A new initiative to tackle poaching was launched on October 1 2013 by the Poaching Priority Delivery Group. Helena Douglas explains how Project Trespass will work
The Poaching Priority Delivery Group, set up in 2008, comprises police representatives, the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO), the Food Standards Agency, the Deer Initiative, the Angling Trust, the Environment Agency (EA), the National Farmers Union (NFU), the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and the Countryside Alliance (CA). All of the above are working together to promote a coordinated approach to tackling poaching.
The National Wildlife Crime Unit, a police unit set up in October 2006 as the focal point for all UK wildlife crime, is playing a leading role in Project Trespass. Detective Inspector Nevin Hunter, the NWCU’s chief explains: “I took over as head of the unit in March and realised we needed to achieve more constructive work. We have six priorities in the wildlife crime area and poaching is one of them. Each of the six priorities is delivered by a priority delivery group, each of which is charged with looking at areas of work around prevention, intelligence, enforcement and reassurance, with Glynn Evans of BASC chairing the poaching group for England and Wales.”
The NWCU is working to achieve four objectives around poaching: prevention through offering advice to farmers, landowners, gamekeepers, shooting and land management organisations; intelligence to allow the police to target offenders; enforcement, supporting the targeting poachers through various rural and poaching based operations; and reassurance of the local community by working together and publicising actions such as activity, arrests, seizures and convictions.
“Poaching is a serious criminal activity and all poachers are trespassers,” says DI Nevin. “Furthermore, analysis by the NWCU over the past two years shows that, given an opportunity, poachers have diversified into thefts, burglaries, assaults and other rural crimes. Many police forces are developing rural crime strategies where the tackling of all wildlife crime and particularly poaching is a priority; Project Trespass will help in the effort to coordinate intelligence and responses to reports of crime, and much of our work lies raising awareness of the problem in rural communities and beyond. Poaching is a much bigger issue than someone going out after a few rabbits, and I know how much it frightens people who hear guns going off at night and see lights flashing, and farmers, gamekeepers and landowners shouldn’t have to deal with it.”
DI Nevin points out that the main concern around poaching is that it is dealt with in many different ways across the country, mainly because of the geographic differences in the way the crime is carried out. For example, hare coursing predominantly takes place in East Anglia, while deer poaching is a significant issue in Devon and is part of the £5 million black market for venison. But while there is localism in the targets and victims of poaching, the principles are the same: people trespassing on land without permission.
Glynn Evans, head of game and gamekeeping at BASC and plan owner for the Poaching Priority Delivery Group (PPDG) England and Wales, also comments on the seriousness of the problem, saying “Poachers have no regard for the animals they target. Many of them will be involved in other rural crime and they will often use intimidation or violence in the pursuit of their criminal activities.”
One of the major issues around poaching is that it is not classed as a recordable crime, with police forces not required to report levels to Government, so they do not appear in Home Office statistics. Hence, getting accurate figures on poaching incidents, or the financial impact it has on rural communities, is difficult. Another issue that further distorts the picture is under-reporting of poaching, and indeed much other rural crime, possibly due to a belief that nothing will be done about it.
DI Nevin wants to change this: “While levels of reporting of poaching across the country are consistent, the fact that it is not a recordable crime makes it difficult to say whether poaching is going up or down. One notable area of increase is poaching of deer in Devon, and that may be because Devon and Cornwall are very good at reporting to us, while others are less good at reporting wildlife crime. But we can only report on what we know about and on a broader wildlife scale we are trying to get as much intelligence passed to us by police forces to encourage them and I am doing a lot of work on that now.”
As to statistics that are known, in England and Wales deer poaching accounts for 14.8 per cent of recorded wildlife crime, equating to 312 intelligence logs, with the driver for deer poaching the increasing value of venison. In addition, the NWCU has noted an increase in the coursing of deer using dogs.
Fish poaching accounts for 3.9 per cent (81 intelligence logs) and hare coursing for 8.1 per cent (171 intelligence logs).
Sentences for poachers tend to be financial, although custodial sentences may be handed out in animal cruelty cases, for example badger baiting. But the financial penalties often don’t cover the cost of bringing the case, especially if the poacher has used dogs and those dogs are seized. The current Law Commission review of wildlife crime may address this, with the NWCU making a recommendation that if dogs are seized the costs associated with putting them in kennels can be recovered. “The problem at the moment is that there is the nonsense of a poacher getting a £200 fine while we’ve spent £2-3,000 on looking after the dogs,” says DI Nevin.
Another issue that is in desperate need of review is the poaching legislation and penalties to fit the crime. For example, the current Night Poaching Act dates from 1828, the Poaching Prevention Act from 1862, and the Hares Act from 1848. Not surprisingly, these old pieces of legislation don’t effectively cover today’s issues around poaching.
However, all is not lost, as DI Nevin explains: “The police and wildlife crime officers have been banging a drum about poaching for years and have been trying to get it taken more seriously. Now with the advent of police crime commissioners who really do take account of their rural communities there is a great opportunity to develop rural crime strategies and this is an ideal chance to raise the profile of poaching and ultimately to deter people from doing it in the first place. So we want to encourage reporting of incidents and for people to report local poachers to the wildlife crime officer. Ultimately we want to target our work, take more enforcement action and put more cases through the courts, which will reassure people but also send a clear message that poaching is illegal and that reporting it does lead to something being done. So what I want to do is promote Project Trespass so everyone knows it’s the anti-poaching operation, to educate police force enquiry centres, so if someone rings up about a poaching problem it is treated seriously, and to work to ensure that the rural agenda gets a much higher profile in policing.”