An interview with PC Gareth Jones, Beat Manager for the Ripon Rural Area.
Gareth estimates that 10– 15% of his week is spent dealing with wildlife incidents and paperwork in relation to wildlife crime. There are no full time officers engaged in wildlife crime.
How did you become a Wildlife Crime Officer?
My family have farmed in the Yorkshire Dales for 3 generations but there wasn’t enough work for me I worked for other people and subsequently went abroad to work. When I came back to the UK I decided on a career change and joined the police. After about 20 years of being a bobby I was asked if I’d like to take on the role of Harrogate & District Wildlife Crime Officer. You have to be a certain type of person that’s committed to animal welfare, wildlife and conservation and are willing to do work voluntarily outside normal hours.
Are WCO’s always recruited from the police force?
North Yorkshire Police, to supplement the ever reducing number of officers, has a volunteer department and are always looking for people to volunteer for various aspects of policing. Within the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) there are analyst posts for civilian staff.
Do you have to undertake regular CPD to keep up with changing legislation?
The legislation hasn’t altered that much recently although there was a court appeal that’s going to change the way we deal with badger cases. A terrier man from the Middleton Hunt at Malton was filmed blocking up a badger set prior to a day’s hunting and that is against the law. He was convicted of that offence and fined. He appealed the case and the appeal was successful on 15 October, the judge said that a badger expert must examine the set on the day of the disturbance. Our expert didn’t examine it until 3 days later. It’s all to do with proving whether a sett’s in use or not and it’s only an offence if the badger sett is currently in use. It’s a very complicated piece of legislation but it’s going to make it difficult for us to investigate badger cases because we’ll have to get an expert to the scene on the same day.
We have training days a couple of times a year where we will have presentations from external organisations. We work closely with the investigations branch of the RSPB and the RSPCA. We have a police liaison officer at the League Against Cruel Sports and regularly work with the Bat Conservation Trust, Badger Trust, Natural England and other agencies.
Is the wildlife side of your work not seen as important as general police work?
For an incident to be a crime it needs a home office classification and wildlife offences don’t have that which means that wildlife crimes are summary only offences and are not recorded under the police crime statistics because they are not a crime.
Some crimes against other animals such as farm animals and pets can be classed as crimes because the animals are owned by somebody and to destroy or damage property is an act of criminal damage. For example a man was prosecuted for killing a mute swan whilst on a pheasant shoot; he heard a bird flying behind him spun round and fired both barrels. The prosecution under criminal damage legislation succeeded because a mute swan is property of the crown. A similar case a few years earlier involving a different species of swan which isn’t the property of the crown didn’t proceed.
Zak Goldsmith carried out a review in to wildlife legislation in the last parliament recommending that wildlife crimes become crimes and that all the existing wildlife legislation is updated so that it is current, some of the old poaching legislation goes back to the 1820’s. It is frustrating that it’s not seen as a priority as one of the recommendations was to bring in vicarious liability currently available in Scotland. If a gamekeeper commits an offence against wildlife the owner of the estate is equally liable and will be prosecuted for the same offence, their single farm payments are also reduced. There was an estate in Dumfries & Galloway where a raptor was killed by a gamekeeper and the estate lost a large sum of money in subsidies from the EU as a result of that one case so it is very powerful legislation. A lot of the payments that these estates get are for conservation work so if it’s proved that they are doing things contrary to the conservation of the wildlife on their estate then part of the Single Farm Payment is withdrawn. Poisoning in Scotland was virtually eradicated overnight. Apart from a case on The Black Isle where a number of Red Kites and other birds were poisoned.
Is there any seasonality to the crimes that you see?
Very much so yes, bird of prey persecution tends to start in the spring time when the bird nesting season and the lambing season start. Likewise with hare coursing, one of the major things that we deal with, it starts after the harvest. Badger baiting tends to start in January, the pregnant sows are much fiercer and are classed as better sport in the spring time.
What's the most usual type of wildlife crime you have to deal with?
At this time of year its hare coursing because the fields have been harvested and until the new crops get to about a foot high hares are visible from the lanes. The brown hare population is being adversely affected by this kind of poaching because the farmers are actually shooting them to try and prevent damage to crops and field boundaries from poachers. Farmers and gamekeepers alert us to men with dogs on their land. As long as we’ve got someone who can say they have actually seen the dogs chasing a hare we can then prosecute those people and if we use the hunting act it allows us to seize anything that’s used in the offence, we can take vehicles and dogs.
What is the most exciting event you have had to deal with?
The most challenging case I had was a satellite tagged Hen Harrier called Bowland Betty who was shot in the Dales. She flew on to a grouse estate and she was found dead with a broken leg. Via a very protracted investigation which involved a number of agencies and some cutting edge forensic work we discovered she’d been shot. A cross between an electron microscope and a mass spectrometer was used to prove that there was lead within the wound which when analysed, was found to contain another compound which is used to coat bullets during the manufacturing process so the conclusion was it was lead from a bullet that had caused the wound. No one was ever prosecuted because we could never prove who was responsible.
What advances in technology & techniques have you seen?
We have a forensics fund for wildlife crime, it’s difficult to get money out of the force to deal with incidents so Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW) set up a forensics fund and they will match fund money for forensic work. For example, if an offender and a dog are suspected of deer poaching then we can DNA match the dog with the bite marks on the rump of the deer. Forensics was used in a badger case near Richmond where blood was found on the shoe of an offender which was subsequently found to be from a badger. He was convicted of that offence purely because of the blood.
How can the public help you in your job?
Lobby the government to have the changes brought in to the wildlife legislation so that vicarious liability becomes a law in England and Wales, that’s probably the biggest thing that would help us. Contact your local MP and ask them to put pressure on the government to have the wildlife legislation updated.
What message would you like to give to our readers?
Carry on the good work, we in the wildlife crime unit are committed to protecting animals, plants & birds within North Yorkshire and further afield with regard to endangered species. We work in partnership with a number of agencies because we need expert knowledge for certain cases to get to court so we are always looking for new partners who can bring expertise to us. Anyone who has expertise that they feel would be useful to us please contact me as the single point of contact (SPOC) at North Yorkshire Police and I can pass your details on to officers who may need it.
Other forces should have their own SPOC
Find your local police force contact on http://www.nwcu.police.uk/find-your-local-police/
19 October was the start of Wildlife Crime Awareness Week for which we started a twitter feed @NYPWCOS and Operation Badger Week which began on 26 October is an awareness week and an operation to try and combat people who are committing crimes against badgers.