Does this report signal the resurrection of Natural England and the revitalisation of rural communities?

Today saw the publication of a House of Lords Select Committee report – The countryside at a crossroads: is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 still fit for purpose? – you can download it here.

On the surface this may seem like a rather dry and obscure topic but this 96 page report analyses how policy work in government has further marginalised rural communities and details how Natural England has been emasculated since May 2010. The report explores why these two issues are important and explains the impact that this has had on rural communities, biodiversity and landscapes. It goes on to make a number of recommendations which aim to rectify the situation. It is a withering critique of the policies of the Coalition and Conservative Governments that have overseen a catalogue of changes which have diminished the quality of rural life and the conservation of biodiversity in England.

For me there is considerable irony in much of this story – the 2006 Act was passed under Tony Blair’s government and was championed by the then Secretary of State David Miliband, Labour were not naturally seen as the party of the countryside. The demolition job that has been carried out since 2010 has happened under political parties who are purported to support country life and the countryside. The main suspects involved were four Conservative Secretaries of State: Caroline Spelman, Owen Paterson, Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom.

The best way for me to summarise this report is to print below the first five paragraphs of it. The emphases within the text are mine and not those of the Select Committee.

Twelve years have passed since the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act received Royal Assent in March 2006. This legislation built upon institutional changes that began with the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2001. The Act introduced major structural changes, abolishing the Countryside Agency and English Nature and transferring many of their functions to a new body, Natural England, which was charged with conserving, enhancing and managing the natural environment. The Act also sought to promote the interests of rural areas by establishing an independent Commission for Rural Communities, charged with raising awareness of rural needs, and passed responsibility for some elements of rural delivery to the Regional Development Agencies.

Since 2006 many of these provisions have been hollowed out. Natural England has been subjected to severe budget cuts, leading to concerns regarding its ongoing ability to perform core regulatory functions. The Commission for Rural Communities has been abolished and was replaced by a unit within Defra—the Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU)—which has itself subsequently been abolished. Rural society, the rural economy and our natural environment have not been well served by these changes.

The Act gave Natural England a broad remit, including the promotion of nature conservation, protection of biodiversity, conservation of the landscape and promotion of public access to the countryside. To deliver against this remit requires adequate resources and—within the recognised procedures applied to non- departmental public bodies—a good degree of independence from Government. Natural England currently enjoys neither of these essential prerequisites.

The Government must address this situation urgently. We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities. We share the concerns of witnesses who have told us that Natural England no longer has a distinctive voice and urge the Government to take action in recognition of these concerns. We also make specific recommendations that seek to improve Natural England’s performance of its planning obligations, particularly with regard to conserving the landscape.

The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) performed an important role as an advocate for rural England. Abolition of the Commission has left a number of gaps in the Government’s understanding of the needs of rural areas; of particular concern is the loss of the CRC’s independent research capacity. More broadly the closure of the CRC and the RCPU, combined with the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies, means that most of the NERC Act’s provisions pertaining to rural communities have now been annulled. This has had a profound negative impact upon the way in which the Government handles rural needs and has diminished focus on the economic potential of rural areas, to the cost of us all.

The Report contains 45 recommendations. 5 about Brexit and the natural environment, 23 about the role of Natural England, 6 around the biodiversity role, 9 about rural communities and 2 about green lanes and rights of way.

In essence the Report states that the Government needs to effectively fund and allow Natural England much more independence and ensure that rural communities are given a voice at the heart of Government.

To achieve this the Report urges that Natural England’s budget is increased significantly, that the rural affairs remit of Defra (Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is shifted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and that the responsibility for ‘rural proofing’ future Government policy is taken from Defra and given to the Cabinet Office.

It is easy to forget that before Natural England was emasculated and had its work framed as ‘the badger cull’, ‘sorting out the mess in the uplands’ and ‘hen harrier re-introductions’ it was a strong and powerful voice for nature as was its predecessor body English Nature.

This Report if implemented would make a massive difference to biodiversity and to rural communities in England. I wonder how Michael Gove will react? Will he allow some parts of the Defra empire go so that he and it can focus on the massive task of Brexit, agriculture, the environment and food and will he adequately fund Natural England or will he ignore the recommendations and file the report?

The enormous grass snake muddle

Yesterday a paper was published in Scientific Reports – one of the journals of the prestigious Nature brand which revealed a new species of grass snake in Europe. You can read the original paper here: Carolin Kindler et al. Hybridization patterns in two contact zones of grass snakes reveal a new Central European snake species, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-07847-9. (free download – it’s an open access paper).

This paper was quickly picked up by the BBC and many other news outlets (see here, here and here for example).

The sub-species of grass snake Natrix natrix helvetica therefore became a species in its own right Natrix helvetica. So far so good.

The media then made the jump – therefore there is a new species of grass snake in Britain bringing our snake fauna up to 4 species i.e. two species of grass snake, smooth snake and adder – wrong!

The grass snake found in the UK is Natrix natrix helvetica and so our existing species of grass snake now becomes Natrix helvetica – there are no Natrix natrix grass snakes in Britain now so the snake count remains at 3.

What a glorious cock-up!

Were it not for this rather underplayed Tweet from Barry Kemp (a reptile expert) I would have carried on in my unbridled euphoria.

 

 

 

First insects of the year

The weather has turned mild and for a few hours yesterday the sun shone. I therefore decided it was time to get the moth trap out again. It has been rested for the last couple of months. I gave it a little service which included that now old fashioned technique of re-wiring the old plug which had become loose.

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Only one animal in the trap this morning – a Dotted Border. The adults are on the wing from February to April. This is a male, the female is flightless and has tiny stumpy wings. The caterpillars of the Dotted Border feed on a wide range of deciduous tree leaves. The caterpillars will hatch from their eggs in April and feed until June. The caterpillars will then pupate and over winter until emerging as adults next February. An early spring specialist!

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The other animal I found yesterday in the garden was a Western Conifer Seed Bug – the first time I have ever seen one. Originally from Western North America it arrived in Italy a few years ago presumably as a result of ‘world trade’ and has now spread throughout the Continent. It first arrived in Britain in 2007. The larvae and adults feed on the flowers, cones and seeds of various conifers including Scots Pine. As of yet it hasn’t turned into a pest in the UK but it can be a problem in seed nurseries.. For more information on it see here.

 

New Nature

A digital magazine called ‘New Nature’ was launched in January this year. It is written, edited and produced by young naturalists and conservationists. The second issue has just been published today. It is a free magazine which you can download. More about the New Nature project – here.

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This is the first issue which you can download here.

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And here is the link to the February edition

I think it is very good and I’m delighted to see so many younger conservationists emerging – I was getting worried that no one was interested in wildlife and conservation anymore – glad to say I was wrong.

A frog on the Barbican Steps

I was walking into town yesterday evening in the rain and climbing up the Barbican Steps near to the Mill on the Exe when I came across a large frog just sat on the tarmac. The Steps are bounded on each side by high walls or houses – it wasn’t at all clear to me where the frog had come from or where it was going.

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Judging by its size and condition this was not a worry for the frog

A Pebble in the Pond

People Need Nature – a small charity dedicated to promoting the sensory, emotional and spiritual value of nature, the importance of nature on public land and its place in public decision-making, has just published a report “A Pebble in the Pond – opportunities for farming, food and nature after Brexit“. You can download the report here.

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It is a timely report which discusses the evolution of farming policy and subsidy in the UK in the 20th century and impact that this has had on wildlife and one people. I was very struck by the graph showing the increase in the use of glyphosate from 1990 to 2014.

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It struck a chord as I had recently been reading about how glyphosate had been linked to the increase in the number of people with gluten intolerances – see here.

Miles King, the author of the report sets out how farming in England is currently structured ”

Of the 9 million hectares of farmland in England, 54% is arable land and 41% grassland. 

Most (84%) arable land grows cereals and oilseed rape. Just 30% of this area is used to produce wheat good enough to mill for our, and most of this is used to make bread. The other 70% of wheat and other cereals grown in England is used to feed animals, principally cattle, pigs and chickens. Around 5 million tonnes of cereals are used to feed animals in Great Britain.

Around 10% of cereal crops are used to produce biofuels. Only 5% of arable land is used to grow vegetables and nearly half of that land is used to grow potatoes. Nearly 4% of arable land (173,000 ha) is used to grow maize, of which 34,000 ha is used to fuel anaerobic digester biogas plants. The rest is converted into silage and used as feed for cattle, mostly in the dairy industry. Much of our milk and cheese is made from cows fed on maize in sheds.

The report contains the following bullet points in the Summary.

  • The damaging subsidies that existed within the EU can be altered in order to protect and restore our countryside rather than damage it. Nature, and the people of England will benefit from these changes.
  • Farmers are paid too little for the food they produce and in some cases are paid less than the cost of production. Supermarkets and others in the supply chain take most of the profit, leaving the farmers with the risks. This is an opportunity to tackle that injustice.
  • Subsidies currently paid to highly profitable farmers can be redirected to support small-scale sustainable farming, which benefits nature.
  • Landowners who provide benefits to society such as carbon storage or flood alleviation can be supported.
  • The UK’s unique Heritage Sites – from natural heritage, to historic buildings, to archaeological sites – can be protected for the future.
  • Far more action is needed to stop damage to nature from farming. Where an outright ban is not needed, a polluter pays principle can be widely adopted. Urgent action can be taken as a result of leaving the EU, to reduce the hazards of pesticides, to benefit nature, improve human health and produce healthier food.
  • Greater transparency in the way our countryside is managed and our lands are farmed can result from the UK leaving the EU, benefitting British farmers, society, our nature and the environment.
  • A new relationship between people and food can be developed. Educating children about where food comes from and how it is produced, is the first step to understanding the true cost and value of food.

As you can see – this is a forward looking report which covers the important policy areas that need to be addressed. I was interested in the sections on small-scale farming and the role that it might play in the future – an area which is largely ignored currently by Whitehall and Defra.

This report is worth reading as it provides a good background to the topic as well as suggesting some ways forward. This will be a hot topic for debate in 2017 and I suspect I will return to it again and again.

Interestingly tomorrow see the publication of a report ‘The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum‘ by the influential House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. I will report on that in due course too.