Thinking about wildlife crime conjures up images of rhino poaching and ivory smuggling but believe it or not crime happens in countries outside of Africa and Asia. So what does wildlife crime in the UK look like?
The 6 current UK priorities according to the National Wildlife Crime Unit are:
1. Badger persecution
Badger persecution occurs in the form of badger baiting, sett disturbance/destruction, usually on agricultural land or forested areas.
Badger baiting is when people dig up setts and kill any badgers they find using dogs wearing radio collars. Dogs locate the setts and are tracked using radio signals. Once the dog has found a badger in a sett, people dig until they find the them. They then pull the badger out and the dogs are allowed to kill the animal.
Badger baiting was once regarded as a legitimate sport, people would gather around setts after church on Sunday to watch a dog and a badger fight to the death. Although baiting has been illegal in the UK since 1835 it still occurs today and it is thought that over 10,000 badgers have been killed this way.
In Scotland the badgers enjoys more legal protection than anywhere else in the world and badger baiting can carry a prison sentence with a maximum of three years, yet 610 reports recorded by the RSPCA led to only 16 convictions.
Aside from badger baiting, there is also sett disturbance from developers when people fail to get advice from the correct authorities before giving the green light to large scale building operations.
2. Bat persecution
Bats are a crucial part of a ecosystem. They act as habitat quality indicators as their presence, or lack of, can tell us a lot about the health of a habitat. Bats in the UK are harmless and contrary to popular belief they will not suck your blood or get stuck in your hair because frankly, they have better things to do. The most common bat, the pipistrelle (pictured), is capable of consuming 3,000 insects per evening despite its small size!
Unfortunately for these little creatures they like to make use of man made structures such as buildings, bridges, and outhouses to roost in and this can cause inconvenience to those wanting a loft conversion or to knock down their barn.
Bats are legally protected in the UK and it is illegal to deliberately capture, injure, or kill bats, to damage or destroy breeding or resting places. Failure to adhere to these terms could land you in prison for up to six months or even a £5,000 fine.
It’s very difficult to prove that renovation activity or roof reparations have had an adverse effect on a bat or a roost, so few prosecutions are made, this is why it has been name a priority for the National Wildlife Crime Unit and hopefully this will be set to change in the future.
3. CITIES issues
CITIES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is an international agreement between governments of the world to protect endangered species and to ensure that trade in these species does not threaten their survival.
Trade in animals is big business – and one that is booming. There are all the classic examples of rhino horn and elephant ivory, but the agreement also extents to the sale of live animals, exotic leather goods, timber made from certain tree species, curios, or any product derived from an endangered species.
It’s a problem many people assume to be limited to Africa and Asia but these products can (and do) find their way onto UK soil where they are smuggled across the border and sold on the black market for a big sum.
The most recent famous case was of the ‘Rathkeale Rovers’, an Irish traveller gang who went on a thieving spree of epic proportions. They operated an international organised crime ring, stealing rhino horn and Chinese artefacts worth up to £57 million by raiding museums and auction houses. It has been reported that their haul was four times bigger than the Hatton Garden (diamond) raid. This story hit the news in February 2016 when the case came to trial.
4. Freshwater pearl mussels
These mussels can live for over 100 years and have been cited at one of the most endangered molluscs in the world. They have been named a UK priority after extensive pollution and poaching in Scotland has threatened their survival. It is thought people go in search of the rare molluscs because of their pearl-making abilities and while they do produce pearls from time to time – it isn’t guaranteed and only happens very occasionally. Looking for pearl mussels has almost become a modern-day ‘panning for gold’ and despite being fully protected legally, illegal mussel fishing is still rife.
The population found in Scotland are some of the world’s only remaining freshwater pearl mussels and over one third of rivers that once supported these creatures, no longer do.
So why are they important and why should we care? Well they are an extremely important part of freshwater systems. Imagine the amount of water that goes down the drain each time you take a shower – well an adult freshwater peal mussel can filter more than that each day, drawing out fine particles from the water to feed on. Due to this behaviour, they are also very sensitive to any pollutants that may enter the water through engineering works.
Poaching isn’t just the problem of tigers, pangolins, and elephants. In the UK deer and fish are regularly poached.
After speaking with National Trust ecologists the extent of the problem becomes apparent. As the country’s third largest land owner, they have a significant number of deer roaming in their confines and some people have turned up to work to find the entrails of deer strewn around the fields (as they must be gutted immediately so as not to spoil the taste of the venison), following a hunters poaching session, which is both unsightly and disturbing in equal measure.
The National Wildlife Crime Unit has a four-pronged approach: Prevention, Intelligence, Enforcement, and Reassurance. Through offering advice to farmers and landowners, collecting information and data to inform local police, and publicising arrests they hope to gradually increase awareness and reduce the scale of the problem.
It’s true that there are too many deer in the UK. With a lack of natural predators the population has been allowed to boom. They cause real damage to woodland and prevent forest regeneration. There are even culls that happen in some areas. But this doesn’t mean unregulated hunting is right and taking the law in your own hands is never a good idea. Illegal poaching that happens under the radar is often carried out by those who are inexperienced and unable to ensure they are not causing any suffering or long term harm.
6. Raptor persecution
Raptor persecution includes poisoning, shooting, trapping, habitat destruction, nest disturbance or destruction, chick and/or egg removal. Raptors are birds of prey such as hawks, eagles, kites, buzzards, harriers, falcons, and owls which have powerful talons and hunt for prey, feeding on mice, rats, and other smaller birds. All birds of prey are protected in the UK and covered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The RSPB produced a report spanning 20 years. They stated that 1994 – 2014 a total of 779 raptors were confirmed to have been illegally killed by poisoning, trapping, or shooting in Scotland alone. Of these kills, 81% occurred on land used for game shooting. Why? To put it simply, raptors eat the red grouse that others want to shoot for sport and commercial gain. So gamekeepers try to reduce the number of raptors on their land.
Photographs: Peter Trimming, Bio Blitz, Quinn Dombrowski, Des Colhoun [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Martin Svedén, Rob Zweers
Image from www.flickr.com/photos/stuutje