ENVIRONMENTAL campaigners say the extent of wildlife crime is vastly greater than what has been reported until now and called on the Scottish Government to take tougher action.

A report published by Scottish Environment LINK, which represents more than 35 environmental organisations, claims the number of incidents identified by police investigations and prosecutions is just the "tip of the iceberg" and that many more go unreported.

The group warn of a waning of "political will" in Scotland to tackle wildlife crime and say that the "partnership approach" adopted by the Scottish Government has failed.

And they are demanding better policing is to break down the "wall of silence" surrounding wildlife crime and that courts use the "full panoply of sentences" available to them to crack down on culprits.

The authors state: "Overall, but with a few noticeable exceptions, there is, amongst LINK members an overwhelming lack of confidence in the ability of the statutory agencies to adequately investigate wildlife crime and in the willingness of the judiciary to impose meaningful deterrent sentences."

The charity has made 20 recommendations for government, police and prosecutors, which include the possibility of setting up a national wildlife crime rapid response unit.

Police Scotland should agree a wildlife crime strategy in consultation with environmental groups and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service should investigate why such a high percentage of cases fail to be prosecuted and pursue stiff sentences, it said.

The research also raises concerns about the partnership approach to tackling wildlife crime through the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (Paws), which includes the police, land managers, environmental groups and the Scottish Government.

It states: "If the partnership approach is to continue, the Scottish Government should commission research to assess the true extent of the different types of wildlife crime in Scotland and remove any group tainted significantly by association with any area of wildlife crime from Paws."

The Scottish Government should also consider how wildlife crime connected to a specific piece of land might lead to the withdrawal of subsidies associated with land ownership, Scottish Environment LINK said.

"If these recommendations are followed, we believe we can virtually eliminate wildlife crime in Scotland and remove the stain it places on our international reputation," the charity said.

Eddie Palmer,f Scottish Badgers, convener of the LINK wildlife crime task force, said: "Wildlife crime arises from modern versions of old and outdated practices. Practices that were once acceptable are now considered cruel and criminal.

"This is especially so where the practices are obviously linked with economic interests. Behaviour in certain minority groups has lagged well behind these changes in our attitudes. It is time to change that behaviour and stamp out these crimes."

Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland, said: "Together, these papers should be a wake-up call for those involved in tackling wildlife crime.

"A law is only as good as its enforcement and the comprehensive analysis contained in these papers shows that this is far from good enough here in Scotland."

However, critics of the report say that is is wrong to dismiss the official statistics surrounding wildlife crime.

Douglas McAdam, chief executive of Scottish Land & Estates, said: "The government produces a rigorous annual report into wildlife crime, and part of the reason for introducing that is to get at the facts.

"In all there is a tough and effective regime to deal with wildlife crime and we believe that the partnership approach already in place is the most effective way forward."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said "We have the strongest laws on wildlife crime in the UK, including vicarious liability, which was recently successfully used in the courts.

"We are reviewing the penalties for wildlife crime to ensure that they are an adequate deterrent and there are now arrangements in place to restrict the use of general licences where there are grounds to believe wildlife crime has taken place.

"We have been clear that we will continue to take whatever further steps are deemed necessary to deal with wildlife crime."