Scientists to walk out in wildlife centre row

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Environmental scientists have threatened to hold a virtually unheard-of mass demonstration over proposals to close Britain's three leading wildlife research centres.

Researchers at the Winfrith, Dorset station of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), which faces the axe along with sister stations at Monk's Wood, Cambridgeshire, and Banchory in Scotland, are planning a "day of action" next week, when they will take a co-ordinated day's leave from their own duties and instead carry out voluntary work for the Dorset Wildlife Trust.

Their planned demo is an indication of swelling opposition to the closures, which were highlighted in The Independent last month, and which proved an embarrassment for Tony Blair on Wednesday in the House of Commons. Mr Blair was taunted by the Conservative leader, David Cameron, for the fact that one of his junior ministers, Jim Knight from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), had written a letter to him protesting at the closures and asking the Prime Minister to intervene - which Mr Blair refused to do.

Now the Tories are looking to push the closure threat even further up the political agenda with visits to some of the threatened laboratories from senior Conservatives. Next Monday, the shadow Environment minister, Greg Barker, will visit the Winfrith centre, and later in the week Peter Ainsworth and Alan Duncan, shadow Secretaries of State for Environment and Trade and Industry, will be visiting the research station at Monk's Wood.

Mr Duncan is joining Mr Ainsworth because the Department of Trade and Industry controls the science budget, the ultimate source of funding for the CEH centres.

The funds are distributed by the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc), and it is the decision of the Nerc council to cut back on funding for CEH which has prompted the plans to close the centres, and to sack 200 of the CEH scientific staff.

Mr Ainsworth said last night: "Our aim is to prevent the closures and get those involved to think again. The work the CEH centres do is of immense value in our understanding of biodiversity, and in the context of the concerns about climate change it is of even more importance. Closing them is utterly ridiculous."

His opinion is remarkably similar to that of Labour's Mr Knight, the minister responsible for wildlife, who told Mr Blair in his letter that the closures did not make sense scientifically or economically, at a local or a national level. The Environment minister, Elliot Morley, revealed in the House of Commons yesterday that Defra itself had joined in the Nerc consultation on the future of the laboratories - strongly implying that the Government's green ministers are joining the calls for a rethink.

The day of action at Winfrith is being planned by the union Prospect; about 80 per cent of the Winfrith staff are Prospect members. The Prospect section secretary, Bill Beaumont, said: "This is not a strike, but our members will be taking a day's leave, and we will go and help a conservation group with scrub clearance and fencing. We simply want to highlight the Nerc consultation process, and try and encourage all local stakeholders to write in to it."

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