Secret Government negotiations to dispose of England's most precious wildlife sites in a big money-saving exercise are in tatters.
Wildlife charities which the Government had assumed would take over the running of 140 national nature reserves are refusing to do so without new funding, which would run into many millions of pounds. Their insistence on a big cash injection as a condition of any transfer may mean the whole idea will be scrapped.
The reserves, which range from the Lizard in Cornwall to Lindisfarne in Northumberland, and in size from three-quarters of an acre at Horn Park Quarry in Dorset to 22,000 acres of the Wash, represent many of the finest wildlife sites in the country. There are 224 of them, 140 run by the Government's wildlife agency, Natural England. Harbouring such distinctive habitats as ancient woodland, chalk grassland and lowland heath, and sheltering rare species such as nightingales, orchids and red squirrels, the reserves are regarded as the jewels in the crown of British nature conservation.
Since the election, however, Conservative ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been trying to get rid of the sites run by Natural England. Ministers have been engaged in confidential talks to try to get several wildlife charities to take over the running of the reserves.
Initially, ministers wanted to sell the nature reserves outright, but quickly found there were no takers. So for several months they have been talking about handing them over to the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trusts Partnership, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Woodland Trust, Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife.
These charities do not object in principle to taking on the reserves, and all have the necessary expertise to run them. However, they have raised a number of objections, the key one being money, and in a written warning to Defra, the charities state that "Government must ensure sustainable funding packages are in place to support delivery throughout the length of service delivery agreements". Translation: you will have to pick up the cost for the whole length of the time we run one of your former nature reserves.
There is a further financial caveat: the charities insist that the government must comply with regulations which safeguard staff when their jobs are transferred. This means that the Government will have to guarantee the salaries and pension arrangements of Natural England employees now managing the reserves, which are likely to be more generous than those prevailing in the charities.
The full cost to Natural England of running its reserves is £9.9m annually: this is made up of £4.5m for maintenance and other running costs, and £5.4m in staff costs. If the wildlife charities together insist on a similar sum for taking on the reserves, the potential savings will simply disappear. Some observers think this puts the whole idea in jeopardy. A senior government source admitted that it was now having to "think through lots of different funding models".
Yet money is not the only hurdle. The charities are also insisting on a strict regime of safeguards for any reserves which are transferred, or for any of the landholdings of the Forestry Commission which the Coalition plans to sell off. They say that there should be "no net loss of biodiversity, heritage significance or public access" as a result of the transfer of land.
The charities' tough conditions have emerged because their document, which has not been officially published, has been made available on the website of the wildflower charity Plantlife, and this is the first public acknowledgement of the discussions which have been going on. Victoria Chester, Plantlife's chief executive, said the charities were all agreed that the Government had to be involved in funding.
England's most precious wildlife sites
The Lizard national nature reserve in Cornwall is a remarkable mixture of habitats, from majestic cliffs and beaches to coastal grassland and inland heaths. The wildlife star is the chough, the crow with a red bill which is also the county bird of Cornwall. In spring the swaths of cliff-top wild flowers are breathtaking and the heaths are ablaze with colour in summer.
England's largest nature reserve is one of the country's last great wildernesses, an internationally important wetland site in Norfolk and Lincolnshire whose mudflats and saltmarshes represent one of Britain's best winter feeding areas for waders and wildfowl. Its star species include waders and one of the largest breeding colonies of seal in the UK.
The Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, has a twinfold importance: its monastery was one of the key sites of early Celtic Christianity and it is a superb wildlife site. Its most typical habitat is the sand dunes which in summer are alive with orchids and insects. Its special birds are wintering wildfowl and waders, including pale-bellied brent geese from Svalbard, wigeons, grey plovers and bar-tailed godwits.
Horn Park Quarry
Britain's smallest national nature reserve has been listed for its geology: the disused limestone quarry, once worked for local building stone, contains preserved fossils from the Inferior Oolite, which dates from the Middle Jurassic period, particularly ammonites. Public visits to the site can be arranged.