There is a widespread belief here, on both sides of the Border, and probably in most countries, that the police don’t care very much about crimes against wildlife, especially where there is no direct threat to humans.
It’s a prejudice I shared until an incident on Rogerstown Estuary, in north Co Dublin, five years ago. I had seen someone shooting within the BirdWatch Ireland reserve, disturbing large flocks of roosting geese, ducks and waders. I was volunteering as a hide warden there, and we had been instructed not to approach suspected poachers but to summon the Garda to deal with them.
I called the local station, but I didn’t really believe the garda who told me he would send a squad car over as soon as possible. In any case, the shooter quickly moved out of view. I was pleasantly surprised when I got a call from another garda, less than half an hour later, asking if I would come to identify some dead birds. He had found a hunter off the reserve, on a public road, but with three dead geese on his belt.
It was impossible to prove that this man had shot them in the reserve, and he said he hadn’t, but the garda suspected that the birds were protected and, therefore, illegal quarry for hunters.
He didn’t claim to be an ornithologist, but he was a smart cop. The hunter had told them these were greylag geese, a legitimate target under many circumstances. But these birds were black and white, not grey. The garda’s instinct was spot on. These were brent geese, long-distance migrants that are fully protected by law here.
In court the judge took the case as seriously as any other, and fined the poacher. I had to drop my prejudice about the law and wildlife.
It's hardly surprising, though, to find similar prejudices in postconflict Northern Ireland. Given the the huge challenges faced by its police service, people could be forgiven for thinking the service has bigger priorities than poached deer, limed finches or trading in endangered species.
Emma Meredith has been the Police Service of Northern Ireland's wildlife liaison officer since 2007, and it's part of her job to change this perception. The police are there to uphold every aspect of the law, she says, and they will pursue wildlife criminals as energetically as any other lawbreakers – as long as they are notified about their activities. "Every single officer I have worked with on a wildlife crime has been fantastic," she says. "I do all I can to reassure people that their reports will be listened to and acted on."
Her job faces in two directions. She briefs police officers on wildlife-legislation issues and is also “the central point of contact for all organisations involved in combatting crimes against wildlife”. In Northern Ireland these are grouped under the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime. It includes the PSNI, key government departments, and conservation agencies. But it also includes both the League Against Cruel Sports, which is anti-blood sport, and the Irish Countryside Alliance, which promotes hunting, shooting and angling. Meredith, the soul of discretion, will say only that all these groups are united by their commitment to enforce existing laws.
Meredith has worked both in gamekeeping and conservation. But she is constrained by her current position from commenting on such questions. She returns repeatedly to the point that her job is about the law, not about her opinions.
She does say, however, that when she saw the new position advertised she felt it was her “dream job”, and she clearly finds the work very satisfying. It can range from identifying threats from potentially or actually invasive species, such as muntjac deer or Japanese knotweed, to animal welfare and cruelty issues on farms and in homes, to investigating egg collectors.
She has been closely involved with the PSNI’s new campaign against deer poaching. Some conservationists say we need more deer hunting (or trapping), not less. But she points out that the problem being addressed in the campaign is not deer population but illegal practices that can be dangerous to humans and are cruel to animals.
Meredith is the first full-time holder of her (civilian) position in the PSNI. There is no equivalent position to hers in the Garda Síochána, though the overstretched rangers of the National Parks and Wildlife Service have some similar responsibilities, as well as some powers not shared by their opposite numbers in the Northern Ireland environment agency.
The shambles over communicating and enforcing bog-protection legislation, among other things, suggests the Republic may be lagging well behind the North in this field. Perhaps we could do with a few Emma Merediths of our own.
Emma Meredith is a speaker at a conference on wildlife crime next weekend, in Ashbourne, Co Meath; wri.ie/conference