Wildlife crime underworld rampant, with shockingly low conviction rates, warns report

Exclusive: Dozens of experts slate ‘lack of progress’ by police chiefs as illegal hunting and poisoning takes toll on native birds and mammals

Related video: How terrier men block the entrances to badger setts to enable fox-hunting. Badger crime convictions have risen

The wildlife crime underworld in Britain is rampant, with “shockingly low conviction rates”, experts say, as a new report reveals the exploitation of wildlife is going unabated.

Criminals are using the internet to profit from gambling on live-streamed or recorded hare coursing, while the widespread illegal hunting, trapping and poisoning of native animals is exacting a heavy penalty on nature, the authors warn.

Just 10 people were convicted of wildlife crimes in England and Wales last year, excluding convictions for fisheries crimes.

And the report condemns a “concerning lack of progress” by the National Police Chiefs' Council wildlife crime strategy in reducing crime and increasing prosecutions.

The third annual report on wildlife crime by the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL), an umbrella group of 57 organisations, says many wildlife crimes go unwitnessed or unreported and unpunished.

Overall levels of reported wildlife crimes have changed little since the first annual report was first published, with 3,800 incidents reported last year, compared with 4,288 in 2016.  

WCL highlighted how there were 1,992 convictions last year for fisheries crimes, but only 10 for all other crimes combined. The experts say this highlights the impact of well-funded policing, with fishing licences and “well-resourced units in the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales” better able to monitor fisheries crime.

Bats, birds, badgers, plants, deer, fish, seals, dolphins, amphibians and reptiles are harmed by hunters, poachers, criminals and even normally law-abiding members of the public every year.  

Hare coursing “continues across large parts of the UK and has become a significant issue for many rural communities in areas where the land around them is flat, and offenders travel hundreds of miles to set their sight-hounds to chase hares,” the report notes.

For some offenders, it is a way of life but for others “there is a significant financial component through gambling on the outcome of coursing, with the activity live-streamed or recorded for later betting where large sums are exchanged,” it reveals.

An illegal pole trap designed to catch birds of prey

Cyber-enabled wildlife crime that’s rife in England and Wales also includes wildlife trafficking, illegal badger persecution, dog fights, poaching and trapping and raptor persecution.

However, crackdowns by police and wildlife organisations last year led to more tips from the public, arrests and animal rescues, such as dogs injured in badger-baiting. And the creation of a new Cyber Enabled Wildlife Crime Priority Delivery Group, led by the police National Wildlife Crime Unit, is a significant step forward, the report says.

Since 2017 “the government has taken no action to make wildlife crimes offences notifiable under Home Office counting rules”, and the nature group recommends that all wildlife crime be recordable through specific Home Office codes, “removing ambiguity and confusion over which crimes should be recorded”.

The report authors also say they are disappointed by an absence of momentum by the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) wildlife crime strategy, stating: “Unfortunately, very little progress appears to have been made over the last year. Although the Covid-19 pandemic could be blamed, at least in part, for this lack of progress, the NPCC strategy was already some 21 months old and wider work continued through virtual mediums once lockdown commenced at the end of March 2020.  

“We are disappointed and concerned by the lack of progress on these issues, especially on the impact this has had on the work of Link members to protect flora and fauna.”

Action on badger baiting and sett interference last year led to a record number of court cases and offenders being sentenced, with 270 crimes reported.

On illegal wildlife trade, tortoises, owls and primates are imported to meet demand for unusual pets, and some live wild animals are illegally sent abroad, such as European eels for a booming global illegal trade in eels for food.  

Bird of prey persecution continues, the document says, with hen harriers on the verge of extinction in England, and yet last year there were no prosecutions for such persecution.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “The wildlife crime underworld in Britain remains rife. Our figures are just a snapshot of the number of animals being illegally hurt and killed every single day, sometimes for sport, sometimes for profit, sometimes in sheer callousness.  

“Steps forward in tackling the growing online world of wildlife crime are very welcome. But overall a lack of adequate police recording and resourcing, low levels of prosecutions and inadequate sentencing are leaving our wildlife without the protection it needs.”

Adam Grogan, the RSPCA’s head of wildlife, said: "Last year, out of a total of 1,431 convictions, we secured 25 under the Protection of Badgers Act, 17 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, six under the Hunting Act and three under the Deer Act. These types of crime are, unfortunately, not going away and we cannot tackle them alone - the police and CPS must be better trained and resourced to ensure these cruel acts do not go unreported and unpunished."

The Independent has asked the Home Office and the NPCC to respond.

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