Birds of prey are being put at risk by the disbanding of one of the country’s leading wildlife crime teams, campaigners have warned, raising fears it could be part of a nationwide pattern.
Wildlife crime officers work to stop offences such as raptor persecution, where birds of prey are poisoned or shot by gamekeepers and landowners.
Earlier this year, a rare white-tailed sea eagle was found poisoned on an estate in Dorset. The local wildlife policing team opened an investigation led by PC Claire Dinsdale, a recipient of the Queen’s police medal for her work on wildlife crime. But weeks later, the case was abruptly closed, and a search on the estate where the eagle was found dead was cancelled. The RSPB described this decision as “baffling”.
Around the same time, the local wildlife crime team was rebranded – removing “wildlife” from its name. Dorset police rural wildlife and heritage crime was renamed as Dorset police rural crime team on its Twitter account, and police sources confirmed this rebrand took place to “reflect the broader work we are undertaking to ensure we provide exceptional local policing to our rural communities”. The wildlife crime section of the local policing website has also been removed.
Dinsdale then went on leave, and the Guardian understands that she has been told that on her return she will no longer be a wildlife crime lead.
Sources who were part of the white-tailed eagle death investigation told the Guardian that they were concerned about the hostility to wildlife crime investigations in the area, pointing out that the local MP, Chris Loder, said that police funding should be focused on other crimes.
Wildlife groups fear that influential landowners who have interests in removing police focus from wildlife crime could take inspiration from the situation in Dorset, and that this pattern could be repeated throughout the country.
Dr Ruth Tingay, a co-founder of wildlife campaign group Wild Justice and author of the Raptor Persecution blog, said: “If police wildlife crime teams are disbanding or rebranding to exclude wildlife crime, this flies in the face of government and police commitments to tackle wildlife crime, and particularly raptor persecution which is supposed to be a national wildlife crime priority but is on the rise according to the latest annual reports.
“There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for ignoring these crimes when there is a statutory duty for raptors to be protected.”
The RSPB, which is still conducting its own investigations into bird poisoning in Dorset, said it was concerned by the changes in Dorset police.
RSPB’s head of investigations, Mark Thomas, said: “RSPB Investigations enjoy a good working relationship with police wildlife and rural crime teams across the UK, especially in relation to fighting raptor persecution, the illegal killing of birds of prey, most often relating to land used for gamebird shooting.
“Dorset police … has been an exemplary force to work with. We obviously have concerns if the level of response from any force to wildlife crime incidents was diminished in any way, as there is clearly lots of work to be done, especially at a time when raptor persecution is at a modern day high and we have suspicious deaths of amazing birds like white-tailed eagles.”
A spokesperson for Dorset police said: “Dorset police is committed to keeping everyone in our county safe, including our wildlife, which brings so much to our beautiful countryside and our communities.
“As part of the police uplift programme and working together with the office of the police and crime commissioner we have reviewed our rural crime strategy for the county and allocated increased numbers of officers to the rural crime team to tackle the issues that matter. This includes all aspects of rural, wildlife and heritage-related crime.
“We will continue to work closely with many different partner agencies in relation to these issues. We want to make it clear that we take any and all potential wildlife offences seriously and will act to prevent and detect offences wherever possible.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of tackling wildlife crime and those who hurt animals should be subject to the full force of the law. However, it is for operationally independent chief constables and elected police and crime commissioners to align their resources to tackle local priorities.”