When wildlife crime offences are communicated to the police they often fall under the ‘miscellaneous’ category of English and Welsh police records and most incidents never make it onto the Home Office’s crime recording system. To tackle this troublesome lack of data, 18 NGOs have combined to launch the first ever wildlife crime report detailing the number of crimes they themselves have recorded and calling on the UK government to legislate for better records.
The report, co-ordinated by both Wildlife and Countryside Link and Wales Environment Link and presented to parliament, details 1,278 crimes recorded by NGOs in 2016. It also urges the government to make all wildlife crimes recordable in England and Wales and to ensure that data is included in statistical returns made by the police to the Home Office.
Wildlife crime includes persecution of badgers, bats, marine mammals and raptors as well as trade in illegal wildlife. Crimes against badgers represent the largest number of recorded offences in the report with 612 incidents noted in 2016. There were 155 reports of crimes against raptors and 145 for bats. As with all of the figures in the report, the numbers are likely to fall far short of the actual offences committed.
‘Our figures can only be the tip of an iceberg,’ says Pete Charleston, investigations manager at the Bat Conservation Trust. ‘The fact is we cannot assess true levels of bat crime or any other sort of wildlife crime because none of the agencies – the police, government – keep detailed records.’
Accurate data is essential for a proper understanding of wildlife crime and for the productive allocation of police and charity resources. ‘We’re a science-based organisation and good data is the bedrock of everything we do,’ says Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer at the RSPB. ‘If you want to make decisions about where to put resources or what species you need to focus on, you need good data.’
Last month, the RSPB introduced a new reporting hotline for crimes against birds which is already proving successful in encouraging people who might be wary of speaking to local police to report incidents. ‘We’ve had several useful calls and it’s being used by three police forces,’ says Shorrock. ‘It’s set up an avenue whereby people in difficult positions now have an option to phone things through.’
The authors of the new report would like to see the government adopt a system for England and Wales similar to that already in place in Scotland, where central recording of wildlife crime is enshrined in law. There each crime is allocated a reference number and can be traced from incident reporting through to outcome. The Scottish government also has a duty to produce an annual report of wildlife crime that includes data on both incidents and prosecutions.
The new report also recommends the introduction of sentencing guidelines for wildlife crimes. The guidelines would provide courts with a set of minimum penalties, along with assistance imposing sentences commensurate with the offence committed.
Harsher penalties that act as a deterrent are particularly important where wildlife crime takes place due to commercial activities such as construction work. It’s a problem that Pete Charleston knows very well. ‘The thing with bat roosts is there is a legal way of doing things, but if you do it illegally you can save yourself quite a lot of money,’ he says. ‘If you get a sanction that is less than the money you save, then it makes nonsense of the system.’
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