The blog I wrote a couple of days ago (here) about Police Scotland’s refusal to publicise the discovery of a shot peregrine found on a grouse moor in the notorious raptor persecution area of Strathbraan drew a lot of criticism of wildlife crime policing.
Some of that criticism was fair, in my opinion, but some of it wasn’t. The main point to be made, as has been discussed many times on this blog, is that not all police forces are the same. There are some brilliant, pro-active and creative police forces in the UK, spearheaded by diligent, hard-working officers who feel the same frustration as we all do when cases cannot proceed to court, and not for lack of trying. We’ve seen evidence of these officers’ work in recent months, including at least eight search warrants executed across the country in relation to suspected raptor persecution offences:
On 18th January 2021 there was a raid in Suffolk (here), on 15th March there was a raid in Lincolnshire (see here), on 18th March a raid in Dorset (here), on 26th March a raid in Devon (see here), on 21st April a raid in Teesdale (here), on 2nd August a raid in Shropshire (here), on 12th August a raid in Herefordshire (here) and on 14th September a raid in Norfolk (here).
Yesterday evening we saw another example (here), this time from Police Scotland, resulting in an individual being charged for an alleged offence that took place last week! Whatever the outcome of this case, Police Scotland’s response cannot be faulted and those officers involved should be commended.
It’s my view that slagging off the police in general, accusing them all of being inept, corrupt, members of the Masons etc, is a lazy and inaccurate response to wider failures within the criminal justice system. I get why people do it – the criminal justice system is hopelessly underfunded and some of the legislation is in dire need of updating to close some gaping loopholes – and the public rightly feels frustrated every time another raptor persecution crime goes unpunished, again and again and again, but that still doesn’t justify some of the criticism aimed at the police in general.
However, I think it’s also fair to criticise police forces and officers when it is obvious that investigative procedures are not up to standard. That was the point of the blog post about Police Scotland’s response to the shot peregrine in Strathbraan and it’s also the focus of today’s blog, which looks at Derbyshire Constabulary’s appalling response to a report of the shooting of two buzzards, witnessed by a member of the public on a pheasant-shooting estate in Derbyshire during last year’s first lockdown (April 2020).
To set the scene, this is a large, private estate in the lowlands, heavily wooded and with some lakes and open parkland. Approximately 20,000 pheasants are released for commercial shooting each year. Some of the estate is closed off to the public but other parts are criss-crossed by public footpaths and bridleways, making this a popular location for visitors.
On 1st April 2020, a visiting member of the public was watching two buzzards circling above a wood when he heard a shot and witnessed the buzzards falling. The incident was reported to Derbyshire Police as a suspected raptor persecution crime. The police quickly attended the scene but, I’m told, did not conduct a search of the wood but did speak to the gamekeeper and a number of other estate residents.
With no corpses found and no other witnesses, the next most obvious move would be for the police to issue an appeal for information. But Derbyshire Constabulary had other ideas.
The following is an email sent by a member of the police wildlife crime team to somebody who was asking whether an appeal for information might be forthcoming, given that raptor persecution is a national wildlife crime priority. The police response is astonishing:
This is such a jaw-dropping response I don’t really know where to begin!
The police officer seems to think that if the estate residents didn’t see anything then there was ‘zero chance‘ of further evidence coming to light. Er….what about other visitors? The country was in lock-down at the time but the estate is located in a village where local residents may well have been taking their daily allowance of exercise and who may have witnessed something of relevance.
The police officer also seems to think that issuing an appeal for information would mean accusing the gamekeeper of shooting the buzzards. That’s not the case at all! Just a statement of the facts was all that was needed – without accusing anybody. Police forces do this all the time. And surely, the gamekeeper and the estate owner would welcome an appeal for information if it was possible that someone without authority was wandering around the estate discharging a firearm?! Fear of upsetting the gamekeeper/estate owner ‘when we may need the cooperation of the estate for future things‘ is not a valid reason for not progressing this investigation.
I think the most worrying aspect of the police response is this:
‘I think we all know that it would inevitably lead to repeated discussions which we’d have to become part of if it was our publication about gamekeeping practices in general. We’ve found that, for our team’s purposes, propaganda is of no value to us and is something we try to avoid‘.
Again, an appeal for information would not need to include any mention of gamekeeping practices. It would just be a statement of facts – that a member of the public reported what he believed to be the shooting of two buzzards at this location, at xx:xx hours on 1st April 2020, if anyone has any information that might help please contact the police on Tel 101 and quote incident ref number xxxxxxx.
How does Derbyshire Constabulary expect to maintain the public’s confidence to report suspected wildlife crime when reports are likely to be viewed as ‘propaganda’ by the police?
This isn’t the first time that Derbyshire Constabulary has faced criticism for the way it deals with reported raptor persecution crimes.
In January 2020, the RSPB issued a press statement about an illegally poisoned buzzard, found next to a poisoned bait, in the Peak District National Park. This crime had been uncovered the year before, in April 2019, but Derbyshire Constabulary had chosen not to say anything about it, nor to warn the public about the danger of poisoned baits being laid out in the countryside, let alone in a National Park (see here).
In response to that press release and the subsequent criticism of the police, Derbyshire Constabulary issued a remarkable statement on Facebook claiming that the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the poisoned buzzard, lying next to the poisoned bait, were ‘inconclusive’ as to whether the buzzard had been deliberately poisoned (yes, really – see here).
More criticism followed, quite rightly in my opinion, and shortly afterwards Derbyshire Constabulary posted another statement on Facebook, where they discussed the size of the geographic area they had to cover, their high workload, the lack of resources available to them and the small size of the team. They did though, commit to doing better (see here).
Just six weeks later this reported shooting of two buzzards landed on their desks.
As I said at the top of this blog, I have no interest in a general slagging off of the police. And particularly of Derbyshire Constabulary – a few years ago an elderly member of my family, suffering from advanced dementia, was prone to wandering off in a confused and distressed state, often for hours on end. Time and again, officers from Derbyshire Constabulary went looking for him and brought him home safely. I will always be grateful for the care and diligence shown by those officers, who went above and beyond my family’s expectations. Their efforts were exemplary and hugely appreciated.
My point is, again, that bringing the perpetrators of wildlife crime to justice, and particularly those guilty of raptor persecution, is difficult enough without some police officers seemingly doing their best to obstruct investigations. Blogs like this one make for uncomfortable reading but it’s clear that there needs to be a root and branch overhaul of procedures, with examples of best practice being highlighted and encouraged, at a national level. This is a role the so-far useless Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) can play in England & Wales, and by the so-far useless PAW Raptor Group can play in Scotland, supported by the National Wildlife Crime Unit.
There are some seriously good officers dealing with wildlife crime but they need to be seen as the rule, not the exception.