“What we lack is a clear definition of what constitutes wildlife crime and public awareness of how damaging it is for our country.”
So says Mairead McGuinness MEP, in advance of a major conference on Wildlife Crime to be held in Pillo Hotel, Ashbourne, Co Meath on September 12 and 13.
McGuinness said: “It would be wrong to think that crimes against wildlife are problems for faraway places, like the African continent. In Europe wildlife trafficking is a serious problem — the fourth largest illegal business after drugs, weapons and human trafficking.
“In Ireland a total of nine golden eagles, white-tailed eagles and red kites have been poisoned in the past two and a half years. In each case the cause has been the use of poison meat baits.
“This is serious for the efforts to reintroduce birds of prey but also for other protected bird species, including the barn owl, kestrel and long-eared owls and for nature generally. Illegal poaching of deer is another identified problem, as is illegal poaching of salmon.”
Wildlife crime then, is a serious matter, but one shrouded in confusion and uncertainty. It is also on the rise. The recently released 2014 Raptor Report (Recording and Addressing Persecution and Threats to Our Raptors) by Barry O’Donoghue of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) makes for stark reading in this regard.
“In 2014, a total of 34 poisoning or bird of prey persecution incidents were confirmed in Ireland. This is the largest number of confirmed incidents since the Raptor protocol came into being in 2011 and represents 100% increase on 17 incidents in 2012.
“Of these 29 poison incidents, poisoned meat baits were found in 11 cases. In addition, there were five separate incidents where birds of prey were shot. A number of suspected and unconfirmed incidents were also recorded,” he says.
Buzzards and peregrine falcon are the most commonly killed birds of prey.
March was the most common month for use of illegal poison, poison meat bait or shooting, while the east, in particular the south east — where more cereal crops are planted — sees the greatest number of occurrences.
“It is important to point out that in 13 incidents, the poisoning of protected wild birds would appear not to have been intentional and would have arisen as a result of rodenticide use,” according to Mr O’Donoghue’s report.
While poisoning may be illegal depending upon use, what is termed “persecution”, is according to Mr O’Donoghue, always illegal.
That said, the poison implicated in the deaths of the largest number of birds of prey — carbofuran — “is highly lethal to vertebrates and has been banned in Europe since 2008” the report says.
For the other poisons, Mr O’Donoghue notes that they are only permitted for use on rodents, yet they are used “by those targeting peregrine falcons”. Methiocarb, also used by those targeting wildlife, will be banned from September 19.
Another concerns is the ingestion of second generation rodenticides , which bio- accumulate and slowly kill in particular barn owls.
Nevertheless, the NPWS consider the use of rodenticides “secondary and unintentional”, when found in wildlife, requiring more responsible use. To this end a “Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use” is in operation.
To clarify the situation then: incidental poisoning of wildlife by rodenticides is unwelcome but not illegal; specific, commonly used rodenticides however, are either already illegal or about to become illegal; use of other poisons (ie non-rodenticides) to target wildlife is illegal.
When questioned about legality in the use of poisons, the Department of Agriculture said: “The use of a product other than in accordance with the label instructions is regarded as mis-use of the product and is illegal. Where incidences of mis-use are suspected or reported these are investigated.”
When asked what they were doing about wildlife crime and poisonings, they referred to EU approvals system and product authorisation methods.
They also pointed to their support of the Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use — which promotes best practice in rodent control.
The department then, while stating the legal position, can hardly be accused of being proactive.
That role is left to overstretched and under- resourced NPWS conservation rangers. Indeed, sources close to the NPWS queried when the organisation will be “in a position to fill the current conservation ranger vacancies” and in the light of current staff shortages “what priority is given to the enforcement of wildlife legislation?”
Technically, these rangers have the same powers as the gardaí when it comes to investigating and even prosecuting incidents of wildlife crime.
Val Swan, a long serving conservation ranger, operating in the north-east for the NPWS, reckons poisons are being misused out of ignorance. “In relation to the farmer motivation for laying poison; there appears to be a lot of ignorance involved with this. It would appear that the motivation is to protect lambs from fox predation. However, Department of Agriculture / Teagasc research would show that the most common cause of mortality in lambs is due to starvation, hypothermia and disease infection with minimal losses to predation.”
He adds: “The indiscriminate laying of poison is a stupid, reckless act and cannot be condoned in any circumstances, and, when the matter is discussed, it is disappointing to hear the occasional utterances from farm advisory people and even people involved in raptor introductions that farmers ‘must be allowed to protect their livestock’— surely not by indiscriminately laying poison?
“I suspect that with a little more thoughtful animal husbandry lamb losses to predation could be almost completely eliminated.”
Under provisions of the Wildlife Acts, 1976 and 2000, Conservation Rangers can enter land — other than a dwelling or lockfast — under suspicion that a person is committing or has committed an offence. They may also initiate a prosecution.
Former UK Wildlife Crime Officer and now wildlife crime author Alan Stewart says in his book The Thin Green Line “there is a strong view from conservation rangers that NPWS staff members do not get adequate training in relation to the enforcement of wildlife crime.” Only 10% of their time is actually taken up with wildlife crime, he adds.
During this time, they have a very long list of wildlife crime-related activities. They must carry out anti-poaching patrols, and investigate incidents involving: badger baiting; trapping, possession and sale of wild birds/birds of prey; use of poison; interference with breeding regimes (eg via hedge cutting during nesting season) and maintenance of protected sites.