Landowners play a crucial role in wildlife conservation | The Guardian:
Farmers and foresters must be allowed to continue their land management methods
The Making Space for Nature review rightly says more must be done to protect our wildlife networks as "England's nature reserves, national parks and protected areas are failing in four out of five key quality benchmarks" (England failing to protect its wildlife, says review, 24 September).
The authors of the review argue that England's wildlife protection areas are "not effective enough at preserving species due to poor management", but do not give sufficient recognition to the huge contribution that farmers and land managers already make in helping to boost wildlife. The report will strongly influence Britain's first white paper on the natural environment in 20 years and, as our members own or manage approximately half the rural land across England and Wales, it is vital our local knowledge is taken into account.
Many of the habitats we value today are the outcome of generations of farming and woodland management. Downland meadows and upland pastures with the wildlife they contain are the results of managed grazing systems. Flower-rich meadows don't just happen, but demand careful, knowledge-based management. In the past, warreners looked after rabbits on heathland, reedcutters worked the reed beds to produce thatching and hundreds were employed in woods cutting down hazel coppice for products such as sheep hurdles.
Of course, as agricultural technology and policy priorities changed over time, some environmental services were lost. The environmentally rich land produced in the past became a byproduct of commercial activities. But as these activities are squeezed, the costs of managing the environment becomes more of a strain.
It is only farmers and foresters who can create and manage the hay meadows, ponds and hedgerows on which wildlife depends. Only they can produce and protect the sort of environment we all want to see in the countryside.
Sadly, many of the review's recommendations will penalise those who already manage their land sensitively for wildlife by, for example, unreasonably increasing planning restrictions on land that could be "important for the future of wildlife and people". Wildlife management has an economic cost, and if rural businesses are prevented from evolving to meet the changing demands of the marketplace, they will not be in a position to bear the costs of wildlife management, so delivery will decline.
The good news is that the review supports the need for retaining government environmental payments, as they have shown that landowners can achieve good results when given the right encouragement. More still could be done if farmers and land managers were allowed to receive other funding, currently only available to conservation groups.
Sir John Lawton, who led the review, has said "between £0.6bn and £1.1bn is needed to help rebuild nature in England". This matches the findings of the government's Land Use Policy Group study published in November 2009, showing that the cost of achieving the expected environmental standards is three times the amount farmers and foresters are currently being paid for such delivery.
Massive public spending cuts and the scrapping of Defra quangos poses a challenge for "big society" to provide the incentives and means to deliver the needed wildlife networks. Whatever they turn out to be, they will have to engage the farmers and foresters who all manage most of England's rural land.