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Covid restrictions and lockdowns had a massively detrimental effect on Scotland, a country which relies on sporting tourism to bridge the financial gaps created by the lack of investment in rural economies by the Scottish Government.
It seems though that a rise in countryside visits both during and following lockdown has brought with it a rise in rural crime. According to Police Scotland, the number of wildlife crimes reported to them in 2020-21 increased by 60% from 2015-16. Offences cited deriving from hunting with dogs tend not to be those who abide by the letter of the law and hunt respectfully and within codes of practice, this is poaching, and there’s big money in running dogs on hares and streaming it live online.
To understand this better, we need to delve a little deeper and understand what is meant by wildlife crime. This increase is not a case of Gamekeepers breaking the law, as is often reported on with little or no evidence to support such claims. When most people were told to stay at home, and Police were stretched to their limits, criminals took advantage of an even quieter Scottish countryside and took to the rivers to poach fish or to the fields to run their dogs on the protected brown hare. They saw an opportunity and they took it. It is also worth remembering that these figures only include those incidents which were reported and many more will have occurred without any Police involvement whatsoever.
The Scottish Countryside Alliance have an extremely good working relationship with Police Scotland and are involved in a number of wildlife crime groups while sitting at the same table as rural MSP’s from a variety of parties. Intelligence is scrutinised by police and specific operations are conducted to tackle such offences, but this is merely papering over the cracks and a lot more should be done to tackle this damaging issue.
Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands agrees that the real figures are likely to be much higher than those reported. She also goes on to state that she is “angered” by the figures and considers the offenders “selfish”. Whilst this may be true, it will do absolutely nothing to tackle the issue of criminals using the Scottish countryside as their playground.
Serious investment needs to be in place if we are to make any headway. Police need more resources instead of being squeezed so tightly that response times can often be days, rather than minutes. Rural crime in general not only affects the livelihood of those who live and work in the countryside, but it can also put individuals in real danger at the hands of gangs who travel great distances just to poach or commit other wildlife crimes for financial gain.
Raptor persecution is at its lowest point since records began, a result of collaborations between police, rural organisations and the Scottish Government. If this can be achieved then why can’t travelling criminals be afforded the same type of attention? For too long Scottish rural communities have been the poor relation. The mishandling of the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill and the current Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill have completely alienated significant parts of Scotland, yet the SNP continue to ignore all that is important where our countryside is concerned. With confidence waning in the central belt, and virtually non-existent in rural areas, it is surprising that the SNP aren’t at least a little more open to our warnings and calls for help.
When asked by The Times to comment on the latest figures released by Police Scotland this week, I provided the following response: “ We are concerned about any wildlife crime and work with the authorities to eradicate offences against wild animals in Scotland. The shooting community has a zero-tolerance approach to any incident of raptor persecution and while any incident is totally unacceptable, we are pleased to see the number of incidents recorded remains lower than in previous years. It is important to differentiate between legitimate pest control using packs of dogs who are operating legally and poachers using dogs to pursue deer, hares and other wildlife. There were no convictions relating to legitimate fox control using packs of dogs in this period”.