The investigation of wildlife crime in Ireland by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS)

Wild-taken bullfinch recovered by the NPWS. (Photo courtesy of Val Swan, NPWS)

Wild-taken bullfinch recovered by the NPWS. (Photo courtesy of Val Swan, NPWS)

Nets for trapping wild finches recovered by the NPWS. (Photo courtesy of Val Swan, NPWS)

Nets for trapping wild finches recovered by the NPWS. (Photo courtesy of Val Swan, NPWS)

Investigation of Wildlife Crime: the role of the Conservation Ranger (an excerpt from the chapter on Ireland in my book The Thin Green Line)

It was surprising to learn that most wildlife crime in Ireland is not investigated by the police but by the conservation rangers of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.  Powers are broadly similar to those of the police in Britain. A member of An Garda Síochána or an authorised person may at all reasonable times, if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person is committing or has committed an offence under any provision of the Wildlife Acts, 1976 and 2000, enter any land (other than a dwelling) to which the suspicion relates.  This effectively means that anywhere other than a dwelling house or a lockfast building may be entered.

The developing role of the Conservation Rangers is best told by Val Swan, one of the longest-serving rangers, who works in the North-East Region.

“When I started working as a ranger with the Forest and Wildlife Service away back in 1979 we were then called wildlife rangers. Our duties were mainly concerned with the implementation and enforcement of the Wildlife Act, 1976 though we also dealt with all wider countryside wildlife issues. In the early 90s the Wildlife Service parted from the Department of Forestry and became part of the Office of Public Works (OPW). At the time, OPW had responsibility for managing our National Parks and employed park rangers to look after the parks and the public visiting them. The OPW then merged the grades of wildlife rangers and park rangers into one grade called conservation ranger. We were told at the time that management decided to call the grade ‘conservation ranger’ so that neither grade would feel that they were been taken over by the other. However, we later found out that the real reason was to facilitate a serious attempt to get the new grade to look after national monuments as well as wildlife.

In our North-East region we cover the counties of Louth, Meath, Dublin, Kildare, Laois and Offaly. The region is divided into two districts, each managed by a district conservation officer (DCO). We have ten rangers in the region with five reporting to each DCO. Each ranger is assigned to an area that usually corresponds with an area controlled by a Local Authority.

About 40% of our rangers’ time is taken up dealing with planning referrals and licence applications, much the same role as carried out by the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisations in the UK. Rangers also comment on forestry applications within or near designated sites or other ecologically sensitive areas.

Application for licences under the Wildlife Acts are referred to the rangers, who start the process by interviewing the applicant checking the situation on the ground and making their recommendation to their DCO. Licences applied for include those for hunting deer species; hunting the foreshore and state lakes; engaging in falconry and keeping birds of prey. In addition they are issued for ringing, tagging or marking protected species, or capturing or killing them for scientific or educational purposes; for capturing, killing or scaring protected species where they are causing serious damage to crops or fauna; or lastly for cutting, picking, collecting or interfering with the habitat of protected flora.

Only about 10% of our ranger’s time is dedicated to the enforcement of our wildlife laws. During this they carry out anti-poaching patrols, particularly for late-night and weekend deer poaching. Other activities they patrol for and investigate include the following:

–         Trapping, possession and sale wild finches

–         Taking and possession of birds of prey

–         Disturbance of birds on or near nests containing eggs or young, particularly birds of prey

–         Badger baiting

–         Hunting, netting and possession of hares;

–         Hunting of hares with lurchers

–         Laying of poison, unlawful possession, sale and use of unapproved traps, snares and nets

–         Destroying or interfering with the resting or breeding of protected wild animals particularly bats and badgers

–         Hedge cutting and destruction of uncultivated vegetation during bird nesting season.

The remainder of our time is taken up with:

–         Surveillance and monitoring of areas designated as protected sites, the monitoring of which form the basis of Ireland’s submission to the EC on the conservation status of these sites. Where damage is found rangers are required to investigate and this may lead to a prosecution”

–         Making recommendations on applications by landowners on protected sites to do works which are notifiable actions requiring the written consent of the Minister

This was a subject that was obvious dear to Val’s heart and he began to expand on his remit in relation to crime committed against protected areas. When wildlife crime is discussed, it is becoming more common for protected habitats to be included, and sometimes referred to collectively under the generic term environmental crime. Conservation rangers are very much involved with the protection of sites designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protected Areas (SPA) in accordance with the EU Habitats and Birds Directives and under national law (Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000) as Natural Heritage Areas (NHA). Landowners are notified of the intention to designate these sites and the grounds on which they can object. The landowners are also given a list of operations or activities which the Minister considers likely to damage the site, and before they can be undertaken require the Minister’s written consent

The designation of these sites did not receive the universal approval of landowners, especially where it impacted on farming activities and other developments. It is part of a ranger’s duty to monitor these sites to ensure that they are being maintained at a favourable status. Where damage is discovered or works found to have been carried out without the consent of the Minister – as Val had told me – the ranger may initiate a prosecution.

Raised Bogs

The protection of designated raised bog sites has generally proved to be contentious and difficult for rangers.  The Republic of Ireland has some of the best examples of raised bog remaining in the European community. Raised bog formation began in the post glacial period and covered much of Ireland’s central plain; the original area was approximately 310,000 hectares or 5% of national territory. Today only 139 bogs containing approximately 18,000 ha of uncut raised bog, which is of conservation interest, remain. They are either designated as SACs or NHAs and their preservation requires that all turf cutting activity be brought to an end. Commercial turf cutting and moss peat extraction has been stopped and compensation paid but the problem of turf cutting for domestic supply remains. Cutting turf from the bog as a household fuel is a tradition that has continued for centuries in Ireland. Until the 1980s it was cut by hand with an implement called the slane. It was then a labour intensive operation requiring three or four people to dig it out and spread it to dry. Since then it has become a mechanised operation, usually carried out by a contractor who can cut and spread many people’s turf in one day. Unfortunately the advent of this mechanised method seriously hastened the decline of the bogs and brought an urgency to protect the remaining bogs of conservation interest. This has been met with considerable resistance by many rural folk who still depend on turf for heating and cooking and who have no wish to change to other sources of fuel. Unfortunately the ranger is the face of the Department on the ground and has to bear the brunt of people’s anger. On occasions this has resulted in rangers being threatened and even physically assaulted. (This is just one of the reasons that in Wales, and more recently England and Scotland, these investigations are generally carried out jointly with a police wildlife crime officer.)

In some ways one can sympathise with turfcutters, as until recent times in Ireland bogs were associated with hardship and seen only as a source of household fuel and a place to dump old cars and domestic rubbish. The good news is that people are beginning to appreciate bogs for their conservation value and see them as magical places to visit and to see wildlife. The concept of the need to protect these places is becoming more widespread. There is no doubt that in the not too distant future examples of raised bog ecosystems will be fully preserved for posterity in Ireland. Conservation Rangers are playing an important role in bringing this about through their educational work and through their enforcement work under European and National legislation.

Val drew breath and continued to describe his varied role.

–         “Checking records of Wildlife Dealers (including Taxidermists)

–         Checking pet shops and other premises for unlawful possession of CITES species

–         Attending regulated hare coursing events to monitor that the conditions of the licence to catch hares for this purpose is being adhered to

–         Giving talks or advice, leading field trips and other educational work

–         Monitoring a licensed carted stag hunt

There is one carted stag hunt in Ireland, the Ward Union Hunt in CountyMeath, who keep and hunt farmed deer.  On hunt days deer are loaded into a trailer and transported (carted) to a release point where one is duly released and hunted by people on horseback with hounds.  Once the deer tires and stands at bay it is recaptured and carted back to the deer farm.  Unsurprisingly there is considerable opposition from animal welfare groups.  Thirty-four separate conditions of compliance are now attached to the licence. Without the licence the hunt would be subject to the provisions of animal welfare legislation and could not take place.

Rangers are also involved in species and habitats surveys undertaken by NPWS, carrying out the legwork and collecting data from the field. It is an area of their work that rangers love and the bonus to the public is that it saves on fees to independent contractors. There are 32 research projects scheduled for 2009 that will involve ranger participation. In the North-east region we managed approximately 6000 acres of NPWS owned lands. It mostly comprises Natures Reserves and other areas such as bogs and wetlands that we have acquired for conservation purposes. Rangers are very much involved with the management of these sites and the supervision of contract staff doing works such as woodland management, visitor facilities, pathwork etc.

Rangers are offered a number of training courses each year. Some are mandatory and their participation in others is usually decided in consultation with their line manager. Somehow we seem to manage to keep busy!”

There is a strong view from Conservation Rangers that NPWS staff members do not get adequate training in relation to the enforcement of wildlife crime. They occasionally have refresher courses in wildlife legislation but that mainly consists of going through the legislation and deals very little with the practical situation in the field when they actually confront a wildlife criminal. One ranger commented that he actually had a lot more training on managing a safe office environment than in dealing with people involved with wildlife crime!
Enforcing wildlife law is a specialised area and if conservation rangers are to remain efficient enforcers of wildlife laws their training needs to be much broader than classroom-based legislation.  One ranger observed, “I feel that even though we have rangers who are very qualified in the natural sciences they may not be able to recognise a badger baiter or know what he is doing, even if they fell over his terrier and spade, or I sometimes wonder how many would recognise a finch trapper if he (or she) met one with his clap net under his arm. Rangers have no ready access to advice on legislation and it generally falls to the more experienced rangers to impart the knowledge they’ve gained through experience. It might help if we had a unit in HQ specialising in wildlife crime.”

So here we have a statutory body that in the UK might compare with English Nature or Scottish Natural Heritage but with powers equivalent to the police in relation to the enforcement of wildlife crime. On the positive side rangers will be much more experienced on the identification and ecology of wildlife than most Gardaí.   The rangers I met are enthusiastic about their job and there is no doubt that they get some very good results. On the negative side rangers can only spend 10% of their time in enforcing wildlife law, they are few in number and some have limited experience. Because they do a good job with the wildlife crimes reported to or discovered by them it seems that the Gardaí pretty much leave them to it and abrogate their own statutory responsibilities under the wildlife Acts. There are skills on both sides that if amalgamated would be so much more effective not only in securing convictions but in deterring those who participate not only in wildlife crime but in other types of criminality.  As we have realised in the UK, people to who take part in wildlife crime frequently commit a wide range of other crimes. To deal with this most effectively requires a broad range of expertise and powers. By not working more closely together Gardaí and rangers are missing opportunities.

See The Thin Green Line and other books on this blog. If you would like a signed copy contact me on alanstewart164@btinternet.com

If you would like to read a summary of the presentations to the first ever wildlife crime conference in Ireland earlier that took place in September 2013 go to http://www.wri.ie/pages/conf-2013.html

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