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What future for nature reserves in the UK?

Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 14:50 UK time, Thursday, 19 August 2010

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.

Exmoor ponies © Debs Sage

Exmoor ponies © Debs Sage

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.

Mam toor ridge, The Peak District © Andrew Steele

Mam toor ridge, The Peak District © Andrewsteeleuk

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.

Fridd Uchaf, Snowdonia © David Cutts

Fridd Uchaf, Snowdonia copyright David Cutts

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."

Deer and fawn © Colin Dixon

Deer and fawn, Peak District copyright Colin Dixon

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?


  • Comment number 1.

    While in theory private ownership of wildlife reserves doesn't worry on the small scale, many small groups and individuals do an excellent job, indeed many of the worlds great reserves started out as privately owned and held land, and conservation projects themselves carried out exclusively by landowners with no encouragement from anyone, often in the face of severe opposition.

    I do worry a great deal about corporate ownership of them. There is always that potential for them to be regarded as a corporate asset, something that could perhaps be sold off to land developers and housing companies if there are not sufficient legal safeguards in place.In cases of financial liquidation this could be a real risk.

    Dedicated individuals tend to form charities and organisations specifically to protect the reserves, their love of their property tends to lead them into thinking about protecting its preservation status, but this may be less true of corporates. As long as a law is placed that protects the reserve to the degree that its ownership comes with an iron cast and legally binding guarantee that it will never be used in any capacity beyond that of a reserve, and that any further purchaser, including liquidation companies and repossession agengies, and will executors are legally bound to adhere to its upkeep and conservation responsibilities then I guess it would be ok.

    Without that precaution it would be very easy for some wonderful natural ecosystems to be lost to urban spread. The fear is of course, that the unscrupulous will see land of any type, even reserves, only as property to be sold for development and profit. It would have to be made clear to corporates and individuals alike, that once conservation status is granted, it is NEVER revoked. In the legal planning too, the objective for any concerned government is that again the law must be so strong that it is very resistant to policy changes that could threaten reserves with development in the future.

    The impetus for one and all must be that a reserve is considered a national asset, one that is beyond trifling financial interest of an individual or a corporate, and that they are left intact in all their natural glory for all of our futures, a decent legacy for animal and human population of the UK and the world entire, and with the only development permitted having the intention to enrich and support the natural environments held within.

    The cost of allowing the commercial development of our native environments any further than has already been permitted will be disastrous for all of us. We should be gaining ground, not losing it. The list of preserves may be extensive, but many of them are tiny, a field here, a river section there, and in particular our marine and coastal environments are largely unprotected, we should be progressing that protection, not permitting its reduction.

    Moreover if a comparatively rich country like ours cannot protect its reserves how can we expect anyone globally to do any better? Its a great shame indeed for a country as influential and powerful as ours to be making these cuts. How can we turn to the starving nations of the third world, africa, south america, the far east and say "why are you allowing your wildlife to be devastated" when we ourselves retract our protection of the natural world at the first sign of recession?

    As far as I'm concerned the govt will just have to make its damn cuts somewhere else. Digging the ground out from under your feet is intensely stupid. Sacrificing the future for short term monetary gains of the super rich minority is not the way forward. You'd think they would have recieved that message loud and clear by now.

    Sure things are tight, but as a country were not that broke yet, not even close. This is govt accountants shoving the numbers around like it doesnt mean anything. Where will the millions go when taken away from conservation, will we ever see evidence of it being well used or better used? I think not. Thats kind of the point- if broke foreign govts manage to pull together enough to start and maintain conservation projects and reserves, what are we even talking about it for? Have we really become so incompetant at managing money this has genuinely bewcome an issue?

    Someone needs to walk up to whoever suggested it, slap them round their stupid little head, and say "Go back to counting coins in another department where you can do less harm - like anywhere".

    I see this issue as some money-man trying to see what they can get away with. Don't let them. It is not necessary that the dictates of our current economic climate affect the conservation threads of survival of our island. Weve taken enough from nature. Time to find another way.

  • Comment number 2.

    Three to four percent of people in this country hold ninety percent of the nations wealth. We should remember that before we just roll over for these cuts. It just too important. A good govt knows where to put the squeeze on, and the nations reserves are not an acceptable place.

  • Comment number 3.

    These proposals are a disgrace. Some things should be placed on a moral untouchable high ground. There is so little wild space left in this country and this idea jeopardizes the future of even that. Has British society not learned from the loss of the vast majority of it's wilderness? Any move to leave these spaces vulnerable to development is a cheap, short-term solution, like burning your money to keep warm.

    Comment number 2 was very well said and really gets to the nuts of why these measures are being proposed.

  • Comment number 4.

    The RSPB site at Laken Heath has Crain Golden Oreiol and Bitten. The birds do not appear bothered by the noise of the F111. I am certain that there would be more public support for nature reserves if the sites were not seen as a threat to Jobs and leisure facilities.

  • Comment number 5.

    I absolutely agree with comments 1 to 3. When will we learn that we are a part of nature just like any other species and are therefore dependent on the natural environment. It is because we see ourselves as having a separate existence from other creatures that has allowed us to view our activities as superior and therefore more important than the natural world. Co-existence and respect is the route we need.

  • Comment number 6.

    I cannot see a problem with privatising nature reserves. Scottish National heritage and defra should be accountable or perhaps separated from the government altogether. Controversial and much debated schemes like Badger culling and the culling of hedgehogs in the outer hebrides are in my humble opinion scientifically wrong and hugely expensive. They I feel detract from these organizations otherwise excellent management of reserves. There are numerous other organisations which amicably manage reserves RSPB, Wildlife Trusts etc there are other ways these organisations could save money other than closing or selling nature reserves but lets hope should it come to selling they are sold as going concerns not to be lost forever and kept in safe if not safer hands.


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