Government turning a blind eye to wildlife crime

Police officer with white-tailed eagle, found illegally poisoned with a banned pesticide on a grouse moor inside the Cairngorms National Park earlier this year
Photo: Police Scotland

The UK is known as a nation of animal-lovers, yet it’s a terrible place to be a wild animal (or plant or fungus). For ours is one of the most nature-deprived countries on the planet, the “green and pleasant land” a pure fiction.

Chief responsibility for that lies with the supermarket and multinational-dictated food system that’s seen farmland turned to green desert, and the damage done by a decade of austerity to the support systems that are supposed to protect nature – Natural England seeing two-thirds of its funding slashed in that time.

But a significant proportion of the damage being done isn’t just metaphorically criminal, but legally so.

That fact was brought vividly to life last week, by the launch of what’s become (since 2017) an annual report on wildlife crime in England and Wales, by Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL), a coalition of 57 organisations that between them represent eight million members. I, and MPs and other peers, heard a succession of experts tell a tale of abuse, destruction, and government failure.

Wrapping up at the end of the presentation, I had to work hard for my usual message of hope, but there is cause for it, at least in the existence of the report, and the growing strength of campaigns on the issue of wildlife crime.

Those range from the pursuit of illegal raptor killing associated with driven grouse shooting (that is sadly so prevalent in Yorkshire) to the brilliant work of the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group in spreading awareness of the need to protect marine mammals, and the volunteer-based but expert Fisheries Enforcement Support Service.

It’s easy to get exercised about individual actions: the horror tales of badger baiting and hare coursing, or the wanton destruction of crucial habitat by cynical developers in pursuit of windfall profits. But the message that came through loud and clear last week was that it is government failure that’s allowing many of these crimes to occur, and certainly ensuring that they are very, rarely punished.

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That government failure falls into three main areas.

The first is the failure to record offences in a way that is meaningful, in order to identify the scale of the problem. Since the first report in 2017, WCL has been calling for wildlife crimes to be made distinct and reportable offences in their own right, under the Home Office Counting Rules. Doing that would make the scale of the problem clear, and provide evidence to encourage police forces to allocate resources to the problems. Otherwise, campaigners are left with anecdotes, and the government has no clear idea what is going on.

To take just one example, I’ve been asking Defra about the widespread reports of a leap in raptor persecution during the first lockdown – when a largely deserted countryside removed the usual protection of watchful eyes. The answer I keep getting, in summary: “we don’t know”. Likewise, theft of fish from managed lakes and rivers is covered simply under the Theft Act – no special classification or recording. So, while the crime is known to be significant, no one has any real idea of the scale.

The second problem is our fragmented and incredibly outdated legislation. Police forces are still forced to use the Night Poaching Act of 1828 for prosecutions – read it and weep for its outdatedness. In November 2015, the Law Commission completed a three-year major piece of work reviewing the situation and recommended improvements. But with Brexit on the horizon, campaigners were told to wait until that’s sorted, then we’ll get to wildlife. We’re still waiting.

The third problem is the impact of austerity among policing, regulatory and oversight bodies, that has also affected the management of sites of special scientific interest and other key locations. Figures for fish poaching offences are down, but is that because the crime has fallen, or are there fewer officials around to spot it happening? There’s a strong suspicion it’s the latter.

I told of being with anti-coalmine campaigners in Northumberland, when they were able to video a great crested newt in a pond that was at that moment being destroyed. They rushed down to the local police station with it, and were met with incomprehension and dismissal. At that time, I was told, the local force didn’t have a wildlife specialist. A local duty sergeant can be excused for a lack of specialist knowledge, but forces need expertise to draw on.

There’s also concern that much wildlife-related crime is being enabled, or committed, online, with the report this year for the first time including a section on cybercrime. We have seen the creation of the Cyber Enabled Wildlife Crime Priority Delivery Group, led by the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which is progress; but the issue of the level of resources, against the scale of the problem, is pressing.

Public education is a further area in which government action is needed. We heard from Plantlife that many members of the public – with the growing interest in foraging and wild foods – may be breaking the law and causing ecological damage simply from lack of knowledge, rather than ill intention.

Britain is hosting the COP26 climate talks next year, so that’s getting – in what environmental space there is – a significant amount of focus. But next year is also the postponed COP15 for the Convention on Biodiversity, and the world will be examining the actions being taken by all governments. Failure to protect nature will be in the spotlight, and the UK will be in the dock.

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