Britain's three leading wildlife research centres, all of them with global reputations, are to be closed in a cost-cutting measure which has caused incredulity and outrage across the environmental community.
Two hundred wildlife scientists, who have irreplaceable expertise in areas ranging from pesticides and pollution to climate change, are to be sacked as part of the exercise, designed to repair a budget deficit of just over £1m a year, but likely to cost £45m to implement.
The plan to scrap the research centres at Monk's Wood, Huntingdon, in Cambridgeshire, Winfrith in Dorset and Banchory, near Aberdeen, has shocked many of Britain's leading environmentalists, who insist that more, not less, specialised wildlife research is needed to protect UK habitats and species from growing threats, especially global warming.
Britain's best-known naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, who has featured research at Monk's Wood and its sister stations in his latest television series, Life in the Undergrowth, said the closure plans were "very disturbing indeed". Reducing fundamental science on cost-cutting grounds was nonsense, especially at a time when the Government was committed to halting losses in biodiversity, he said.
One of the highlights of a recent Life in the Undergrowth episode was the story of how the large blue butterfly, pictured above, which became extinct in Britain in 1979, has been reintroduced thanks to work by Jeremy Thomas of Winfrith research centre. The large blue has an astonishing lifecycle which involves it spending most of the year in nests of red ants; without the ants the adult insect cannot emerge. Dr Thomas discovered the nest of which ant species was key - and there is only one - thereby allowing the butterfly to be brought back. It has now made a dramatic recovery and is flourishing at nearly a dozen sites.
The threat to such work has provoked passionate opposition from the green community. "This is an absolute disaster for British wildlife," said Martin Warren, the chief executive of the Butterfly Conservation charity. "At the very time when such research is increasingly important, they are savagely cutting back on it. It beggars belief."
The closure decision is likely to prove one of the most contentious environmental issues of Tony Blair's time in office. It has united in angry condemnation not only the green movement, but also the opposition parties.
Today, in the second initiative of its kind in the past few months, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are coming together to challenge the move. The shadow Environment Secretary, Peter Ainsworth, and his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Norman Baker, are joining forces to urge that the closure proposals be reconsidered.
In a joint letter copied to the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and the Trade and Industry Secretary, Alan Johnson (who has responsibility for the Government's science budget), they say: "With climate change firmly on the political agenda, we believe that the current proposals are remarkably untimely, as well as deeply worrying."
Mr Baker said: "To persist with these proposals is environmental and economic madness. The Government has rightly insisted on the importance of environmental research and it is pulling the rug out from under its own feet."
Mr Ainsworth said: "The fate of these centres ultimately rests with ministers. If the Government allows them to close, they will not only provoke anger and disbelief among scientists and environmentalists, but also further undermine the UK's ability to take an international lead on issues increasingly seen as critical to our long-term future."
The three centres earmarked for closure are all celebrated for their research work. Monk's Wood became famous in the 1960s when its scientists proved that organochlorine pesticides were killing birds of prey by accumulating in the food chain. As a result, DDT and related compounds were banned.
Today Monk's Wood specialises in investigating how mammals, birds, flowers and insects interact with their environment - work which over the past decade has assumed a critical new importance, as that environment has begun to alter radically with the onset of climate change.
Their careful, detailed and long-term monitoring of wildlife behaviour is already picking up clear signals of global warming - and will be important in alerting us to the progress of climate change in the future.
The three centres form part of a larger body, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), formed in 1999 to bring together Britain's leading environmental research institutes. Its 600 scientific staff are at present split across nine sites; the money-saving plan is to rationalise these to four: Bangor in north Wales, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Wallingford in Oxfordshire.
Monk's Wood, Winfrith and Banchory would disappear, as would the CEH laboratory at Oxford (formerly the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology and still concentrating mainly on virological work) and the current CEH headquarters site at Swindon. All the staff at the five closure sites face either relocation to the other sites - often by considerable distances - or redundancy.
Behind the swingeing cuts is a disagreement over funding deep in Britain's science bureaucracy.
CEH is itself a component institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which in turn distributes money from the science budget.
The essence of the problem is that NERC, whose responsibilities range from geology and oceanography to the Antarctic, has decided to spend less of its money on wildlife research. Wildlife specialists are poorly represented on NERC's 18-strong governing council; the chief executive, Professor Alan Thorpe, is an atmospheric physicist. The council has now concluded that wildlife science has been getting too big a slice of the cake.
After a series of over-runs on its budget of about £35m - the last one, in 2004-05, was for £1.2m - CEH has been ordered by the NERC council to cut its cost base.
In response, its chief executive, Professor Pat Nuttall, a virologist, has produced a business plan which involves the site closures and 200 redundancies, 30 per cent of CEH's entire scientific staff total. The cost of the exercise is estimated at £45m.
"These agencies are run on a shoestring, and cost over-runs are a sign that they need more resources, not less," said Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth. "To spend £45m to save £1.2m a year is the economics of the madhouse."
Professor Nuttall agreed at the weekend that the redundancies were "an awful lot". But she added: "They are necessary given the constraints we are unfortunately working under."
Asked if the cuts would not seriously damage wildlife research in Britain, she said: "If we manage the proposals carefully and properly, they shouldn't do. That is not our intention."
Informed critics disagree with her. "The NERC council has said Mark Avery, the director of conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "The proposed cuts would deal a body blow to the UK's reputation for wildlife science."
The letter of complaint that Mr Ainsworth and Mr Baker copied to ministers is addressed in the first instance to the NERC chairman, Rob Margetts.
Not least of the worries is that CEH is not yet able to say which of its projects will be retained and which will be scrapped.
Britain's environmental pressure groups are likely to come together to fight the closures.
Mr Juniper said Friends of the Earth would be seeking an early meeting with government ministers. "New Labour's environmental credentials are already in tatters," he said.
"If these proposals go ahead, it will confirm to many people that ministers really have no environmental interests whatsoever."
The three centres and their work
Monk's Wood, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire
Monk's Wood became world famous in the Sixties and Seventies when its scientists proved that DDT and related organo-chlorine pesticides were killing birds of prey, such as the peregrine falcon, by accumulating in the food chain. As a direct result, they were banned. Now it holds the Biological Records Centre, mapping in detail the distribution of every organism in Britain (apart from birds).
It is also increasingly well known as the home of the UK Phenology Network, which records the timing of natural events, such as the appearance of the first frogspawn, the first oak leaf or the first swallow in the spring. Much of the BBC's hugely successful Springwatch television programme last year was based on it.
Both of these giant databases are increasingly important in detecting signs of climate change, as in a warmer world wild creatures are moving northwards, and natural events, such as the coming into leaf of oak trees, are happening earlier. Much other work at Monk's Wood includes the study and monitoring of invasive species such as the harlequin ladybird from Asia, recently established in Britain and now regarded as the most serious threat that Britain's native ladybirds have ever faced.
Dorset is Britain's wildlife "hotspot", with more species of wild plants and insects than anywhere else in the country and the research station at Winfrith takes full advantage of that fact. Two years ago, a team headed by its senior scientist, Jeremy Thomas, produced a paper that made headlines around the world.
Through a groundbreaking study of rates of decline among British birds, butterflies and wild flowers, it provided the strongest evidence yet that we are on the verge of a mass extinction of global wildlife - the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. (The point is that while the first five mass extinctions were caused by cataclysmic events, such as the comet or meteor believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, the sixth is being caused by man.)
The paper by Dr Thomas and his team of scientists showed that nearly a third of native British plants have significantly decreased their numbers in 40 years, more than half of native birds have declined in just two decades and nearly three-quarters of British butterflies have fallen in numbers in 20 years. Some butterfly species, such as the small pearl-bordered fritillary (above), have virtually disappeared.
Banchory, near Aberdeen
One of the most alarming signs of the devastating effect global warming may have upon wildlife occurred in the summer of 2004 when, out of the blue, hundreds of thousands of seabirds in the northern isles, Orkney and Shetland, failed to produce any young. The spectacular breeding failure of huge numbers of guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and other species is thought to be directly related to global warming, because rising sea temperature may induce the fish species they depend on, sandeels, to move further north.
Banchory's Sarah Wanless is now leading a team closely monitoring seabird breeding success and investigating the possibility that climate change may be fatal to some of our best-loved coastal species. Other Banchory scientists are looking closely at more Scottish wildlife, including red deer and red grouse.
The centre's Steve Redpath has helped to illustrate a key conservation problem - that hen harriers, the majestic bird of prey, cannot successfully coexist with an economically-managed grouse moor (because there is a surplus of grouse every year that is large enough for grouse shooters, or large enough for a hen harrier population to raise its chicks - but not large enough for both).
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