Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to be on a safari in Botswana and on a four-day trip by canoe in the Okavango delta.
As we lazily lay back to view a sky of many birds soaring over us, our guide, an intelligent local young man speaking fluent English, said that we must be at home with so many eagles overhead, as this must be just like Scotland?
I tried to explain why we did not see so many eagles together. As his eyes widened, my lame explanation was that people killed them because eagles ate other bird’s chicks, because these other birds were raised in order for people to come and pay to shoot them. He kept returning to the subject during our stay because he just could not believe this.
The point is, in other countries people recognise how wonderful, precious and enriching wildlife is – for people, and for the planet.
We all know that loss of wildlife and habitats is a symptom of loss of our life support systems on Earth, but many don’t realise that it poses just as big a threat as climate change. Living in harmony with wildlife is the goal other countries are pursuing and key to a modern sustainable Scotland.
We often pay lip service to this in Scotland, but don’t actually change our perceptions – we need to see wildlife as having intrinsic value and to do something positive about it! Lest memories are short, it was just in the 60s and 70s that birds were in flocks and the skies were teeming, and the fields, woods, riparian corridors and damp hollows were moving with small and large mammals, amphibian, invertebrate, insect and bird life. Now, in far too many places, one experiences silence, and no life.
It’s only relatively recent policies that have done such damage, leaving almost one in ten of Scotland’s species in danger of extinction. This damage is reversible if policies for wildlife restoration are introduced.
A key ingredient is protecting species that are most vulnerable by making activities that lead to their persecution illegal. Unfortunately, to the disbelief of the public, many different types of crime against our wildlife go on all the time.
Some is outrageously public – in a Central Belt town, digging out of badgers has gone on in broad daylight and it is not stopped, nor the perpetrators brought to book. Scottish Badgers provides many volunteer surveyors to check this sett, and it is having an effect, but in the rest of Scotland, what happens? Possibly, in numerical terms, bats suffer most. Most of us think of bats as valuable in biodiversity, but ‘dealing with them’ is too often perceived as a delay in housebuilding and renovations and that “the wildlife will find somewhere else to live” – but what will be left when humans have ‘tidied up’ and ‘managed’ every scrap on the land?
Only in May, several dozen freshwater pearl mussels were killed by poachers in the Highlands, looking for precious pearls. Scotland’s Highlands and islands are among Britain’s last strongholds for this critically endangered species.
Overall, the number of crimes committed against badgers in Scotland is not accurately known, in part due to difficulties in detection.
Members of Scottish Badgers find plenty of evidence of damaged setts but have great difficulty getting these investigated in a timely manner.
We receive about 500 calls for help each year and of these 60 or more are ‘apparently unlawful incidents’; although quite possibly offences, these rarely get recorded, far less get as far as a court. Readers may think that badger baiting is a medieval activity but we know that such persecution is still prevalent, mainly in the south of Scotland.
The public are shocked when they find these facts out and they always ask us why it happens, by whom, and ‘what is the law doing about it?’. The truth is that laws work so long as they can be implemented.
When it comes to wildlife crime, Scottish Environment LINK is clear that we can only protect against wildlife crime by reserving dedicated police resources to its investigation, by retaining the legal protection that is already there, and by strengthening legal protection for habitats.
To be really effective, a Scottish Police Wildlife Unit is needed, composed of officers dedicated to the task and not taken off to other duties. It would use full-time detectives, ensuring there is relevant expertise; be adequately resourced, especially in equipment; and be led by a senior officer also only dedicated to this task.
Eddie Palmer is chairperson of Scottish Badgers and convenes the Wildlife Crime Group for Scottish Environment LINK.