Scientists in revolt against cuts that will undermine Britain's climate research

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A torrent of high-level opposition is building up to the proposals to scrap Britain's three leading wildlife research centres, which are due to be voted on tomorrow.

More than 1,000 formal objections have been received by the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) to its plans to close the centres at Monks Wood, Cambridgeshire, Winfrith in Dorset and Banchory near Aberdeen.

The scheme, which will also see 200 wildlife scientists sacked, has caused anger among environmentalists, many of whom believe more, not less, specialised wildlife research is needed to protect Britain's habitats and species from growing threats, especially climate change.

The centres have been responsible for many discoveries about the natural world and the pressures on it. These include the first proof that global warming is having an impact on the living environment - Monks Wood researchers have shown that spring now arrives in Britain three weeks earlier than 50 years ago.

Others include work on limiting the harm of invasive species, bringing back vanishing bumblebees, reintroducing the large blue butterfly to Britain, and resolving the conflict between grouse shooters and birds of prey that want to eat grouse.

Several prominent figures have voiced their objections to the plans to close the centres, with Sir David Attenborough calling the idea "a nonsense". But now the true scale of opposition is becoming clear, and it is in effect a revolt of the British life sciences establishment against the proposals.

Nerc's consultation exercise on the future of the stations, which are part of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), has received 1,327 submissions from "stakeholders" - bodies which have a formal interest in their work. Nerc refuses make details of the submissions public until after tomorrow's meeting of its 18-strong governing council, which will formally consider the plans.

However, CEH staff have been told that of the first 500 received, 496 were against the scheme, with only four in favour and believe the final total will reflect this. The comments have come from across the spectrum of public life in Britain: from the science establishment, from research associations, from environmental charities and pressure groups, from government quangos and from the Government itself. (Although the Nerc is an official body, distributing funds from the science budget, it takes its decisions independently of government).

They have even come from abroad: there is a forceful letter protesting against the plans from the State Museum of Natural History in the Ukraine.

Nerc says it will publish all the comments after tomorrow's meeting as it feels it is appropriate that council members should "consider the responses and discuss them before they are made publicly available."

However, a number have already been put into the public domain by their authors, and some are remarkable for their strength of language.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds urges Nerc to reconsider, commenting: "These cuts will have serious consequences for vital ecological research and could not come at a worse time."

The National Trust also says that it is "alarmed by the prospect of any cut-backs in the resourcing of CEH's scientific research," and similarly comments that "the timing could hardly be worse".

The Royal Society, Britain's science academy and the most prestigious scientific body in the land, says: "Of particular concern are the threats posed to the vitally important long-term environmental monitoring sites, programmes, and data sets that play such a key role in underpinning our understanding of the natural environment and environmental change."

The Government's own wildlife conservation agency, English Nature, says it has "major concerns over the scale of the proposed cuts in staff and facilities". It comments: "We are concerned that even if biodiversity research programmes, and work on long term research and data, are retained, closure of centres and relocation of staff may mean that key staff with skills and knowledge essential to such work may be lost. This risks compromising these vital programmes."

And the Government itself is expressing concern. The submission from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) attacks - in the opaque language of Whitehall - Nerc for presenting its plans as a virtual fait accompli.

It says: "While we welcome the opportunity to comment on Nerc's plans for the restructuring of CEH, we are concerned that only a single option is presented, which narrows the opportunity for constructive debate. We assume that other scenarios have been considered, and presentation of these would have given greater transparency [to the way in which Nerc arrived at its decision].

The scientists of the Ukrainian State Museum of Natural History add a trenchant view of their own. They write: "The closures [are] a very grave error. "Europe needs more ecologists, not fewer. European biodiversity requires long-term studies, long-term monitoring and continuity - not disruption and redundancy." LEADING ARTICLE, PAGE 30

The centres under threat ... and what they have achieved

MONKS WOOD, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

* Spring coming earlier: Monks Wood researchers have given clear proof that global warming is impacting on the natural world. They have shown that spring, as evidenced by the coming into leaf of oak trees, and other natural events, is arriving about three weeks earlier than it was 50 years ago.

* The Big Bee Project: Half of Britain's 16 species of bumble-bees, right, are in decline. Monks Wood scientists Dr Matt Herder and Claire Carvell have devised a wildflower seed mix, containing pollen-rich and nectar-rich species such as red clover, which farmers can plant at field margins to bring bumblebees back. It works.

* Wildlife atlases: The Biological Records Centre at Monks Wood keeps detailed records of all British wildlife except birds (20 million records on 10,000 species). Many of these data sets have been turned into distribution maps and atlases showing the marked effects of climate warming and habitat loss on wildlife over the past century.

* The Great Fen Project: The re-creation of 3,000 hectares of wild fenland between Peterborough and Cambridge, is the largest habitat restoration project in western Europe. Monks Wood conducted the feasibility study and advised on which habitats should be restored, and how much water will be needed.

WINFRITH, DORSET

* Rebirth of the blues: The large blue butterfly became extinct in Britain in 1979 but has been reintroduced thanks to Winfrith's Jeremy Thomas. It has a life cycle that involves it spending most of the year in nests of red ants; Dr Thomas found which ant species was key.

* Restoring biodiversity on Twyford Down: In the Nineties the M3 motorway extension through chalk downland near Winchester caused great controversy. Winfrithscientists helped create new chalk grassland next to the motorway, and after 12 years the site is an important habitat for animal and plant species, including orchids and blue butterflies.

* Oystercatcher problems: Oystercatchers are a protected bird, but they cause problems for the shellfish industry. Winfrith researchers are developing ways to manage mussel beds that would reduce losses. In the Menai Strait, north Wales, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been saved.

BANCHORY, SCOTLAND

* Seabird declines: Seabirds, such as the kittiwake, are thought to be increasingly threatened by climate change. Work at Banchory, led by Professor Sarah Wanless, has already established a link between warming sea water and declining kittiwake breeding.

* Invasive species: Britain has more than 1,000 alien species, such as Japanese knotweed, right. Some present a threat to native wildlife. Banchory's Dr Phil Hulme has carried out Britain's first alien species audit, looking at Scotland; this is being extended to England and Wales.

* Shooting conflicts: Grouse shooting is a significant contributor to Scotland's rural economy; but hen harriers, birds of prey, are also partial to grouse, and can make shoots uneconomical. Dr Steve Redpath is seeking to resolve the conflict between shooters and the harriers, without shooting the latter.

Michael McCarthy

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