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The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild

Chris Mowbray looks at some of the initiatives prompted by concern over the growth of crime in the countryside, but reports that the present laws designed to protect wildlife are a hopeless muddle.

It was one of the strangest ever paternity suits. The police had to prove that peregrine falcons birds are so rare that they have the same legal protection as the tiger and had not bred legally in captivity, but had been abducted from their nest on a craggy Northumbrian hill top.

The officers gained their evidence by turning to a method more usually associated with murder inquiries or with high profile court cases in which ageing rock stars furiously deny fathering the babies of wannabe starlets. Advances in DNA testing developed at the University of Nottingham enabled police to prove conclusively that the chicks being sold at up to £1,000 a pair were not the progeny of the birds claimed to be their parents. They had therefore been taken from the wild.

The conviction of the dealer was a personal triumph for PC Paul Henery and vindication of Northumbria Police's vision in enabling him to be the force's wildlife protection officer on a full-time basis. It was the first time that anyone had been given a prison sentence for a crime committed against wildlife in this country. Both the conviction and the increased use of genetic fingerprinting have played a significant part in the reduction of wild British birds of prey being snatched for the illegal international falconry trade.

But the case was only brought to a successful conclusion because the dealer was prosecuted under European legislation. There could not have been a more graphic illustration of the fact that British Wildlife law is hopelessly fragmented and in many respects inadequate.

"It is difficult to explain the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 in less than a week", said Kevin Degenhard, a Chief Superintendent with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who is charge of training the charity's inspectors.

"Then you have the Endangered Species Import/Export Act of 1976 which is part of the international protection for animals and plants on the CITES (Convention in the Trade of Endangered Species) list. This Act is supposed to be read in conjunction with the Wildlife and Countryside Act, yet the enforcing body for it is the Department of the Environment".(Now DEFRA)

"Another relevant piece of legislation is the Pests Act of 1954 which made the gin trap illegal. Since it was passed, there have been five or six amendments of spring trap approval orders and it comes under the Ministry of Agriculture".

"As the police come under the Home Office, it means there are at least three different Government departments involved in wildlife law and it does not even end there. If the RSPCA needs to get down a badger set, for example, we have to get permission from English nature. Under the Protection of Badger Act of 1992, which consolidated previous legislation, you can't even put your hand down a set without a licence. The whole thing is a minefield and it would be nice if there were one piece of legislation."

Other ingredients in this legislative pot porri include the Deer Act 1991, the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 and the Wild Mammals Protection Act 1996. Such a mixture often throws up ridiculous anomalies.

For example, while the RSPCA is expected to respond to a call to an injured grey squirrel, the Society has real problems once the animal has been nursed back to health. Because this is not a native British animal, releasing it back into the wild is in contravention of the Grey Squirrels (Keeping) Order of 1937. Several other foreign imports such as mink and the Canada Goose throw up similar legal inconsistencies, but probably the most complex of the lot is the little Muntjack Deer.

This is the only deer in Britain not protected by the Deer Act. After the species was brought to Woburn Abbey by the Duke of Bedford, several members of the herd escaped and established colonies in 11 counties. When an injured Muntjack has recuperated at a wildlife rehabilitation centre, it has to be released into the wild within one kilometre of where it was found and only in the 11 designated counties with recognised colonies. If it were actually caught or found injured after wandering into a non-designated county, both the deer and its rescuers would be in some difficulty.

Such a diversity of law may help to explain why there is not a unified approach to policing wildlife in this country, although this is starting to change. Most police forces now have a wild-life liaison officer, but only a few forces have one working on a full-time basis. The remainder have to fit wildlife work in with their regular law enforcement duties and tend to be less successful simple because they do not have the time and resources to commit to it.

There is now a Police Wildlife Liaison Officer Network, chaired jointly by the Association of Chief Police Officers and DEFRA. It holds an annual conference, attended by delegates from such varied interested bodies as the RSPB, the World Parrot Trust, the RSPCA and the British Association of Shooting and Conservation.

"I think it is good for the police force to have at least one full time officer and in Northumbria it has increased the number of our wildlife prosecutions from three a year to 20", said Paul Henery who has recruited and trained 39 part-timers to help him throughout the force.

"One of our main priorities is badger baiting because serious criminals are involved in it. We also concentrate on preventing deer and salmon poaching and protecting rare species, particularly birds of prey".

"There has been a problem with foreign nationals coming to this country and taking birds of prey from the wild for falconry which is very popular in Britain, Germany and the Middle East. This is not as common as it once was, however, because of the advances we have made in genetic finger printing".

"A big difficulty from a technical point of view is monitoring the birds. They gather together at the nest during the breeding season from March to August and so this is when the thieves tend to strike. We need to keep a trained camera on the nest with an infra-red beam which is triggered by an intruder, but these are remote places without a power supply. We also need to service a camera covertly".

"Attempts have been made to supply power from a long distance by microwave, but nothing is entirely satisfactory. The problems of working in very remote areas are not to be underestimated. We need a camera with a power supply that works while the intruder is there and stops when he leaves".

Another type of offence which the force is starting to examine, is a growing fashion among lovers of exotic animals for keeping wolf hybrids without the necessary licence under the Dangerous and Wild Animals Act. As with the birds of prey the force is planning to use DNA testing, although this will probably have to be a analysed through the US Fish and Wildlife Service (an official wildlife police force) which has a forensic facility in Oregon.

The involvement of the police nationwide in the investigation of wildlife crime has mushroomed dramatically over the past decade. Little more than ten years ago, hardly any police forces were prosecuting wildlife criminals at all and it was left to specialist charities such as the RSPCA and the RSPB to take out prosecutions. As a result, they have developed special expertise of a kind unknown in most other countries.

The RSPCA is the largest animal welfare organisation in the world. To put it in context, Europe's next largest such group in Holland and has just 12 inspectors compared with the 330 employed by the RSPCA in England and Wales. For 25 years, the Society has been running its own Special Operations Unit which takes on organised wildlife crime and speaks rarely and little about its work.

It was launched originally to monitor the transportation of live food animals, but during the 1980s branched out into tackling underground badger digging, cock fighting and dog fighting. It has carried out a number of spectacular operations, including one which involved breaking up a dog fight at a school, organised by the caretaker. In another case, a man caught bringing cocaine into Britain from Europe to fund dog fighting activities in the United States, was jailed for six months for animal cruelty and seven years for drug smuggling.

"When breaking up something like this, we depend on the police to support us and restrain defendants," said Chief Superintendent Barry Fryer, who heads the unit.

"There are sometimes firearms involved because there is an element of gambling and also a large proportion of those involved are criminals. It is also part of the macho image of crime, bare knuckle fighting and dog fighting".

"Our way of operating is to watch people rather than places and we use fairly basic equipment like radio and walkie-talkies for personal communication, standard camera, image intensifiers for night work and sometimes infra red. There are tracker devices which would interest us, but the cost is a bit high."

Last year the unit were responsible for exposing an illegal trade in British Finches, which were being exported to Malta where they were snapped up for £40 a pair by people who like to keep song birds in cages. The officers intercepted one consignment of 600 male chaffinches and discovered that a Maltese national had been single-handedly responsible for exporting 60,000 finches in just four years.

The unit has a number of specialists on its staff including a professional dog fighting expert who knows more about the sport than anyone except the dog fighters themselves. This unusual blend of skills means the unit is beginning to find a demand for its services throughout Europe and even farther afield because there is no other organisation like it anywhere in the world except for the US.

Illegal trade

It has worked in Africa and the Amazon to fight the illegal trade in exotic and its officers went undercover in Athens to expose an elephant tusks racket. Most recently, it has been in Eastern Europe tracking the export of horses from Poland and Lithuania to be made into salami in Italy.

These officers are at the top of their trade, but the range of skills throughout wildlife policing is enormous, perhaps too enormous. For example, there is a two-person charity in the Black Country which has been set up to help people who keep barn owls legally, but are unable to cope with them; a huge problem now that barn owls in captivity greatly exceed in numbers those in the wild. In Staffordshire, there is a one-woman charity for distressed domestic ferrets which have been abandoned by their owners after having their teeth snapped off with pliers to prevent them biting.

Worthy as these organisations undoubtedly are, it is time for a more concerted approach and a partial answer may be reasonably imminent. Concern about the countryside generally has moved towards the centre of the political stage because of the number of high profile rural crimes.

The Police Wildlife Liaison Group and other interested bodies have therefore been submitting their ideas to the DOE about the content of the new Countryside Bill expected later this year. Suggestions for giving wildlife policing more teeth include providing extra power of arrest for such offences and enabling magistrates to pass prison sentences for offences that at present only carry a fine.

There is also a proposal for setting up Britain's first central wildlife crime unit to gather intelligence on a national basis. The Environment Secretary, is putting forward £440,00 to fund the new unit, but there would be a requirement for match funding, possibly from police sources. It is not a great deal of money and the match funding might be a problem, but it is a start. The inhabitants of nest, set and burrow may have cause to sleep a little easier from next winter.

Chris Mowbray is a freelance journalist specialising in security matters.

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