What future for nature reserves in the UK?
Editor's note: Whilst Jeremy is away here is researcher Emma Brennand discussing the future of nature reserves in the UK.
The UK's natural landscape is an intricate patchwork of woodlands, grasslands, wetlands and heathlands. Left to their own devices, they would eventually revert back to woodland. Lichen-rich forests and wildflower meadows may appear to be untouched wilderness but it's human land management that made them or maintains them.
In England alone, there are 224 National Nature Reserves (NNRs) as well as 9 National Parks and many other designated conservation areas including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which aim to protect vulnerable species and habitats. A third of these protected areas are managed by DEFRA through their conservation organisation, Natural England. Scotland's nature reserves are protected by Scottish National Heritage; whilst the protected valleys of Wales are governed by the Welsh Assembly and the Countryside Council of Wales. The 47 NNR's found in Northern Ireland are maintained by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
Great expectations in conservation
The Victorian era heralded the formation of the National Trust, set up to safeguard countryside and buildings from industrial development. The Trust's first nature reserve and the first in England, Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, was acquired in 1899 and is still thriving today.
The importance of maintaining wildlife for the 'health of the nation' was recognised by the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. Conservation areas that allow wildlife to flourish are recognised as assets to the nation; earning tourist business, encouraging exercise and health, preserving culture and beauty.
There is speculation over the future of nature reserves in the UK, following the government's proposal of a £162 million (40%) budget cut for DEFRA. Cuts could be officially announced in October. For now, the implications for organisations like Natural England remain unclear.
'Reducing nature reserves is one of many options and at this stage it is too early to say. We are second guessing as we don't know the government's decision.' - Beth Rose, Natural England.
Whose land? Whose landscape?
The Adam Smith Institute is a free market thinktank, known for its support of privatization. Spokesman, Tom Clougherty, argues that putting nature reserves into private hands would encourage more people to visit.
"The idea of private conservation is not nearly as outlandish as some critics would have you believe. Nature reserves already receive a lot of business funding, and many are privately owned."
He also doubts that fears of takeover by big corporations are well-founded. "It is far more likely that nature reserves will end up in the hands of community groups and charitable foundations. And I'd expect them to be better guardians of our natural heritage than Whitehall mandarins."
Natural England's lost species report makes clear that designated areas of conservation greatly increase the biodiversity of an area. Should it matter who runs them so long as they are effective? What do you think about the future of nature reserves in the UK?