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Police and Crime Commissioner elections: Putting wildlife crime in the spotlight

Ahead of elections next week, Link's Matt Browne sets out how Police & Crime Commissioners can do more to effectively tackle wildlife crime.

April 2024

Next week’s set of elections include contests for 39 Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) posts across England and Wales. The PCCs elected next week to oversee their local police forces will have an opportunity to bolster what can be a Cinderella service within policing; the enforcement of legislation intended to prevent wildlife crime.

There is sometimes a perception that contraventions of wildlife legislation somehow matter less than other forms of crime. Such a viewpoint does not withstand considered analysis. Damage to wildlife populations, at a time when species are in dangerous decline, is a theft from all of us. When wildlife criminals take soaring birds of prey from the skies, remove dancing hares from fields and plunder rivers of fish, we all lose a share in a communal joy and sense of connection with nature. The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) has rightly described the enforcement of wildlife crime legislation as ‘‘critical for the reputation of policing’’. Laws like the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and the Hunting Act 2004 have been passed by Parliament to prevent the degradation of our shared natural environment, and to prevent avoidable animal suffering, in response to strong public demand for such legislation to protect society-wide public goods. There is a democratic imperative to properly enforce such laws.

To this must also be added the role that wildlife crime policing can play in providing early warning of criminal activity connected to crimes against property and people. The same gangs that organise wildlife criminality, from badger baiting to hare coursing, frequently also organise other crimes. Farming groups have reported that hare coursers often go on to steal property from the farms they target to persecute hares. More widely, survey work undertaken by Nottingham Trent University in 2023 found that 50% of surveyed wildlife crime police officers reported close links between offences against wildlife and violent crime against people.

The clear public interest case for doing more to tackle wildlife crime has not yet led to significant changes on the ground. Despite outstanding work from the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) and from wildlife crime policing teams in individual forces, Link’s annual wildlife crime reports chart a depressing picture of record high levels of wildlife crime and falling convictions.

Whilst many of the barriers to effective enforcement can only be resolved at a national level, through changes to recording rules, sentencing guidelines and Crown Prosecution Service practices (and more long term funding for the NWCU) those overseeing regional police forces can also play their part in improving the deterrence and detection of crimes against wildlife. Through their powers to set the core objective and budget for their force, PCC’s can:

• Make tackling wildlife crime a key priority within their first police & crime plan.
• Make budget provisions to support this prioritisation, and to increase the size of wildlife and rural crime teams within their force.
• Agree additional training for their officers on wildlife crime, both for specialists and for those on general duties.

PCCs can also speak up on policy questions and provide powerful voices in support of the national changes needed on wildlife crime recording, prosecution and sentencing.

Link members are running a number of campaigns to enable people to ask their PCC candidates to commit to championing tackling wildlife crime if elected. You can email your PCC candidates through the Badger Trust here and through the League Against Cruel Sports here.

By adopting these commitments, successful PCC candidates can increase the effectiveness of an impactful branch of policing. The elections next week, and the new objectives and budgets that new post-holders will implement, provide an opportunity to give wildlife crime a level of policing attention commensurate with the damage wildlife criminals inflict on both the natural world and society. 

Matt Browne is Head of Policy & Advocacy at Link and supports the Wildlife Crime Group

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.