Police investigations into wildlife crime

The sand quarry with active sand martin nests

The sand quarry with active sand martin nests


A few days later the sand martins' nest site looked like this. The bulldozer is still on site in the distance.

A few days later the sand martins’ nest site looked like this. The bulldozer is still on site in the distance.

Many will have read in the media about the case at Inverness Sheriff Court where a man pleaded guilty part-way through a trial to thirteen charges relating to wild birds eggs. Of those, eleven related to the trading, or offering to trade in, eggs of rare species including peregrine falcon, and two charges of the unlawful possession of 338 eggs including those of osprey, Slavonian grebe and black-throated diver.  Much of the preparation for this investigation was carried out under the banner of Operation Easter, the national police operation to deter and detect wild bird egg thieves, and involved Tayside Police and RSPB Investigations. The investigation itself was the responsibility of Northern Constabulary, with the assistance of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and RSPB Investigations.

It is a fact that very few wildlife crime investigations come to court without the involvement of experts in their own field. An example might be the identification of birds’ eggs, which is normally carried out by RSPB Investigations staff, though in some cases in Scotland staff of the the Royal Museum of Scotland. Evidence of bird species of conservation concern is also available from the RSPB. In badger-related cases a badger expert is normally required (Scottish Badgers), with the same requirement in cases involving bats (the Bat Conservation Trust or Scottish Natural Heritage); deer (the British Deer Society or SNH), seals and cetaceans (the Sea Mammal Research Unit); hare coursing and post-mortem examinations (the Scottish Agricultural College); poisoning (Scottish Government Rural Payments Inspections Directorate or Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture); traps and snares (SASA or the British Association  for Shooting and Conservation); salmon poaching (water bailiffs). These partnership working arrangements relate to Scotland, but similar apply in other parts of the UK. Another classic example is a recent case at Perth Sheriff Court where a company and two company directors pled guilty to offences that resulted in the death of many freshwater mussels. This investigation was very much a partnership with Tayside Police, SNH, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the specialist wildlife and environment prosecutor.

Hardly a wildlife crime is reported to the police without an expert witness of some sort being involved during the investigation. The police are the investigators but naturally their expertise is in wildlife law and interviewing skills. Most wildlife crime officers have a very good working knowledge of the ecology of some species, but they do not, nor do they pretend to have, the same level of knowledge as experts in specific fields. In one case in which I was involved where a sand martin colony was flattened we had probably the foremost expert in the UK in sand martin breeding come to the court to give evidence. His mere presence at the court seemed to be enough to make the accused person change his plea to guilty.

The Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime and the National Wildlife Crime Unit continue to bring all the relevant resources together to result in a case that can provide the best possible evidence for the courts. Through this best practice, the increasing experience of the police wildlife crime officers and the specialist wildlife and environment prosecutors, we should see many more successful wildlife crime cases going through the courts.

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