Misleading conclusions from Scot Gov’s 2014 wildlife crime report

Wildlife Crime in Scotland 2014 reportYesterday the Scottish Government published its latest report on wildlife crime: ‘Wildlife Crime in Scotland: 2014 annual report’ (see here).

It was accompanied by a Government press release (here) with a headline statement claiming ‘ Recorded wildlife crime dropped by 20 per cent in the period 2013-2014‘. This claim has been regurgitated, without real examination, in much of the national press, which will give the public the impression that all’s going swimmingly in the fight against wildlife crime in Scotland. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s start with the report’s name. It claims to be the ‘2014 annual report’, but actually the period covered by the report is the 2013/14 financial year: April 2013 to March 2014. That means the majority of the data are from 2013 (9 months worth) – these are wildlife crimes that took place as long ago as 2.5 years and the most ‘recent’ took place 18 months ago (March 2014). Many more offences occurred during the nine months between April-Dec 2014 but they are not included in this report. Although the report itself does explain the reasons behind this odd time-frame selection, the report’s title does not, which means anyone just browsing the headline news will be given a false impression of how recent these findings are. It’s a small point, but it’s an important one.

However, there are bigger issues than just a misleading report title.

If you take the report’s data at face value (which we don’t – more on that in a second) and accept that it’s representative of all reported wildlife crime in Scotland between April 2013 and March 2014, you might also accept that the claim of a 20% reduction in recorded wildlife crime is accurate. But if you look at the data (Table 1), you’ll notice that this supposed broad reduction (i.e. reduction of recorded wildlife crimes in general) is actually almost entirely due to a large reduction in one particular area of wildlife crime: specifically, fish poaching. To then apply this reduction of a specific wildlife crime to all other types of wildlife crime in a broad sweeping statement is wholly misleading.

Our main issue with this report, as with previous reports, is the Government’s insistence on only using crime data that has been recorded by the Police. Although this report does attempt to address this problem by including separate sections on data collected by others (e.g. Scottish Badgers, SSPCA), these data are still not included in the overall analysis of wildlife crime trends because these incidents weren’t recorded on the Police national crime database. A good example of this is shown in Table 10, which details the number of wildlife cases investigated by the SSPCA. The report accepts that cases investigated solely by the SSPCA (as opposed to cases where the SSPCA has assisted the Police) are not included in the ‘official’ recorded crime data because ‘they are not recorded on the police national crime database’. So in effect, 69 cases that were investigated solely by the SSPCA during the period covered by the report are absent from the national figures. It seems bizarre that even though these data are available (of course they are, they appear in this report, albeit in a separate section!) they are still excluded from the main analysis. This blatant exclusion immediately reduces our confidence in the robustness of the ‘national’ data.

Another blatant exclusion of data is demonstrated in Table 17 in the Raptor Persecution section. This table identifies only 16 bird of prey victims from the mass poisoning in March 2014 known as the Ross-shire Massacre, excluding the other six victims that were found. The report justifies this exclusion by explaining that evidence of poisoning was not found after examinations of those six raptors. That’s fair enough, but surely we’re not expected to believe that those six victims all died of natural causes, in the same small area, and at the same time, as the 16 confirmed poisoning victims? They don’t appear in the figures because a crime couldn’t be identified, but they still died as a result of this crime and to pretend otherwise is nonsense.

An additional problem that erodes public confidence in the accuracy of the ‘national’ data is the issue of how carefully wildlife crimes are recorded. A report published earlier this year (which includes part of the period covered by this latest Government report) revealed systemic problems with the under-recording of several types of wildlife crime as well as failures by the police to undertake follow-up investigations on reports of suspected wildlife crimes (see LINK report here). If the police don’t follow up with an investigation, the incident is unlikely to be recorded as a crime. Until these issues are suitably addressed, the accuracy of ‘official’ ‘national’ wildlife crime data will inevitably be viewed with suspicion.

So, we don’t have much confidence in this report’s data and we certainly don’t agree with the Government’s claim that (overall) recorded wildlife crime has reduced by 20%, but there are some positives. It’s clear that more thought has been put in to the material contained in this year’s report and there is definitely more clarity about the sources used. That’s good progress.

There are also a couple of things in this report that we are particularly pleased to see.

First, let’s go back to Table 10 (SSPCA data). You may remember (if you have a long memory) that in March 2014, the Government opened its consultation on whether to increase the investigatory powers of the SSPCA. That consultation closed in September 2014 and, over a year later, we’re still waiting for a decision. It’s our understanding that one of the main sticking points is with Police Scotland (who, as you’ll recall, strongly objected to an increase of powers – see here). Apparently, the current sticking point is that Police Scotland are worried that they’ll be excluded from wildlife crime investigations because the SSPCA ‘refuses to work with them’. However, if you look at Table 10, you’ll notice that 50% of all wildlife cases taken by the SSPCA during the period covered by this report were undertaken in partnership with the Police. That’s 50%. Does that look like an organisation that is refusing to work with the Police? It doesn’t to us.

The second point of interest in this report appears in Table 18b. This table provides information about recorded bird of prey crimes between April 2013 and March 2014. Have a look at the 7th entry down:

Species: Hen Harrier

Police Division: Aberdeenshire and Moray

Type of Crime: Shooting

Date: June 2013.

Why is this of particular interest? Well, cast your mind back to January 2014 when we blogged about a vague Police Scotland press release that stated a man had been reported to the Crown Office ‘in relation to the death of a hen harrier’ in Aberdeenshire that took place in June 2013 (see here). So it turns out this hen harrier had been shot. Amazing that it took over two years for this information to be made public. But that’s not the most interesting bit. For this unnamed individual to be reported to the Crown for allegedly shooting this hen harrier means that the Police have some level of evidence that they think links him to the crime. If they didn’t have evidence, he wouldn’t have been reported. So, the alleged crime took place 2.4 years ago. The Crown Office was notified 1.9 years ago. What’s happening with this case? Is there going to be a prosecution? Why such a long delay for a crime that is deemed a ‘priority’ by the Scottish Government?

15 Responses to “Misleading conclusions from Scot Gov’s 2014 wildlife crime report”

  1. 1 Chris Roberts
    October 1, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    I no longer have faith in Police Scotland or the SNP with regards to tackling wildlife crime. Paul Wheelhouse appeared to be getting on ‘with the job’ but was moved. Why? was it because he was upsetting too many ‘killing’ estates, his successor seems to be doing her best to appease them and their gamekeepers.

    With regard to the report, there are obviously hundreds of un-reported wildlife crimes, otherwise what has happened to so many raptors, in particular the northern red kite population, and wildcats that have been targeted, historically, by the gamekeepers and, most likely, are still getting killed in all those snares that litter the countryside.

  2. 2 Andy Myles
    October 1, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Fish poaching is NOT a wildlife crime. It is a crime against the legal rights of land owners. It should never have been included in the figures in the first place – along with all other crimes of poaching where the “victim” is not wildlife but the economic valuation of a landed estate. Poaching should be removed, also, from the remit of PAWCS. It is a total distraction from the fight against wildlife crime.

    • 3 NorthernDiver
      October 1, 2015 at 5:45 pm

      Agree completely.

    • October 1, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Agree with that Andy…but even if it was a valid wildlife crime…a recent decrease in salmon poaching would almost certainly be the result of the recent serious decrease in salmon..so bad in fact that all salmon are now “catch and release” on the Annan and folk are going out of business on the Nith. Another example of spin by the usual suspects.

  3. 5 Robert Moss
    October 1, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    You guys are specialists in wildlife crime and make an overwhelming case for thinking that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland are obfuscating the facts, so pandering to the landed elite. In how many other areas of crime are they doing the same thing for this and other elites?

  4. 6 Jack Snipe
    October 1, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    I agree that fish poaching should not be treated as a wildlife crime, and neither should pheasant poaching for the same reason as given by Andy Myles. Poaching is however a high profile and highly reported crime, so is always going to distort the totals and therefore the changes in crime figures. Were it to increase over the next couple of years, it would be no surprise to see Police Scotland removing it from the category, as for their PR purposes the change would be distorted in the wrong direction!

  5. 7 George
    October 1, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    I’m seriously pissed off with the SNP. Surely power can’t corrupt everyone it touches, can it? Tartan Tories, richt enough!

  6. 9 boaby
    October 3, 2015 at 11:47 am

    I thought SSPCA had statutory powers , I see they regularly have cases in the Scottish courts. Does this mean all their cases are not included in the overall wildlife crime statistics simply because they do not appear on police scotland stats. Given the police track record with wildlife crime this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

    i.e. The farmer convicted of shooting a buzzard

    If this does not form part of the statistics then it renders the whole government paper a joke.

    • 10 David
      October 6, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      It depends on what do you mean by ‘statutory powers’.

      Scottish Government authorises individuals under section 49(2)(a) of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 which includes SSPCA Inspectors (and inspectors from the UK wide Animal and Plant Health Agency) to enforce Part 2 of the 2006 Act. I can’t see how this authorisation would confer ‘statutory powers’ to SSPCA as an organisation.

      SSPCA is an investigating agency under the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 (as prescribed by secondary legislation, SSI 2011/146). This means that SSPCA can submit reports to COPFS, but they have to follow the provisions of the 2010 Act (sections 117-120, in particular) relating to disclosure of information to the prosecutor (and that they must follow the code of practice issued by the Lord Advocate). So this secondary legislation prescribes responsibilities which are relevant to their work as a non-police investigating agency, which directly reports cases to the prosecutors, but it doesn’t actually gives any powers.

      I think the report makes considerable effort to present data from a number of different sources and attempts to explain why it is not possible to merge these into one single table. On page 13 it even states: ‘In addition to issues with measuring the different types of crimes, these sources are unlikely to represent the full extent of wildlife crime as not all incidents are reported to the police nor subsequently dealt with in the criminal justice system.’

      SSPCA cases which are reported to COPFS are included in the COPFS and the ones marked for prosecution are included in the criminal proceedings (courts) data.

      It does make one wonder why the data in Chapter 3 wasn’t included in some form in the overall analysis of the trends, but it is at least presented and one can look at them and attempt to arrive to some conclusion.

      As to what is happening with the Aberdeenshire man who was reported to COPFS in 2014 one could hope that time is being spent on thoroughly investigating the case. I can’t imagine that Police Scotland wouldn’t occasionally report cases without sufficient evidence (emphasis on the _some_ level of evidence). Also, it is permissible to bring proceedings within three years of the commission of the offence (section 20(2) the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981).

  7. October 4, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Delighted to read the report gives us the basis for discussion and disagreement, try taking the good out of the bad, a positive approach can bring results. First point to get over is the nonsense of the date, every local or national government works from APRIL TO April so the report being 2014 is not a issue unless your Victor Meldew. or in fitba terms the league starts in July 2013 and the SFA cup the same season is played in May 2014 The cup winner are for 2014 although the year has 7 months to run. Given the improvements in the face of massive cuts its remarkable the number of new projects which are springing up across the country and deserving your support. Casting the SNP as tartan tories ask the opinion of statement to the Scottish Gamekeepers Ass or Game Conversation bodies( what a joke ), however, after listening to Mr Corbyn latest list of back tracking I fully agree all political parties must be pressurised and held to account.

    • 12 George
      October 5, 2015 at 3:54 pm

      In politics, Robert, Machiavellian plots abound, and I would be as likely to believe visitors statements on the Scottish Gamekeepers FB page as being their own position (the SGA’s) , as I would that salt is sweet. As Adam Smith understood, corrupt power functions best in darkened rooms.

  8. 13 Merlin
    October 4, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    Whilst on the subject of misleading information. There’s an article in Shooting times this week if you get chance pick it up and check it out, believe me you won’t believe how low these people will stoop to twist the truth, it claims DEFRA figures prove that Hen Harriers do better on Grouse moors than on land being managed by the RSPB. then it gives details of this years nesting attempts and how they fared, 5 males disappeared from nests on united utilities land that were being monitered by the RSPB and therefor failed giving the impression that the RSPB are to blame. significantly failing to mention that all these nests were also on Grouse Moors

  9. 14 I C T
    October 5, 2015 at 7:09 am

    There have been some comparisons above between the Conservatives & the SNP. Well the truth is from policies as diverse as persecution to the pound there’s not much separating them.

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