"Simon Says" - The cost of wildlife crime in Dorset
Tuesday 6th March 2018
Dorset isn’t exactly the Caracas of the UK when it comes to crime rates, but we certainly do have several issues relating to wildlife crime that our staff, the police and various authorities have to deal with. Some of you may not think of these as crimes, but some have received a lot of public attention.
Bats and planning
Last month Dorset Police announced that a developer in Bournemouth had been sentenced to pay £2,500 under the Proceeds of Crime Act, with other fines and costs, all for demolishing a roost of a protected species of bat. This is only the second case ever where the Proceeds of Crime Act featured bats.
The sizeable costs indicated that the judge took this case serious as she or he should. There really isn’t any excuse for this these days. Developments are so rarely stopped because of the presence of a protected species. It just means that a developer needs to make a bit more effort - as they should. I was talking to the boss of a well-known estate agent in Poole recently and he was expressing the usual concern about, “newts getting in the way of progress”. I was able to explain that in most of Dorset there is now a protocol that protects wildlife and helps developers. Yes both are possible at the same time. The Dorset system is based around getting a good outcome for nature rather than just a set of hard and fast rules. As long as a developer identifies wildlife issues at an early stage and takes steps to ensure that the species are in some way better off after the development than before, then that is a net gain for wildlife and should in most cases still allow the development to continue.
True, it may cost a little more than if there were no protected species and habitats present, but that is the price to pay for benefiting from our common resource – nature. It is the responsibility of everyone, in Dorset or otherwise, to ensure they don’t degrade the county. That developer paid the price and would probably have paid a lot less had they followed the law.
In addition to the principle of not degrading the environment, another principle that is protected in law is in effect one where we all need to do our bit. This is shown most obviously in TPOs (Tree Protection Orders). In my area of the county, most trees above a certain size are protected by TPOs. Borough of Poole do a great job of enforcing this with reasonable fines for offenders, but they are sensible about it. If you have a tree that is inappropriately large near housing you can still apply for a licence to remove it, usually on condition that you plant a replacement somewhere on your property. However, if a tree has landscape value then it needs protecting. If we all wanted to remove trees from our property (classic “not in my backyard” philosophy) then what a sad, hard, degraded environment we would live in. We all need to do our bit and plant or keep trees wherever possible for the sake of the whole community.
Two developers near me were sentenced for ring-barking, the removal of a ring of bark so that the tree would die apparently of natural causes. This was just greedy because they had bought the land for £4.5m and intended to sell the developed plot for £11.2m.
Another principle protected by law is ‘polluter pays’. Our Dorset rivers such as the Frome, Piddle and Stour are fabulously rich in wildlife as they are a rare type of river called chalk streams. They are sensitive and need all the protection we can give them, not just for wildlife but because we drink the water in the catchment. The authority protecting our rivers, the Environment Agency (EA) has the power to apply civil penalties. In some cases where a company, that has polluted a water course or doesn’t have the right permits, can agree to fund remediation through restoration of the environment. DWT has received several such pots of funding which we have used to do some great work restoring or improving rivers to make them better for wildlife. We’d rather these companies didn’t pollute in the first place, but at least we can make something good come out of the offence.
In the days of the old fishing authority illegal fishing was rife in Dorset with one of the centres for this important, insidious type of wildlife crime being Poole Harbour. Since the Southern IFCA (Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority) took over, such crimes have decreased markedly. The IFCA has worked with a carrot and stick to deal with the bad guys, by encouraging them to fish legally and by greater enforcement through clever intelligence to catch them if they don’t.
Even the courts seem to be coming around. Until very recently there seemed to be a principle that it was better the criminals were out at sea doing something wrong than in someone’s house. However the fines recently have been closer to counteracting the potential benefits of the crime. Last year two fishermen over the border in Southampton Water were fined £5,000 each for obstruction when one used his boat to block the IFCA Officers whilst the other dumped his illegal catch overboard.
This sort of crime not only depletes marine wildlife, but commonly degrades habitats, often in protected areas, and damages the livelihoods of legitimate fishermen.
Finally dogs. Almost all of DWT’s nature reserves are open access and we encourage people to enjoy nature without damaging the wildlife in them. Many such sites are however sensitive, either from the nutrients dog mess leaves behind, or to disturbance from the dogs themselves. This is especially true in the bird-nesting period or near livestock. On open-access land dogs must be on a short lead between 1st March and 31st July and at all times near livestock. “Reckless” disturbance of specially protected birds like the heathland specialists Dartford Warbler and woodlark whilst they are nesting is also an offence. Many dog owners are very responsible and understanding, but I’ve met some that aren’t and give the good owners a bad name.
Our wardens are very diplomatic in asking owners to keep their dogs on a lead, but it is surprising how many think their dog is under control, even though they are ranging far and wide on a sensitive site like a heath. The principle here is consideration for others and for wildlife, though we want people to enjoy nature and thus support its protection.
The most common wildlife crime in Dorset sadly is poaching of deer using dogs. DWT has on occasion had incidents of this on our nature reserves.
These are just a few of the crimes against wildlife that are surprisingly common in Dorset. The laws are there. We have to make sure they are enforced in a sensible, sensitive, balanced way and that the punishment matches the financial gain from the crime. It’s often as much about maintaining a set of sensible principles as it is about adhering to the law.
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