Policing raptor persecution

A buzzard poisoned no more than an hour before we found it by a carbofuran-baited wood pigeon

My good friend Bob McMillan recently wrote an interesting article on bird of prey persecution for the autumn edition of Wild Land News, the magazine of the Scottish Wild Lands Group, see http://www.swlg.org.uk/a-national-disgrace.html    Bob was deputy chief constable in Tayside Police when I was an inspector and was given the responsibility of force wildlife crime officer. He, with support from the then chief constable Bill Spence, were instrumental in creating the first full-time post of wildlife crime officer in Scotland, a job that I applied for and remained in from my retirement as a serving officer in 1997 until my eventual retirement from Tayside Police in 2011.

No-one would deny that bird of prey persecution still exists. Hopefully most would agree that the number of incidents recorded and investigated by the police has steadily fallen over the years. In part this is because of much more professional investigation by police wildlife crime officers, though pressure on those who are committing these offences through good partnership-working within the PAW Scotland structure must be acknowledged as a factor. It is because crime committed in remote places is so difficult to detect and bring to justice, that other means of reducing crime must be brought to bear, and this is no more important than in raptor-related crime. PAW Scotland working in partnership with the more enlightened members of game and land management does make a difference, no matter how disparagingly some individuals view this. Vicarious liability has already made a difference, with the law now slightly more likely to convict employers and managers, and certainly sufficient to act as a deterrent in most cases.

Bob makes a really important point in his article, which is ‘to make sure that all wildlife crime incidents are reported to the police, preferably to Wildlife Crime Officers who are known locally’. There is also the recommendation, with which I don’t disagree, to make sure that RSPB Investigations are also made aware of bird of prey-related incidents, though this should be done after contacting the police.  Another important element, which Bob didn’t mention, is to ensure that any information – ‘intelligence’ in police parlance – is passed either to the police or to the National Wildlife Crime Unit without delay. By being aware of criminal conduct in advance, the police have much more chance of catching a criminal, obtaining a search warrant, or even preventing a wildlife crime happening in the first place.

It is even more valuable if this intelligence is originating from someone ‘in the loop’, such as a gamekeeper or landowner. A considerable number of gamekeepers and landowners contacted me to pass information in confidence when I was working, though admittedly not as many as could – or should –have. This valuable intelligence source is not well known. Neither is it well known, if unfair criticism of police wildlife crime officers by some misinformed folks is to be considered, that those officers are probably the most dedicated and enthusiastic specialists in the whole of the police service.

I was a member of the police thematic inspection team that produced the forward-thinking document ‘Natural Justice’. One of the recommendations was that each of the police forces in Scotland should have a full-time wildlife crime officer. As a consequence the number of full-time wcos crept up to seven (with Grampian Police now having two) but in 2011 fell back by one when Strathclyde unfortunately discontinued their full-time post. Nevertheless the total number of full and part-time wcos remains much the same at around 90 (and I have to disagree with Bob here, who states: The reality is there are now fewer WCOs than existed when the inspection was carried out).

In September 2008 the Scottish Wildlife Crime Reduction Strategy was produced by PAW Scotland with the following objectives:

  • To raise the profile of wildlife crime within the statutory enforcement agencies and the judiciary
  • To seek to ensure wildlife crime is treated as any other crime and as mainstream police work
  • To support the national network of police wildlife crime officers
  • To assist in the development and delivery of training for wildlife crime officers and others involved in combating wildlife crime
  • To promote and encourage the use of and research into forensic technologies, for application in wildlife crime investigations
  • To provide financial support for innovative wildlife crime enforcement projects

I’d suggest there has been considerable progress in all of these objectives apart from the second one. Ministers and different organisations can badger chief constables to raise the response to all types of wildlife crime – not just that committed against raptors – up the scale, but the reality is they are asking a public service already under pressure to divert resources away from crimes that are of at least equal concern to the public. And of course without any additional funding.  It remains to be seen what changes will be made after April 2013 under the Police Service of Scotland. It is to be hoped that there will be one cohesive wildlife crime unit, whether of police officers or led by police officers with the involvement of other organisations. Time will tell, though I’m not holding my breath.

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