A brighter future ahead for the investigation of wildlife crime?

The result of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for two Scottish estates is awaited with interest

The result of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for two Scottish estates is awaited with interest

There is a lot going on just now with the efforts of the Scottish Government and Police Scotland to tackle wildlife crime. It was summarised in part in the 2015 report Wildlife Crime in Scotland, published towards the end of 2016, with the Scottish Government making the following commitments for priority work ahead:

“We must protect the environment from those who seek to damage it for personal gain. We will increase the penalties for wildlife crime and consider the creation of new sentencing guidelines in line with recommendations from the Wildlife Crimes Penalties Review Group. Police Scotland will create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit to support the existing network of wildlife crime officers in complex investigations.

In order to safeguard vulnerable species from illegal persecution, we will carry out a review of prevention measures including the operation of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime and supporting Police Scotland in their work to target wildlife crime hotspots. We are prepared to introduce legislation where necessary.

We will consider the outcome of Lord Bonomy’s review into whether existing legal controls on hunting with dogs provide the intended level of protection for foxes and other wild mammals, while allowing for the effective and humane control of these animals where required.”

I was particularly interested in the commitment for Police Scotland to create a new Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit. This appears in the report as a Scottish Government commitment so I wonder if we can assume that the Scottish Government, through PAW, will at least in part be funding it so might have some say over its format. If I can have a stab at it, the unit might incorporate a sergeant in charge and all six of the full-time wildlife crime liaison officers. Since the unit would be dealing with some of the more complex enquiries, particularly vicarious liability and wildlife crimes where a court might seek recovery of profit under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) this would require detective officers with fraud training and trained in the identification of assets for recovery. There are other specialist police services that would be required from time to time, such as scene of crime officers and search-trained officers but I doubt they would be part of this unit and could be called on as required, as could any of another 100 trained wildlife crime officers. I would see the unit having close links with the National Wildlife Crime Unit in respect of the preparation of intelligence packages and the expertise of one or more investigative support officers though again I suspect that would also be on an ad hoc case by case basis. It’s all very exciting and I’ll see how close my prediction is when it materialises.

There are several other developments on the back burner just now, not least the review of game bird shooting regulations in force in other countries. The review has been completed but results are not yet in the public domain. Hopefully this review, the review of satellite-tagged raptors and the outcome of the judicial review in relation to the revocation of the general licences for Raeshaw and Burnfoot estates might all influence the outcome of the petition by Scottish Raptor Study Groups for the licensing of game bird shooting in Scotland. This currently sits with the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee.

Also relevant to game shooting is the intention of parliament, in the next few months, to look at the ownership and management of estates and hopefully ensure these details are included in a land register. In any other business this would equate to a chain of command. This needs to be done as a matter of urgency so that in vicarious liability cases the specific individual who is liable for activity on an estate can be identified and reported for prosecution.

We also have proposed increased sentences for wildlife crimes plus possible improvements to the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act (hunting with dogs) as recommended by Lord Bonomy, both of which I have written about earlier. In addition, on 6 October 2016, the Scottish Sentencing Council began work to create new sentencing guidelines for environmental and wildlife crime.

I have often said that trying to obtain evidence for a prosecution in many of the wildlife cases in which I was involved while a wildlife crime officer was about the biggest challenge in my investigative career. Gary Aitken, the fiscal in charge of the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit, hit the nail on the head when he said, “The criminal killing of wildlife species on land has been described to me as a murder investigation with a serious fraud investigation tacked on to the end of it.”

There seems a slightly brighter future ahead for the investigation of wildlife crime, and possibly even for its reduction. Let’s hope that these advancements are not hindered too much by the Brexit issues being forced up on us.

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