Two years ago, I joined Wildlife and Countryside Link to join its annual report on wildlife crime in England and Wales. That was the fourth-such report, the most comprehensive charting of the way magnificent birds of prey are being illegally poisoned and shot, badgers hideously baited and hares chased with dogs.
Yesterday, it was the sixth report being launched, and again I was delighted to chair the event. But not delighted that there’s been little progress on the top-line message, that wildlife crime needs to be made notifiable, so that the government has statistics on its scope and scale, an essential precursor to getting the necessary resources and approach to comprehensively tackle it.
That’s despite the fact that last year the Government’s work was essentially done for it by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, which produced an ‘analytic toolkit report’ for the UK on tackling wildlife crime, compromising more than 200 pages and 72 recommendations, among which was ‘making wildlife crimes notifiable’.
Until that happens, it is up to the NGO sector to produce its crucial annual collective report that at least sets the scene for what this report concludes is a ‘stubbornly high’ crime level that is ‘causing avoidable suffering to animals, harming our natural world and benefiting the wildlife criminals who frequently have close links to other forms of criminality’.
That’s not to say there have not been gains over the past year. In a rare piece of good news on criminal law, in the generally dreadful Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, provisions against hare coursing were strengthened, following a campaign in which the Bishop of St Albans played a significant parliamentary role. However, as I said at the time, this was very much a piecemeal gain – just looking at hares alone there’s much to be done to prevent them from dying horribly in traps and snares, not to mention being shot on driven grouse shooting moors because they might spread a disease affecting the grouse (Scottish Greens have secured protection for mountain hares in such circumstances).
There’s also clearly growing awareness of raptor persecution, one of the Government’s official wildlife crime priority areas, and some notable joint investigations, despite the difficulties in detection and evidence collection. But the problem continues at a high level. As the chapter contributed by the RSPB notes, there were 90 confirmed incidents of persecution in England and Wales, 80 of which were in England, the second-highest figure ever recorded, after the Covid-affected 2020 figure of 105. Getting particular attention was the horrific poisoning of a wild-tailed eagle in Dorset, which was the subject of an investigation that can only be described as farcical.
As the report says, ‘the key driver of raptor persecution is conflict with land managed for gamebird shooting’ – not just driven grouse shooting on the highlands but also pheasant and partridge on the lowlands. Tackling this in Scotland, the government has promised in 2023 to introduce licencing of shooting estates, with the possibility of them losing the licence should crimes occur on their patch – something to watch in the coming year.
I’ll also be pushing the issue of the sentencing of individuals when – rarely – they are caught for killing raptors. The case of Matthew Stroud, convicted of multiple offences, including the first conviction for the unauthorised release of gamebirds in a Special Protection Area, raised great concern. As the report says ‘the lack of sentencing guidelines for wildlife crime is an urgent action to address’. I’ve raised this issue with the government, and been told the UN recommendations for developing sentencing guidelines ‘will be considered by the relevant agencies’. I’ve put in a simple follow-up: when?!
Wildlife crime does not only happen in the countryside. An issue raised with me at the event by the Badger Trust, which I’ll be taking into the House of Lords, is the posting of videos of the illegal hunting of badgers and other wild animals, apparently particularly prevalent on TikTok. With the Online Harms Bill expected to soon be before the House, I’ll be working with the Badger Trust and others on a possible legislative response.
One area of particular concern in this year’s report is marine mammals – following a recent terrible incident in Cornwall that saw the death of a baby dolphin (warning, disturbing image). It is from Cornwall that the only real data collection of crime against marine mammals exists, due to the dedicated volunteer effort of the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group. Its stats are very disturbing, showing a tripling from 2014 to 2020 of incidents of marine mammal disturbance. The Seal Alliance released a new report showing disturbance of the mammals is an issue of chronic concern.
There’s a huge amount to do, but more evidence that campaigning works in the final words of the report, noting that it ‘is able to highlight improvements in police (and Crown Prosecution Service) training and resourcing in 2021’. That’s something to build on.