A pioneering collaboration between LJMU forensic researchers and North Wales Police will provide invaluable support to future livestock attack investigations.
Dog attacks on livestock continue to blight rural communities and were estimated to have cost British farmers £1.52 million last year, according to industry data.
Identifying dogs in animal-based crimes can be challenging, but research and knowledge exchange in relation to DNA recovery techniques could provide a breakthrough in the fight against these rural crimes nationally.
With funding provided by DEFRA, molecular forensics specialists, Dr Nick Dawnay and Dr Suzzanne McColl from the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, are working with officers to implement a DNA-based investigation process to identify dogs suspected to have committed such attacks.
As part of an ongoing research project that began in 2021, North Wales Rural Crime Team officers investigating these incidents have gathered swab samples from injured and deceased livestock at crime scenes.
Optimising DNA recovery techniques
Dr Nick Dawnay, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Science, said: “We recently undertook a workshop with officers as part of the second phase of our research to ensure that the DNA recovery is as effective as possible.
“We discussed the efficacy of swabbing versus other methods and delivered a practical workshop which saw the officers using ‘taping’ techniques with acetate strips to recover DNA from a set of mock samples.
“We also discussed other possible sites from which we may expect some canine DNA to be obtained from an attacked animal, so we can assess which collection methods and which sampling areas offer the best results.”
As part of the on-going research, collected samples are sent on to Dr Dawnay and fellow researchers at LJMU, where they are analysed in the laboratories using both established and novel techniques to isolate and measure the amount of canine DNA involved.
It is hoped that the results will enable police forces, and forensic science services across Wales and England, to employ best DNA practice when dealing with livestock attacks under the new powers proposed in the Kept Animals Bill. Find out more about the proposed legislation.
Wider impact on rural policing
North Wales Rural Crime Team Officer and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Secretary for Livestock Offences, PC Dave Allen hopes that his team’s work with LJMU will yield positive results and that other forces can adopt the same processes in future investigations.
He said: “On average in North Wales there are around 120 dog attacks on livestock per year. Most of these are committed by dogs that have escaped from their homes and many of these incidents involve attacks on sheep.
“Each year I see incidents where farmers lose thousands of pounds of their livelihood after becoming a victim of a livestock attack. But the current legislation was passed in 1953 and reflects poorly on modern farming and police techniques.
“It’s hoped that the new DNA powers and forensic techniques being researched in the project will allow for a direct comparison with a crime scene and a dog that may have been for example witnessed leaving the scene.
“Currently, under the 1953 Act, identifying the dog involved can be difficult in those circumstances so, over the last 12 months, Rural Crime Team officers have collected a number of swab samples from livestock that have been attacked by dogs. However, these swabs are not currently admissible as evidence in court, as there is no such law in place yet.
“But by submitting them to the forensic research team they can hone techniques to isolate the canine DNA, which ultimately improves our chances of tracing the owners responsible. This could then provide the platform for science and police guidance to be in place when the new Act becomes law.”
Replicated for other animal-based crimes
PC Allen added: “This is an exciting project and one that hasn’t been done anywhere else in the UK previously. Ultimately, we hope the results from this study will be successful and lead to police forces adopting this new approach.
“We hope these techniques can be replicated and rolled out to other animal-based crimes such as identifying dogs involved in badger baiting and poaching offences.”
Further scientific research is now required to validate the methods and assess their suitability for wider implementation, with submitted samples now set to increase as the project enters its next stage.