Thursday, 19 August 2010

Nature Reserve Sell Off?

I have just got round to reading an article about the potential effect of cuts to the budget of The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. For example, there is mention of the potential loss of up to 30% of jobs in Natural England, the sell off of parts of National Nature Reserves and cutting subsidies to landowners who maintain areas for wildlife.

The need for cuts to address the current national budget situation is one against which it is difficult to argue. Cutting or delaying expenditure in most areas of the economy will cause short or medium term problems that could, nevertheless, be reversed over time as the financial situation allows. I know, from experience in working as a voluntary nature reserve manager some years ago, that repairing damage to the natural environment is often very long term and sometimes impossible, particularly in relation to the survival of species.

Within the various blogs that I follow, I regularly see comments about nature reserves in Northumberland that suffer from inconsistent management by Northumberland Wildlife Trust. The reality is that all organisations caring for our natural environment have an impossible balancing act. They need both to try to meet the need to protect threatened habitats and the species they contain by taking them into protective ownership and to ensure that they have sufficient financial and human resources, to manage those habitats to a level that ensures that they improve or at least remain stable. The reality is that resources seldom meet all of the needs associated with effective reserve management and this results in a degree of compromise.

There are many organisations in the UK that have a demonstrable ability to manage large and complex nature reserves and who possibly could take over national reserves. The RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the collective expertise of The Wildlife Trusts, between them are custodians of some of the most precious and sensitive of our natural habitats. Whilst they undoubtably have the expertise to take over reserves that Government feels it can no longer fully manage, expertise alone is not sufficient to meet the huge challenges faced in maintaining what we regard as our natural environment.

I say 'regard as our natural environment' because, as most people know, most of our landscape, certainly in England, has been created by active land management such as farming and forestry over the centuries. In most cases, once you have started to create a man made environment you have to keep on maintaining it, sometimes at considerable cost. The other problem is that we put boundaries around these 'natural ' areas and thus restrict their ability to evolve and react with their surrondings and the activities of inhabiting species and the climate.

A very large area of  land left to its own devices and the effects of inhabitants and climate will change over time, with woodland maturing, dying back, being eaten and regenerating; water bodies forming, maturing, gradually silting up and, in some cases turning to bog, with new water bodies formed by the action of erosion of water courses and flooding: grassland and heathland being created as clearnings in woodland by grazing animals, fire, erosion and climatic change, then being overtaken by scub and eventually becoming new woodland. A constant cycle of change that results in shifts in the fortunes of different species, but over a timescale that allows species to either adapt or move to more suitable habitat unincumbered by man made obstacles and boundaries.

A woodland, however rich and diverse, that is surrounded by arable land or urbanisation cannot maintain itself. It needs the help of we who are responsible for its isolation.

Membership of conservation organisations is far greater than when I first became a member of what was then Lincolnshire Trust for Nature Conservation in the early 1970's (an organisation with whom I share my birth in 1948). Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust has now at least seven times as many members. However, the pressures upon our 'natural' environment and therefore the challenges faced by conservation bodies, are also far greater and much more costly to meet.

So back to my original theme - the potential demise of Government support for significant parts of our environment. My plea to the Government is, look for economies certainly; consider carefully the value of Governmental quango's and the like; but recognise the irreplaceable value of our wildlife heritage, the huge interest shown and enjoyment derived by a large proportion of the voting public and the irreversible damage that reductions in front line habitat and species management will cause.

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