Timid English Nature is failing,Commons inquiry told

09 June 1998

‘Timid’ English Nature is failing,
Commons inquiry told

By Boyd Champness

ENGLISH nature – the Governments conservation watchdog – is failing to protect the environment because of a lack of funds and a “timid culture”, a Common Select Committee heard today (Tuesday).

And English Natures guidelines for running Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) let farmers “extort huge and unrealistic sums for doing very little”, the committee was told.

The Commons inquiry into English Nature was told that the body was falling down in a number of areas because its funds had been slashed by 16% in real terms since 1994-95; while staff numbers had been cut from 700 to 545 during the same period.

Phil Rothwell, head of policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), said: “English Nature could be a more effective champion for the environment, but it suffers incredibly from underfunding and a huge reduction in staff, and I think on the whole that is why its not.”

In its written evidence, the RSPB said English Nature had been hesitant to adopt a strong conservation line since its inception for fear of receiving “unsympathetic treatment from the Government”. Stronger legislation is required to give English Nature the teeth it needs to carry out its allocated tasks, the society said.

In relation to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the RSPB said the financial guidelines under which English Nature had to operate had allowed farmers to “extort huge and unrealistic sums for doing very little”.

Mr Rothwell said these guidelines needed urgent reform. Also, the incentives available to English Nature to persuade landowners to manage SSSIs properly were insignificant compared with the economic rewards under the EU Common Agricultural Policy.

English Nature, on its own admission, estimated a few years ago that 30% of land under SSSI protection might lose its scientific intetest within the next 10-15 years because of a lack of appropriate management.

Both the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association (CLA) said in their submissions that increased legislation to enable English Nature to deliver its objectives was not the answer.

The CLA said the reason why so many SSSIs were losing their status was because farmers were abandoning existing farming systems such as livestock and turning to arable farming.

Both organisations said a lack of contact and understanding between English Nature officers out in the field and landowners was also causing problems. The inquiry heard that some landowners have only had contact with English Nature officers once every three years.

Dr Alan Woods, CLA environment and water adviser, said: “There need to be more regular visits to help farmers make the right management decisions.”

The inquiry heard that a lack of funding meant that, in some areas, English Nature field officers had up to 275 landowners to deal with each.

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