POLICE SCOTLAND is to toughen up its wildlife crime investigations via a brand-new course aimed at enhancing the skills of officers involved in this specialist area.

Reports of wildlife crime are on the rise and cover a wide-range of offending from badger baiting, raptor persecution, and freshwater pearl mussel theft, to hare coursing and salmon poaching.

Cases involving cruelty to wild animals and crimes involving deer and hunting with dogs are also increasing. Not only do these crimes pose significant harm to the species targeted by criminals, they also have a long-lasting impact on the communities who rely on wildlife for employment and tourism.

The new training course will run over five days and will cover investigative techniques, wildlife forensic recovery and examination, inputs from selected partner agencies such as RSPB and SNH, and instruction on firearms legislation and ballistics.

Assistant chief constable Duncan Sloan of the Major Crime and Public Protection department commented: “Investigating wildlife crime can be demanding, difficult and complex. Scotland’s wildlife habitats cover vast tracts of land, often in remote areas, where the discovery of a suspected offence can be made days or weeks after the event.

“This new course is designed to build on our current capability, to enhance the skills and knowledge of our officers in what is a specialist area of criminal investigation,” he explained. “We want to ensure that we have officers who are experts in the investigation of the wildlife crime in all of its forms.”

Every division across Scotland is to be represented on the inaugural course, which was launched by Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, at the Scottish Police College. “Our police officers on the ground provide the crucial initial response to wildlife crime, collecting the evidence necessary for the courts to pursue prosecution, and leading the way in its detection and prevention,” commented Ms Cunningham.

“Investigating these crimes can be challenging, often occurring in remote areas where witnesses are rare and where evidence is often exposed to the elements,” she stressed.

“It is therefore essential that our officers have the support and tools necessary to do their job effectively, and I commend Police Scotland for designing this new training course and providing teams across the country with additional knowledge and skills in support of their pivotal role in combatting wildlife crime.”

Chief executive of landowner body Scottish Land and Estates, Sarah-Jane Laing, welcomed the new course: “We are fully supportive of increased resources to tackle wildlife crime alongside tougher penalties for those who are convicted, so this is a positive announcement by government.

“Equipping police officers with the specialist training and knowledge they need to investigate wildlife crime should aid detection rates and hopefully lead to more offenders being brought to justice.”

Ms Laing pointed out that there had actually been a decrease in the level of wildlife crime in Scotland over the past five years, but applauded revamped efforts to address the issue. She also reiterated her organisation's call for longer sentences and bigger penalties for those found guilty of the most serious crimes.

“We also believe that enabling police to use and manage surveillance cameras under strict RISPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Scotland Act 2000) procedures where evidence suggests there could be acts of wildlife crime, could act as a real deterrent and could lead to more prosecutions,” she concluded.