Fears over funding of ‘vital’ wildlife crime unit

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THE Government has been warned some of England’s rarest birds of prey are at risk of being lost forever unless a specialist crime-fighting unit is preserved amid the savage austerity drive.

North Yorkshire ranks as the worst blackspot in the country for offences where birds of prey have been shot, trapped and poisoned, according to figures released by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Ministers have been warned threatened species could be driven to the point of extinction if adequate funding is not found for the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), which is seen as vital to ensuring the persecution does not escalate.

The Government has committed £272,000 during the current financial year to fund the unit, although the RSPB has yet to be given assurances the money will continue amid growing fears there could be another round of cuts from Westminster owing to the faltering economy.

The RSPB’s conservation director, Martin Harper, said: “Certain aspects of wildlife crime, such as killing birds of prey, are so severe they are having a devastating impact on the future of some threatened species.

“The National Wildlife Crime Unit provides co-ordination for police forces tackling the Government’s wildlife crime priorities, but it only has guaranteed funding for another three months.

“We live in financially straitened times, but we believe giving this lean unit a secure future will give threatened species a secure future too.”

Research published by the RSPB has revealed that North Yorkshire has witnessed the most persecutions in England throughout a 10-year period from 2002 to 2011.

There were 264 confirmed, probable and unconfirmed incidents in the county, including shooting, trapping, nest destruction, and poisoning of birds of prey and owls. The figures show at least 20 birds of prey have been illegally poisoned, shot or trapped in the Yorkshire Dales alone between 2007 and 2011.

The next highest number of cases was in Devon and Cornwall which saw 91 incidents in the same 10-year period, followed by Northumbria which witnessed 88 cases.

There were 40 incidents in West Yorkshire, and a further 36 incidents in South Yorkshire.

The RSPB has warned, however, that the figures are the tip of the iceberg, with many offences either going unreported or undetected.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published an inquiry into wildlife crime in October, which called for a long-term commitment from the Government to continue to fund the NWCU.

It said legislation surrounding wildlife crime had been amended so many times that it is “too complex” for non-specialist police officers and prosecutors to apply effectively, and urged for laws to be streamlined. The committee called in 2004 for a new database to be established to record all wildlife crime; however, the key tool has yet to be introduced.

The real measure of the effect that persecution is having on birds of prey is their absence from large area of suitable breeding habitat.

Only one pair of hen harriers bred in England this year 
when there is sufficient habitat to accommodate more than 300 pairs.

The NWCU is funded by both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Home Office, although no decision has been taken on exactly how much money will be awarded in the future.

Ministers are faced with making further cuts to departmental budgets after Chancellor George Osborne admitted the austerity drive must continue to 2018.

But a Defra spokeswoman maintained the Government “fully supports” the work of the unit, and confirmed discussions are continuing about future funding arrangements.

The spokeswoman added: “The Government takes wildlife crime seriously and there are a number of laws in place to protect our wildlife.

“We will continue to work 
with the police and conservation bodies to do all we can to 
crack down on anyone breaking these laws and bring them to justice.”