Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 11

Memorandum submitted by English Nature

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  An appreciation and understanding of the rural environment is essential if people are to help English Nature achieve its aims of ensuring that future generations can enjoy a wealth of wildlife as a major part of their quality of life.

  With over 200 National Nature Reserves across the length and breadth of England, English Nature is able to provide the opportunity for an estimated 9,000,000 visits each year to the countryside for quiet enjoyment and appreciation.

  Foot and mouth disease poses a very real threat to England's biodiversity both directly by affecting wildlife, and indirectly by major disruption to agricultural regimes and rural communities which are essential to maintaining and managing the countryside.

  English Nature played a full role in helping to minimise the spread of the disease, acting responsibly and working with all major players and neighbours.

  Conscious of the desire to show that some parts of the countryside were open, English Nature was able to re-open some of its National Nature Reserves in time for Easter. This was done after full consultation and a rigorous risk assessment on a site by site basis.

  This re-opening was greatly appreciated by visitors, but English Nature would have liked to have seen greater prominence given to the re-opening of places available for informal enjoyment of the countryside, since recreation of this kind is an essential component of the nation's quality of life.

1.  Submission by English Nature

  English Nature is the statutory body that champions the conservation and enhancement of the wildlife and natural features of England. We work for wildlife in partnership with others, by:

    —  advising; government, other agencies, local authorities, interest groups, business, communities, individuals on nature conservation in England;

    —  regulating; activities affecting the special nature conservation sites in England;

    —  enabling; others to manage land for nature conservation, through grants, projects and information;

    —  enthusing; and advocating nature conservation for all and biodiversity as a key test of sustainable development.

  We have statutory responsibilities for nationally and internationally important nature conservation sites including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), the most important of which are managed as National Nature Reserves (NNRs); Special Areas of Conservation (SACs); and Special Protection Areas (SPAs).

  Through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, English Nature works with sister organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to advise Government on UK and international nature conservation issues.

2.  Introduction

  English Nature welcomes this opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee, and hopes to demonstrate how it has acted responsibly to:

    —  safeguard England's nature conservation interests;

    —  maintain good relationships with, and be good neighbours to, landowners and farmers; and

    —  encourage re-opening of the countryside, when appropriate, in support of the wider rural economy.

  English Nature recognises the important contribution rural tourism makes to national and local economies. The natural environment, and biodiversity in particular, are key factors in attracting people to the coast and countryside and these elements play a major role in contributing to people's quality of life.

  We advocate the need for a sustainable approach to tourism provision which means in practice managing the environmental impacts of tourism and seeking opportunities to enhance the natural environment wherever possible. The foot and mouth crisis has highlighted the close relationship between tourism and the natural environment and the need for all parties to work together to maximise the industry's contribution to the economy, society and the built and natural environment.

3.  The role of National Nature Reserves

  With over 200 National Nature Reserves (NNRs) across England, attracting an estimated 9,000,000 visits each year, English Nature recognises the significance of this resource to the rural economy. NNRs are without parallel in England for their variety of wildlife and opportunities for quiet enjoyment of wildlife. Our objectives for National Nature Reserves include conserving the best wildlife and geology, demonstrating good nature conservation management and practice, providing access and interpretation for the public, and enabling public appreciation and understanding of the countryside and the role of nature conservation in improving everyone's quality of life.

  In order to contribute to social inclusion through access to wildlife for all, regardless or wealth or disability, we have developed a suite of "spotlight NNRs" which have the greatest potential to accept visitors and provide the quiet enjoyment that they are looking for. Visitor surveys conducted on English Nature's behalf reveal a high degree of satisfaction with the experience.

  English Nature pro-actively promotes its "spotlight NNRs" nationally and locally, publicising events including open days, improvements to on-site interpretation, as well as providing additional information via leaflets and its website. Each year, we distribute a diary of events to be held on NNRs, some organised by English Nature staff, others run by partners on the Reserves. These range from dawn chorus walks to tours explaining the significance of a site and its management. In May 2000, we organised "A Wild Day Out" with special events on NNRs across England—over 17,000 people took part on the day.

4.  Economic consequences

  The economic input from visitors to the countryside is significant, with expenditure on transport, accommodation, food and drink, clothing, maps and books etc. Not only do those visitors use rural facilities such as shops and local transport, visits to NNRs are often linked to visits to other attractions as part of the outing. As well as visits for quiet enjoyment, NNRs contribute to the rural economy through employment for specialist contractors (fencing, land management), scientific surveys (cartographers, botanists) and our own or other conservation staff. In addition, English Nature makes payments by way of management agreements to encourage landowners and farmers to operate in ways which will maintain the wildlife interest of these sites. These totalled £7.8 million in Financial Year 1999-2000.

5.  Implications of foot and mouth disease for biodiversity

  The implications of foot and mouth disease for English Nature are significant. Grazing by sheep and/or cattle is one of the major management tools on some wildlife sites and is required to maintain swards and control scrub encroachment where this is undesirable. Very often, it is the tradition of grazing patterns which has resulted in the nature conservation interest of the site and cessation of grazing would jeopardise that interest in some areas and on some habitats. Particularly vulnerable are grassland sites and heathland. The threat to farming more widely, which in many cases is crucial to maintaining the countryside and its biodiversity, is considerable. English Nature is on record as wanting to see vibrant rural communities where people are able to earn a living and contribute to a wildlife-friendly environment.

6.  Actions taken by English Nature

  On 23 February, in the light of advice from MAFF, English Nature advised that all of its 200 plus National Nature Reserves should be closed to the public, and excluded its own staff and contractors from the majority. Exceptions were made for the welfare of stock and essential health and safety purposes. The decision was announced by way of a national press release, supported in some areas by local releases. An announcement of closures was also posted on the English Nature website.

  On 2 March, in response to questions being raised in the media, English Nature issued a press release explaining that a wildlife cull was unnecessary, and could, by disturbance and the influx of dogs and hunters, serve to spread the disease. Particularly threatened by suggestions of a wildlife cull are deer, grey squirrels and hedgehogs.

  On 3 April, English Nature announced the re-opening of some of its National Nature Reserves, in whole or in part. The relaxation followed our own strict risk assessment and wide consultation with interested parties, including the Ramblers' Association, MAFF, local authorities and neighbouring landowners. Special precautions were put in place, including disinfection arrangements, segregation of stock from rights of way and signs requiring dogs to be on leads, and an instruction to keep to footpaths. All these were in line with advice from MAFF. Again this information was placed on the website, and further re-openings will be posted there.

  Outside infected areas, work by our own staff and contractors was resumed, subject to strict risk assessments and precautions. The postponement of work by contractors has been a significant problem for us, since much of the contracted work is seasonal and time sensitive. It has also upset budgets considerably, for both English Nature and contractors.

  English Nature's Press Office liaised with the National Crisis Centre (Cabinet Office) as part of the OpenBritain initiative. National media gave prominence to closures of NNRs, but we would have liked to have seen greater attention drawn to the re-openings, given the numbers of visitors to National Nature Reserves for quiet enjoyment, particularly as the visiting season gets into its stride. Local teams acted in support of a national press release by announcements in their local press.

  By 12 April, Maundy Thursday, in preparation for Easter, 22 National Nature Reserves were open, either wholly or partially. The variation was a result of differing requirements, access arrangements, proximity of stock and assessment of likely pressures. Liaison with owners, occupiers and highway authorities was required, but the efforts to make these areas available appears to have been appreciated by visitors, with queues reported at one partially-opened reserve—Palmerston Wood, Derbyshire Dales.

7.  Conclusion

  English Nature followed the cautious approach encouraged by the Government, mindful of the risks both to the national flock/herd and wildlife posed by unrestricted access to the countryside at a time when foot and mouth disease was prevalent. Relaxation of the restrictions, subject to scrupulous risk assessment and liaison with all major players, enabled large numbers of visitors, (impossible to quantify), to visit the countryside at a time when other areas were closed. This undoubtedly contributed to the numbers of visitors demonstrating that some of the rural areas were open for tourists to enjoy. English Nature is looking forward to being able to welcome increasing numbers of visitors to its National Nature Reserves as the disease abates.

  While recognising the economic imperatives of demonstrating that the countryside is open for business, not all interests were equally covered. The concentration on charged-for attractions helped to provide a lifeline to threatened businesses, but it would have been a service to those seeking quiet enjoyment to have given greater prominence to areas where informal enjoyment was on offer. Anecdotal evidence from those who visited National Nature Reserves after re-opening shows that the ability merely to walk through the countryside and enjoy it for its intrinsic value is highly regarded by many, and the loss of that facility is sorely felt. As well as a purely economic loss to the nation as a result of restricted access to rural areas, there is a spiritual cost to the individual and his/her sense of well-being which should not be overlooked.

April 2001


 
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