Having had three days with a 6.00 am start at the National Wildlife Crime Unit since I came back on Sunday night from the first wildlife crime conference ever to be held in Ireland this is my first minute to put fingers to keyboard. The conference was a resounding success, and I am sure the questionnaires completed at the end by the delegates echoed my praise.
Some of the wildlife crimes encountered in Ireland were outlined, and it was no surprise to me that deer poaching, poisoning and shooting birds of prey and badger baiting seemed to feature at the top of the list. Lorcan O’Toole, who is in charge of the release and monitoring of the golden eagle release project in Ireland (with young eagles taken from Scotland) gave an in-depth presentation of the successes and failures of the project. I thought he was being particularly kind when he said that some of the eagles had been poisoned accidentally with baits set possibly for foxes. In his shoes, having seen the variety of non-intended victims of poisoning in Scotland, I would still have been furious.
National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), a statutory organisation, share the investigative responsibilities with the Gardai. Enda Mullen of the NPWS talked on bat-related crime, while Inspector Martin Walker, with 31 years’ service a hugely experienced officer of An Garda Síochána, told of the difficulties in enforcing wildlife law in Ireland. As I see it, these two enforcement bodies almost have one hand tied behind their back. NPWS have relatively few officers covering the vast expanse of the country, and there is a real risk of the enforcement part of NPWS being scaled back. Nor do they have the powers of arrest of the Gardai, and dealing with armed deer poachers in the middle of the night can be a daunting task even with arrest powers, baton and handcuffs. An Garda Síochána, like police everywhere, have a wide range of responsibilities with wildlife crime coming near the bottom of the ladder (not unlike the UK). I was aghast to learn that they cannot use one of the most important tools in the modern crime detection kit – DNA – unless the crime has a penalty of at least five years imprisonment. This is a serious drawback: while we in the UK can take a DNA sample from a person arrested for something as simple as a shoplifting (which might subsequently tie in with DNA found at the scene of a much more serious crime) the Gardai are limited to obtaining DNA samples only in serious crime.
Emma Meredith, the full-time wildlife liaison officer from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, explained her role there, while I explained the role of the UK police in the investigation of serious crime, backed up by presentations from Colin Pirie from the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), Bob Elliot from RSPB Investigations, and Ian Hutchison from Scottish Badgers. Delegates were interested that in the UK the police are the lead agency in wildlife crime investigation, with a dedicated intelligence unit – the NWCU – though in most investigations the police are assisted by other statutory agencies or non-government organisations that have particular expertise relevant to the crime.
An Garda Síochána now have a number of officers with experience in dealing with wildlife crime though still carrying out their normal general policing duties. Three of these officers attended the conference. It is to be hoped that the conference has been thought-provoking and that the Gardai may in due course appoint at least one full-time wildlife crime officer. Rather than starting from scratch, the offer of assistance in training has been made from the UK and I really look forward to an invitation to assist in a training course on wildlife crime solely for Gardai and NPWS officers.
Lastly, I have attended many conferences, but the organisation at this conference was first-class, thanks to Emma Higgs and her small team. Nothing was left out, the speakers’ slots ran to time, the chairing by Emma’s father John was light-touch yet effective, the displays held a variety of goods and literature and the food and accommodation were superb.
And of course the Guinness was even better than it is in Scotland……………….