The deal between the Government's wildlife advisers, English Nature, and the chemicals company Fisons - whose horticulture division includes peat digging - was disclosed last January, and was welcomed by John Major. The company made a gift worth about pounds 40m to English Nature of 8,000 acres of peat bogs in Cumbria, South Yorkshire and Somerset designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. In return it was permitted to continue exploiting large areas.
Fisons' horticulture division was put up for sale in April. Conservationists claim there is no guarantee a new owner will honour the deal described by Dr Derek Langslow, English Nature's chief executive, as 'a considerable achievement'. It meant that 'almost all the lowland peatland sites in England are in the hands of English Nature'. Dr Derek Ratcliffe, a leading conservationist and former chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy Council, was among those who denounced the deal as a 'sell-out'. He objected to the continued destruction of habitat vital to rare birds, insects and plants - habitat dubbed by the Prince of Wales as 'Britain's rainforests'.
Dr Ratcliffe accused English Nature yesterday of 'pulling the wool over the eyes of the concerned public'. He said: 'We were led to believe the deal had been clinched when it was announced. This justifies our reservations about the nature of the deal at the time.'
Duncan McLaren, of Friends of the Earth, said: 'Undoubtedly the deal reduces the value of Fisons' peat assets and could discourage purchasers. Obviously, if the company is sold before it is completed there is no guarantee a buyer would honour the agreement.'
Eddie Idle, English Nature's director of operations, said details of the agreement with Fisons had been made public, and the delay was caused by legal complexities.
He said suggestions that a buyer would refuse to honour the agreement were 'most unlikely'.
He added: 'It's like agreeing with someone to buy a house and then going through all of the conveyancing details.'
Robert Stockdale, public affairs director of Fisons' horticulture division, said: 'The prospective buyers don't want to buy a business which would be extremely damaged if the agreement was not signed. I think the deal will be signed before the sale.' But he added: 'I can't give you an absolute guarantee that a new owner would honour the agreement.'Reuse content