One of the key areas of change when we leave the EU is the protection of wildlife and natural habitats, which includes supporting farmers and landowners who carry out conservation work. That support is both financial (currently mainly through the Common Agriculture Policy) and technical, in the giving of advice and encouragement.

The agency mainly responsible for this, and ensuring compliance with wildlife legislation, is Natural England. Their duties are about to become a whole lot more complicated as the payments and most of the legislation are enshrined in EU law. This all needs to be transposed into British law, but opposition to what some see as ‘red tape’ means that there is a great risk of weakening or discarding protections.

Time, you might think, for Natural England to be strengthened, with more staff, more explicit support from Government and perhaps wider powers. Unfortunately just the opposite seems to be the case. The union Prospect, which represents many of Natural England’s staff, is this week launching a report entitled ‘ Stand Up for Natural England ’ which outlines the dire state of the agency and the need for urgent action to make it fit for purpose. This is in the context of ten years of cuts: since 2009 staff numbers have gone from 2,500 to about 1,500, and funding from £242M to £100M.

 

Organisations as disparate as the Woodland Trust and the National Farmers Union are expressing their concerns at the way Natural England’s parent ministry, Defra, seems to be sleepwalking its way into administrative chaos, with the potential of immense harm to nature. Since he became Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove has been given a cautiously good press by the conservation community, including in this column. This will all be for nothing if he does not get to grips with turning Natural England round, and returning it to its rightful place as an independent, strong and effective guardian of our wildlife.

Defra  says : ‘The work of Natural England to protect our invaluable wildlife and environment is vital and its independence is essential to this. As set out in the 25-year environment plan, Natural England will continue to have a central role in protecting and enhancing our environment for future generations,’

Despite this, it appears that far from strengthening Natural England, the Government is continuing to undermine, underfund and undervalue it.

Twitter: @PeteWestbrom