PRIVATE AND PUBLIC FUNDS TO SAVE SPECIES

NICHOLAS SCHOON REPORTS ON PLANS TO SAVE 116 TYPES OF FLORA AND FAUNA

Would you like to save a rare and rapidly declining but beautiful butterfly, the high brown fritillary? It'll cost just pounds 21,000 a year.

Or guarantee a future for the water vole, Ratty in The Wind in the Willows? The bill is pounds 150,000. Feeling seriously rich? Around pounds 3m a year would save the shrinking and increasingly scraggy hedgerows of Britain.

The figures come from a two-volume, 400-page report not-so-snappily entitled Biodiversity: The UK Steering Group Report, which costs a mere pounds 56. It may be written in leaden, official prose but its importance cannot be denied - which is why organisations like the Wildlife Trusts treat it as if it were the Bible. The report is the fruit of long and unprecedented collaboration between the Government and the nation's conservation charities, large and small.

The story of this co-operation begins with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. There, presidents and prime ministers (including John Major) from 150 countries signed a UN treaty aimed at conserving biodiversity - the planet's fantastic wealth of plant and animal species. Writing the report and then implementing what it calls for will be Britain's most important act in fulfilling its treaty obligations.

The British document was drawn up by a group which included representatives from the National Farmers' Union, the Country Landowners Association, research institutes and local councils as well as senior civil servants and people from the Wildlife Trusts, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - in other words, people from the organisations that matter most in conserving Britain's flora and fauna.

It was published at the end of 1995. In May 1996 the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, made a formal, written response saying that Government accepted the main proposals. They are now official policy and it seems highly unlikely that Tony Blair's administration - which has promised to put environment at the heart of Government - will go back on them.

The core of the report consists of action plans for 116 key species and 14 types of habitat. Some, like the otter and dormouse, are well known and loved; others like the Norfolk flapwort (a small aquatic plant) are not. All are very rare or in rapid decline and many legally protected.

Each plan comes with targets and price tags attached. If they are carried out then each species and habitat will be stabilised and guaranteed a future. (There are one or two exceptions; a few species which have disappeared from Britain altogether or which are so rare, obscure and little understood that no one yet knows how to go about saving them.)

Most of the species action plans demand more research on where the animal or plant in question is distributed, what its habitat requirements are, and on spreading advice to landowners on how to manage their acres in a way which favours it. Both the species and the habitat plans call for improved management with subsidies to landowners for doing this. For the 116 species, the extra costs involved (over and above what is being spent on conservation now) are put at around pounds 3m a year up to 2010. As for the habitat action plans, the extra costs are put at pounds 13m this year rising to pounds 37m in 2010.

To date the conservation charities have picked up about half of the bill for implementing the species plans, with the Government funding the rest. If that funding split was to continue, then the Government's share of the entire programme for 116 species and 14 habitats would work out at a maximum of about pounds 1 per adult British citizen a year - not a high price for a huge nature conservation gain in the UK.

But it now seems pretty unlikely that any new Government money will be found to meet the bill. Instead, existing "green" spending may be diverted into the plans and there are hopes that some of the money for rescuing the 14 key habitats will come through reforms in the EU Common Agricultural Policy farm subsidies.

Work is now under way on turning some of the action plans into action. For each species, a conservation charity or a Government body such as English Nature has taken responsibility for leading the work. The Wildlife Trusts are taking the lead in plans for a dozen species including the dormouse, the otter, four insects (two of them ants), two fungi and four plants, including that obscure flapwort.

"We're starting to see action on the ground now - the plan is making a difference,'' said Sara Hawkswell, a conservation officer with the Wildlife Trusts. There used to be seven or eight experts and various organisations around the country working separately on the conservation of the dormouse. "Now we've got a shared commitment and we're using that to focus our work.'' Meanwhile, work has begun on writing action plans for another 286 species and 24 habitats which the report identified as the next most deserving cases.

The Government had hoped that private-sector sponsorship would play a major part with companies identified as "wildlife champions" providing money for individual action plans. But after a year only one has been found - ICI will sponsor two butterfly species. The problem with this idea is that the most charismatic, appealing species - like the dormouse and the red squirrel - already have at least one private-sector sponsor involved in existing conservation projects. Meanwhile, companies are not exactly queuing up to sponsor small and obscure species like the depressed river mussel. With no new Government funding forthcoming, and the wildlife charities having only limited funds, progress on many of the 116 current species plans - let alone the 286 forthcoming ones - is in danger of ceasing.

Progress on implementing the habitat action plans has also been disappointingly slow. Considering the much larger scale and expense of the task, that is hardly surprising. "The habitat action plans are really just sitting there, with people stepping cautiously around the edges,'' said Ms Hawkswell.

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