Species such as badgers, birds of prey and marine mammals have been victims of a rise in wildlife crime during the pandemic, nature groups have warned.
A report from 16 conservation and animal welfare groups warned that wildlife crime rose for many species in 2020, but convictions on key types of offences fell by more than half.
They are calling for improved recording and monitoring of wildlife crimes, better targeting of resources and more use of expert police and prosecutors to tackle crime against treasured British species from buzzards to bluebells.
Data gathered by the groups shows that reports of likely crimes against badgers rose by 36% in 2020 compared to 2019.
The number of confirmed cases against birds of prey in England and Wales nearly doubled from 54 in 2019 to 104 in 2020.
There was also a 90% increase in reports of marine mammal incidents – which can include disturbing dolphins, porpoises or seals – in Cornwall alone.
The amount of reported incidents in fisheries – which can range from fishing without a licence to illegal catching and export of young eels to Asia – has increased significantly.
But fishing crime convictions fell by almost two-thirds, illegal wildlife trade convictions halved to just four and hunting prosecutions also more than halved in 2020, the report said.
It also warned about gaps in the data on wildlife crime, which make it hard to uncover the scale of incidents ranging from killing snakes to illegally harvesting snowdrop bulbs for sale and fungi for supplying restaurants.
Martin Sims, director of investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports and chair of nature coalition the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s wildlife crime group, said: “Wildlife crime is something that should concern everyone – it inflicts pain, harm and loss for much-loved wildlife and fuels wider criminality against people and property.
“Despite this the police still don’t gather centralised data on these serious crimes, leaving an incomplete picture from charities, which could be just a drop in the ocean of wildlife crimes.
“It is high time the Government steps in to treat wildlife crime with the seriousness it deserves.
Mark Thomas, RSPB head of investigations UK, said: “In the wake of an emergency climate conference and with all life on earth facing an uncertain future, there has never been a more important time for urgent action to end the illegal killing of wildlife.
“Wildlife declines are already being felt, and species can ill afford to face the additional pressure of being brutally shot, trapped or poisoned; nor should the public have to put up with these crimes taking place in the wild places they go to for refuge.”
Groups supporting the report include: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Badger Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Four Paws, Humane Society International UK, IFAW, Institute of Fisheries Management, League Against Cruel Sports, National Trust, Naturewatch Foundation, Plantlife, RSPB, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Wild Justice and WWF UK.
A Government spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of tackling wildlife crime, which is why we directly fund the National Wildlife Crime Unit who provide intelligence and support to police forces protecting our precious wildlife.”
The Government said it has committed £300,000 a year since 2016 to fund the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit, and there are now 770 specially trained wildlife crime officers in England and Wales and 133 covering Scotland.
In June 2020, Natural England put in place a national enforcement team to respond to incidents of environmental and wildlife damage.