It’s a sad truth that although there are over 150 laws protecting our wildlife, they continue to be broken. Bel Greenwood talks to local Wildlife Crime Officer Jason Pegden about his work…
It is immediately clear on meeting PC Jason Pegden, one of Norfolk’s Wildlife Crime Officers, that he loves his job. Wildlife crime officers are all volunteers and take on the role in addition to their existing police duties. PC Pegden manages his role as beat manager at Wells-next-the-Sea with his specialist knowledge and experience of wildlife offences. He volunteered early on in his police career.
“I’ve been doing it for years now,” he says. “I first volunteered because I have an interest in wildlife. It’s all police work and the wildlife work is in with my general police work.”
Born at Blakeney, he has a local knowledge of the area. He worked on the boats, taking visitors out to see the seals on Blakeney Point as a youth and he also volunteers as a deer warden when he’s off duty.
On duty, PC Pegden covers most of the North Norfolk coast from Cley to Holkham and inland to Walsingham, a very wide area including large expanses of estate and agricultural land as well as conservation areas.
Wildlife crime is taken extremely seriously. It’s a high priority crime and wildlife laws cover the protection of species, habitats and sites. There’s a huge and complex range of offences, and they often involve long investigations. Crimes against protected species include killing or taking them from the wild such as birds of prey; collecting their eggs or skins for personal collections, trading in them; and taxidermy offences. People destroying nests and breeding sites such as bat roosts and other protected habitats is also included.
As you might imagine, there’s nothing typical about any of PC Pegden’s days.
There have been some widely reported, high profile wildlife crimes in our area. In August last year, the police investigated the deaths of common and grey seals washed up on the beaches of Morston, Wells and Blakeney – 39 of the mammals were killed, all suffering from lacerations which could have been inflicted by a ducted propeller.
These days, the wildlife crime that appears to be on the increase more than any other is deer poaching. It’s not just a Norfolk concern PC Pegden points out, but a crime that takes place all over the country.
“Venison gets quite high prices,” he says. “It’s the kind of crime carried out by gangs of professional poachers. In Norfolk, crimes such as this are often isolated and of varying levels of severity – but the damage can be considerable, not just from the loss of deer, but from destruction to crops as gangs drive large vehicles into fields.”
The deer are “as big as a cow” and are gutted where they are killed – there are often calls from the public who find the remains in the countryside.
There’s no place for badger and raptor (birds of prey) persecution, either, although there have been instances of it. Hare-coursing is another countryside crime which has become rare and poisoning of birds of prey and foxes has been largely stamped out.
Illegal snaring and trapping is another policing area for PC Pegden. Snares and traps have got their legitimate use but they have to be used within the regulations set out in the act. No one wants their pet dog or cat trapped, or cruel devices used.
“Pigeons, rats, rabbits, and even deer can all be culled as long as you apply the law to it,” PC Pegden says.
He gives the example of an individual shooting a pigeon with an air rifle off his back fence. This is classed as an unlawful act and the pigeon has protection – but if it can be proved that a host of pigeons are destroying an individual’s crops, then they can take a legitimate method of control to protect the crop.
All animals and plants are protected in law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and it’s a law that even includes things that are no longer living. The Act prohibits the keeping of egg collections which pre-date 1954. Neither is it possible to disguise the age of an egg because, as PC Pegden, points out, “we can authenticate the age of eggs.”
An important element in the protection of our wildlife is the close cooperation and relationships that have been developed between the wildlife crime officers and national and local organisations on the ground.
These include very good links with the gamekeeping fraternity, as well as close working with the National Trust, Natural England, the RSPB and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, as well as Farmwatch. Where there’s a case of animal cruelty, the police work with the RSPCA.
Norfolk’s Wildlife Crime Officers have a reputation for being successful. They will get their man (or woman).
An example of the successful use of cooperation is Operation Cockerel. It was set up in 2007 to tackle the thefts of pheasants’ poults (chicks) and partridge chicks in Norfolk following a large number of thefts valued in the region of £60,000.
Landowners invest heavily in their poults and chicks, and it wasn’t only the game birds that were disappearing but also feeding equipment. Patrols were increased in targeted areas and close contacts were made with the shooting fraternity, local breeders and game dealers in the county.
It’s not just organisations or particular interest groups that count in the fight to protect our beautiful countryside and all that lives in it, but the general public.
People can assist the police by taking down as much detail as possible about any suspicious activity. A strange van parked at night at the edge of woodland? Note down the number plate and the time. Is trespassing taking place? Is it someone acting alone or in a group? Do they have dogs? Do they have firearms with them? The most important thing is to always call the police if there is any suspicion of wrongdoing.
The Norfolk countryside holds some internationally important habitats and many areas of conservation with rare and endangered species. It’s also just about one of the most beautiful places to live.
The Wildlife Crime Officers are a highly visible deterrent to those who think they can exploit the wealth of the wild.