More than 50,000 deer are being killed illegally each year
THE COUNTRYSIDE is uniting to save an elite police unit tackling a menace that threatens to flood the market with contaminated meat.
Poaching is so endemic there are fears that harmful, illegally taken venison and game birds are reaching dining tables at unprecedented levels.
Criminal gangs have taken over from the â€œone for the potâ€ poacher. They use industrial-scale methods to hunt deer, store carcasses in refrigerated lorries and sell the meat to unscrupulous restaurants or on the black market.
Without skilled butchers and professional cold storage, the game meat can be contaminated with such dangerous toxins as salmonella and E. coli, posing serious public health risks. Combating rising poaching is a priority for the National Wildlife Crime Unit but government cutbacks mean it faces extinction in a few weeks.
“With criminals, it is about commodities. Wildlife to these people is just another commodity”
Detective Inspector Nevin Hunter
Funding comes from the Home Office, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Scottish and Northern Ireland authorities and police bodies. However, its support, already cut by 10 per cent to Â£397,000 this year, runs out by the end of March. Fears over future funding have brought together the hunting and shooting set, wildlife groups as well as Labour and Conservative MPs.
They universally condemn the funding cuts and the culling of a police unit that has won international recognition. The NWCU is heavily involved in the war against the global illicit ivory trade and slaughter of rhinos for their horns.
Our countryside is also being plundered on unprecedented levels by criminals who have made fortunes from metal thefts and stealing heating oil and farm equipment, and now target its wild riches. In recent days there have been reports of swans bludgeoned on a Lincolnshire canal and â€œdone up like turkeysâ€ for the table. There are calls for tougher penalties for thieves leaving waterways devoid of fish by using spear guns. Environment Minister Richard Benyon, responsible for wildlife, has experienced countryside crime first hand. Hare coursers were caught on his Berkshire farm last weekend.
Marked discrepancies in venison prices show how the criminals are exploiting the countryâ€™s demand for â€œwild foodâ€ and which results in more than 50,000 deer killed illegally a year.
While supermarkets sell venison at up to Â£12 per lb, Lancashire Police put out a recent alert saying poachers were selling it for as little as Â£1.20. Detective Inspector Nevin Hunter, head of the NWCU, said: â€œWith criminals, it is about commodities. It might be scrap metal one day, fuel the next and stealing from your house another day. Wildlife to these people is just another commodity.â€
So far 131 MPs have signed a Parliamentary Early Day Motion calling on Whitehall to preserve the unitâ€™s funding. The Environmental Audit Committee held an inquiry into wildlife crime last year and was scathing of current laws and a lack of long-term planning. Its chairwoman Joan Walley MP said: â€œThe Government needs to back up the police on the front line against wildlife crime.â€
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and major shooting groups echo this message. The Food Standards Agency said: â€œConsumers buying food from the black market are playing Russian roulette with their health.â€
The Home Office added: â€œDecisions on specific government funding for the NWCU beyond 2012-2013 will be taken before the end of the financial year.â€
‘DO NOT CULL POLICE FORCE FIGHTING TO SAVE WILDLIFE FROM POACHER GANGS’
See: Hawks in danger of extinction in illegal hunting campaign
And: Wildlife crime unit faces extinction over funding crisis