I have just finished my first skim through Wildlife Crime in Scotland, the 2016 report by Scottish Government covering the financial year 2015/2016. It is welcome news that wildlife crime reduced by 8% compared to the previous year, being down from 284 to 261. There is no doubt that a higher proportion of the public are aware of the signs of various crimes against wildlife and report their suspicions to the police. This heightened awareness is well-known to some of those who would commit these crimes and I have no doubt that, at least in some types of wildlife crime, there is some deterrent value.
Nothing seems to deter the hare coursers, and being caught, convicted and fined means little to them. The figures shown in the report indicate that the hare coursing incidents reported have increased from the 20s and low 30s in the four preceding years to 44 during the year covered by the report.
The incidents may well have increased but I strongly suspect that these are nothing like the real figures. The figures given are those recorded by the police, but I know from experience that many – maybe even most – hare coursing incidents that are reported and logged by control rooms are not recorded in the crime database used to inform the Scottish Government statistics.
The most common example of this is the reporting by a farmer or other witness of hare coursing taking place. It is logged by the control room and a police unit, if available, is dispatched to deal with the report. Invariably, even if it only takes a short time for the police to arrive on the scene, the vehicle and occupants are gone. The police make a search of the nearby roads for the vehicle but there is no trace. They are then diverted to another incident and at the end of their shift no report is made out of the hare coursing incident. The incident has therefore been recorded by the control room, it has been investigated (to a degree, especially since hare coursers’ vehicles are almost never registered to them) it may also be recorded as intelligence on the Scottish Intelligence Database but it is not recorded on the electronic system and under the code used for Scottish Government statistics. As long as the police are stretched to breaking point I don’t see how this will change. Unless hare coursing really has reduced, which I don’t believe, I’d bet the year’s total of 44 across Scotland would barely account for the incidents reported during that year to my old area of work, Tayside.
Figures are complex, too, for raptor persecution. The number of poisoning incidents has remained pretty level over the past five years between four and six, with six being the number of poisoning incidents, with the same number of victims, in the year under review. The number is still far too high but is considerably better than in 2010/2011, when there were 24 poisoning incidents with 32 victims. However what needs to be factored in are the seven incidents in 2015/16 where companion animals were poisoned, where SASA noted:
While the poisoning of a companion animal is not a wildlife crime … the companion animal may have been the accidental victim of an illegal poison intended to target wildlife, while wildlife could also be put at risk by poisons placed to target pets.
Police Scotland have broken down the 25 raptor persecution incidents for the year into Shooting, Poisoning, Trapping, Disturbance or Other. There were eight incidents of shooting of raptors and six incidents where raptors were trapped. With the six already discussed as having been poisoned (though one incident involved poisoning and trapping) this left three in the category of Disturbance and three under Other. Still far too many, and while the numbers poisoned or shot remained the same as during the preceding two years there is a worrying increase in raptors being trapped.
In her Ministerial Foreword, Roseanna Cunningham reminds us that she was:
horrified to learn that the data strongly indicated that around one third of tagged golden eagles, forty-one birds, had disappeared in suspicious clusters, many of which were on or near moorland managed for driven grouse shooting. Because the majority of these birds had simply disappeared, with no carcase or tag ever found, they could not appear in recorded wildlife crime figures.
So even in these two types of wildlife crime briefly discussed there is some good news on raptor persecution that might not be quite as good as it seems, and some bad news on hare coursing that, at least in my view, is almost certainly worse than the statistics show.