New wildlife agency in jeopardy after cutbacks

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The Independent Online

England's high-profile new wildlife agency, charged with bringing rare and endangered species back from the brink, is being crippled before it starts by massive budget cuts demanded by the Government, its chairman says.

Sir Martin Doughty, the chairman of Natural England, which begins operations in the autumn, has made an outspoken behind-the-scenes protest about the size of the funding cutbacks.

In a private letter to the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, which has been seen by The Independent, he warns: "The scale of these cuts risks the wheels coming off the organisation before it even reaches October's launchpad."

Environmentalists too are up in arms about the proposed cutbacks, fearing that they will deal a crushing blow to the recovery prospects of many endangered habitats and species such as the corncrake, the once-familiar farmland bird which is all but extinct in England.

"These cuts will put back the recovery prospects for a whole range of species for years," said Mark Avery, director of conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "This is meant to be an exciting new agency, but this is a terrible start."

The Government has made great claims for Natural England, which is to be a beefed-up version of the present wildlife watchdog body, English Nature. But with its proposed cutbacks it is looking at an environmental public relations disaster similar to the row earlier this year over the scrapping of Britain's leading wildlife research centres.

The new agency is taking over English Nature's wildlife responsibilities, such as looking after sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), and implementing species recovery programmes. It is also taking over the landscape and access work of the Countryside Agency, such as maintaining the footpath network and implementing the right-to-roam. The result is meant to be an all-singing, all-dancing agency which can look after the countryside and its wildlife.

But the proposed slashing of its budget by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is putting a very large question mark over its ability to do its job, according to Sir Martin.

In his letter to Mr Miliband he writes: "I am deeply concerned that current financial demands being placed upon us by Defra are eroding our capacity to deliver these benefits before we even begin.

"I understand the need for Defra to live within its budget and Natural England is committed to playing its part in that - we are already committed to £7m of cuts. This is on top of nearly £8m in cuts imposed in December last year. However, [Defra] has now asked us for an additional £12m to be obtained in-year from Natural England and our founding bodies.

"Given that in-year cuts would largely be programme rather than staff-based, this equates to a 40 per cent cut to the remainder of our programme on a pro-rata basis. This comprises a 54 per cent cut to the remaining uncommitted programme."

Sir Martin said yesterday that the cuts, if implemented, would make it difficult to achieve two key government environmental targets - to get 95 per cent of SSSIs in good condition by 2010 and to reverse the 40-year decline of farmland birds such as the skylark, the grey partridge and the turtledove by 2020. He described the proposals as "most unfortunate".

Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Environment Secretary, said last night: "This Government keeps talking about the importance of protecting the natural environment, but when they get a funding crisis it's ... first in the firing line."

Matt Shardlow, director of Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust, said: "If the Government just committed the money it takes to build 30 miles of dual carriageway they could get wildlife in England sorted out. They could turn around the loss of biodiversity. Instead it's cuts, cuts, cuts. It's thoroughly depressing"

Ellie Robinson, assistant director of policy at the National Trust, said: "These cuts mean the new agency's work will be compromised before it's even started."

A spokeswoman for Defra said: "Defra, like most government departments, is operating within a tight fiscal regime and has to continually look for savings and make efficiencies.

"We intend to deliver our budget arrangements equitably across our delivery agencies and within the department.

"We are fully committed to the creation of Natural England as a powerful champion for the natural environment that will conserve and enhance our landscapes and biodiversity, and help people enjoy them.

Projects under threat

Natural England, which starts work in October from its headquarters in Sheffield, will take over the functions of English Nature, the current wildlife watchdog body, and also the landscape, access and recreation functions of the Countryside Agency. It will further incorporate the present Rural Development Service which distributes hundred of millions of pounds in grants to farmers to implement agri-environment schemes.

Environmentalists are concerned about what the funding cuts will mean to the conservation work being carried out by English Nature. This includes:

* Managing wildlife sites: English Nature looks after 213 national nature reserves and more than 4,000 sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs). As the latter are often privately owned, the agency enters into management agreements with the owners to maintain the sites in good condition. At the moment, fewer than 80 per cent of SSSIs are in good condition. The Government target is 95 per cent by 2010. The cuts will make attaining this less likely.

* Species and habitat recovery programmes: Britain's wildlife has suffered in the past four decades from the introduction of intensive farming, pesticides, artificial fertilisers, and new cropping regimes. Farmland birds have shown spectacular declines: lapwings, skylarks (right), tree sparrows and grey partridges are all down by over half their numbers of 40 years ago. Specialised habitats such as lowland heath or chalk grassland, with rare flowers such as the marsh gentian (right) and rare butterflies such as the adonis blue (far left) have also suffered. Many English Nature programmes are addressing these declines, but cuts may curtail some of them.

* Reintroductions: Some species which were extinct in England, such as the red kite, have been brought back with great success. Current reintroduction programmes include the corncrake; future programmes may include the sea eagle (above left). Cuts will affect these programmes.