Wildlife crime surged but convictions fell during Covid, charities warn
Reports of wildlife crimes surged in the pandemic-hit year of 2020, including badger sets being bulldozed by builders and birds of prey being killed near grouse moors, according to a new report by wildlife charities.
The illegal taking of fish such as salmon from rivers and disturbance of seals and dolphins by people in boats also rose, the report found. Plants were also the target of criminals, who snatched large numbers of mushrooms and bluebells to sell. At the same time, convictions for wildlife crime fell significantly.
The wildlife groups acknowledge the data they collect is incomplete and represents just “the tip of the iceberg”. This is because police are not required to officially record wildlife crimes – most are listed as “miscellaneous”. The groups said wildlife crimes must become notifiable so resources can be better assessed and repeat offenders targeted.
The lockdowns and restrictions of 2020, with the police busy monitoring social distancing rules, may have emboldened offenders, the report said, while greater use of the countryside by the public could have increased the witnessing of wildlife crimes. It said Covid-19 restrictions and staff absences had also appeared to reduce enforcement capacity.
Martin Sims, chair of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s (WCL) wildlife crime group, said: “Wildlife crime is something that should concern everyone. It is high time the government steps in to treat wildlife crime with the seriousness it deserves.”
The report was produced by WCL, the biggest coalition of wildlife and environment charities in England, and Wales Environment Link. It found reports of suspected crimes against badgers rose by 36% to 614 reports in 2020 compared with 2019. About half were referred to the police.
Reports of potential fishing crimes went up by more than a third in 2020 and disturbances of marine mammals in Cornwall alone jumped by 90%, according to the data.
The number of confirmed bird of prey crimes in England and Wales almost doubled in 2020 to 104 – the worst year for bird crime since recording began in 1990, according to the RSPB. There were few known convictions for wildlife crime in 2020.
The National Wildlife Crime Unit only receives funding year-to-year and the wildlife groups said it should be put on a permanent footing.
A government spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of tackling wildlife crime, which is why we directly fund the NCWU who provide intelligence and support to police forces.”