Investigation procedures in England

How does the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme (WIIS) become aware of an incident?

Notifications of possible incidents arise from a large range of sources including referrals from RSPB , RSPCA , Local Authorities, Conservation Groups, calls from private vets and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA ), as well as direct contact with Natural England NE by landowners and the general public. Incident Notifications made using the freephone number 0800 321600 will reach the Natural England Wildlife Licensing Unit in office hours and out of office hours a message can be left on the Freephone answer phone. These are sent out to the relevant Wildlife Management Adviser the next working day.

Some cases are first reported to the police. In these cases the Police may lead the case with support from Natural England. However, the circumstances must still meet the criteria outlined below for acceptance if the analysis and support to the police is to be undertaken under the WIIS.

What types of incident are you interested in?

The scheme is interested in all incidents where pesticides are having an impact on wildlife, beneficial invertebrates or companion animals. This might be a result of:

In all cases members of the public should not expose themselves to some of the highly toxic materials that may have been used by handling bodies or baits and in particular not opening blocked badger setts or fox earths where fumigants may have been used.

Where do we investigate?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE ) is the lead authority for pesticide legislation. Wildlife Management Advisers of Natural England have been issued with an "Authorisation" to exercise certain functions on behalf of HSE. The authorisation is a photographic identity card which displays the logo of the appointing body or department, together with a photograph of the authorised Wildlife Management Adviser. It lists the relevant legislative powers, together with the name and signature of an official empowered by the HSE to authorise the person to act.

Wildlife Management Advisers will carry their authorisation with them at all times when exercising their powers. If so requested, the Wildlife Management Adviser will produce their authorisation card to any person who requests to see it whilst on the premises, state their name, the function they propose to perform and the grounds for doing so.

Authorisations issued to Wildlife Management Advisers by HSE do not allow authorised officers to exercise these functions in relation to:

Information about relevant legislation relating to pesticides in England can be found on the CRD website.

Are all suspected poisoning incidents accepted into the scheme?

No. There are essential criteria for the acceptance of an incident:

  1. the incident involves the death or illness of wild animals, companion animals (pets),beneficial invertebrates, or the presence of a substance believed to be a pesticide (such as a spillage or a bait apparently laced with pesticide, with the potential to cause harm).
  2. there is good reason to believe pesticides are involved in the incident. This is the hardest to determine and some of the factors that may influence the decision include, for example:
    • The number, location and species of mammals or birds involved;
    • The finding of baits with identifiable material such as pellets or granules;
    • A veterinary opinion, diagnosis or post-mortem;
    • Observations by the finder or owner of animals prior to their death;
    • The previous history in the area;
    • Information that strongly suggests pesticides may be involved.

The apparent absence of an alternative possible cause of death is not normally sufficient justification for acceptance. Experience has shown that many animals in apparently "perfect condition" have in fact died as a result of starvation, disease or trauma.

An incident may be rejected where:

All incident decisions are peer reviewed by another Wildlife Management Adviser or WIIS technical lead. If there is doubt as to whether a case should be accepted into the scheme HSE are consulted.

What will happen once I have reported the suspected Incident?

A Wildlife Management Adviser from Natural England should normally contact you within a day or two of the incident being reported. If the incident has been reported to another organisation first there may be a delay before Natural England receives the notification. If you do not hear anything and there is no reason why you are not contactable then you should ring the freephone again.

If the incident involves the death of honeybees and samples have been sent to the National Bee Unit (NBU) at the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera ) in York for an assessment for disease, the NBU will contact Natural England to alert them of a potential incident. A Wildlife Management Adviser will liaise with the Bee Inspector and depending on the circumstances may arrange a visit with the bee inspector if this has not already been done. Difficulty in contacting the beekeeper or bee inspector may delay progress of a bee incident.

Making field enquires

Each Wildlife Management Adviser will be trained and have access to suitable guidance and equipment to allow them to conduct their enquiries safely and in accordance with current Health and Safety Regulations. The guidance is in the form of a task analysis which helps Natural England staff deal with each stage of investigating a poisoning incident which potentially causes a risk to their health.

If a case is accepted there will normally be a site visit to establish what happened, to gather samples and to gain information about pesticides possibly involved. In a few cases where samples are already available, or could be obtained and transported, or sent to a Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency AHVLA regional laboratory (eg by the RSPCA ) or the Wildlife Incident Unit at Fera , the Wildlife Management Adviser may obtain information by telephone. In all cases the Wildlife Management Adviser must be confident that there is an unbroken chain of evidence accounting for the safekeeping and treatment of each relevant sample from the moment it is collected through inspection, tests and eventually to trial. All samples, or other material, must be moved both safely and legally.

There is no single approach to conducting Wildlife Incident enquiries that will apply to all situations. The extent of any enquiries, search of the area and time spent on site will depend on the nature of the incident and local circumstances.

Consequently the time devoted to an enquiry and its geographical extent will vary as information is gained about the likelihood and extent of pesticides being involved.

Extensive door-to-door enquiries would not normally be undertaken.

The nature of the environment inevitably has an impact, with a more urban area tending to take less time to cover compared to woodland or moorland which is likely to take longer. However on many occasions whilst poisoning may be suspected it is not always clear and it is difficult to gauge what sort of enquiries would help the investigation. In these circumstances the results of the analysis may shed some light on an appropriate line of enquiry and further investigations may be made at a later date.

In some cases Wildlife Management Advisers will wish to examine pesticide stores or other structures during the course of enquiries. Usually the co-operation of the owner to search such places is sought and may help to eliminate individuals from enquiries, but Wildlife Management Advisers do have authority to carry out a search even if the owner is reluctant for them to have access to a store. Some pesticides must be kept under lock and key and an open/un-locked store door may lead to storage offences being committed. Searches of stores will usually involve recording what is present, photographing relevant containers, possibly sampling or seizing some materials and testing of fumigants that might not be stored appropriately if the equipment is available.

Any Authorised Officer may take with them any other person to assist with their enquiries. If, for example, an RSPCA Inspector has been involved in a case it may be appropriate to take them on a visit to pin point the location of animals involved or to deal with animal welfare issues as a result of pesticides. Again his/her role and its limitations must be clearly explained at the outset. On other occasions the Wildlife Management Adviser may be accompanied by the police, possibly to prevent a breach of the peace or to assist with a search, again their role should be made clear at the outset.

Field enquiry - Bee Incidents

Honey bee Incidents differ from vertebrate wildlife cases in that the notifications often come direct to the NBU . In a few instances where the beekeeper has had prior contact with the Wildlife Management Adviser it is possible that either the beekeeper or the Bee Inspector may make contact with the Wildlife Management Adviser directly. It is essential to liaise with the NBU and the Bee Inspector from the outset and make it clear that you suspect a pesticide might be involved in the death of the bees and the reason for this when you submit the sample.

When a notification is received the beekeeper will be contacted. Contact will also be made with the bee inspector. It is then for the Wildlife Management Adviser to take the available information into account and decide whether the case should be accepted into the Scheme and inform the beekeeper and bee inspector of that decision. Field enquiries are conducted slightly differently to other wildlife incidents in that greater emphasis is placed on information from the beekeeper, bee inspector and in identifying fields that may be the source of the pesticide exposure.

In all incidents involving honey bees Wildlife Management Advisers are advised not to approach the apiary unless they are competent to do so (ie beekeepers themselves). A sample of bees may have already been sent to the NBU. If a second sample is required by the NBU, the beekeeper, or the bee inspector, will be asked to approach the hives and to obtain the sample.

The illegal sprinkling of insecticidal powder or spray onto a hive may lead to the need for a further collection of samples. Such cases can only be addressed individually but particular care should be taken where a white powder is to be collected as there have been cases of the abuse of Sodium cyanide (Cymag) at bee hives. This is a banned material which produces a toxic gas. The presence of such a white powder would hopefully be apparent before the Wildlife Management Adviser left the office and appropriate protective equipment can be brought to the site. Beekeepers and others must be warned not to collect and forward samples where there is a suspicion that fumigant materials are involved, or to approach the hive(s).

When handling samples of dead bees these should be placed in a cardboard box and the sample can be frozen if the material cannot be sent to NBU immediately. Bee samples should not be placed in plastic bags as they "sweat". At least 50 bees is sufficient for all the standard tests required and these should be sent to the NBU as quickly as possible.

Where a honeybee sample is submitted the NBU will inform the beekeeper of the results of the disease screening. The Wildlife Management Adviser is responsible for the disclosure of the pesticide analysis results if the bees are accepted into the scheme.

Exhumations of domestic dogs

In a small number of cases the body of a domestic dog may have been buried prior to a Wildlife Management Adviser being made aware of the incident. Only with the permission of the owner would a Wildlife Management Adviser seek an exhumation. The Diseases of Animals Acts 1894 to 1925 and the Animals (Miscellaneous Provisions) Order 1927 governs the exhumation of bodies and it is necessary to apply to the AHVLA , for an authority to exhume dogs.

This legislation also applies to most farm livestock but does not apply to wildlife or cats.

Post mortems

When the body of a companion animal is sent to the AHVLA regional laboratory for post mortem, tissues may be sent for further laboratory examination, but the remains will be cremated and not returned to the owner.

A number of cases initially involve a private veterinary practice, as they are usually the first point of contact for individual pet owners. Where pet owners wish to receive back the body of a pet after post-mortem then this examination will have to be undertaken at a private veterinary practice and not at an AHVLA regional laboratory. Where appropriate the private vets should liaise with the Wildlife Management Adviser dealing with the incident in relation to the range of tissue samples that need to be taken and how they should be conserved and despatched to the Wildlife Incident Unit at Fera York.

How long will all the laboratory test and analysis of any samples or baits take?

All the agencies involved in the scheme make every effort to complete investigations as quickly as possible.

From the time when there is sufficient information to accept the case into the scheme Natural England will aim to conduct their field enquires within 4 working days.

If a post mortem is undertaken this will be normally be completed within 2 working days of the body being received at the AHVLA laboratory. If the body is frozen then this process may take up to 4 working days. The AHVLA will, where appropriate, dispatch tissue samples from the animal to the Wildlife Incident Unit (WIU ) at Fera , York for pesticide analysis within 3 working days of the post mortem examination unless they are awaiting further information that will assist with their examination procedures. If at this stage the cause of death is established as not related to pesticides then it is unlikely that further tissue analyses will be undertaken and the case will be closed.

From when the tissue samples or baits arrive at Fera WIU , and assuming they have enough information to conduct the correct tests, the pesticide analyses will normally take up to 8-12 weeks.

Some tissues will be analysed as a matter of priority which will be completed within 10 working days. However analysing samples more quickly involves the commitment of a significant additional resource and therefore is only agreed in exceptional circumstances.

If the case involves the death of honey bees the NBU will screen for bee diseases within 48 hours of receipt of the samples. The beekeeper and Natural England will then be informed of the results of the disease screen. The bees will be passed to the WIU to await acceptance into the scheme. There may be a delay in acceptance if the beekeeper or bee inspector cannot be contacted to obtain further information.

What happens if the tests confirm pesticide poisoning?

This depends on the results and the circumstances. Sometimes a small residue of a pesticide might be found but it may not have been the cause of death of the animal. In other cases whilst there may be clear evidence of pesticide poisoning there are no leads that would merit further investigation. If there is scope to pursue the investigation further enquiries may be made by the enforcing authority leading the investigation which may be the police, HSE or the local authority. Natural England may be asked to assist any enforcing authority to make further enquiries and each request is considered on a case by case basis. Natural England do not take forward WIIS investigations beyond the initial gathering of information and providing expert assistance as required. It is therefore important to establish at the outset which enforcing authority is taking the lead in an investigation and who will take responsibility for interviewing the suspect and if appropriate, take the case through to prosecution.

HSE investigation

Depending on the evidence available, and where no other enforcement authority in involved, the National Pesticide Enforcement Team of the HSE will take forward a WIIS investigation with expert advice and support from the Wildlife Management Adviser who initially led the case. Enforcement decisions may be made at any stage of the investigation but any decision to prosecute rests with CRD.

Police investigation

There are a significant number of cases that arise from an initial Police enquiry often led by the local Police Wildlife Crime Officer (WCO). These cases often involve a bird of prey or companion animal where there are likely to be wildlife or other offences, as well as the potential pesticide offences.

The Police may request a Wildlife Management Adviser's support with enquiries at any stage of the investigation and provided the resource requirement is agreed with CRD , and provided it is within their capabilities, the Wildlife Management Adviser should provide full support to the Police.

There are cases where it transpires that the only substantive evidence in a case relates to pesticide offences, depending on the evidence the case may be followed up by CRD as the regulator. However, if the police in taking the lead have already interviewed suspects the police may take forward pesticide offences. CRD will not usually be able to take a case on once the CPS has reached a view on whether or not to prosecute.

What is an Enforcement Notice?

Both Natural England and HSE staff are authorised to issue enforcement notices.

The purpose of an Enforcement Notice is to right a wrong as soon as possible. They have particular relevance to the removal and safe disposal of pesticides in misuse and abuse situations. The most common situations in this context for serving a notice have been:

  1. To require the safe disposal of pesticides that have lost their approval by a disposal contractor (eg a tin of Cymag);
  2. To require pesticide stores to be brought up to standard, including proper signage, in line with HSE Guidance

The Notice will generally be sent by recorded delivery or with the agreement of CRD served by personal delivery.

All Notices require the recipient to report within a given deadline on the action taken. For disposal of pesticides this will require a formal receipt from a commercial contractor to show that pesticides have been collected and disposed of. In other cases physical confirmation of the action taken may be required by a follow up visit. Failure to comply with an enforcement notice is a breach of the regulations.

Will you keep me informed?

An important part of this process is to keep the person who originally reported the incident informed of progress. However in some cases it may not always be possible to provide information on the precise nature of any substances found as this may compromise any further investigation. Much of the information gathered at this stage will be in confidence and it may not be possible to inform you of the outcome until the case is closed.

Following the decision to close a case Natural England will normally write to the original reporter; although it may be more suitable to phone the individual.

Further Information


Updated 2021-08-23