Since the 1950s, the UK has developed a world leading system of conserving its natural heritage. But these hard won gains are now being steadily eroded in the rush to save money and deregulate.
Natural England is the agency charged with being the government watchdog for nature conservation in England, but its power to act is being seriously eroded. First NE has been extensively reorganised, twice in the last 4 years, losing many experienced senior staff in the process. Second it has had a budget cut of 30% last year, which has resulted in the loss of over 600 staff, many of them with years of experience. Many remaining staff members are now in new positions and are having to streamline operations hugely to adapt to the lack of funds.
Third, NE has received new guidance from Defra to take more account of all government priorities, including growth, which makes it very difficult to be a strong independent champion of nature. This has been a vital part of its original remit and is thought to be essential by environmental NGOs so that it could defend nature for the long term benefit of the nation.
The shift in emphasis has been brought into sharp focus by the recent case at Walshaw Moor in Yorks where NE has backed down from expensive legal action following an objection to its insistence on stopping highly damaging burning on this upland moorland. The RSPB believes this is a test case and is taking NE to judicial review.
If this recent history was not bad enough, NE is facing yet another merger as result of the current Triennial Review, which may see it merged into the Environment Agency. The alternative may be that it retains independence but receives another budget cut of 20-30%. Either way, its ability to defend nature will be further eroded, possibly to the point where it cannot fulfil its statutory duty. It is only a matter of time before a precious protected nature sites are damaged or there is insufficient staff time or funding to ensure that sites of threatened species are conserved properly.
Butterfly Conservation contributed to a strong response to the Triennial Review by the Wildlife and Countryside Link saying that it is vital that NE retains its role as a strong independent of nature. But it seems increasingly unlikely that that will happen. If it is merged with EA, which has a very broad remit including flood and pollution control, nature conservation will inevitably take a back seat when it comes to priorities and funding.
If the merger happens, it will also be the first time that England does not have a dedicated conservation agency since the Nature Conservancy was formed in the 1950s. This sets a very bad example to other countries around the world who we are pressing to conserve biodiversity and prevent a catastrophic collapse in the world’s ecosystems.
Of course, all these things may not necessarily erode nature conservation if they were done with great care and were not accompanied by big budget cuts, but the odds seemed stacked against it. The question is: should we wait for disaster to strike before blowing the whistle on a potential crisis?
What you can do to help
If you feel strongly about this subject, please write to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Patterson, and your local MP urging that NE remains a strong champion of nature and protects this irreplaceable asset.
Owen Patterson MP
Secretary of State for the Environment
17 Smith Square
What does this mean for butterflies and moths? Natural England is the first line of defence for all important butterfly and moth sites; they protect the Sites of Special Scientific Interest; comment on damaging planning applications; and fund much positive work on threatened species, including some by Butterfly Conservation. They also manage over 100 National Nature Reserves and the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme which helps fund vital management on thousands of important butterfly and moths sites. Quite simply, butterflies and moths would be in far greater peril without them.
Dr Martin Warren
Follow on Twitter - @MartinSWarren