Reports of wildlife crimes surged during the pandemic

A new report by nature groups has revealed a “worrying increase” in reports of wildlife crimes during the pandemic.

Nov 25, 2021
By Paul Jacques
Picture: National Trust / Nick Upton

Figures from 16 wildlife organisations behind the report, published on Thursday (November 25), show there was a surge in crimes against “treasured species” such as badgers, fish, birds of prey and marine mammals last year.

And while reports of wildlife crimes against many species rose by between 35 per cent and 90 per cent in 2020, they say convictions on key types of offences fell by more than 50 per cent.

The groups are now calling for improved recording and monitoring, better targeting of resources and enhanced use of expert police and prosecutors to tackle wildlife crime

They are warning that the way wildlife crimes are handled by both the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must be reviewed and improved if offences against British wildlife are to be tackled.

In particular, the new report highlights that the continued absence of dedicated recording for wildlife crimes means that resources cannot be effectively assessed and targeted.

It says a lack of expertise and resource for police and prosecutors, and deficiency of sentencing guidelines, is also leading to “failures in convicting criminals and inadequate penalties for crimes”.

Reports of likely crimes against badgers rose by 36 per cent in 2020, compared with 2019, with reports of potential fishing crimes up by more than a third (35 per cent) and marine mammal incident reports (in Cornwall alone) rising 90 per cent, according to data gathered by the 16 wildlife organisations.

The number of confirmed raptor crimes in England and Wales in 2020 was almost double that in 2019, rising from 54 to 104 – the worst year for bird crime ever as detailed by the RSPB in October.

At the same time fishing crime convictions fell by almost two-thirds from 2,037 in 2019 to 679 in 2020, and illegal wildlife trade convictions halved to just four convictions.

Hunting prosecutions also more than halved, from 49 in 2019 to 22 in 2020, with only eight convictions. The groups says hunting conviction rates have in fact steadily decreased for the past five years, falling from 54 per cent of prosecutions being successful in 2016 to less than a third (32 per cent) of prosecutions achieving conviction in 2020.

The report said lockdowns and restrictions of 2020 appear to have contributed to rises in reporting of wildlife crimes and falls in convictions in several ways.

It added: “Opportunistic offenders may have felt that with the police busy enforcing social restrictions that wildlife could be harmed with relative impunity. Covid-19 pressures around social restrictions and staff absences appear also to have unfortunately reduced the capacity of police forces and the CPS, and their ability to both bring hunting and fishing cases to trial and achieve convictions.

In a letter to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at the height of the first coronavirus lockdown last year, the National Rural Crime Network warned that criminals would be capitalising on police attention being diverted to target rural businesses via the rural road network, with particular concerns about the impact on wildlife crime, poaching and livestock theft.

Martin Sims, director of investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports and chair of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s wildlife crime group, said: ‘‘Wildlife crime is something that should concern everyone – it inflicts pain, harm and loss for much-loved wildlife and fuels wider criminality against people and property.

“Despite this the police still don’t gather centralised data on these serious crimes, leaving an incomplete picture from charities, which could be just a drop in the ocean of wildlife crimes.

“It is high time the Government steps in to treat wildlife crime with the seriousness it deserves. Making key crimes notifiable would enable police forces to better target resources, and track repeat offenders. While better police and prosecutor training and resources would help raise the pitiful 32 per cent conviction rate for hunting prosecutions alone.

“The system must change to crack down on offences against nature once and for all.”

Mark Thomas, RSPB head of Investigations UK, said: “In the wake of an emergency climate conference and with all life on earth facing an uncertain future, there has never been a more important time for urgent action to end the illegal killing of wildlife.

“Wildlife declines are already being felt, and species can ill afford to face the additional pressure of being brutally shot, trapped or poisoned; nor should the public have to put up with these crimes taking place in the wild places they go to for refuge.

“Bird of prey persecution reached unprecedented heights in 2020, particularly where land was managed for gamebird shooting. And it is certain that more crimes will have been committed and simply gone undetected and unreported.”

The Wildlife and Countryside Link, the biggest coalition of wildlife and environment charities in England, warned that while the report reveals worrying figures, “with impacts for treasured species like badgers, buzzards, kestrels, seals, dolphins and bluebells”, it gives an incomplete picture.

It said organisations all collect data in different ways, with many only holding figures on reporting and convictions for incidents where members of the public have directly contacted them, adding:  There is a huge lack of information on wildlife crimes due to police not being required to officially record wildlife offences.

“Most wildlife crimes are recorded as ‘miscellaneous’ offences and are therefore invisible in police records, with no duty to be reported upon. The scale of wildlife crime is therefore likely to be far greater than the data collected suggests.”

The wildlife and environment charities are now calling for several “key actions” to better tackle wildlife crimes:

  • Make wildlife crimes recordable – A shortlist of wildlife offences (compiled by the National Wildlife Crime Unit) is being considered by the Home Office for notifiable status. This must be approved in 2022 to bridge the crippling wildlife crime data gap and help target resources effectively;
  • Ensure effective police and prosecutor action – Staff with expert training on wildlife crimes are critical to effectively building and prosecuting a case against these criminals. Also key is early coordination between the CPS and police on cases, and ensuring prosecutors have adequate preparation time for cases. Ensuring police and CPS training and process reflects this is vital; and
  • Produce sentencing guidelines – Unlike most other crimes, the Sentencing Council provides no sentencing guidelines for wildlife crimes. This must be rectified to ensure sentencing consistently reflects the seriousness of these crimes and acts as a deterrent to criminal activity.

Organisations supporting the report include: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Badger Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Four Paws, Humane Society International UK, IFAW, Institute of Fisheries Management, League Against Cruel Sports, National Trust, Naturewatch Foundation, Plantlife, RSPB, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Wild Justice and WWF UK.

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