David Cameron has been asked to step-in and save Britain’s world-leading police unit dedicated to wildlife crime, amid fears that it could fall victim to Government spending cuts.
The National Wildlife Crime Unit’s government funding runs out in March, and ministers have refused to rule out scrapping it altogether, leading to widespread protest from conservationists and MPs across the political spectrum.
Britain is a hub for the international illegal wildlife trade, investigators say, and in 2015 alone the NWCU orchestrated the seizure of more than 400 items banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It also helps coordinate the work of police forces around the country combatting domestic wildlife crimes such as hare coursing and the persecution of birds of prey.
The unit only costs £427,000 a year to run, with the Home Office and the Department for Farming, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), providing £136,000 each.
Chief Inspector Martin Sims, who leads the unit, has met with ministers but told The Independent he has had no assurances on its future. He said that without the funding “there would be no unit”.
Asked by if he could guarantee the funding of the NWCU, Mr Cameron praised its “important work both domestically and overseas” but told Labour MP Jim Dowd during Prime Minister’s Questions that a decision was “still to be made about the future”.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015
1/4 'To Drink or Not' - Carlos Perez Naval, Spain, 10 Years and Under
Carlos was down on the beach at Morro Bay in California, on holiday with his family, when he witnessed a fascinating interaction between two different species. A colony of California ground squirrels lives among the rocks at one side of the bay, fed by locals, who also put out dishes of water for them. What Carlos noticed was that western gulls were monopolizing the water. Whenever a ground squirrel dared to get too close, a gull would chase it away, aiming its powerful beak at the squirrel’s head. Carlos was fascinated by the way the ground squirrels would try to sneak in for a sip when the gulls weren’t looking. Here, the two competitors’ eyes lock over the coveted fresh water. Carlos took the shot just before the gull lunged forwards and the squirrel fled.
Carlos Perez Naval
2/4 'Snow Hare' - Rosamund Macfarlane, UK, Mammals
One of Rosamund’s photographic ambitions was to photograph Scottish mountain hares in the snow, camouflaged in their winter coats. Native to Britain, mountain hares moult from brown to white or partially white in winter, depending on temperature. With a local expert, Rosamund climbed a valley in the Scottish Cairngorms, ‘at times through knee-deep snow’, until they came across a couple of hares that allowed them to approach within photographic range. Their mottled, snow-dusted coats echoed the colours of the snow-covered hillside. For several hours, Rosamund lay on the ground in freezing temperatures, observing the hares snuggled into their forms (shallow depressions) as fine snow blew over them and rime coated their pelts. In the late afternoon, the hares finally became active and started to feed, scraping the snow from the heather and then nibbling the shoots. Positioning herself so that she was looking up a gentle incline directly at one hare, Rosamund captured its determined scrabbling in a head-on portrait.
3/4 'Great Egret Awakening' - Zsolt Kudich, Hungary, Birds
When the River Danube flooded into Hungary’s Gemenc Forest, more than a thousand great egrets flocked to the lake to feed on the stranded amphibians, fish and invertebrates. Working on a project to document the last untouched regions of the Danube, including the floodplains, Zsolt was delighted to find a sixth of Hungary’s great egret population in the one place. By 1921, hunting had reduced their number to just 31 pairs. Today, habitat loss is the big threat. Using the soft dawn light, Zsolt wanted to convey the impression of a multitude of birds. So he pitched his camouflaged tent nearby, sleeping just a few hours a night for five nights. His chance came when a fishing white-tailed eagle sent some of the egrets into the air. With a slow shutter speed to blur the wings and a large depth of field to keep in focus those standing, Zsolt got his memorable image.
4/4 'Stork Art' - Francisco Mingorance, Spain, Urban Wildlife
White storks seem equally at home on artificial structures as they are in trees, often nesting on rooftops and telegraph poles. Francisco discovered three pairs high on this sculpture outside the Vostell-Malpartida Museum near Cáceres in Spain. The installation, by German artist Wolf Vostell, incorporates a Russian MiG-21 aircraft, two cars, pianos, computer monitors – and now, three huge nests, which the storks use each year, migrating from their overwintering grounds in southern Africa. Francisco wanted a picture of the storks sleeping under a starry sky, but there was too much light. ‘I got special permission for most lights to be shut down,’ he says, ‘but then the storks kept moving about and flying off.’ Using a long exposure, he got just one shot he liked, with the storks quietly asserting their place in the modern world that Vostell depicted.
The unit has had to fight hard for funding in the past and was narrowly saved in 2014 when it secured a new round of support from Defra and the Home Office, which expires in March this year.
Leading conservationists told The Independent that scrapping it would send a “depressing” message about the Government’s commitment to protecting wildlife.
“The current Government are upsetting a lot of people with their countryside and wildlife management policies ,” said Chris Packham, the BBC broadcaster and naturalist. “They tried sneak through foxhunting, the badger cull has expanded. When people see that crimes against wildlife cannot be properly policed they will be pretty angry.”
Ornithologist and broadcaster Bill Oddie said the small NWCU team did a “fantastic job”.
“How depressing would it be if wildlife crime, which nine times out of 10 means cruelty to wildlife, became more frequent rather than less. My God, that’s a step back for British civilisation,” he said.
Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas said the NWCU needed “long-term sustainable funding”, not a piecemeal solution.
“If we were to lose the world-leading expertise of this unit it’s highly likely that we’d see a fall in the number of wildlife crime cases being successfully investigated and prosecuted,” she said.
Mr Sims said he had been told to expect a decision from ministers before the end of this month.
Animal welfare charities have also called for the unit to be saved.
The World Animal Protection charity hosted an event in Parliament on 6 January, attended by 50 MPs highlighting fears over the NWCU’s future. Spokesperson Josh Kaile said the Government had “missed opportunities to reassure the unit, police forces and the public that they take the matter of wildlife crime seriously.”
An RSPCA spokesperson said legislation is “redundant if it is not able to be enforced, and that includes laws which protect wild animals."
A Government spokesperson said: “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 £1.5 million in funding since 2006.”Reuse content