Skip to main content

Wildlife Crime

Volume 667: debated on Thursday 31 October 2019

This is the last time I will be able to address you from the Chamber, Mr Speaker, so I would like to put on record my thanks to you for what you have done for this House, particularly during my time as a Back Bencher, when we worked closely on a number of issues. I thank you very much what you have done.

The UK is a world leader in efforts to protect endangered plants and animals from poaching and illegal wildlife trade. We have invested over £36 million between 2014 and 2021 on work to directly counter the illegal wildlife trade, including reducing demand, strengthening enforcement, ensuring effective legal frameworks and developing sustainable livelihoods. We will significantly scale up our funding from 2021 by doubling the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund as part of the £220 million international biodiversity fund announced in September.

I am concerned, along with many constituents who have contacted me on this issue, that the persecution of raptors is not treated as a priority by local police forces. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that raptor persecution, particularly that of hen harriers, is a national wildlife crime priority and that strong penalties are in place for offences committed against birds of prey?

The illegal wildlife trade is not just an international issue; it is a domestic issue as well. All our birds in the UK are protected. Wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and there are strong penalties for committing offences. The Government take wildlife crime very seriously and have identified raptor persecution as a national wildlife crime priority, and that includes species such as hen harriers and peregrines of course. We are very concerned, however, about hen harrier populations, which is why we took the lead on the hen harrier action plan to increase hen harrier populations in England. I add that DEFRA has committed to at least maintaining existing levels of funding for the national wildlife fund until the next spending review.

A constituent of mine has been terrorised by off-road bikers, who are also devastating local wildlife. Because this is happening on private land, our local police have found it difficult to take action, so will the Department and the police work together to overcome this dreadful problem?

I have had letters from the constituents of a number of hon. Members raising the same issue: off-road bikers causing wildlife mayhem in sensitive and fragile parts of the countryside. I of course commit to the hon. Gentleman to talk to the police and landowners and animal welfare charities to see what the best solution is. There is no silver bullet to solve the problem. It needs to be addressed, but it is not immediately obvious what that solution would be.

Canned lion breeding in South Africa is causing terrible angst for many people because these lions, barely two years old, are shot at point-blank range. That adds to the trophy hunting imports to this country. When is the consultation my right hon. Friend has mentioned going to begin?

My hon. Friend is right: canned lion hunting is one of the grimmest of all human activities. It is hard to see any defence for it. There are concerns that, although it may not be a direct conservation issue, creating a legal trade in lion parts, particularly lion bones, provides a cover for the illegal trade, and we know that lion numbers have plummeted in the last 15 or 20 years. As she mentioned, we have committed to launching a call for evidence and, based on the results we get, we will take whatever steps are necessary to end or to regulate the import of hunting trophies.

I commend the Minister for all he has done to stop imports from trophy hunting, but with special reference to that can he outline recent steps taken to absolutely ban any such imports? I think it is the mood of the House and the country for that to happen. Can he tell us what has been done?

The hon. Gentleman knows my views on the issue; we have discussed it many times. From the Back Benches and as a Minister, I have debated the issue with him, although we have been on the same side of the debate. I am appalled by the very concept of wanting to shoot these extraordinarily beautiful, endangered wild animals. I cannot see any obvious link between that activity and protection of those animals. However, we are obliged as a Government, before embarking on any kind of legislation to prevent the import of trophies, to consult so that we know exactly what the impacts of that potential legislative change would be. So we have to do that consultation. We have to do it in an honest fashion. On the back of that consultation, we will take whatever steps are necessary, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not an issue that we intend to kick into the long grass.

May I just say that I am not ignoring the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)? I am conscious that she has Question 6, on which another party wishes to come in, so it would perhaps be better for her to wait until then. We look forward to hearing from her in a few minutes.

I wish you all the best for the future, Mr Speaker, and thank you for chairing DEFRA questions with such patience and consideration over the last few years.

We know that there are loopholes in the Hunting Act 2004 which are being exploited. A Labour Government would strengthen the hunting ban, so may I ask what the Conservative Government have been doing to stop foxhunters from breaking the law?

There is no doubt that illegal activities continue. They are well documented and often secure widespread coverage on social media in particular, and they cause outrage among the population. Those activities are already illegal: they are against the law. Digging up setts, bashing fox cubs on the head and breeding foxes to feed to hounds are illegal as well as abhorrent. The challenge relates to enforcement and prosecution. As I mentioned, we are committed to maintaining levels of funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and we are encouraging other Government Departments to play their part as well.