Brian May Vital: Brian May has backed the NWCU – PA
2 February 2016 by Ben Glaze
Wildlife crime squad faces axe due to Government cuts leaving animals at greater risk of harm
The National Wildlife Crime Unit support police forces tackle badger baiting and poaching but Tories won’t guarantee it’s future. A crack squad of wildlife detectives could be axed within weeks because of Government funding cuts. Animals will be at greater risk of harm if the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) is scrapped, experts warned. The 12-strong team supports the UK’s police forces in tackling crimes such as badger baiting, poaching and the theft of rare birds’ eggs.
David Cameron promised to step up Britain’s fight against wildlife crime amid public anger at last year’s killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American trophy hunter. But the Tories have refused to guarantee the unit’s future.
The team costs just £427,000 a year to run, with the Home Office and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs each pumping in £136,000. Staff are expected to learn their fate early this year – but are still waiting to hear whether they can carry on their work.
NWCU boss Chief Inspector Martin Sims said: “After Cecil the lion, the Prime Minister said the UK would be leading on combating wildlife crime.“But no-one is actually saying we will still have a unit come April 1.”
Chief Insp Sims said the ongoing uncertainty was demoralising his officers, adding: “If we don’t get that money we may not have much of a unit. We are a really cheap option for what we provide to UK policing. Who’s going to deal with it if we go?”
Campaigner Mark Jones, spokesman for Wildlife and Countryside Link and the Born Free Foundation , said: “It’s very much a world-leading police unit of its kind. To lose the amazing expertise and experience this unit provides in support of all the wildlife crime officers scattered across UK police forces would be a terrible loss at a time when wildlife crime is very much on the increase.”
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron blasted ‘illogical and illiterate Government cuts’. He added: “The National Wildlife Crime Unit performs vital work in tackling wildlife crime both at home and abroad. Police forces up and down the UK, like mine in Cumbria rely on the expert knowledge of the unit in order to tackle wildlife criminals.”
Rock star and animal rights activist Brian May, who set up the Save Me Trust, said: “Britain is becoming a key destination in the international illegal wildlife trade. The unit’s work is vital.”
NWCU officers last month spearheaded a raid on nine North Devon addresses linked to allegations of poaching and the illegal supply of meat into the food chain. Two men were arrested on suspicion of poaching offences, while another two men and a woman were arrested in connection with firearms offences. All were bailed until next month. The NWCU seized meat samples and carcasses which will be tested to discover how they were killed. The unit chalked up a success last week as part of a US-led operation targeting an illegal reptile trader. Officers secured evidence of Mountain Kingsnakes being sold to British buyers, helping convict the salesman who was sentenced to 400 hours community service.
A Government spokeswoman said: “The UK Government is leading the global response to tackling illegal wildlife crime, funding practical action in developing countries through our Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, supporting anti-poaching projects and working with our African partners to improve the security of their parks.
“The National Wildlife Crime Unit plays an important role in tackling wildlife law enforcement both at home and internationally, which is why Defra have supported the programme through nearly £1.5million in funding since 2006.”
The Queen guitarist said: “Last year the National Wildlife Crime Unit was involved in the seizure of over 400 illegal items listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Britain is becoming a key destination in the international illegal wildlife trade, a vast network turning over hundreds of millions of pounds a year, its scale and depravity comparable with child trafficking. The industry preys on wild species that are not sustainable and are on the brink of extinction. The work that the NWCU does combating these crimes is vital. It also tackles important domestic issues such a persecution of birds of prey. With the specialised expertise it has build up over a decade, it is essential we maintain this unit in its entirety.
“The last time the question of cutting support to the NWCU came up, David Cameron supported its continued funding. We confidently trust that he will now continue that support, and give the National Wildlife Crime Unit a secure future in these hard times.”