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Dorset’s wildlife police

Ian Parsons looks at the work of the county’s sixteen Wildlife Crime officers

'Clet', the much-travelled bottlenose dolphin, in Balaclava Bay, Portland is one of the larger animals that need protection in Dorset and on its water (Steve Belasco/www.jurassicphotographic.com)

‘Clet’, the much-travelled bottlenose dolphin, in Balaclava Bay, Portland is one of the larger animals that need protection in Dorset and on its water (Steve Belasco/www.jurassicphotographic.com)

The wildlife of Dorset is one of its most prized assets, from the bottlenose dolphins off Portland’s coast and the roe deer of Cranborne Chase, to the Dartford Warblers on Wareham’s heaths and the bluebell-carpeted woodlands of Wynford Eagle, this wildlife is a pleasure to both resident and tourist alike. What many people don’t realise, however, is that this wildlife has police protection.
All of Britain’s wildlife is protected by law, some species are specially protected by specific legislation due to their rarity or importance, whilst others are covered by laws that relate to how they can be hunted and sold. Some of our most beautiful landscapes and important habitats are also protected by the law. The enforcement of these laws is carried out by the police.
Inspector Steve Marsh has been a police officer for almost thirty years and has spent the last five of these in Dorset. In addition to his everyday police duties, Steve is also Dorset Police’s lead officer on wildlife crime ensuring that the force’s response to wildlife crime throughout Dorset is professional and thorough. He leads a team of fifteen Wildlife Crime Officers (WCOs) and each of them, including Steve, carries out this role in addition to other police work. All of the officers have other primary roles – such as in emergency response or neighbourhood policing – but have taken on the additional duties of a WCO because they have their own interest in Dorset’s wildlife and its protection.

The Dartford warbler is one of the rare heathland creatures that Dorset is so lucky to host. By ensuring heath fires are spotted quickly and controlled, their long-term future is more certain.

The Dartford warbler is one of the rare heathland creatures that Dorset is so lucky to host. By ensuring heath fires are spotted quickly and controlled, their long-term future is more certain.

As Steve says ‘I volunteered to lead the wildlife crime role in Dorset due to my own interest in wildlife and my wish to support the rural community of Dorset and help protect its fantastic wildlife.’ These are people dedicated to the job.
WCOs’ roles are certainly varied one. They find themselves dealing with a wide range of criminal activity involving the county’s wildlife including, for example, raptor persecution. They also have to police the highly charged hunting debate as well as dealing with day to day enquiries from the general public, including a recent one concerning the legality of walking a raccoon on a leash down Weymouth High Street*.
Recently the WCOs of Dorset carried out a night-time operation in the west of the county targeting deer poachers. Over a period of six hours a number of vehicles were stopped, one person was arrested on suspicion of various deer-poaching offences and a number of items were seized including knives. The operation also led to the prevention of a number of fish-poaching offences and sent a message of deterrence to others.

Persecution of raptors, like this peregrine falacon, which was shot near Yetminster last year, is one of the many facets of wildlife crime that Steve Marsh and his team investigates

Persecution of raptors, like this peregrine falacon, which was shot near Yetminster last year, is one of the many facets of wildlife crime that Steve Marsh and his team investigates

Sometimes the offences that the police deal with have been committed accidentally, where possible, these are dealt with in a pro-active way that can hopefully rectify the situation. A good example of this happened recently near Sturminster Newton when builders who were working on a property unwittingly damaged and disturbed a bat roost. All bats in Britain are protected by law, as are their roosts, but the builders were not aware of this. Following the police investigation a number of mitigation methods were used to replace the damaged roost site with new ones, using purpose-built bat boxes. On learning of the protected status of the animals, the people concerned actually increased the number of potential roost sites in the area as a result, which is a good outcome for all concerned.
The WCOs work in close contact with a number of other agencies and organisations in their work to protect Dorset’s wildlife. These partnerships include working with the Inshore Fisheries in Poole as well as working with the National Farmers Union, RSPB and Natural England throughout the county. One of the key partnerships – and one with which anyone can get involved – is run in conjunction with the local and county councils and is called Dorset Open Spaces Watch. The aim of this partnership is to protect the internationally important heathlands of the county as well as protecting the many forests, fields and beaches too. It aims to create a network of volunteers (who already habitually use Dorset’s open spaces for walking, dog walking, mountain biking, relaxation, bird watching and other activities) who can inform the partnership of any issues or misuse of these spaces as well as being an early warning system in spotting the perennial hazard of fires on the heathlands.
The partnership uses Facebook for sharing information with the volunteers as well as for the volunteers to report their concerns; the Police recently used this Facebook page to help gather information following a recent badger sett offence in the Rossmore area of Poole, showing that this volunteer network can be extremely useful when fighting crime.

❱ Badgers are one common victim of persecution from some of those living and working in the country. Deer meanwhile increasingly fall foul of poachers.

❱ Badgers are one common victim of persecution from some of those living and working in the country. Deer meanwhile increasingly fall foul of poachers.

Another partnership that is proving very beneficial to the police is the one with Kingston Maurward College near Dorchester. Kingston Maurward is a college that specialises in teaching countryside-related courses making it an important resource not only for the students of the county but also the police. College staff and facilities have been used to train police officers in dealing with poaching offences and the training itself has led directly to targeted operations against poachers in the Piddle Valley area.
Prevention and education is often the best method in combating countryside and wildlife crime, the area that the WCOs police is large, and often very rural, so the police rely on the local communities being their eyes and ears. Wherever possible the WCOs look to engage with the people of Dorset to raise awareness of their work and to forge new links and partnerships. They attend all of the county’s major summer shows to promote rural and wildlife crime prevention; if you are a show goer then look out for their stand and feel free to go up and meet the officers to learn more about their work. Due to the often very rural and rugged landscape that the WCOs often find themselves working in they also have access to two 4×4 Suzuki all-terrain vehicles. These vehicles not only make accessing sites much easier, but they have also proven extremely useful in searching for missing and vulnerable people in terrain like the Purbeck hills, where traditional police vehicles wouldn’t be able to get to the places that these specialist vehicles can.
Inspector Marsh is a member of Dorset Wildlife Trust and would love to have more time to volunteer with them, helping with the conservation work that they carry out. Steve and his team recognise that there are many, many volunteers in Dorset that dedicate their time to monitoring and looking after the varied wildlife that lives here. They feel that it is only right that Dorset Police should, in turn, bring to justice those that are intent on damaging or killing our local wildlife. As Steve says ‘We recognise that, just like people, some animals are vulnerable and need that additional support and protection. Prosecutions can be hard to achieve but we will continue to do our bit to protect Dorset’s wildlife.’
Dorset’s wildlife is special to all of us, whether resident or visitor. The breath-taking countryside and picturesque landscape is home not only to a community of people but to a wealth of wildlife that is well worth protecting. Dorset Police certainly think so; their WCOs are dedicated to help ensure that it is protected for now and the future. ◗
*    Oh, and in case you were wondering, depending on the exact species, it is perfectly legal to walk a raccoon on a lead down Weymouth High Street.

❱ To find out how you can be involved in helping to protect your county’s wildlife resource visit the web pages at www.dorsetforyou.com/415645

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