The wardens of England's 140 state-run national nature reserves want to form their own mutual company to save these "wildlife jewels in the crown" from the consequences of government proposals to dispose of them.
In a policy closely echoing its much-criticised sell-off of the public forests, the Government is seeking to abandon the responsibility of running the official nature reserves system which has existed for 60 years, and holds some of England's most precious wildlife sites.
For several months, ministers and officials have been negotiating with wildlife charities from the National Trust to the RSPB to try to persuade them to take over the reserves, which are currently managed by the Government's wildlife agency, Natural England, and range from Lindisfarne in Northumberland to The Lizard in Cornwall, and in size from the three-quarters of an acre of Horn Park Quarry in Dorset to the 22,000 acres of The Wash.
Yet the charities recently indicated in a joint policy statement that they would not be willing to take over the reserves unless their management was "fully funded" – meaning the Government would have to pay the charities the £10m it costs to run the sites annually. Now the 170 Natural England wardens and site managers who look after the reserves are proposing their own rescue plan in the form of a mutual or "social interest" company, which would be run not for profit but for the benefit of the reserves themselves.
Under the plan, government funding would be continued initially but would gradually "taper down" so that savings could be achieved – perhaps of as much as 30 per cent – as the mutual company began to raise its own funds. This would not involve charging for admission – free admission would remain "fundamental". "But it could be anything from spinning off new ideas on machinery, or selling digital data, all the way down to more traditional ideas of coffee shops or wildlife tours," said a source close the scheme.
The idea has been given initial backing by Natural England itself and is thought likely to attract government support, as the concept of "mutualisation" has taken centre stage in the Government's thinking about its Big Society project, and Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister driving the project, recently made a speech in support of it.
From the conservation point of view it would mean the nature reserves network would remain intact. This has brought the support of Britain's leading expert on nature sites, Professor Sir John Lawton, chairman of the soon-to-be-abolished Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Last year Sir John led a major review of wildlife sites entitled "Making Space for Nature" in which he said that a "step change" was needed in conservation to stop the decline of many of England's characteristic species. "The real advantage of this idea is that it would keep the series of national nature reserves as a coherent national network," he said.
However, Sir John is critical of the Government's wish to divest itself of its nature reserves in the first place. "This is an absolutely disgraceful abnegation of government responsibility," he said. "There's no other civilised government in the world which doesn't acknowledge the responsibility it has for nature conservation."
The Natural England wardens are in the process of drawing up a business plan which will eventually be put to the Government. A public consultation exercise is likely to be launched.