Budget cuts may trigger 'perfect storm' of threats to UK wildlife

Conservationists voice concern as environmental policy faces massive shake-up

A A A

Britain's countryside and wildlife face a looming "perfect storm" of threats to environmental protection, conservationists warned tonight.

The threats are headed by the possibility of massive cuts to EU funding for farmland wildlife schemes, which provides hundreds of millions of pounds annually to help British farmers look after the often-declining species on their land, from birds to butterflies to bumblebees. 

The cuts may be outlined this week when EU leaders, including David Cameron, meet in Brussels to decide their budget for the next seven years – a budget which seems certain to be slashed.

But also greatly concerning environmental campaigners is the real possibility that the Government’s wildlife watchdog, Natural England, will be swept away and merged with the much bigger Environment Agency.

If this happens, it will be the first time since 1949 that there will no longer be a dedicated official body acting as a champion for habitats and species.

At the same time, local authorities are making swingeing cuts to their own environmental services and staff, an extensive new road-building programme is threatening valuable wildlife sites, and Conservative ministers are looking again at the possibility of undoing powerful EU wildlife laws which provide the strongest countryside protection of all in Britain.

Any of these threats would concern wildlife lovers, but the fact that they are all coming together has senior conservationists seriously alarmed.

“We may be witnessing the greatest shake-up in environmental protection for a generation,” said Martin Harper, director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The greatest concern among environmentalists centres on possible EU funding cuts. Funding for agri-environment schemes from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the biggest single pot of money for wildlife protection available in Britain.

About £450m is spent annually on these “Environ- mental Steward- ship” schemes in England alone, 75 per cent of it coming directly from Brussels (with the rest put in by Whitehall), with another £70m-plus spent on similar schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

They have made a real difference in enabling farmers to repair much of the damage caused by intensification of agriculture – bringing back birds whose populations have been devastated, such as the skylark, and in particular the rare cirl bunting, whose recovery would have been otherwise impossible.

But when EU heads of government meet in Brussels on Thursday they seem certain to reduce the Union’s overall budget. Reduced funding for CAP is a likely consequence, with the parts of the programme that protect farmland wildlife particularly vulnerable. During the November budget negotiations, EU leaders discussed cuts of 13 per cent.

Analysis by the RSPB, however, suggests cuts might be as much as 23 per cent over the whole budget period, which the society thinks could prove disastrous.

The other threats are causing similar concern. The Government’s public consultation exercise on the future of Natural England closes today and many observers think it will be swallowed by the Environment Agency, meaning the independent voice for wildlife and landscapes will disappear with the larger body.

Local authority cuts to environment services and staff include proposals from Somerset County Council to cut the whole of its countryside service, and major losses of countryside rangers in London boroughs such as Ealing, Barking and Dagenham, while the Government’s new roads programme will, according to the Campaign for Better Transport, impact on four National Parks, seven Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 39 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, three National Nature Reserves, 54 ancient woodlands and 234 local wildlife sites.

It is also clear that some members of the Government still wish to weaken the Habitats Regulations, which transpose EU wildlife laws – setting up Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation – into British law. These laws form the toughest environmental protection of all in the UK. In November 2011 the Chancellor, George Osborne, said the rules “place ridiculous costs on British business”.

In his major speech on Europe last month, Mr Cameron hinted that these rules might be on the table during his planned renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU: “We need to examine whether the balance is right in so many areas... including on the environment,” he said.

If the cap fits: EU wildlife funding

The European Union money for wildlife matters enormously.

The agri-environment schemes funded by the CAP have spread extensively, and latest figures show they now cover a record 6.5 million hectares of England, which is 70 per cent of the farmland. About 60,000 farmers take part in the schemes, which are split into the basic Entry Level Stewardship and the more ambitious (and better rewarded) Higher Lever Stewardship, both of which began in 2005.

The HLS schemes in particular are making an enormous difference in bringing many species that had nearly vanished back to the countryside. The cirl bunting in Devon is one example, along with the marsh fritillary butterfly which is returning to parts of the West Country.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory