I listened over the last couple of days to the evidence being given to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee of the Scottish Parliament in relation to the Scottish Government Wildlife Crime Report, 2015. I must say I was very impressed with the convener of the committee, Graeme Dey, and indeed all of the committee members. While some may have had their own agendas they were polite, put forward sensible and relevant questions and were extremely respectful to the various panel members who gave evidence; a complete contrast to the Westminster evidence on the petition for the banning of driven grouse shooting.
The police and COPFS were first and I wondered how the police would fare. ACC Steve Johnson and Detective Chief Superintendent Sean Scott represented Police Scotland. I don’t know them and I wondered, as is sometimes the case with senior officers speaking on wildlife crime issues, that they might just be figureheads with limited relevant knowledge. Mr Johnson transferred to Police Scotland in May 2016 and has only held the wildlife portfolio for a relatively short time, however in his former post of chief superintendent in Cumbria Constabulary he was also the lead on wildlife crime. Both officers displayed a knowledge of wildlife crime far higher than that normally shown by officers of those ranks. There were a few operational questions which they couldn’t answer, such as why four raptor-related crimes were not in the Scottish Government report yet were in the corresponding RSPB report, but at their level their role is primarily strategic rather than operational. I’ve no doubt they were well briefed by Sergeant Andy Mavin, who co-ordinates the Police Scotland wildlife crime officers but no matter how good the briefing there is always a question comes up that can’t be answered. I saw Andy sitting in the public bench behind the panel and I’ve no doubt that had he been beside Mr Johnson he could have fielded that and other operational questions.
I was a bit puzzled myself as to why these crimes were missing. I could see three of the alleged four crimes in the RSPB report. They were described as a crow trap baited with two live pigeon decoys, set spring traps beside a pigeon decoy and four shot buzzards (which could be argued would make six crimes), all discovered by the police in May 2014. It was stated during the evidence that the incidents had occurred on Raeshaw Estate, near Heriot in the Scottish Borders. Over a decade this has been one of the worst estates in Scotland for the discovery of wildlife crimes. I would have thought that, unless the publication of details of these crimes would jeopardise any proceedings it would have been in the public interest to do so. In any event this will be researched by Police Scotland and a written update given to the ECCLR committee.
I think there was consensus among the different organisations giving evidence (which included RSPB Scotland, Scottish Badgers, Bat Conservation Trust and Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, that more transparency was required. Rightly, Ian Thomson of RSPB stated that this did not mean knocking on the door of the estate owner (if he or she can be identified) and advising that there may be a shot, poisoned or missing bird of prey on the land. Personally, I would like to see every wildlife crime of interest put into the public domain as soon as possible, though at a time that would not thwart an investigation or without such detail as would jeopardise a prosecution.
Much was made of figures and tables and an interesting question was put by the convener as to whether, in relation to raptor persecution, is there a change in the behaviour of those who are involved. With fewer incidents of poisoning but more satellite-tagged birds disappearing the questioner wondered whether the criminals had got wise to the police methods of investigation and had changed the way they deal with birds of prey. This tends to happen in all areas of criminality, with the criminal trying to keep a step ahead of the police. I saw evidence of this comparing raptor persecution investigations between the early 1990s and when I eventually retired in 2015, by which time the recovery of evidence had become more difficult despite better forensic techniques. I can only speculate that this would be likely to continue.
The SGA fielded a spokesman who was a retired police officer, now a gamekeeper. He seemed a genuine chap and stated that he sees ‘a massive change on the ground’ in relation to raptor persecution. He also stated that the SGA does not condone the killing of birds of prey and have thrown five members out of their organisation. These are heartening statements but SGA is still reluctant to admit that gamekeepers are responsible for most of the raptor persecution reported, or that it may indeed be the tip of the iceberg. Various pie charts kept over the years clearly show that a preponderance of raptor crime is committed by gamekeepers, plus anyone who knows anything about the countryside knows that only a proportion of the raptors killed or illegal traps or poisoned baits set out are discovered. It is unfortunate that figures cannot be put on that proportion.
I was interested in the discussion as to whether the SSPCA should have additional powers to search for and recover evidence not directly involved in animal welfare. I agree with ACC Johnson when he stated that that SSPCA is a charity that deals with animal welfare and neglect, while the police investigate crime. He stated that the police have primacy in the investigation of crime and if SSPCA get increased powers there could be a conflict of interest, a lack of accountability plus they do not have access to some of the specialist services that the police have. I think I reached the conclusion that there may be some merit in slightly extending the power of SSPCA so that if during an animal welfare investigation they discover a wildlife crime, they may extend the investigation to include a search, there and then, for evidence which could subsequently be passed to the police.
I was interested in Mr Johnson’s experience that there is a correlation between the areas in which Police Scotland have full-time wcos and recorded crime. I certainly saw that when in post in Tayside. It serves to show that wildlife crime may not be increasing, but simply that the public are much more aware of it and know to report their suspicions to the police. Having looked, however, at the Tayside wildlife crime statistics for 2014/15 I am not convinced that all wildlife crimes are being recorded. There were no badger crimes for that year, which is unusual, and there were only two bird crimes. Apart from any raptor-related crime I am sure that there will have been many more than two instances of birds’ nests being destroyed. There were two instances of cruelty to wild animals. I wonder if, in the days of so much CCTV, this includes the regular kicking and injuring/killing of gulls feeding on pavements by drunks making their way home. These might be recorded as bird crime, as might the shooting of swans with air rifles, but there again there were only two of those for the whole year. There were no cases of deer poaching being recorded, yet this was one of the more common wildlife crimes when I was working, as was hare coursing, yet only five incidents were recorded. Some of these incidents would no doubt be attended by officers who were not wildlife crime officers. I know that if no-one was caught at the time I used to have to chase the officers up for a crime report otherwise one would not have gone in. If this is the case Scotland-wide then the police are still very much under-recording wildlife crime.
There were many more interesting discussions, including fox hunting, bats, badgers, a register of estate ownership and vicarious liability. I was really pleased to see one of the Scottish Government’s commitments as:
‘Police Scotland will create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit to support the existing network of wildlife crime officers in complex investigations’.
This would be of major benefit and brings me back to an observation by Gary Aitken, who was the representative from COPFS, who said, in relation to vicarious liability that it was ‘like a murder investigation with a serious fraud allegation tacked on to the end of it’. In addition to such an investigation unit it would also be of huge advantage in the quick response to wildlife crime if all of the full-time wildlife crime liaison officers worked as a unit and could cross divisional boundaries as and when required.
I noted in the Scottish Government report that the police dealt with 19 trap and snare offences during 2013/14, which had increased to 27 during 2014/15. It may be on the back of this increase that the Scientific sub-group of PAW Scotland distributing a guide to police officers for recovering fingerprints and DNA from spring traps.
Lastly I was pleased to see in the report that September 2015 saw yet another continuous professional development seminar for wildlife law enforcement at the Scottish Police College attended by police, COPFS, UK Border Force and SNH.