Record high wildlife crime levels could be worsened by new legislation, warn wildlife campaigners

Press release from Wildlife & Countryside LINK (29th November 2022):

Record high wildlife crime levels could be worsened by new Government law, warn wildlife campaigners

*Figures collected annually by nature organisations reveal that wildlife crime rates remained stubbornly high in 2021, following record highs in 2020

*Convictions for most wildlife crime types rose in 2021 from record lows in 2020, with hunting and bat crimes showing the biggest proportional increase in conviction rates (although from low baselines).

*Campaigners are warning reductions in wildlife protections in the Retained EU Law Bill could see further rises in wildlife crime and are calling on Government to stop the Bill and make crucial improvements to wildlife crime monitoring and enforcement recommended by the UN. 

The annual Wildlife Crime Report compiled by Wildlife and Countryside Link, with information from groups including RSPB, WWF UK, and the League Against Cruel Sports, has shown that crime against wildlife in 2021 was at record levels. Wildlife crimes include, for example, hare coursing, persecution of birds of prey, badgers and bats, disturbance of seals and dolphins and illegal wildlife trade.

In England and Wales there were 1414 reported wildlife crime incidents (outside of fisheries), almost exactly the same level as in 2020 (1404). There were 3,337 fisheries crime reports in 2021, down from 4,163 in 2020. The scale of wildlife crime is likely to be far higher than the report details, due to lack of official recording and monitoring of most of the data relying on direct reports from members of the public to nature groups.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: Wildlife crime soared during the pandemic and remained at record levels this year. Progress on convictions is positive, and we welcome DEFRA’s efforts to stiffen sentencing, but overall that is of little use while the rate of successful prosecutions remains so low.

The snapshot in our report is likely to be a significant under-estimate of all kinds of wildlife offences. To get to grips with these cruel crimes, the Home Office should make wildlife crime notifiable, to help target resources and action to deal with hotspots of criminality.

The Retained EU Law Bill threatens to be a serious distraction, and could even lead to important wildlife laws being lost. Instead, seven years on from its publication, the Government should implement the Law Commission’s 2015 wildlife law report. Surely it is better to spend time and money improving laws that are as much as two centuries old, than wasting time reviewing effective environmental laws under the REUL bill.”

Martin Sims, Chair of Link’s Wildlife Crime Working Group, said: We must empower police forces to act on wildlife crime. We already see how, with proper resources and training, a real difference can be made in the work against awful crimes like hare coursing. It’s the counties with well-funded and resourced projects in place where we’re seeing the most positive progress. Also essential to efforts to better protect our wildlife is making wildlife crime notifiable, and recorded in national statistics. This would better enable police forces to gauge the true extent of wildlife crime and to plan strategically to address it.

The pandemic contributed to the high wildlife crime reporting figures in both 2020 and 2021.  COVID-19 restrictions appear to have increased reporting of wildlife crimes in several ways. Opportunistic offenders may have felt that with the police busy enforcing social restrictions that wildlife could be harmed with relative impunity. With increased use of the countryside and coast in the pandemic more members of the public were also present to witness and report incidents of concern. Increased domestic tourism also played a role in increased wildlife disturbance of marine mammals. 

There was a positive increase in convictions in some types of wildlife crime in 2021. But low levels of prosecutions and low conviction rates are an on-going challenge in tackling wildlife crime. Despite the number of convictions in 2021 being more than double the rate in 2020, there were still only 55 convictions for wildlife crimes in the whole year (if well-resourced and enforced fisheries crimes are excluded). And for hunting crimes alone more than half (53%) of prosecutions were unsuccessful in securing a conviction in 2021. This is compared to an 82% conviction rate across all crime. A lack of training and resources is central to this issue.

The report highlights the difference in what can be achieved with the right budget, training, and resources, with concerted action to tackle hare-coursing being a main factor in the increase in convictions in 2021. This follows a nationwide police operation to tackle the issue – Operation Galileo – achieving good results. Consequently 2021 saw the highest number of cases proceeded against accused hunting crimes since 2015, with 80 cases taken to court. The highest increases in prosecutions were in Norfolk and Suffolk where police forces were active in Operation Galileo and other police activities designed to reduce the impact of hare coursing. This policing focus corresponded with legislative action, which has seen hare coursing sanctions increased in the Policing, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (rising to up to 6 months imprisonment and unlimited fines). Similar action needs now to be taken to enable the more effective prosecution of other hunting crimes, including the illegal hunting of foxes with dogs. 

Despite this positive legislative move, one new Bill from Government could actively worsen wildlife crime. The Retained EU Law Bill is intended to ‘save, repeal, replace, restate or assimilate’ the retained EU law (known as REUL) applying in the UK within a set time period. These laws include the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, which make it a criminal offence to damage the habitats of key species including badgers and bats. Such habitat offences form the majority of the wildlife crimes against badgers and bats. The Bill is likely to lead to the hasty rewriting of the regulations, potentially weakening the legislative underpinning for tackling common wildlife crimes.

To properly tackle the issue of wildlife crime, nature experts are calling for the following actions (most of which were also recommended by a UN report in 2021):

  1. Making wildlife crimes notifiable to the Home Office, so such crimes are officially recorded in national statistics. This would better enable police forces to gauge the true extent of wildlife crime and to plan strategically to address it.
  2. Increasing resources & training for wildlife crime teams in police forces. Significant investment in expanding wildlife and rural crime teams across police forces in England & Wales, and the placing of National Wildlife Crime Unit funding on a permanent basis, would enable further investigations, and lead to further successful prosecutions.
  3. Reforming wildlife crime legislation. Wildlife crime legislation in the UK is antiquated and disparate. A 2015 Law Commission report concluded these laws are ‘‘overly complicated, frequently contradictory and unduly prescriptive’’. Much of this stems from the need to prove ‘intention and recklessness’, which has stunted the potential for prosecution in even clear cases of harm being done to protected and endangered species.
  4. The immediate withdrawal of the Retained EU Law Bill. Retained EU laws include the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, which (amongst other protections for habitats and species), make it a criminal offence to damage the habitats of key species including badgers and bats. These vital protections are at risk of being dropped or weakened, undermining the legislative foundation for tackling common wildlife crimes.

ENDS

Wildlife & Countryside LINK’s previous Wildlife Crime Reports can be read here and the 2021 report can be read here:

Scottish Environment Minister visits grouse moor in Strathbraan where two golden eagles ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances

Back in September, Scottish Environment Minister Mairi McAllan was taken to visit a grouse moor in the notorious Strathbraan area of Perthshire.

Regular blog readers will know that Strathbraan is dominated by a number of estates with driven grouse moors and the area has been identified in a Government-commissioned report as being a hotspot for raptor persecution, particularly golden eagles, of which at least seven have ‘disappeared’ in recent years, including one whose tag was found a few years later, wrapped in lead sheeting (to block the signal) and dumped in the river (here).

[Utterly depressing intensively-managed grouse moor in Strathbraan. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

And then there was the suspicious disappearance of a white-tailed eagle (here), an illegally-trapped hen harrier called Rannoch (here), the suspicious disappearance of a hen harrier called Heather (here), the illegally shot peregrine (here), the long-eared owl held illegally in a trap (here), the ~100 corvids found dumped in a loch (here), the failed raven cull demanded by Strathbraan gamekeepers but thinly-disguised as something else (here), the subsequent illegal shooting of two ravens on two separate grouse moors in Strathbraan, the post mortem of one of them showing that not only had it been shot, it had most likely been stamped on repeatedly (here), and most recently the three-year General Licence restriction imposed on a Strathbraan grouse-shooting estate for wildlife crimes (here), a decision based on evidence provided by Police Scotland.

It’s quite the location, isn’t it? How odd then, that Scotland’s Moorland Forum would chose to take the Environment Minister for a visit. What was the purpose?

Judging by this tweet from Hugh Raven, it was to show the Minister ‘the skilled moorland management‘ at Auchnafree Estate, among ‘the beautiful Perthshire hills‘. Good grief.

I wonder if they talked about the ongoing raptor persecution in the Strathbraan area? And did they discuss the suspicious disappearance of the two satellite-tagged golden eagles, Adam & Charlie, who both vanished without trace on Auchnafree Estate on 18th April 2019?

When challenged about the visit on Twitter by the Scottish Raptor Study Group, Hugh claimed the estate had been “fully exonerated“:

Fully exonerated“? Really? By whom?

As I wrote at the time of Adam and Charlie’s suspicious disappearance, there was no evidence found during the subsequent police search to suggest that Auchnafree Estate employees were involved. Is that the same as being “fully exonerated“?

The ‘skilled moorland management’ at Auchnafree Estate was in focus again this morning on the BBC’s Farming Today radio programme. The head gamekeeper was recorded talking about the so-called benefits of grouse moor management on the estate; an opinion that went unchallenged by the BBC presenter accompanying him on the moor.

Funnily enough, I didn’t hear any discussion about illegal raptor persecution on the grouse moors of Strathbraan nor any mention of our two missing golden eagles on Auchnafree Estate.

Fortunately, Max Wiszniewski (Campaign Manager at REVIVE, the coalition for grouse moor reform) was invited on to the second part of the programme and spoke well about the economic, environmental and societal limitations and damage of grouse moor management. Well done, Max!

The programme is available to listen to for 29 days here (starts at 06:15 mins).

Private Eye highlights DEFRA’s inaction on gamebirds in midst of avian flu epidemic

The avian flu epidemic continues to sweep across the UK and is expected to increase as we head into winter, according to the UK’s Health Security Agency.

The situation is so bad that on 7th November 2022, an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was implemented across the UK, which means that it is currently a legal requirement for all bird keepers to house their birds to help reduce the risk to captive flocks as well as to wild birds, from this serious and notifiable disease.

That is, all bird keepers except gamekeepers. They can pretty much do as they please with their, literally, millions of pheasants and red-legged partridges, because the status of those birds as either ‘livestock’ or ‘wildlife’ is ridiculously interchangeable to suit the game shooters so once the birds (‘livestock’) have been released from their pens into the countryside, they suddenly become ‘wildlife’ until the end of the shooting season when the gamekeepers want to capture them again for breeding purposes and so the birds magically become ‘livestock’ again (see Wild Justice blogs on this here and here).

It’s good to see that Private Eye is now highlighting this scandalous situation and asking the question about why DEFRA hasn’t brought in any measures to reduce the risk of these gamebirds spreading bird flu to wild birds and poultry (thanks to the blog reader who sent this in):

Things will become very interesting at the end of the shooting season when it’s time to ‘catch up’ gamebirds that haven’t been shot, to bring them into captivity for breeding purposes.

We know that ‘Schrodinger’s Pheasant’ wondrously turns from being ‘wildlife’ back to being classified as ‘livestock’ (see diagram above) to enable this activity to be legal. We also know that avian flu in France, where millions of gamebird poults are sourced for the UK game-shooting market, was badly affected by avian flu this year, causing a ban on the importation of those eggs and poults and given the current increase in avian flu cases there at the moment, the same situation may arise again, which means there may be more pressure on UK game-shooters to ‘catch up’ even more of their wild stock/livestock in preparation for the 2023 shooting season.

But just how sensible, or indeed legal, will it be to ‘catch up’ wild birds in the midst of an avian flu epidemic?

Surely DEFRA has given this some thought and is preparing its position in advance?

Dead buzzard found hanging from a tree in County Down

A dead buzzard has been found hanging from a tree in County Down.

The bird was discovered last Saturday (19th November 2022) in woodland near Clandeboye on the Ulster Way by independent unionist Alex Easton MLA, who was walking his dog. He notified the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) who sent out a forensic team the next day.

Photographs from the scene show the dead buzzard, tied by its neck to the tree by what looks like a plastic bag:

There’s some very odd media coverage of this story in the Belfast Telegraph, where Alex Easton is quoted as saying:

The PSNI forensic guys think it was poisoned and put there to attract other birds of prey who would themselves be poisoned when they fed from it.

They told me they had seen the same sort of incident elsewhere in Northern Ireland. They removed the buzzard and are carrying out an investigation. I hope those responsible are caught.

This beautiful bird should have been left alone to enjoy its life. Other animal life was also put at risk, as the poison could easily have killed a dog.

I’d never seen a buzzard before. I would have much preferred to view this stunning creature in full flight, not hanging dead from a tree. As a wildlife lover, I believe we should be protecting such birds, not poisoning them.”

To be clear, there isn’t any evidence yet that the buzzard has been poisoned and even if it had, hanging it from a tree ‘to attract other birds of prey who would themselves be poisoned when they fed from it’ is the oddest suggestion and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how raptors forage.

The statement from a PSNI spokesperson, as quoted in the paper, is much more circumspect and appropriate under the circumstances:

Police in Bangor recovered a dead buzzard from the Ulster Way area, Clandeboye Road, on Saturday, November 19, following a report from a member of the public.

The bird has been sent for a post-mortem examination and other tests to determine its cause of death. Enquiries are ongoing.”

Alex Easton did the right thing by notifying the police to investigate. If anyone has any information that could assist the inquiry the PSNI crime reference number is 695/19/11/22.

RSPB’s 2021 Birdcrime report reveals second-highest figure on record

Last week the RSPB published its latest annual Birdcrime report covering the period Jan – Dec 2021.

The headlines from this rigorously-compiled data can be summarised as follows:

  • Protected birds of prey continue to be illegally killed in high numbers, particularly in relation to land managed for gamebird shooting
  • Birdcrime report reveals 80 of 108 confirmed incidents were in England alone: the second-highest figure for England on record
  • Norfolk is now the county with the worst record, followed by Dorset. North Yorkshire, which has topped the table for consecutive years, is now third.
  • ‘Nothing will change’ without urgent government action

The RSPB published two press releases about the report – one covering the crimes in England (here) and one covering the crimes in Scotland (here).

In 2021, yet again, over two thirds (71%) of all confirmed incidents of raptor persecution took place on land managed for gamebird shooting, where birds of prey are seen by some as a threat to gamebird stocks and illegally killed.

[Infographic from Birdcrime 2021]

Unsurprisingly, representatives from the game-shooting industry, all claiming to have ‘zero tolerance’ for raptor persecution, have dismissed the data and some have gone as far as calling the RSPB ‘liars’.

The funniest response I’ve read so far is that written by the Yorkshire Dales Moorland Group, who published this on Facebook:

‘The RSPB has released its Bird Crime Report and once again it predictably focuses an inordinate amount of attention on the gamekeeping profession. Why is the YDMG not embracing the report and working with the RSPB to improve the fortunes of moorland birds? Well to put it bluntly, the report is pure exaggeration, wordsmithing for self-promotion and simply the unjustified stigmatisation of a rural occupation and craft without basis. YDMG will refrain from using too many emotional remarks about the RSPB report but suffice it to say the moorland gamekeeping community is offended by the report and it’s [sic] misrepresentations…’.

It’s worth remembering that members of the Yorkshire Dales Moorland Group, like so many of the other regional moorland groups, have for years been at the centre of police investigations into the illegal killing of birds of prey. Indeed, raptor persecution is such a problem in this area that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority has had to include the tackling of illegal raptor persecution as an objective in the Park’s official Management Plan (here) and last year was so incensed at the continued killing, the Park Authority was moved to issue a press statement about it (here).

Of course, disputing the RSPB’s persecution figures is now an annual pantomime by the game-shooting industry, because doing anything else would mean having to admit that some of their members are still killing these birds, nearly 70 years after it became illegal to do so. It seems it’s far easier for them to attack the reputation and credibility of the RSPB than get their own house in order and self-regulate.

In Scotland, this tactic worked for many years but eventually the weight of evidence against the grouse shooters was so great that the Scottish Government was forced to act and we now see the introduction of new legislation, brought in specifically to take action against those who continue to trap, poison and shoot birds of prey.

In England we still have a Government intent on wilful blindness, largely due to many in power having a vested interest in the game-shooting world. However, I read a tweet by ecologist and author Ian Carter recently, who often has a knack of hitting the nail on the head:

I think Ian is spot on with this and I think he summarises the views of many moderates on this subject, including mine.

The RSPB’s 2021 Birdcrime report can be downloaded below, along with the Data Appendices detailing the crimes:

Leading Scottish raptor researcher wins national award

RSPB Scotland, co-sponsored by NatureScot, hosted the annual Nature of Scotland Awards on Thursday evening, giving recognition to some of the best people working in nature conservation in Scotland.

HUGE congratulations to Scottish Raptor Study Group member Dave Anderson, who deservedly scooped the RSPB Species Champion Award!

This award is ‘to recognise someone who has achieved something extraordinary to conserve a vulnerable or threatened species‘. If you know anything about raptor research and conservation in Scotland, you’ll have heard of the legendary Dave Anderson.

His citation reads:

For over 40 years Dave Anderson has worked at the forefront of birds of prey conservation in Scotland, pioneering new methods to study these much-loved species. His outstanding field skills, determination and sheer force of will have cemented him as one of Scotland’s best birds of prey field workers‘.

He’s all that, and more. There are some outstanding raptor fieldworkers in Scotland whose years of field study have made them accomplished species-specific experts, but very few can match the breadth and depth of Dave’s expertise on so many different raptor species. He’s been involved with so many projects over the years that are frankly too numerous to mention, working in challenging environments in atrocious weather conditions that would defeat even the hardiest of fieldworkers. As well as conducting his own research, he’s always been generous with his time, offering first-class training, advice and support to others, particularly to students and fellow Raptor Study Group members.

His trail camera work has led numerous TV production companies to seek out Dave’s help and his footage has been seen by millions on programmes such as the BBC’s Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch, amongst others.

In recent years he’s been at the forefront of satellite-tagging raptors, particularly golden eagles but other species too, using his vast experience of ringing and handling raptors to help refine and improve the tagging techniques and strict protocols that are quite rightly demanded by the licensing authorities to ensure the welfare of the birds. His expertise in this field has led to Dave being appointed as a consultant on numerous, high profile conservation projects, including several overseas projects.

[Dave satellite-tagging a young golden eagle. Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert]

The data that have been made available from the tags that Dave and a few other experts have fitted to golden eagles in Scotland has transformed our understanding of this species. Or to put it more bluntly, exposed just how little we actually knew. The tag data continue to challenge our long-held theories about the ecology of golden eagles, and this is what I like the most about Dave Anderson – he’s one of just a handful of people who have studied this species in depth for decades and probably knows more than most, and yet he doesn’t brag or blag – he’s still open to learning and embraces new technology and the information it provides with the sole purpose of wanting to help conserve the species.

Of course, his work has brought him to the attention of the raptor-killing gamekeepers who have sought to discredit and smear his reputation with the most appalling and vile online abuse, including attacks on his young family. Dave’s reputation speaks for itself though, and it has been pleasing to see him called as an expert witness in a number of prosecution cases, helping to secure the convictions of these nasty criminals.

I’m sure they’ll be thrilled that his work has now been recognised with this richly-deserved national award. Well done, Dave, long overdue!

People’s Walk for Wildlife 2: postponed until spring 2023

Unfortunately, the People’s Walk for Wildlife 2, organised by Chris Packham and due to take place on 27th November 2022, has had to be postponed due to the impact of rail strikes.

Please note, the event hasn’t been cancelled, just postponed, and will return in Spring 2023 with the ongoing support of many of the large environmental charities, including the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB.

Chris’s team is looking at a new date in either March or April 2023, and the best way to keep informed is by signing up to the campaign mailing list on the People’s Walk for Wildlife website here, where you’ll also find answers to some frequently asked questions.

People’s Walk for Wildlife #2: London, Sunday 27th November 2022

UPDATE: THIS EVENT HAS BEEN POSTPONED UNTIL SPRING 2023 – SEE HERE FOR FURTHER INFO

The People’s Walk for Wildlife is back!

Following on from a successful Walk for Wildlife in 2018 (here), Chris Packham is organising The People’s Walk for Wildlife 2, which will take place in London on Sunday 27th November 2022.

Here’s a video message from Chris, explaining why this event is taking place and some details about what will happen on the day:

In 2018, 10,000 wildlife supporters turned up and walked to Downing Street to send a clear message to our elected representatives that our natural environment deserved better care.

Four years on, the situation is worse than ever, so much so that even charities like the National Trust, not known for its activist stance, has come out fighting against what has been labelled the Government’s Attack on Nature (e.g. see here and here).

Now’s the time to send another message, by joining a peaceful, family-friendly walk, with speeches, music and entertainment at the end.

If you’re planning to attend this event, please can you register on the People’s Walk for Wildlife website HERE, as it’ll help the organisers, police etc to estimate numbers and manage their resources accordingly. You’ll also receive email updates from Chris’s team.

Stewards, infrastructure, acquiring licences to shut roads and public areas for the duration of the walk – all of this costs money to do safely. These walks can only go ahead with your support – if you feel able to, you can donate at www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/walkforwildlife2 

Hope to see many of you there.

Court hearing delayed again for Scottish gamekeeper accused of killing sparrowhawk on grouse moor

A court hearing has been delayed once again in the case of a Scottish gamekeeper accused of killing a sparrowhawk.

[Sparrowhawk photo by Markus Varesvuo]

The un-named 22-year-old gamekeeper was charged in September 2021 (see here) for the alleged killing on a grouse moor in Inverness-shire and he was due in court on 30th September 2022.

The case was delayed until 10th November 2022 (see here).

The case has now been further delayed and the next court hearing is scheduled for January 2023.

As this is a live case no comments will be accepted on this blog post until criminal proceedings have ended. Thanks for your understanding.

Ravens illegally shot on two Strathbraan grouse moors

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while but it kept slipping down the list. However, it’s timely to write it now because I’ll be focusing some attention on Strathbraan in some forthcoming blogs.

In November last year, RSPB Scotland published a blog about the Werritty Review of grouse moor management and how the Scottish Government had accepted the Review’s findings but hadn’t yet begun to implement any of the recommendations.

Within that blog, the RSPB highlighted the ongoing illegal persecution of birds of prey on Scottish grouse moors during 2021. Two incidents stood out to me, mainly because it was the first time these two crimes had been reported in the public domain. They concern the illegal shooting of two ravens on two different grouse moors in the Strathbraan area of Perthshire. Here is what the RSPB blog says about them:

Ravens continue to be illegally killed on grouse moors with a dead bird found in April, hidden under rocks below its nest high up a hill on a Perthshire estate that had no licence to control them. The post-mortem report indicated that it had been shot, and -previously recovered from its wounds.

The day it was killed, it was again shot, but again this was not immediately fatal. According to the SRUC vet’s report, it then suffered “severe, mostly blunt trauma characterised by broken beak, crushed cranium, fracture-dislocation of the neck, …fracture of the left wing at four sites, fracture of the left leg and massive internal haemorrhage.” As it flapped around on the ground, it appears that the person who shot this bird then stamped on it repeatedly.

Elsewhere, another raven was seen tumbling to the ground after being shot as it mobbed an eagle owl that had been tethered to a post on another moor in February’.

[Raven photo by Dieter Schaefer]

The post-mortem report on that first raven is chilling, and that crime deserves far more publicity than being tucked away half-way down an RSPB blog. As indeed does the shooting of the second raven, where once again the use of a tethered eagle owl deployed as a bait to lure in the victim has been central to the crime.

Regular blog readers will already know that Strathbraan is not only a raptor-killing hotspot, recognised as such in a Government-commissioned report on the illegal killing of golden eagles, but it is also well-known as the location of a five-year raven cull research licence, issued by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to gamekeepers in 2018 ‘just to see what happens‘ but then hastily withdrawn after the threat of a legal challenge by the Scottish Raptor Study Group and an admission by SNH (now NatureScot) that the research licence was was “completely inadequate“, “seriously flawed“, and “will fail to provide any meaningful scientific evidence“.

More on Strathbraan shenanigans shortly…

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