David Cameron asked to save UK's wildlife crime unit from cuts

The National Wildlife Crime Unit’s government funding runs out in March

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The Independent Online

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”.

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.”