Three years ago last weekend, Natural England was born. Formed from the merger of three organisations, it emerged into the expectant glare of England’s wildlife charities. Organisations like Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, who make it their job to create, manage and campaign for a healthy natural environment.
We have been watching Natural England intently since its birth, helping and co-operating where we can. Its responsibilities have been clear – to protect and improve England’s natural environment, its wildlife, and the habitats upon which wildlife depends.
But three years on, how well it is doing?
There is no doubt that Natural England has made some impressive progress. And it deserves considerable praise for that. But with the political and economic landscape moving under its feet, what does the future look like? And where do we think Natural England should turn its attentions next?
We joined the Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, The Grasslands Trust, Plantlife, the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in a snapshot assessment of Natural England’s initial tenure. This is what we agreed…
An ‘A’ for effort
We’re pleased with Natural England’s progress towards the vital goal of improving the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England. It’s not all rosy - only 15% of SSSIs include invertebrates as protected features, and considerably more could be done for plants. But great progress has been made with 89% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in a recovering or favourable condition – on track to meet the Government 2010 target.
We’re also impressed by the organisation’s evidence-based input to policy development, such as recent moves related to set aside, and the formation of a government policy that supports environmentally responsible renewables.
Wildlife-friendly farming has undoubtedly benefited under Natural England, with innovative and well targeted agri-environment schemes aimed at halting wildlife declines. The take-up of these schemes by the farming community has been good and wildlife should benefit as a result.
And as the Government’s main conduit into saving species from extinction, we know that Natural England faces a tall order. However, we’ve been collectively impressed by its scientifically based approach to saving endangered species, involving a wide range of NGO partners.
Must try harder
This wouldn’t be a realistic report, though, if it didn’t point out some of the areas into which we think Natural England could put more effort. And as campaigners advocating a bigger voice for nature, we’re sure you’d expect nothing less.
In the next few years, we want to see Natural England became a more vocal champion for nature. We hope our own voices are strong, but a little extra volume would go a long way! We need Natural England to provide impartial scrutiny of Government performance on wildlife conservation, and offer more consistent and well-versed advice to landowners, planners and other bodies so that they can contribute fully to conserving wildlife.
And while the intention has been good, Natural England has been painfully slow in organising systems for administering key agri-environment schemes. This overly bureaucratic approach is really hindering delivery of these schemes, and we want to see all blockages removed.
Finally, Natural England has made only tentative steps on habitat restoration and creation – notably through funding Wetland Vision projects. This really worries us, as larger areas of good habitat and ecological corridors to join them up are essential to help nature survive under a changing climate. We think the slow pace of progress is largely down to a lack of funding, but this area deserves more of Natural England’s resources.
So how should we assess Natural England’s overall progress? There’s no doubt that its vision is good, and its progress is sound in some areas. But could it do more? Of course it could – and because our nation’s wildlife depends on it, it absolutely should.
That’s why we’re pleased to wish Natural England a Happy Third Birthday. We hope that, in another three years time, we can give it an even bigger party – and raise a toast to an even more secure future for England’s wildlife.