In this latest instalment of our Q&A sessions, we travelled to the Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh to have a sit down with Sergeant Andy Mavin , Scottish Wildlife Crime Coordinator and find out all there is to know about hare coursing, badger baiting, moss theft and otter sporrans.
Thanks for having us in, Sergeant Mavin. So how does the Wildlife Crime investigation operate in Police Scotland?
There are six priorities: poaching, such as fishing or hare and deer coursing, trading in endangered species, bat persecution, badger persecution, freshwater pearl mussels and raptor persecution. Wildlife crime is devolved to divisions in terms of responsibility, so each division has a liaison officer, and their job is to co-ordinate the approach to wildlife crime. Six of the Divisions have this as a full time role and this reflects the areas where traditionally the highest levels of wildlife crime have been recorded. We also have some semi regular officers who dedicate part of their time to wildlife crime, and these could be community officers or regular PCs who have experience in the field. There’s also a wildlife co-ordinator role, which is what I do.
I’d imagine wildlife crime is more prevalent in rural areas than in the cities?
Historically it can be, which is why the full time wildlife liaison officers are based in the Lothians and Borders, Fife, Tayside, Forth Valley, Highlands and Islands and Aberdeenshire, because those are the places where we see wildlife crime recorded at its highest levels. But there is wildlife crime in urban areas too. In the middle of Glasgow, for example, we have had enquiries about trading in endangered species in Pollock, or badger baiting or deer poaching in one of the country parks. It’s also in Edinburgh, Ayrshire, rural areas of Lanarkshire where you can get raptor persecution, and deer poaching right across the central belt.
Is poaching one of the main things you deal with?
Yes, and we put out a release recently because there’s a possibility that venison can get into the food chain after the deer’s been killed illegally. The people who’re doing this aren’t concerned with hygiene for example, because for them it’s just a money making opportunity, and they’re probably using the wrong calibre of weapon and ammunition to kill deer, the legislation for which is very specific. Deer poachers looking to cash in on the demand for meat around the Xmas period don’t care about such things.
So is wildlife crime commonly a seasonal thing?
Yes, it can be. Hare coursing for example, used to be most common in late summer and springtime, but now tends to be all year round. The reason is that unlike rabbits, hares don’t live in burrows but on the surface in fields, so when the crops are high, obviously you can’t see the hares. It used to be that the crops in fields would be low in late summer and spring having been cut. Now though, crop rotation if far greater, so you get crops cut low all year round, so hare coursing incidents are coming in all year.
When the crops are low, the hares can be seen by the people who are out there with their dogs. They use “sight hounds” like lurchers, which are the traditional breed for coursing. So you get two or three people walking across the field, and as soon as they see the hare, the dogs are let loose. There’s obviously the animal welfare issue in terms of the hares being killed, but there’s also the issue of crop damage caused by people wandering through the field. These people think nothing of cutting chains and padlocks on gates that are locked. In Scotland, hare coursing is a problem up and down the east coast and off the main arterial routes, but the people involved move around a lot making it challenging for us to target.
Is there money involved in hare coursing?
Yes. Based on the speed that the dogs can run, they change hands for serious amounts of money and there’s a significant gambling aspect to it. You’ll find that the cars people are using aren’t necessarily insured, not registered, shouldn’t be on the road, so often we find that the wildlife crime gives us leads into other offences. Criminals of this kind are often involved in distraction crimes, so we have to look at what else is in the car.
What about badger baiting?
Badgers have an act all to themselves, the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. There are a number of reasons that people persecute badgers. There are those who just want to dig the badger up and test their dog against it. They’re looking for the badger to be killed, but there’s also the issue with the dog being injured because badgers are strong, aggressive animals when cornered and have huge claws and jaws. The dogs get significant injuries as well, and then don’t get treated by a vet. Often this is just a bit of sport for people who are involved in more serious crime. But in some areas, you find that there are people who believe they’re just upholding what they see as a community tradition that’s gone on for hundreds of years. Same with hare coursing.
But there are other reasons badgers are persecuted. They can dig huge setts and they can get under the foundations of houses. If you intentionally damage a badger’s sett, that’s a crime, so if you’re a farmer, it can restrict the area where you can plant your crops. Same with housing developments. A badger’s sett can be very inconvenient to property developers who want to build houses. Forestry is another area. If there’s a sett in the middle of where you want to fell trees, you have to have an exclusion zone. That’s where you tend to find a number of these cases, coming from this type of situation - forestry operations, agricultural tasks and other lawful actions such as development of land for building purposes. The unnecessary illegal interference with setts can cause delays to works and can be expensive to resolve if not properly planned. Sometimes though profit comes before wildlife crime.
You mentioned bat persecution is a problem as well?
All UK bat species are protected and one bat is evidence of a whole roost as far as the legislations concerned, so it can be a huge problem for someone who finds evidence of a single bat in their loft space if they’re for example carrying out a barn conversion. Again, you can get a license to have the bats removed, there are measures in place to make sure the bats can get out, but not back in. What you shouldn’t be doing though is blocking off all the exits and entrances so the bats die inside, but that’s the easiest way to handle it for some people. There are all sorts of ways to build artificial roosts nearby for bats.
And the birds of prey? What’s the motivation behind that kind of thing?
The basic principle is that all wild birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law. Raptor cases are probably the most high profile of the wildlife crimes. The numbers are actually relatively low in terms of recorded persecution, but obviously, Scotland’s known for its outdoors, Golden Eagles etc, the fact we have them we are very proud of. But these cases are the ones that catch the public interest, so the issue we have is that the crime tends to happen in a very remote area, miles up a mountainside in the middle of nowhere without witnesses, and we might not find out about it for weeks on end, which makes investigating a crime scene very difficult. Then again, sometimes it’s the case that the bird simply disappears, and if it’s satellite tagged, the tags don’t transmit a signal constantly, maybe only for four hours a day, so you can have a twenty hour period when you don’t know where the bird is.
In terms of the motivation behind raptor persecution, there are a few issues. One of the ones we hear is that they prey on game birds which are put out by sporting estates for shooting during grouse or pheasant season,. Outside the sporting estates, birds of prey have also been persecuted as potential predators of livestock and racing pigeons. This has seen them shot, trapped or poisoned in the Scottish countryside. There’s also egg theft and people getting too close and disturbing nests when photographing protected birds. There was a fairly recent case in the Highlands and Islands division where we had an individual from England who had an interest in collecting illegal eggs. He had eggs in his car, and when his home was searched there was a huge collection, which can be very valuable on the black market. And again, there’s the forestry aspect. Similar to the situation with badgers and bats, if you have a protected bird nesting in a section of forest that’s scheduled to be cut for timber, that obviously creates a potential problem for the logging company. Remember it isn’t just about destruction of the nest but can be about disturbance when the bird is nesting.
Okay, finally, what are some of the strangest cases you’ve ever heard of?
Some of the cases about escaped non-native species from private collections have been interesting - Prairie Dogs and Rheas to name but two! Moss taken for Christmas wreaths has to be up there though. They’ll illegally take moss from protected sites of special scientific interest, and it tends to happen before Christmas, so you’ll see these people with bags and bags of moss for decoration. I also remember another case where someone spotted a butterfly that hadn’t been seen for twenty years or so, and there was a building site next to the area. Turns out the butterfly was a protected species, so we had to go and tell the contractors who were doing excavation work that they had to down tools because someone had spotted a rare butterfly. We’ve also had people who’ve contacted us to say they’d found a dead otter by the roadside and asked if they can make a sporran out of it.
Afraid so. But actually, no you can’t turn an otter into a sporran, because the otter’s a protected animal even when dead and you’d have to get a license from Scottish Natural Heritage to allow you to you possess otter specimens legally for scientific, research or educational purposes – but not for a sporran!..