Christmas boom in plant-rustling puts rare habitats at risk

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The Independent Online

Organised criminal gangs, more accustomed to dealing in drugs and the proceeds of robberies, are turning their attention to the more sedate and less risky business of plant rustling.

Organised criminal gangs, more accustomed to dealing in drugs and the proceeds of robberies, are turning their attention to the more sedate and less risky business of plant rustling.

Hundreds of acres of some of Scotland's most important natural habitats are being put at risk by black-market gardeners plundering peat bogs for moss to meet the seasonal demand for Christmas wreaths.

Officers from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government conservation body, and the police have become alarmed at the increase in the number of "work parties" of illegal immigrants being transported across the border from England by criminals to steal sphagnum moss and other plants from Scotland, which are then sold to garden centres across Britain.

Although it is illegal to plunder plants or damage protected sites, the boom in gardening has created a lucrative demand for favourites such as bluebells, snowdrops, Scottish primrose and sphagnum moss. The moss, which forms the top layer on many protected peat bogs, is especially in demand at this time of year for use in Christmas wreaths and hanging baskets.

In an attempt to draw public attention to the problem, SNH and Strathclyde Police have launched a campaign as part of a Partnership for Action against Wildlife crime (PAW), to urge gardeners to boycott products they suspect of using stolen plants. A spokesman for SNH stressed that "wildlife crime" was not just about birds and birds' eggs but that moss collecting was just as serious.

"There have already been two known cases of large-scale gathering of moss in Lanarkshire, one of which caused £34,000 of damage. The problem is thought to be widespread throughout the country and appears to be linked to other types of crime." According to police, the people involved in theft of moss or other wild plants were often linked to other wildlife crimes, as well as housebreaking, theft and drugs. In some cases they were part of an organised network of illegal trading and can earn substantial profits by supplying garden centres with a variety of plants, including some threatened species.

"We know this type of trade exists but at the moment there have been few reported incidents and we would appeal to people to let us know if they have seen this type of large-scale moss gathering," said Phil Briggs, wildlife crime officer at Strathclyde Police.

Although some commercial companies are licensed to collect moss, from sites not designated as of Special Scientific Interest, a number of criminals have realised they can make serious money from this activity.

Police believe there are at least three or four organised gangs involved in the business.

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