New government law could worsen record high wildlife crime levels

Record high wildlife crime levels could be worsened by new Government law, warn wildlife campaigners

The warning comes from Wildlife and Countryside Link, the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England which brings together 67 organisations to use their strong joint voice for the protection of nature.

The annual Wildlife Crime Report compiled by Wildlife and Countryside Link with information from groups including RSPB, WWF UK, and the League Against Cruel Sports, has shown that crime against wildlife in 2021 was at record levels.  Wildlife crimes include, for example, hare coursing, persecution of birds of prey, badgers and bats, disturbance of seals and dolphins and illegal wildlife trade.

In England and Wales there were 1,414 reported wildlife crime incidents (outside of fisheries), almost exactly the same level as in 2020 (1,401). There were 3,337 fisheries crime reports in 2021, down from 4,163 in 2020. The scale of wildlife crime is likely to be far higher than the report details, due to lack of official recording and monitoring of most of the data relying on direct reports from members of the public to nature groups.

  • Figures collected annually by nature organisations reveal that wildlife crime rates remained stubbornly high in 2021, following record highs in 2020
  • Convictions for most wildlife crime types rose in 2021 from record lows in 2020, with hunting and bat crimes showing the biggest proportional increase in conviction rates (although from low baselines).
  • Campaigners are warning reductions in wildlife protections in the Retained EU Law Bill could see further rises in wildlife crime and are calling on Government to stop the Bill and make crucial improvements to wildlife crime monitoring and enforcement recommended by the UN.


Could government make things worse?

A new Bill from Government could actively worsen wildlife crime. The Retained EU Law Bill is intended to ‘save, repeal, replace, restate or assimilate’ the retained EU law (known as REUL) applying in the UK within a set time period. These laws include the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, which make it a criminal offence to damage the habitats of key species including badgers and bats. Such habitat offences form the majority of the wildlife crimes against badgers and bats. The Bill is likely to lead to the hasty rewriting of the regulations, potentially weakening the legislative underpinning for tackling common wildlife crimes.

To properly tackle the issue of wildlife crime, nature experts are calling for the following actions (most of which were also recommended by a UN report in 2021):

  1. Making wildlife crimes notifiable to the Home Office, so such crimes are officially recorded in national statistics. This would better enable police forces to gauge the true extent of wildlife crime and to plan strategically to address it.
  2. Increasing resources & training for wildlife crime teams in police forces. Significant investment in expanding wildlife and rural crime teams across police forces in England & Wales, and the placing of National Wildlife Crime Unit funding on a permanent basis, would enable further investigations, and lead to further successful prosecutions.
  3. Reforming wildlife crime legislation. Wildlife crime legislation in the UK is antiquated and disparate. A 2015 Law Commission report concluded these laws are ‘‘overly complicated, frequently contradictory and unduly prescriptive’’. Much of this stems from the need to prove ‘intention and recklessness’, which has stunted the potential for prosecution in even clear cases of harm being done to protected and endangered species.
  4. The immediate withdrawal of the Retained EU Law Bill. Retained EU laws include the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, which (amongst other protections for habitats and species), make it a criminal offence to damage the habitats of key species including badgers and bats. These vital protections are at risk of being dropped or weakened, undermining the legislative foundation for tackling common wildlife crimes.

Poisoned Red Kite Nidderdale RSPB

Wildlife crime should be made notifiable

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Wildlife crime soared during the pandemic and remained at record levels this year. Progress on convictions is positive, and we welcome DEFRA’s efforts to stiffen sentencing, but overall that is of little use while the rate of successful prosecutions remains so low.

“The snapshot in our report is likely to be a significant under-estimate of all kinds of wildlife offences. To get to grips with these cruel crimes, the Home Office should make wildlife crime notifiable, to help target resources and action to deal with hotspots of criminality.

“The Retained EU Law Bill threatens to be a serious distraction, and could even lead to important wildlife laws being lost. Instead, seven years on from its publication, the Government should implement the Law Commission’s 2015 wildlife law report. Surely it is better to spend time and money improving laws that are as much as two centuries old, than wasting time reviewing effective environmental laws under the REUL bill.”