The first ever NGO National Anti-Poaching Conference in September was chaired by Simon Prince, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on rural and wildlife crime. After the event, he told Helena Venables his plans for tackling crime
Organised by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation and held at JCB World Headquarters on 11 September, the National Anti-Poaching Conference was attended by some 200 specialists including wildlife crime officers from police forces around the country and representatives of organisations such as the BASC, the CLA, the Deer Initiative, the NFU, and Crimestoppers.
Billed as a forum for collaborative action to tackle poaching, the conference welcomed speakers from various police forces, agencies and organisations. Themes of the conference included the scale of poaching and statistics; its impact on the environment and rural communities; its links with serious organised crime; raising awareness among the public; predicting occurrences; information sharing between agencies tackling the problem; specific examples of poaching occurrences; and evidence, convictions and the law.
The conference was chaired by Simon Prince, Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys Police in Wales, and the Association of Chief Police Officers’ (ACPO) lead on rural and wildlife crime, which costs the UK millions of pounds. ACPO brings together the expertise and experience of chief police officers from around the UK to provide a professional forum to share ideas and best practice, co-ordinate resources and help deliver effective policing.
Mr Prince explains how this works: “A chief officer of police will take the lead for a particular area of business and will work closely with the College of Policing on guidance and best practice and also act as a spokesperson on that area of policing and enforcement.”
“My role as National Policing lead on rural and wildlife crime means I work with the College of Policing to develop this guidance and liaise with and provide leadership to the National Wildlife Crime Unit, an intelligence and enforcement unit that covers the whole of the UK. There is a lot of work to do, but it fits in well with my role as Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys as it is a very large and rural area. There are other Chief Constables leading on other areas that are important to me such as the use of force, public order crime and so on. So it really is a sharing of the workload.”
One of Mr Prince’s major achievements as ACPO lead in this area has been to bring direction to the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU). “That unit has a tremendous history in terms of what it has delivered so far and we are now building on that to further professionalise its work and through that the work of wildlife crime officers in the different forces in England and Wales.”
The role of the NWCU is to provide an intelligence service across the whole of the UK as well as investigative support to wildlife crime officers—highly specialised experts in their field—when they are dealing with difficult investigations. Increased communication and information distribution is key and improvements are being implemented constantly. For example, in June this year, Crimestoppers (the independent crime fighting charity) began to copy the NWCU into all intelligence it sends to police forces on rural crime, 38 per cent of which is to do with poaching.
Another area of success under Mr Prince’s watch has been to raise awareness of the UK’s six wildlife crime priorities: poaching, raptor persecution, badger persecution, bat persecution, CITES issues and freshwater pearl mussels. In addition, he and his team are providing support to the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW UK) that works to reduce wildlife crime through effective and targeted enforcement, better regulation and improved awareness. PAW UK involves the government in the form of DEFRA, all of the UK’s police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service and a number of other organisations such as the Environment Agency and Natural England. It also has over 60 partner organisations which include BASC, the British Deer Society and the Countryside Alliance.
Poaching, which is occurs on a greater scale than the other five wildlife priorities combined, still suffers from a romanticised image, as Mr Prince points out, with many people thinking it involves wily Claude Greengrass types taking a couple of rabbits for the pot.
However, as a number of speakers at the conference emphasised, poaching is often part of serious organised crime and causes untold misery as well as high levels of environmental damage. Populations of deer have been wiped out because of poaching, crops and cover crops are damaged, deer management is compromised as deer become vehicle-shy, game bird broods are scattered, roosts and drives disturbed, and populations of animals such as hares are impacted and fish stocks reduced.
Poaching causes great harm in terms of social impact, leaving gamekeepers and rural workers living in fear of intimidation, attack or threats to their families as well as having to put in place time-consuming and costly anti-poaching measures such as chaining gates shut and digging ditches to prevent access to fields. Poachers are also going to increasing lengths to avoid detection by working under cover of legitimate activities such as posing as pest controllers.
“The profile of the people committing organised crime is becoming clearer to us,” says Mr Prince. “If you analyse people who are members of organised crime groups they look for the highest level of profit at the lowest level of risk of detection and penalty they can find. They will mistakenly believe that poaching provides high returns and a low risk of being caught. Furthermore, you will rarely find people in an organised crime group who will just commit one type of offence so people who commit poaching and offences such as hare coursing will commonly be found to commit other crimes such as burglary or theft of plant and equipment.”
Part of the ongoing work to tackle poaching and prosecute offenders is to help the public understand what poaching really involves, the environmental consequences of it and its impact on rural communities. “Poaching causes unimaginable suffering,” emphasises Mr Prince. “We are talking about a major problem for the UK and we want the public to report things they feel are suspicious by phoning 101 or ringing Crimestoppers on 0800 555111. We need to engage rural communities, for example members of the shooting community, the farming community and others that live and work in rural areas as they will know what it is going on locally and when things are not right. And on top of that, it is vital all the agencies involved share best practice and that people who are dealing with particular poaching issues can talk to those who have dealt successfully with an investigation in that area so they can share expertise and build a clear picture and understanding of the scale and the nature of the problem.”
Information and knowledge is key to tackling crime and to this end Mr Prince works in close contact with Andy Marsh, Chief Constable of Hampshire Police and the ACPO lead on firearms. Clearly the two portfolios overlap when it comes to poaching and rural crime, much of which involves the use criminal use of firearms meaning poachers may also be committing offences under firearms legislation such as armed trespass.
Mr Prince points out that while there are a number of Acts of Parliament that encompass poaching legislation and prosecution, much of this is old and somewhat outdated. For example, the sentence for poaching is less than the sentence for receiving stolen venison. He also believes that it is important that we use whatever statutes are available to tackle the problem of poaching and rural crime. So, if there are higher penalties under firearms legislation then we should apply that legislation where we can.”
In terms of the law, changes may be on the cards with the Law Commission currently working on a review of wildlife laws in England and Wales with the aim of simplifying the requirements of the current law and introducing a reformed poaching offence that covers all species protected by poaching legislation. The hope is to repeal the outmoded 19th century acts on game hunting and poaching and replace them with a single, modern regulatory framework, although any legislative changes recommended will be a matter for Parliament.
Clearly there is much work still to be done on tackling poaching but the NGO conference and the clear commitment from police forces across the UK to bring poachers to book is encouraging. Increased involvement from the public, rural communities and those involved in fieldsports and country pursuits will also help increase the intelligence available to support enforcement and prosecution. Spread the word.