Blair will not intervene to save wildlife centres

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Tony Blair has formally washed his hands of the fate of Britain's three leading wildlife research centres, which face closure as a cost-cutting measure - despite growing public and political concern. He has made clear his refusal to get involved in the case in a letter to the Conservative leader David Cameron - who taunted the Prime Minister over the issue at question time in the House of Commons last week.

Mr Blair says in his letter that the fate of the centres at Monks Wood, Cambridgeshire, Winfrith, in Dorset, and Banchory, near Aberdeen, is a matter for the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which funds their parent body, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

The proposed closure of the centres, widely regarded as increasingly important as Britain's wildlife is put at risk by climate change, has caused anger in the environmental community and united the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in a joint protest.

But Mr Blair tells Mr Cameron: "It has long been the tradition in this country that it is largely the science community, not government, which takes decisions on what research to support and commission ... It is the NERC, within its overall research priorities, which has decided to reduce the overall level of support to research and collaborative centres such as CEH."

In a return swipe at the Conservative leader, he says: "Given your position that central government does too much and should devolve responsibility, I am somewhat surprised that you now appear to believe that the Government should get involved..."

Yesterday, two leading members of the Shadow Cabinet visited Monks Wood to offer further support to the centres and the 600 CEH scientific staff - 200 of whom face the sack under the NERC proposals.

Peter Ainsworth, shadow Environment Secretary, and Alan Duncan, shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. (there because the DTI controls the science budget, the ultimate source of CEH funding) spent several hours at the centre near Huntingdon, which became world-famous in the 1960s when its researchers, led by Dr Derek Radcliffe, worked out that agricultural pesticides including DDT were killing birds of prey such as peregrine falcons, by accumulating in the food chain.

Among much other research Mr Ainsworth and Mr Duncan saw the work of the UK Phenology Network - a massive database of the timing of natural events, such as oak leaves appearing, frogs sprawning and swallows returning.

It has shown that, because of climate change, spring is now beginning in Britain about three weeks earlier than 40 years ago. This may have dire consequences for some species which cannot adapt quickly enough, such as migratory birds.

Mr Ainsworth said the work of the centre was "absolutely vital". He said: "People in Britain are passionately interested in wildlife - just look at the 400,000 who take part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch.

"The work at Monks Wood and the other centres is of strategic importance nationally if not globally, and it would be a disaster if it were not to continue.

Mr Duncan said: "Mr Blair's letter shows he personally knows nothing about the subject and has got no genuine interest in it at all. It is quite unacceptable that the fund of expertise assembled in centres like Monks Wood is about to be fragmented. "