Birders Against Wildlife Crime set their sights on wildlife criminals.

Birders Against Wildlife Crime set their sights on wildlife criminals.

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Added by April 2, 2015

It is said that the United Kingdom is a nation of wildlife lovers.  It should then, come as no surprise that a new voluntary group is raising concerns about the lack of progress to eradicate wildlife crime in the UK since the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act came in to being.

BAWC_Horiz_Logo_RGB-300x110The new group, Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC), was set up in 2014 by several frustrated wild bird enthusiasts and conservationists who wanted to do something about the number of crimes being committed against British wildlife each year and to raise awareness of the problem.

So what is the problem? Statistics show that in 2013 alone there were 164 reports of birds of prey being illegally killed in the UK including 74 poisonings and 49 birds shot. Previous years have experienced a similar number of reports. Most of the reports of bird of prey persecution are from on or within close proximity of shooting estates and 69% of those convicted for offences related to bird of prey persecution between 1990 and 2013 were gamekeepers. Any budding criminologists will see a pattern emerging.

Unfortunately, these depressing figures are considered by BAWC and many wildlife experts to be the tip of the ice burg. For example Hen harriers, the iconic ‘sky dancers’ of our remote open moorlands, feed predominantly on grouse but remain absent from most UK driven grouse moors despite the habitat being suitable for breeding.

It does not take the deduction skills of Sherlock Holmes to conclude that many more hen harriers are being illegally killed each year than are being reported. This theory is supported by a study in 2008 undertaken by Government’s wildlife agency Natural England which found that very few harrier nesting attempts were successful on grouse moors and that persecution was limiting the species’ recovery in England.

The video below was made by RSPB and shows a spring-loaded trap, known as a pole trap, found on a farm in North Yorkshire in 2014. The spring-loaded trap works by crushing a bird’s legs forcing it to hang upside down in extreme pain until it dies or is killed. Setting a spring trap in ‘an elevated position’ with the intention of catching birds has been illegal since 1904. Unbelievably, pole traps are still used by some gamekeepers to illegally control birds of prey.

Badgers did not fare any better than birds of prey in 2013 with 697 incidents reported across the UK. 196 of the incidents related to sett interference including 42 reports of developers trying to move badgers from a site, 24 reports of badger setts being ploughed over by farmers, 9 incidents related to forestry operations and 30 instances involved the alleged illegal activity of persons hunting with dogs. In addition there were 151 badger baiting incidents, 43 incidents connected with traps/snares, 24 incidents of badgers being poisoned and 26 of badgers being shot.

Since BAWC set up last year the organisers have been hard at it using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and their website to promote the three Rs  “Recognise Wildlife Crime, Record Wildlife Crime and Report Wildlife Crime.”

On Sunday August 10th 2014 BAWC instigated and co-organised the first ever Hen Harrier Day with a coalition comprising former RSPB Conservation Director Mark Avery, Chris Packham, RSPB, and the North West Raptor Protection Group. 580 people braved a very wet day in the Peak District to show their solidarity against the illegal killing of hen harriers. People also gathered at similar events in Lancashire, Northumberland and Dorset.

BAWC’s second event was the “Eyes in the Field” conference in Buxton on March 21 2015.  The fact that the conference sold out in just a few weeks shows the level of support for the cause. Speakers came from variety of organisations including the Badger Trust, League against Cruel Sports, RSPB and the Police.

Chris Packham

Chris Packham Makes the point that Britain’s wildlife should be treasured and protected in the same way as work of fine art at the recent “Eyes in the Field” conference organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime in Buxton, Derbyshire. Copyright Mark Avery.

Chris Packham, during a typically impassioned keynote speech, made the point that British wildlife such as hen harriers should be considered national treasures in the same way as we treasure works of art. He drove home the point by vandalising a copy of John Constable’s 1821 masterpiece The Hay Wain and commented “The Hay Wain is seen as one of our greatest national treasures – if I had done that [vandalised it] to the real thing I would have hung myself and I would not even have waited to be tried. And yet that is happening every single day with one of our national treasures [British wildlife] around the UK. We are being robbed of them.”

One of the problems highlighted by several speakers at the conference was that wildlife crime is considered by many in the media, government and law enforcement agencies to be a low priority and perpetrators are simply getting away with illegally shooting, poisoning, trapping and, yes, even clubbing to death protected wildlife such as badgers and birds of prey.

Dr Ruth Tingay, a wildlife conservationist specialising in raptor ecology, presented the findings of a review of the enforcement of wildlife protection legislation in Scotland which had been recently published by Scottish Environment LINK, the forum for Scotland’s voluntary environment organisations. The damning report echoed the frustration of many of the speakers and questioned the “ability of the statutory agencies to investigate wildlife crime in Scotland” and catalogued a decline in police interest and presence with calls from the public not taken seriously or even recorded and crimes perpetrated not being investigated or recorded.

The report also highlighted an apparent “unwillingness of the judiciary to impose meaningful deterrent sentences” with punishments for the few criminals convicted of wildlife crime ranging from official warnings to small fines. It is worth noting, however, that a gamekeeper recently received a custodial sentence for beating to death goshawks with a stick on an estate near Aberdeen.

Its clear that BAWC is going to have its work cut out over the next few of years. However, the group’s message is also clear, the tide is turning and those involved in wildlife crime need to give up their antiquated practices immediately or run the real risk of getting caught and prosecuted.

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