Nature is everywhere, it’s all around us and it is in trouble in many places around us. When government was looking for areas to qualify as Nature Improvement Areas it had plenty of places from which to choose – 76 proposals came forward for the £7.5m funding that was available for just 12 sites.
Those sites cover a tiny proportion of the English land area and they are sites and areas of good will towards nature rather than areas where there is greatly increased funding or power for wildlife to flourish. In a very real sense we need all of England to be an area for the improvement of nature even if rather little of it can, at the moment, be a Nature Improvement Area.
I was interested by the response, mentioned yesterday, of the NFU to the announcement of these areas. The NFU doesn’t pay much attention to nature in my opinion, and when it does, it isn’t always to nature’s benefit. The recently, and narrowly, re-elected NFU Deputy President, Meurig Raymond, said : “In addition, we expect Defra and its agencies to maintain the balance of activity in these NIAs between wildlife and habitats and other equally important challenges such as water quality, soil conservation and climate change mitigation and the need for farmers to manage their businesses. We need to prioritise wider countryside measures, rather than simply focus our resources in smaller areas of the country.”
The NFU has realised that if NIAs work then they may become an alternative way for public money to be spent compared with agri-environment schemes. Those grants available for wildlife-friendly farming cover most of England’s farmland and farmland covers most of England. In contrast, these 12 NIAs cover 1-5% of England’s land surface depending on how you add up the figures). As Charles Cowap pointed out in his blog, the cost of scaling up the NIA approach to cover the country would be in the order of £750m whereas the cost of agri-environment payments is of that order every year. We know that an awful lot of that huge annual spend on the broad and shallow approach of the Entry Level Scheme delivers very little for wildlife at the moment otherwise wildlife indicators for arable plants and farmland birds would look a lot more healthy, and that the real value comes from the Higher Level Scheme spend where the taxpayer and England’s wildlife really see a benefit.
It will be interesting to see whether the NIA approach works well enough to outshine agri-environment spend in the 12 new NIA areas. We are talking about similar amounts of money being spent per hectare except that in NIAs the main recipients will not be farmers. Given the failure of the ELS to regenerate English wildlife it is wise to look for alternative approaches. In time one could imagine money being switched, in essence, from those failing elements of the agri-environment package to more targetted nature-focussed regional schemes as well as to the excellent HLS.
We may be seeing the first elements of competition between the top-down, left-wing, centrally-designed agri-environment schemes and the bottom-up, Big Society, make it up to suit local circumstances Nature Improvement Areas – or is that far too fanciful?
Either approach could work, and if both of them do then we will need more of both. But we know that the ELS is not working, and we know why, it’s because government has designed it badly (because it took too much notice of the lobbying of the NFU to make the scheme easy for farmers to enter) and not improved its design in the face of failure to deliver. We do not know whether NIAs will work – but we must hope that they do.
I wonder how we will know whether NIAs work? How clear and transparent are their aims? And who will measure them? It’s notable that the only real elements of scepticism about NIAs are from the farming and land-owning ‘representative’ organisations. The NFU is worried, I think, about a future loss of easy money for farming and the CLA ‘welcomed’ NIAs by saying that they mustn’t get in the way of development. The big NGOs, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB are all beneficiaries of the crumbs of NIA funding and so would have looked rather odd to have come out last week and greeted the announcement of the 12 successful NIAs (successful in terms of having got the cash) with statements saying ‘I’m not sure that this approach will work but since there’s some money available we’d better look enthusiastic’ and for the same reason they are now bought in to talking up the success of the dozen pilot projects.
Who will monitor the success of these schemes? Defra – who is funding them as a Big Society approach to landscape-scale nature conservation? Natural England – they are a delivery body so I’m not sure this is what they are allowed to do, and would they be allowed to say that things weren’t going well? The NGOs – they are all beneficiaries? The SDC or RCEP – no, they’ve been abolished? I wonder what the answer is.
There is always a tension between the broad and shallow and the narrow and deep approaches in nature conservation. For some species, say the bittern, only a narrow and deep approach will work – for rare species (even if once much commoner) their recovery needs to be based on targetted and detailed work in very small areas to engineer a recovery. Although I remember that some claimed you could, you will never save the bittern through broad and shallow approaches – even if they generate a few tiny reedbeds dotted across the country. But there is also a tension for how to conserve the more widespread species – let’s say the skylark as they are now bursting into spring song across the country. Given that half of them have gone, is it best to do a little bit for them everywhere ort a lot for them in a much smaller number of places? will the skylark benefit more from ELS or from that money being spent on HLS and NIAs?
It is possible that NIAs will help bridge the gap between the very targetted nature-first approach of nature reserves and the ‘every little helps’ approach of ELS. NIAs could do quite a bit for the rarer species in a few (but let’s hope more will come) discrete areas but also be exemplars for the wider countryside approach in the narrower countryside within the NIA boundaries. It is an interesting experiment and I wish it well – but who is measuring the results?