Two incidents lately on our patch highlights problems and frustrations that all of us feel when damage to habitat occurs, particularly during the breeding season. Down at West Mill Farm many of us were delighted to see that lapwings bred on one of the fields, with at least 9 youngsters being seen, a real bonus for this declining species.

On the 24th May, local border Guy Border posted on Facebook that the field had been ploughed and after that, only 3 youngsters were noted. Val followed this up with Natural England as it was thought that this field was in an Environmental Stewardship Scheme, which, in fact, it is but only for field edge options such as buffer strips, beetle banks and field corners, so the ploughing up the field to plant maize even though lapwings were nesting does not contravene the terms of the stewardship agreement.

More recently, Birdwatch member Sara Taylor reported that on land next door that was owned by developers to her had been completely ‘trashed’ right in the middle of the breeding season, displacing many young birds and presumably destroying nests in the process. Sara has admirably followed this up, trying, so far with little success, to engage with a local Wildlife Crimes Officer and not much help from the Sussex Wildlife Trust or RSPB.

And herein lies the real problem that leaves us all so frustrated and helpless. In terms of legislation, wildlife protection is governed by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and, in relation to the two above incidents, the part of the act that these will come under, is below:

Protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs

(1)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally 

(a)kills, injures or takes any wild bird;

(b)takes, damages , (destroys or otherwise interferes with) the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or

at any other time takes, damages, destroys or otherwise interferes with any nest habitually used by any wild bird included in Schedule A1;

obstructs or prevents any wild bird from using its nest;

ttakes or destroys an egg of any wild bird,

he shall be guilty of an offence.

But the onus to prove that damage has been done falls on ‘us’, we would have to have evidence that birds and/or their nests have been damaged. The defendant will usually deny knowledge that they knew of any nesting birds as they wouldn’t have undergone a survey prior to taking the action that they did and I don’t think there is any legal duty for them to undertake one.

Also, even if it can be proved that the above act has been contravened, getting something done about it, such as a prosecution, is extremely difficult. Trying to get the police engaged, as Sara is finding out, is impossible; most constabularies have a nominated Wildlife Crime Officers, but usually it is only a very small part of a wider remit and wildlife crime is a very low priority for them. It is actually the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the Wildlife and Countryside Act through Natural England, part of DEFRA. Unfortunately, the present Government has been eroding Natural England’s ability to enforce the Act by both decreasing their funding and resources and by a clear direction that they are not to take out prosecutions, theoretically withdrawing all the remaining teeth it had.

Unable to get any satisfaction from the organisations that are supposed to enforce our laws, they turn to organisations such as the Trusts or RSPB. Now, big as they are, they have no more legislative powers than you and I as individuals and also, they don’t have the resources to undertake expensive legal processes. Having worked for the Sussex WT for 30 plus years, I’m only too aware of the frustrations of both individuals who want the Trust to take on their particular issue and of the staff who see habitats being destroyed over the whole county and are generally powerless to do anything. What they have to put their very limited resources towards is at the level of trying to influence and encourage good practice through advice to planning authorities, companies and land owners. This on top of then having to fight major threats to the environment such as the proposed A27 road extensions, the continual problem of fracking applications, and the destruction of important habitats because of extensions to Newhaven port.

Until wildlife becomes a much more important issue on the political agenda, we will all continue to be frustrated and angered by seeing our local wildlife and habitats being destroyed and nothing being done about it. Despite the RSPB having well over a million members and the Wildlife Trusts heading towards that number, whenever elections come along, wildlife and its conservation slips right down and often off the agenda altogether. That high degree of membership of these organisations should be able to have a massive influence on politicians, perhaps we need to exert that influence more ourselves.