National Wildlife Crime Unit – worthy of more funding?

NWCUThere has been a lot of media attention in recent weeks over the issue of whether the UK government would provide continued funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU). Journalists, bloggers, campaigners, concerned members of the public…all wrote in support of the unit and such was the strength of feeling that even a petition was started to lobby the government into committing to another round of funding.

We wonder how many of those lobbyists were campaigning on the principle alone, or perhaps just because of the unit’s name, without actually knowing whether the NWCU is effective or whether it’s actually a drain on scarce resources that could be better utilised elsewhere? Many people argued that by dragging their heels on the funding decision, the government was sending a clear message to the wildlife criminals: ‘Wildlife crime isn’t a priority for us so go ahead, fill your boots, we don’t care what you do’. The sentiment of the campaigners is one with which it’s easy to sympathise. Nobody wants to see the government send out that sort of message, whether intentionally or not. But the big question, for us at least, is whether the NWCU is actually delivering and therefore worthy of more funding.

This questions is asked from the standpoint of raptor persecution alone. We are well aware that the NWCU has a much wider remit than just this one issue – for example it is well-documented that NWCU has worked well on international projects aimed at targeting the international wildlife trade. Perhaps that alone is worthy of more funding – the wildlife trade is horrific, incredibly damaging, and deserves our full attention.  However, the NWCU is also tasked with addressing wildlife crime in the UK, and particularly five currently recognised UK-specific priorities: Badger persecution, Bat persecution, Freshwater Pearl Mussels, Poaching, and Raptor Persecution. We do not have the expertise to be able to assess their delivery on four of these priorities, but we can try to evaluate their delivery on raptor persecution.

So, what has the NWCU acheived, in terms of addressing raptor persecution, since the unit was first established in 2006? Well, it’s very hard to tell. If you go to their website (here), you’ll be disappointed to see that it is still not functioning. It has been ‘under construction’ for several years now. The next-best information outlet would be their annual report.  However, the last one published (that we’ve been able to find) relates to 2010. This isn’t helpful if you’re looking for information on their recent activities.

So what is it they do, exactly, in relation to addressing raptor persecution? Two of their staff gave presentations about their work at last year’s wildlife crime conference (here and here).

We also know that they’re quite big on ‘paperwork’ crime, particularly in relation to captive birds of prey, e.g. the bird is unregistered or has been stolen from the wild. That’s good work, and it’s important work, but it isn’t the main issue in terms of addressing raptor persecution.

We know that they also participate in the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group – another one of those ‘partnership working’ initiatives that includes many ‘partners’ that really don’t like raptors. This group has been going for several years and has just, in the last week, produced its first output. (This relates to reporting raptor persecution incidents and we’ll be blogging about that shortly). Not quite what you could call a productive initiative, although that’s hardly the fault of the NWCU.

What else do they do? If you look in the 2010 annual report (here) under the heading of Conservation and Prevention Work, sub-heading ‘raptor persecution priority delivery group’ (p.13), you’ll see they only list one output. This relates to the annual persecution maps produced to highlight raptor persecution hotspots. What they don’t say is that the RSPB have been producing these maps, on their own, for years. Now they’ve just been hijacked by several groups (PAW Scotland included) who seem to want to take credit for the work.

So is that the extent of their acheivements? We look forward to seeing the latest annual reports covering the years 2011 and 2012 to see what else they’ve been up to, and hopefully the list of activities will be a bit longer.

Actually, they have, allegedly, done one other thing. We have it on very good authority that the NWCU has spent valuable time and resources trying to find out who is behind this blog. Why would they do that? Are we wildlife criminals? Do we poison raptors? Do we go hare coursing? Are we badger baiters? Are we pulling the wings off bats? Are we selling ivory? Trading illegal egg collections? No, we don’t do any of these things. So why is the National Wildlife Crime Unit wasting tax-payers money on trying to find out the identity of some perfectly lawful bloggers? More to the point, who put them up to it, and what were they planning to do with the information had they been able to get it? We know that at least one NWCU staff member has what we’d call a ‘very close relationship’ with the game-shooting lobby…

This blog entry is getting a bit depressing, but that wasn’t the intention. We really would like to see the NWCU succeed and have a major impact on raptor persecution crimes in the UK. Have they done that yet? In our opinion, no, although as already mentioned, it is hard to evaluate their effectiveness when there’s so little information being made available about their work.

Today it was announced that the UK government has agreed to continue the NWCU’s funding for another year (see here). We actually welcome that news, not just because it sends a message to the wildlife criminals, but also because it gives the NWCU another 12 months to prove the doubters (including us) wrong. It’s a shame that the funding is only for one year though – as the RSPB say in their press release (here), the NWCU really needs long-term funding so that a strategic approach can be undertaken. Nevertheless, we hope they put the funding they have got to good use.

10 Responses to “National Wildlife Crime Unit – worthy of more funding?”

  1. 1 John Thatcher
    January 24, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    By my calculation they get total funding of £272.000 per annum. That is pocket money – they can’t even sustain effective computer systems on that. But it is all we’ve got and, until politicians get their heads around the scale and impact of wildlife crime, we have to encourage them to do the best they can with the pitiful funding allocated to them. It might help if we can put some pressure on the “elected” Police Commissioners to support the unit and to make the fight against wildlife crime a high priority in their objectives!

  2. 3 Dave Dick
    January 24, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    As an experienced cynic in this field I share all your doubts..and I have to say that in my opinion if the NWCU had taken a hard public line against raptor persecution – not just words but high profile actions – there is no way they would have got this reprieve from a Tory government. Which reprieve is worthless if they dont start kicking raptor persecutor ass.

  3. 4 John Thatcher
    January 24, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Thanks for the correction. But the unit still exists specifically for intelligence gathering, collation & sharing – helping police authorities to build cases for prosecution. Even with £314,000 budget, they still don’t have the funding necessary to be as effective as they might without significant commitment by the regional police authorities together with “appropriate” gudance from the Home Office & DEFRA. The police authorities now have greater autonomy on budget allocation and this is in the control of the Commissioners. (The government has clearly abdicated control and is squirming out of its responsibilities). Unless we can make clear and emphatic demands to government and to the Commissioners that combating wildlife crime must be given a higher priority -from the top down – the situation will not improve. The NWCU may surpass itself with its output but it is not equipped (or funded) to investigate, make arrests or effect prosecutions with the operational directives and funding that it has. Neither, Dave Dick, is the NWCU authorised to make statements or commitments on any specific investigations. They have a “back office” function and that is all that they are allowed to do!

    • January 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      Agree with you about making clear and emphatic demands to Govt and Commissioners.

      Concerns remain about effectiveness of NWCU though. They have the potential to be highly influential and yet…

      Interesting point about them helping police to build cases for prosecution. What role do you think they played in the decision not to apply for a search warrant on the estate where that golden eagle was believed to have been trapped, before it was dumped some km north in a layby and left to die?

      • 6 John Thatcher
        January 24, 2013 at 3:49 pm

        I believe (but not entirely certain) that the decisions to apply for warrants would be made by the officer in charge of investigation and a decision to prosecute would be made by (in Scotland) the Procurator Fiscal. NWCU don’t have the staffing, budget or mandate for hands on work although they almost certainly get involved in building case evidence. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, they gather / collate & share intelligence (possibly together with technical advice about what laws may have been broken and, therefore what to prosecute for – although, once again, I am not entirely certain) in support of regional police forces – who do all the raising & execution of warrants, kicking in doors and nicking evil criminals. My understanding is that the NWCU is not a police squad but a specialist intelligence support unit.

        • January 24, 2013 at 4:31 pm

          Hmm. There does seem to be a lot of confusion about what it is they do exactly, or should be doing, or should not be doing.

          The ‘backroom boys’ scenario is a bit misleading. We know for certain that the Scottish Investigating Support Officer often accompanies other representatives from multiple agencies on police raids, including under warrant. He also featured on a mini-tv series a couple of years ago (called Wildlife Detectives, or something similar), where he was filmed poking around on an estate that many of us recognised and uncovering decomposed raptor bodies.

          Also in that film, if memory serves, another NWCU staff member was filmed on a raid at some guy’s house, allegedly selling illegal taxidermy specimens on the internet.

          So yes, they do do a bit more than ‘intelligence gathering’. Speaking of which, their ‘intelligence’ about the area where that golden eagle was believed to have been trapped should have immediately triggered a request for a search warrant. We are curious about why that never happened.

          • 8 John Thatcher
            January 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm

            I absolutely agree with you that it is confusing and that there is limited information available about the NWCU. I have tried various sources but only Wikipedia seems to have a coherent entry. Yes, I know: Wikipedia ????? But in the absence of any more readily available (official) information, its worth having a look and believing it until a better resume shows up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Wildlife_Crime_Unit

  4. 9 Dave Dick
    January 24, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Having worked with NWCU in the past..and having heard reports of their work much more recently I can assure John Thatcher that they do have a hands on role across the UK. Which in theory is a good thing.In addition to the intelligence gathering and dissemination….What should concern all of us on this blog is how effective that has been re raptor persecution..and how effective they will be in the future.

  5. 10 jack black
    January 26, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    This organisation is a complete waste of money. Not only is NWCU ineffectual but worse it gives the public and politicians the perception that something is actually being done on a national level. Where the reality could not be further from the truth.

    In principle, NWCU sounds a good idea but sadly in practice it doesn’t work.

    Time to be honest about things.

    Ask yourself why national police wildlife priorities are poaching; deer fish and hares as and watch a number of raptor species and the wild cat approach national extinction.

    When was the last time a successful case involving a shooting estate was reported?

    NWCU the true will find you, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time!

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