The growing threat to Northern Ireland’s wildlife from ruthless gangs, criminals and saboteurs has been revealed.
Police are being tasked to investigate dozens of crimes including badger baiting, illegal hunting and the deliberate poisoning of rare birds every month.
Incidents are being reported at a rate of more than one a day — and this may be the tip of the iceberg. In some cases rare and endangered animals are being deliberately targeted by reckless criminal gangs for profit.
This covers not only the killing of badgers, seals and rare birds of prey, but also bird trapping, egg thefts, deer poaching and habitat destruction.
However, campaigners believe the true figure is much higher with many crimes going unreported. Among the most shocking examples uncovered by this newspaper are:
A Belfast Telegraph investigation has revealed police dealt with 1,088 reports of wildlife crime between April 2007 and August 2011, with a steady rise in incidents. The details were disclosed by the PSNI after a Freedom of Information request. However, experts believe many incidents still go unreported.
According to USPCA chief executive Stephen Philpott, the true extent of wildlife crime is higher.
“The USPCA believes most wildlife crime still goes unreported and the increase suggested in the PSNI statistics is a result of better collation of information, but still significantly understates the real scale of the problem,” he said.
Reported incidents of wildlife crime have more than doubled, from 151 incidents during 2007/08 to 377 incidents in 2010/11.
Conor McKinney from the Ulster Wildlife Trust said the rise reflected a growing intolerance to the issue — but warned many criminals still escape justice due to a lack of evidence.
“Wildlife crime is a significant and wide-ranging problem in Northern Ireland and although the figures suggest it is on the increase, it is more likely that greater public awareness is resulting in more reports,” he said.
“But many cases of wildlife crime still go unreported. Those that are seldom face prosecution, due to insufficient evidence.”
One of the most common crimes was badger baiting, with 98 incidents reported in the period. The barbaric crime, which involves badgers being dug out of their setts and pitted against dogs in fights, was reported in Dungannon, Castlewellan, Portrush and Fermanagh.
Earlier this year a major operation involving the USPCA and PSNI saw five men charged with badger baiting.
A second common crime involved the killing of deer. The animals are a prized target for poachers because of the lucrative black market trade in venison.
Birds were also targeted, including red kites, which were only reintroduced to Northern Ireland four years ago.
Criminals were also caught trying to steal rare birds’ eggs. Loughs Agency staff also reported that a concrete block had been dropped from an overhead bridge in an escalating campaign of intimidation.