Attacks on wildlife double in one year

'It's open warfare on the uplands,' says the RSPB. And now the police are fighting back. David Randall reports
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The Independent Online

Wildlife crimes committed on specially protected nature sites are increasing so quickly that they have doubled in just a year, English Nature has revealed.

More than 160 incidents involve illegal off-road driving, damaging valuable habitats. They range from Northumberland, Derbyshire, Cornwall and Surrey heaths to North Yorkshire, where drivers and bikers have scarred moorland so badly that a swathe 50 yards wide and five miles long was ruined. In North Wales, habitat for the rare black grouse and hen harrier has been badly damaged.

Damage to Sites of Special Scientific Interest is just part of a wildlife crime wave that is seeing rare animals, birds and plants stolen or destroyed. In the past year or so, offences include: 10 pregnant seals shot in the Orkneys; a Merseyside man found guilty of stealing eggs from avocets, nightjars and marsh harriers; more than 2,000 finches and buntings trapped in Scotland alone, the birds often captured by putting glue on twigs; shooting of badgers for taxidermy; poisoning of birds of prey, including, in just one year, no fewer than 16 red kites, 24 buzzards, eight peregrines and a sea eagle; peat bogs stripped of mosses to sell to gardeners; thousands of Arctic tern eggs stolen in Northern Ireland for a restaurant black market; deer poaching; badger baiting; and even birds of prey being stolen to order for Glasgow gangsters who see them as status symbols.

The persecution of rare hawks such as the hen harrier is an especial worry for the RSPB. "It's open warfare on the uplands," says Duncan McNiven, its special investigations officer.

Even wildlife on nature reserves is vulnerable. Last month, three birds of prey - a peregrine and two buzzards - were found poisoned on an RSPB reserve in Geltsdale, Cumbria. A post-mortem revealed they died after starting to eat a dead rabbit baited with the illegal pesticide carbofuran. Last July, two other peregrines were found poisoned at a Scottish wildlife reserve in Aberdeenshire.

Some crimes are isolated hooliganism, such as the bludgeoning of a seal in Ayrshire; but others involve commercial interests. English Nature says 29 per cent of offences on SSSIs were committed by those who owned or managed sites, often through illegal dumping. Developers are sometimes guilty too, including a firm prosecuted for destroying sand martin nests in a Cumbrian quarry.

Yet the crimes that most concern conservation bodies and Britain's 500 or so wildlife crimes police officers are organised. In the past year or so, police have launched: Operation Artemis, to fight the widespread poisoning of hen harriers; Operation Salmo, against poachers who, in raids on Scottish rivers, can take 200 to 300 salmon at a time; Operation Easter, to counteract stealing of birds' eggs; Operation Bat, to combat the 70-plus annual offences against bats, most of which involve builders destroying roosts; Operations Siskin and Kongo, aimed at the trapping of finches for export as caged song birds; and Operation Necklace, targeting poachers preying on Scotland's freshwater pearl mussels.

What no one knows is how widespread wildlife crime is. The RSPB monitors offences against birds (560 in 2003, with 143 cases of shooting and destruction of birds of prey, and 91 poisonings), and Welsh police forces recorded more than 1,000 incidents in 2002, but few other agencies collect data. So this year, for the first time, wildlife crime incidents will be recorded by police.

This is part of a more professional approach, reflected in the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime agency, a wildlife arm of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and some police authorities, such as Northumbria, training extra wildlife officers.

More power to them. As Alison Flowers, English Nature enforcement officer, said of those wrecking SSSIs: "They are not only committing criminal offences but are also threatening the future of our wildlife and geology and stopping others from enjoying it."

A year in the death of British wildlife

June 2004: Thousands of Arctic tern eggs reported stolen from nests on Copeland Islands, off County Down. Two men arrested for badger baiting with dogs in Sussex.

July: Pair of adult herons shot in Wales; young later found starved to death in nest.

August: Seal in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, found battered to death with metal scaffolding pole. Gamekeeper fined for poisoning 16 buzzards and a goshawk in Peeblesshire.

September: Developer prosecuted for dredging river and destroying home of water voles, a nationally threatened species. Twelve seals, 10 of them pregnant, shot through head with a high-velocity rifle on Orkney beach.

October: Former owner of owl sanctuary convicted of stealing falcon and unlicensed selling of marsh harriers.

November: Pigeon fancier pleads guilty in West Yorkshire court to baiting hawk with live finches.

December: Man found in possession of 30 Arctic tern eggs becomes first in Scotland to be jailed for stealing eggs.

January 2005: Man arrested at Malta airport with suitcase stuffed with British greenfinches, linnets, serins and a barn owl, most of them dead.

February: Van seized in Fife containing an estimated £60,000-worth of wild snowdrop bulbs. Fourteen men arrested in London pub, leading to recovery of nearly 100 greenfinches, bullfinches and goldfinches.

March: Lancashire taxidermist goes on trial on charges of possessing illegally killed buzzard, swallow, lapwing and pine marten.

April: Porpoises found shot on North Sea beaches. Five men arrested for illegal hare hunting in Kincardineshire.

May: Illegal chemical bait on RSPB reserve in Cumbria kills peregrine falcon and buzzards.