The UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit – could its future be at risk?

Ministers have yet to confirm that funding for the specialist squad will continue after March. 

The cash prizes on offer to those involved in hare coursing can reach £8,000, according to intelligence picked up by the National Wildlife Crime Unit.
The cash prizes on offer to those involved in hare coursing can reach £8,000, according to intelligence picked up by the National Wildlife Crime Unit.

The future of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) could be in doubt as government ministers have failed to confirm it will be funded after March 2016.

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High-profile celebrities and conservationists, including Dame Jane Goodall, have called on Defra to ensure the unit’s survival for at least another five years. The NWCU is a “world-leading police unit supporting wildlife-crime investigations”, they said in an open letter backed by World Animal Protection.

“Rare bird egg theft, illegal deer poaching, hare coursing and indiscriminate cruelty to wild animals are just some of the problems faced by police around the UK,” the letter added.

In a response to questions in Parliament, environment minister Rory Stewart said, “Decisions on funding will be made as part of consideration of the department’s spending review settlement.”

Chief inspector Martin Sims, who heads up the unit, said that its key function is to pick up on intelligence that it analyses and shares with police forces across the country.

“We are a cheap option in terms of what we provide,” Sims told BBC Wildlife. “Just £400,000 a year, and if we weren’t there, a lot of this work arguably wouldn’t happen.” It is vital, in part, because of the type of people involved, Sims said. “Where their pastime might be wildlife crime, their day job is criminality, too.” The unit also works with the Border Force to intercept wildlife products illegally brought into the UK. Together they seized more than 1,000 items between March and December 2015 and also undertook 14 investigations that brought sanctions including prosecutions, with 24 investigations pending.

A spokesperson for World Animal Protection said: “The Government has made much of its £10m package to combat the illegal trade in wildlife. The public deserves to know whether the National Wildlife Crime Unit will be part of that.” 

Find out more about the National Wildlife Crime Unit

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Read more wildlife news in BBC Wildlife Magazine.