The Countryside Alliance provided a brief on wildlife crime ahead of a Westminster Hall debate on 11th October 2013. 

Wildlife Crime
Third Report of the Environmental Audit Committee 2012 -2013
and Government Response

Westminster Hall

Thursday 11 October 2013

The Countryside Alliance was supportive of many of the recommendations made by the Environmental Audit Committee in its Third Report of Session 2012 – 2103. However, there were a number of aspects of the report about which we were concerned. As such the Government’s response to the report was largely welcome, especially with regard to the issue of vicarious liability where the Government is not proposing to introduce this offence into England. The Government has rightly decided to look closely at how the introduction of vicarious liability in Scotland works in practice, and to assess its impact before considering any introduction in England and Wales.

We remain concerned at the apparent willingness to accept evidence without subjecting it to sufficient scrutiny, and in particular the repeated allegations that the RSPB makes against the shooting community and gamekeepers in particular, which it is unable to support with facts. All responsible organisations must work together constructively if we are to see an end to wildlife crime in the UK. If stretched resources are to be directed where they are most needed, then it is essential that all incidents are recorded on the basis of firm evidence and not unsubstantiated allegations.

The Countryside Alliance continues to believe that the law should be enacted whereby it would be illegal for unauthorised persons to possess named poisons such as Carbofuran, Alphachloralose and Bendiocarb if they have no legal use for them. The Government’s unwillingness to do so, in the belief that there are alternative ways to handle the issue other than by introducing an Order under S.43 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 does, we believe, play into the hands of those opposed to shooting.

Vicarious Liability
The RSPB continues to call on the Government to introduce an offence of vicarious liability in England and Wales, claiming that it has worked well in Scotland. “We believe that it would go a long way to force them (gamekeepers and their employers) to clean up their act ”. In an article published by BBC Scotland in March 2013, it was also implied that it was the introduction vicarious liability that had resulted in a reduction in the number of poison related incidents in Scotland. However, it can be seen from the following chart, which was published with the article, that the reduction in incidents started well before the introduction of vicarious liability in January 2012.

The Government’s decision to look closely at how vicarious liability works in Scotland and to assess its impact before considering similar legislation in England is therefore welcome .

The Alliance notes that English law does not recognise vicarious criminal liability. The law should not criminalise people for failing to prevent other people from committing offences, but where an employer actively engages in a criminal offence, or aids and abets a criminal offence, then they should face the full force of the law. In situations where there is no evidence of an employer actively engaging in an offence, or aiding and abetting it, then it should be assumed that they had nothing to do with that offence.

Persecution of Birds of Prey
There continues to be frequent reference to on-going illegal persecution of birds of prey in the media, especially on grouse moors in the North of England. The most recent figures available are those provided by the RSPB in its Birdcrime Survey for 2011, and these actually showed that is an area in which some significant, and very welcome, improvements continue to be made. Of the 202 reports of the shooting and destruction of birds of prey in 2011, only 42 were shown as having been confirmed.  That figure included 30 incidents of shooting (a figure that also included 8 owls), the destruction of 1 nest, 9 incidents in relation to illegal trapping, and 2 confirmed ‘other’ incidents, details of which were not provided by the RSPB.

Although there were 70 confirmed cases of poisoning and the use of poisoned baits, the number involving birds of prey was 48, a 31% reduction from 2010, when the figure had been 70. The remaining 22 cases concerned dogs, cats, a hedgehog, and non bird of prey species including carrion crows, magpies and a rook.

There was therefore a total of 90 confirmed incidents concerning birds of prey in 2011, compared to 115 in 2010; a reduction of 22%. Of these, only 9 are shown as having occurred in counties where grouse moor management takes place in the North of England, and none have been linked to that management.

The RSPB is well known for its frequent accusations against gamekeepers, and has recently been claiming that of those people prosecuted for persecution of birds of prey, around 70% are gamekeepers. That is a figure which has been taken completely out of context. According to the RSPB’s Birdcrime Report 2009, over the 20 year period between 1990 and 2009, of the 141 convictions for offences related to bird of prey persecution, 98 individuals (70%) had ‘game bird interests’. That is less than 5 individuals a year. Of  the 42 individuals prosecuted for offences against wildlife in 2011, just 7 were either full or part-time gamekeepers, and of the offences for which they were found guilty, only 2 were directly linked to the taking or death of a bird of prey – just 5%. The facts therefore paint a very different picture to that which the RSPB is constantly seeking to portray.

Hen Harrier Extinction
Claims by the RSPB that the hen harrier is on the brink of extinction in England are incorrect and misleading. The term extinction is defined by the death of the very last of a kind. In addition to Britain, the hen harrier occurs in a multitude of countries across the northern hemisphere, including North America, Europe and Asia. It has an extremely large population which is currently thought to be 1,300,000, with no significant decline in that population globally. Internationally it is classified as a species of “Least Conservation Concern”, and with 646 pairs in the UK (RSPB’s latest figures), the hen harrier is more numerous than 7 out of the 15 species of birds of prey in this country. Many hen harriers can be observed moving around the country throughout the year, and record numbers were reported at English roost sites last winter. The issue is therefore one of poor breeding success, not extinction.

This year there were two breeding attempts by hen harriers in England, one on a grouse moor and another immediately adjacent to one. In both cases, gamekeepers worked closely with Natural England. Sadly, both nests failed for reasons that were confirmed as being totally natural. Whilst the hen harriers’ heartland in the UK might be upland moors, it is important to realise that those managed for grouse shooting account for just one fifth of the total uplands of England and Wales. The breeding success of hen harriers on the remaining four fifths, which includes large areas of land managed by the RSPB, has been no better.

Hen harriers nest on the ground and they, like some of their prey, are vulnerable to predation, as was seen when a hen harrier was filmed on CCTV in the Forest of Bowland being attacked by an eagle owl. They are also susceptible to bad weather, disturbance, poor habitat, and lack of available food, as well as factors that are as yet still unclear, as is the case on the Isle of Man where the RSPB’s 2010 Hen Harrier Survey found that the population had halved for reasons that remain unknown.  While it may be that illegal persecution has played a part, there are numerous other contributory factors, none of which have been mentioned by the RSPB in its recent publicity. They may also help explain why on Orkney, where like the Isle of Man there is no grouse shooting, only 34% of territorial females have reared chicks over the last 2 years, 66% having failed to breed successfully. It seems that when hen harriers fail to breed on grouse moors, the failure is automatically attributed to illegal persecution by gamekeepers, even when there is no evidence to support such accusations. However, when hen harriers fail to breed elsewhere, the RSPB attributes this to any number of factors, such as the weather; but never persecution.
The Committee made the recommendation: ‘Partnership between the police and NGOs can effectively increase funding for wildlife crime enforcement, and the Home Office should encourage all police forces to consider implementing them. This model might usefully be extended to fund other facets of wildlife crime enforcement, such as the National Wildlife Crime Unit’ (NWCU). The Government’s response that they ‘welcome NGOs strengthening their involvement in tackling wildlife crime’, is concerning, particularly because the NGOs involved in tackling wildlife crime, and assisting the NWCU in the prevention and detection of wildlife crime, have clearly defined campaigning agendas in this area.

National Wildlife Crime Unit 
The National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) was established in 2006, charged with the role to assist in the detection and prevention of wildlife crime. One of the main ways in which it does this is by gathering and disseminating reports of wildlife crime from a range of organisations. The NWCU have continued to increase the number of partner organisations from which it receives information, consequently increasing the amount of information on suspected wildlife crime.

The amount of intelligence from non-governmental organisations partnered with the NWCU has increased significantly. For example, between 2007 and 2010 the intelligence shared between the NWCU and non-governmental organisation went from 37 to 110 cases, 74 of which came from the RSPCA. The NWCU also processes incidents of suspected wildlife crime reported by partnered organisations. Reported incidents increased dramatically from 3832 in 2008/09 to 9999 incidents in 2009/10 due to the NWCU starting to collect incident data from several partner organisations, including: Bat Conservation Trust, League against Cruel Sports, RSPB and Scottish Badgers.

Reported incidents from organisations like the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) are not going to be objectively looking at all wildlife crime but are narrowly focussed on the individual campaign groups own areas of interest.  The system the LACS have set up to formulate reports of wildlife crime relies heavily on the general public, through a “Wildlife Crimewatch line”. It states the following on their website:

“It is also really important for you to report what you have seen to us. We collate all the reports of possible wildlife crime and feed information to the National Wildlife Crime Unit to help them set their priorities.”

This undoubtedly skews reports, and the quality of those reports, which are fed into the NWCU and thus their priorities. Furthermore, reported incidents of wildlife crime from the LACS may not have resulted in prosecution or indeed required further action.  The NWCU confirmed in a Freedom of Information request that information obtained from the LACS is only subject to statistical analysis:

“Information received from LACS is subjected to statistical analysis only.  This is because LACS also operate an intelligence database and therefore and reports are evaluated and graded by trained personnel before they are submitted to NWCU.”

We welcome the Government’s response to the recommendation that the NWCU could be funded by NGOs, which highlighted the need to ensure that such funding does not compromise the operational independence of the police. We would go further and suggest that uncertainty over the long-term funding of the NWCU due to spending cuts provides an opportunity to improve the way in which information is gathered on wildlife crime and how it is assessed.  A substantial proportion of wildlife crime, including illegal animal and animal product trading, poaching etc. is part of wider organised crime and crime gangs. To tackle these crimes, which are also international, the NWCU should be subsumed into the National Crime Agency (NCA).

Information sharing with independent animal campaigning groups has not enhanced the quality of information on wildlife crime and these groups should not be able to drive a Government agency’s priorities based on their own agendas. There is a danger that reports of suspected offences are reported on flimsy evidence, simply to force certain issues up the NWCU’s agenda. Resources should be focussed on wildlife crime officers in individual police forces and independent organisations and individuals can report incidents to relevant departments within the police force, such as is the case with other types of crime.