When it comes to dealing with the vital but often-overlooked issue of wildlife crime, Sergeant Kev Kelly follows a simple rule. “I will treat an animal as a victim of crime like I would a person. People may think I’m barking mad but you are giving a consistent level of service,” he says.
“What I always say when I have got a member of a public who has been a victim of a crime is I will do the best job I possibly can for them. It sounds funny but I say that when I’m dealing with animals as well. I will do my best to make sure somebody gets dealt with properly if they have committed a crime against them.”
It is an attitude that has clearly been paying dividends for Kelly, who is originally from Leeds but has spent his career working for North Yorkshire Police. Last month, he was named as Wildlife Law Enforcer of the Year at the Wildlife Crime Conference for his tireless and innovative work in tackling rural crime.
It has been a long journey for Kelly, who initially started working on offences that affected animals in his spare time but now oversees a dedicated wildlife team on the force and is influencing national and regional policy in tackling criminals involved in illegal activities like hare coursing in which dogs chase down and kill hares.
The job varies from protecting bats and great crested newts to prosecuting people involved in illegal fox-hunting and the killing of birds of prey.
His award follows a year in which his team made a record 101 arrests for wildlife crime offences. “I challenge anyone to break that record, I would pat them on the back if they did,” he laughs.
Kelly says he is extremely fortunate to have a job that combines two of his major passions. “I’m a bit of a softie when it comes to anything animal-related. When I was a kid I would turn up with a goldfish or a dog and drive my parents mad! I always wanted to be a police officer which happened when I was 22 and the two things kind of went hand in glove.”
He started in North Yorkshire Police around 15 years ago as a PC in Selby and soon realised the impact wildlife crime was having on the local community – as well as the relative lack of resourcing there was to deal with at the time.
“I saw the impact it would have on families in the area. It has quite a significant impact if you see a dog chasing a hare and getting the kill and ripping it to pieces.
“People who live in rural communities see wildlife crime take place but it is often quite low down the priority order for some police forces.
“I would work in my own time and on my days off to tackle hare coursing and poaching issues.
“When I first started looking at it, there was a bit of a gap in the market. People wouldn’t speak to us. But people gradually learnt to have faith in you that you wanted to sort the issues out.
“Everything I did was in addition to the normal duties of being a police officer. I did my 40 hours a week and found I was working extra at the end of my shifts. There was no money for overtime but I was coming in on my days off as I really had a passion for the subject.”
Kelly says that by targeting offences like hare coursing, it was possible to identify and arrest criminals who were also involved in other offences like burglary.
He says after being able to do a wildlife crime officers course he managed to persuade bosses to establish Operation Jumbo, a dedicated wildlife and rural crime operation which resulted in more than 40 arrests in its first three weeks.
Kelly has gone on to secure convictions for bat disturbance, greater crested newts habitat destruction and raptor persecution, and in 2008, also secured North Yorkshire Police’s first ever convictions under the Hunting Act 2004 legislation against three men involved in fox hunting.
Kelly says he was surprised and delighted to win the national award, which is judged on criteria including partnership working, use of innovative techniques and dedication to the cause of tackling wildlife crime.
“It was a great pleasure to receive such a prestigious award. I had no idea I had been nominated, so when I heard my work being read out, I was filled with excitement. I would not be in this position if it wasn’t for my team of dedicated and committed officers. I am now acting inspector and the force operational lead for wildlife crime within our rural taskforce team and responsible for the 21 wildlife crime officers across the force.
“My team and I work relentlessly in our aim to tackle wildlife crime. However, we could not do this without successful partnership working. We work with the RSPB, Paw members, RSPCA, WWF and NWCU to safeguard our wildlife for us all to enjoy.”
Earlier this year, a man banned from keeping animals was sent to jail after being caught by North Yorkshire Police with a sheep, two hens, two pigeons and four dead turkeys in his vehicle.
Other recent successes for the team saw seven men taken to court for hare coursing offences in two separate incidents in North Yorkshire last December.
Kelly says despite being a big animal lover, he and his team always judge each case on its merits to determine whether a crime has actually been committed. “I’m very good at detaching myself emotionally.”
As part of his commitment to the issue, Kelly has developed a template for wildlife crime investigations to make them easier to successfully prosecute, including questions to ask in interview. All North Yorkshire Police officers are expected to have an awareness of wildlife crime issues, while work is taking place with other forces to deal with offenders who often operate across county borders.
Kelly says there are a wide variety of people involved in wildlife crime offences, from those involved in illegal gambling linked to hare-coursing to others who shoot dead birds of prey they don’t think should be in the area.
He says some of those involved don’t believe they are doing anything wrong. “Some people come from a background of this idea of ‘Granddad’s rights’, where they want to carry on doing what their forefathers did.”
As such, he says part of the challenge of the job is about educating the public – both about the laws and also about the need to report illegal activities when they see them. “The public are our eyes and ears. We encourage you to report anything suspicious or any concerns to us and we will review all of the information and take any necessary action to protect our wildlife.
“We need to keep North Yorkshire as the picture postcard location that it is. I strongly believe we have got to leave this place in a better state than we found it. Wildlife crime is not a quick fix, it is a long game. I have been doing this for 15 years and I will give the next 15 to 20 years of my service to tackling it. When my successor comes, things will be in a better place.”
Praise for award-winning officer
Sergeant Kelly has been praised for “leading from the front” on wildlife crime investigations by his senior officer.
Speaking after Kelly won the national award for his work in this area, Inspector Jon Grainge from North Yorkshire Police, said: “Kevin is hugely passionate in his role. He frequently leads from the front on wildlife crime investigations, using his enthusiasm, knowledge, and experience to positively influence others.”
A spokesman for the Wildlife Crime Enforcers Conference said: “He has been instrumental in transforming the way that wildlife crime is dealt with in the north and demonstrated how collaborative work with charities can help to protect our native wildlife.”