to the river," he said when asked how he has paid the many fines that have been levied on him for poaching.

He is also putting together a book of his dad’s homespun wisdom, entitled Poacher’s Pie, while his headstone in its Haddington graveyard sums up the image that the poachers would have us believe - below a carving of a leaping salmon are the words: "Scotland will never see his like again." In fact the water bailiffs are coming across more and more of his ‘like’ every day of the week.

Nor is this trend of violent crime confined to the Lowlands; the old rascal poacher of Highland lore is as much a thing of the past in Mallaig as he is in Motherwell. As far back as the Sixties, there were notorious and lethal Cymag attacks on the Ullapool River in Wester Ross. Today, entire sections of this delightful little spate river, which tumbles from the hills through a steep glen of heather and rowan trees, have been cordoned off with Colditz-style barbed wire fencing and impenetrable corrugated iron doors.

Poaching is a nationwide problem. The Grimersta estate lies on the western shores of the island of Lewis and is one of the most productive salmon fisheries in Europe. When Chris Foley, Cunningham’s assistant for the last two years, describes his previous job as head bailiff at Grimersta as "hairy", he is guilty of wanton understatement.

Grimersta Fishery is a chain of uninspiring-looking hebridean lochs, interlinked by short peaty rivers, which supports the most magnificent run of Atlantic salmon throughout the summers. In 1888 it secured a place in angling history when an estate guest, Mr Naylor, caught 54 salmon to his own rod in a single day’s fishing, a record that still stands.

Since then, however, it has become just as famous as the site of bloody battles between poachers and gamekeepers. Much of Grimersta’s water runs alongside the crofting township of Ballalan, a community where many residents have a natural mistrust of the estate’s absentee owners, and see netting for salmon as their heritable right.

In recent years the hatred has reached such a level that, one summer, the poachers turned their attention from the fish and left a 55,000 trail of destruction across the estate. They smashed fishing huts, burnt buildings and ripped apart a sheet-metal dam. A fishery manager spoke out against the poachers and, the next morning, found all of his rowing boats had been sawn in half.

Water bailiffs and gamekeepers were routinely threatened with baseball bats out on the moor in the middle of the night. I was once in a small boat that now has a hole in the front after a poacher shot at us with a rifle. Eventually, ex-Special Forces security staff were employed by the Grimersta Estate.

Given the financial rewards poaching brings, it is not difficult to understand why violent confrontation is now commonplace. Cunningham says the police know beyond doubt that a commercial gang of poachers previously ran two refrigerated lorries every week out of Stornoway to the mainland, full of poached salmon and venison. It was salmon poaching on an industrial scale - All -Terrain Vehicles, radio scanners and many miles of monofilament netting were used at the sharp end of the business, while a complex network of buyers was in place to distribute the thousands of fish that were taken illegally every year. It was a business worth millions a year to the poachers.

In Wester Ross, the problem remains. One local angler, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told me: "Fish farms have wiped out the salmon on a lot of the rivers, but the ones without cages in their estuaries, like the Kerry and Badachro, are still pulling fish in. Come the first rains in July, you see these groups of lads in balaclavas and cammo jackets descend on the rivers in search of the fish. And these blokes are not from around these parts."

Many riverbanks are now no-go areas inhabited by poachers masquerading as anglers. Instead of nets, in a lethal method known in lowland dialect as "howking", they employ huge treble hooks attached to a stout fishing rod and line, which they rip through the deep holding pools in a river. The unsuspecting salmon, waiting for the next rise in water level to take them upstream, are gashed in their sides, bellies or heads and, if the hook holds, are hauled ashore. It does not take long for a gang of men to remove every salmon trapped in the limited confines of a rocky pool with this horrifically cruel technique.

Although he’s had years where he’s caught one group of poachers every week during the season, Cunningham and his team are fighting a losing battle on the dark banks of our rivers. Even so, he believes the battle can be won. "A poacher is a creature of habit," he says. "We know who they are; we know where they operate. And it’s only a matter of time before we bring them before the courts."

And then they’ll get a 300 fine and be back on the river by nightfall.

A SLICE OF POACHER'S PIE

This is an extract from Ted Ingle’s memoirs, "The Poacher’s Pie":

"I HAD been out all day with my sons Edward and Andrew (pictured below) when out jumps the keeper, dragging a large Alsatian on a lead. "Stand still!" he shouts. "Or the beast will tear you to bits!"

We came to a halt, not through fear, but because we hadn’t seen the dog before and wanted to know just how bad the brute was. He must be very new to the estate or our spies would have informed us long ago.

"Give us the fish," commanded the keeper. We had no intention of doing anything of the sort - these fish had been hard earned.

My lads surrounded the pair of them. They had cudgels and had dealt with dogs before. "Keep away," he shouted. "I’ll let him go and I’ll not be responsible for his actions!"

I gestured to the others to stop and, taking a half-eaten pie out of my pocket, I offered it to the dog, which nearly pulled the keeper off his feet to get at it. It demolished the pie in two bites and sat down and began to wag its tail. We stood around, grinning like cats.

"Attack! Attack!" roared the keeper. The dog went to a tree and lifted its leg. Losing his cool, the keeper now ran towards it, swinging the lead, and caught it painfully on the nose.

The poor beast let out a yowl and, far from going for us, grabbed his master by his breeks. He had the cheek to shout at us: "Get it off me! Help me!"

We went on our way, laughing so much we could hardly stand.