RSPB Birdcrime Report 2012 – some thoughts

White G, a white-tailed eagle poisoned on the edge of an extensively-managed grouse moor in Angus in 2008

White G, a white-tailed eagle poisoned on the edge of an extensively-managed grouse moor in Angus in 2008

The remains of a rabbit baited with carbofuran found by police during a search of a Perthshire pheasant shooting estate in 2006. In many cases these scant remains might not be recognised as a bait

The remains of a rabbit baited with carbofuran found by police during a search of a Perthshire pheasant shooting estate in 2006. In many cases these scant remains might not be recognised as a bait

I‘ve just read the RSPB Birdcrime Report 2012. Raptor crime remains at a disappointingly high level and it must be frustrating for those south of the Border that England and Wales (and indeed Northern Ireland) does not follow Scotland’s lead.  Possibly the main factor taking Scotland ahead of the field is the genuine interest paid by the Scottish Government. There have been a succession of Environment Ministers that have consulted closely with the police and other agencies to try to get the best possible legislation to deal with wildlife crime, not least that committed against birds of prey. The fact that the Environment Ministers have chaired the PAW Scotland Executive Group  and Plenary Group, have produced an annual report on wildlife crime in Scotland (albeit slightly late), and regularly give an address to the Scottish Police Wildlife Crime Conference demonstrates their commitment.  Policing wildlife crime, hard that it is, would be much more difficult without this Government support.

In their 2011 report RSPB made several recommendations, and I agree with many of them. Unfortunately few have been taken up – at least so far. There is still no addition of the term ‘reckless’ throughout the Wildlife and Countryside Act; only in certain parts. I remember much frustration when we in Scotland were in the same position prior to the term ‘intentional’ being augmented by ‘reckless’ under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. In many cases it is almost impossible to prove an act had been committed intentionally, though recklessness is much more easily established. Cases that formerly slipped through the court with a Not Guilty or Not Proven verdict, or were not taken up by the procurator fiscal, now have a much better chance of success. It seems that public interest has rightly been considered and vindicated.

In 2005 a list of ‘prescribed pesticides’ was added into the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 through the Possession of Pesticides (Scotland) Order. They are: – Aldicarb; Alphachloralose; Aluminium phosphide; Bendiocarb; Carbofuran; Mevinphos; Sodium cyanide and Strychnine. The penalty for possession of any of those (or to knowingly cause or permit their possession) without reasonable excuse is the same as in any other part of the 1981 Act: a fine of £5000 and/or 6 months imprisonment. This is considerably more than under other legislation currently used in England and Wales.

On penalties, I see that one of the RSPB’s recommendations is that the maximum penalty be raised to a fine of £50,000 or 12 months imprisonment on summary procedure.  This may be valid where a company has disregarded the legislation and damaged a bat roost or a badger sett in the interests of profit but in bird of prey-related crime it is only likely to be used if a landowner can be convicted of raptor persecution, where it can quite reasonably be shown that the illegal act was carried out in the interests of profit. When sentencing an accused, a court must consider the means of the person to pay, and the presence (or absence) or relevant previous convictions. This is why most people convicted of raptor crime are sentenced to mid-range fines and are almost never imprisoned.

RSPB recommended that vicarious liability be brought into the Wildlife and Countryside Act across the UK. This was introduced in Scotland through the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 and since that time poisoning of birds of prey, in particular, has reduced. No cases have yet gone through the court though if the result of this addition to the range of prosecution options  is acting as a deterrent that must be good news.

I have a vested interest in the last of RSPB’s 2011 recommendations: that of securing the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit. Contrary to the perception of some, the NWCU does not investigate wildlife crime, but gathers and disseminates intelligence, and advises and assists UK police forces and other statutory agencies in their investigations. Having worked with the Unit now for a year, I can say without doubt it is the most professional and dedicated unit with which I have been involved in my varied policing career starting in 1964. Secure funding – and indeed additional funding – will make the Unit work at an even higher level of expertise.

For more details of the NWCU see our website at http://www.nwcu.police.uk/  PAW Scotland can be found at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Environment/Wildlife-Habitats/paw-scotland/

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