Somerset Wildlife Trust

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Greenest Government ever?

 7th Dec 2011

West Country wildlife charities’ dismay at attack on vital wildlife legislation

Somerset Wildlife Trust has joined forces with wildlife charities across the south west to condemn Treasury plans to weaken wildlife legislation.

In a strongly worded letter to regional and local newspapers, the Chief Officers of all the West Country's Wildlife Trusts, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB express their deep dismay at the plans revealed in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Read our letter by clicking here.

In the statement George Osborne sent a clear signal that the Treasury viewed the environment as a “ridiculous” barrier to economic growth and would be reviewing the UK's implementation of the EU Habitats Directive which he claimed was "gold plated".

Iconic landscapes under threat

The Habitats Directive [Note 1] was established in 1994 under the previous Tory administration. In the West Country it provide safeguards from uncontrolled development to iconic landscapes as diverse as The Lizard in Cornwall, Dartmoor, the Somerset Levels and Moors, the Severn Estuary, Chesil Beach and the Dorset Heathlands. [Note 2]

Tony Richardson, South West Regional Director for the RSPB said; "The Prime Minister has stated clearly that he wants the coalition to be the "greenest government ever". Clearly his next door neighbour is yet to receive the message.

"Feeling is running particularly high here in the West Country. The region is rightly proud of its rich natural environment. We are also keenly aware that more than any other region we trade on the quality of this environment. Far from being a barrier, it is difficult to see how economic recovery can be achieved here without safeguarding the very thing that makes the region attractive to visitors and a good place to do business. "

“And let’s be clear, we are not “anti-development”.  But we have to proceed with wisdom. With careful planning, under the requirements of the regulations, development can work for both wildlife and the economy.”

South West Wildlife Trust responses

Simon Nash, Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Chief Executive said: “Somerset Wildlife Trust is deeply dismayed at the Government’s intention to weaken wildlife legislation. Somerset still enjoys a good quality environment, not only in areas like the Somerset Levels, the Mendip Hills, the Blackdown Hills and Exmoor, but throughout our countryside which is rich in protected species such as otter, water vole, dormouse and scarce butterflies. However, our wildlife is constantly under threat from development and unsympathetic land management.

“Somerset Wildlife Trust believes that protection of our most important wildlife is essential to any planning framework for Somerset that encourages intelligent, long-sighted decision-making about development. The Government’s lack of environmental leadership is already having an impact in Somerset, where developers and local authorities are showing our environment less respect than it deserves. If the Government follow through on George Osborne’s stated intentions, Somerset’s wildlife and its people will all be poorer as a result.”

Steve Grainger, Chief Executive Officer of Avon Wildlife Trust said, “We have been reviewing the Chancellor’s statement and it seems that he is not content with the massive shake-up of the planning system that is already under way, which could still reduce the protection given to over 800 Local Wildlife Sites in our area.  Now sites of European importance in and around Bristol face an uncertain future too.” 

“This shake up seems to fly in the face of the coalition government’s rhetoric of being the greenest government ever. 

“The Government’s own National Ecosystem Assessment [Note 3] and Natural Environment White Paper [Note 4], both published in June this year, promised us much more than this.  They were to herald a step change in nature’s fortunes.  Protected areas are a key part of the foundation upon which nature’s recovery will depend.   Yet taking our much depleted wildlife into a more positive future is clearly far from the Chancellor’s agenda.”

Dr Gordon McGlone OBE FSB, Chief Executive, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust said; "In Gloucestershire we believe that nature is not valued. We are seeing a lack of commitment to one of the county's greatest assets - its natural heritage. The environment is not a barrier, it's the basis on which our prosperity depends."

Simon Cripps, Chief Executive of Dorset Wildlife Trust, said: “Dorset has shown how to work together to meet the requirements of EU wildlife legislation for heathlands in a way which is simple and clear for developers and avoids the lengthy delays that the government fears.   Downgrading the protection of our most precious habitats would be a short-sighted measure that would end up costing us far more in the end. Many studies have shown that the quality of the environment is vital to economic strength and to quality of life; the value to Dorset’s communities and to tourism and leisure industries is huge.

Dorset has one of the highest concentrations of European protected habitats in the UK, yet even here the area protected amounts to only 6% of the county.  Surely this government would not want to be remembered for the destruction of a natural heritage that belongs to all.”

Dr Gary Mantle MBE, the director of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust says: “We are deeply concerned about how the Treasury announcement will impact on the natural environment in Wiltshire.

Wiltshire contains priceless wildlife meadows, sweeping chalk grassland and ancient woodland and we are working hard to sew this patchwork back together on a large scale. Without a robust well protected natural environment unsympathetic development in the name of economic recovery could tear apart these delicate beginnings, imprisoning wildlife once more in scattered pockets of habitats where it faces a slow and inevitable decline.

The natural environment needs to be protected if we are to achieve the sustainable communities that we all know are needed. Studies show that reconnecting people to their natural surroundings improves their wellbeing. Surely this is particularly important during these times of austerity? The natural world should not be seen as a constraint to economic development but an asset to be cherished and nurtured.”

Harry Barton, Chief Executive of Devon Wildlife Trust said: "Devon is blessed with some of finest natural heritage anywhere in Britain, and it brings immense benefits to the communities who live here. If the Chancellor believes the people of Devon will turn a blind eye while he unpicks the vital protection afforded to it, he should think again.

"What we are witnessing is nothing short of an assault by Government on the environment. It shows a total lack of understanding and disregard for the benefits that a healthy environment brings to society".

In response to the Chancellors statement the region’s wildlife charities are urging the public to make their feelings known by contacting their MPs.

Tony Richardson, RSPB, added; “We know that people here in the south west value the natural environment  -  the strength of feeling showed by people at the threatened sale of forests powerfully demonstrated that.  And, combined, the membership of our diverse organisations is more than that of all the political parties.  We’re calling on people to again show that they care passionately about our wild places by contacting their MP, to make clear their own concerns for the future of the south west’s precious natural heritage.”

What can you do?

The Habitats Regulations in England protect some of the rarest wildlife in Europe, including species such as the Lesser Horseshoe bat, Barbastelle bat, and dormouse which have population strongholds here in Somerset. Spectacular sites featuring scarce habitats are also protected through the Regulations; these Natura 2000 sites represent the best remaining fragments of endangered habitats like the raised mire and wet heath found on the Somerset Levels and Moors Special Protection Area, and the calcareous grasslands of the Mells Valley Special Area of Conservation. 

Write to your MP

Is our environment really an obstacle to economic productivity or is it in fact the very basis of it? Not a hard question to answer, and we want all of Somerset’s MPs to consider it when they are out and about in their constituencies. We want them to ensure the natural environment is treated across Government policy in the right manner ­- a manner respectful of its true socio-economic value. If you’re concerned about the Chancellor’s proposals and are worried about the effects upon Somerset’s important protected sites and species, the most important thing you can do is make your MP aware of the issue. Write to them, or visit their surgery, and tell them exactly why you value the special sites and species in your area. Ask them to support Somerset’s rarest wildlife and most important conservation sites by ensuring there is no weakening of the Habitats Regulations. You can find your local MP by clicking here.

Additional Notes:

1. The main aim of the Habitats Directive is to promote the maintenance of biodiversity by requiring Member States to take measures to maintain or restore natural habitats and wild species listed on the Annexes to the Directive at a favourable conservation status, introducing robust protection for those habitats and species of European importance.

2. Under the directive member states are required to designate:

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). SACs are areas which have been given special protection under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. They provide increased protection to a variety of wild animals, plants and habitats and are a vital part of global efforts to conserve the world’s biodiversity.  Find out more about them on

Special Protection Areas (SPAs) SPAs are areas which have been identified as being of international importance for the breeding, feeding, wintering or the migration of rare and vulnerable species of birds found within European Union countries. They are European designated sites, classified under the ‘Birds Directive 1979’ which provides enhanced protection given by the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status all SPAs also hold.  Find out more about them on

3. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment states:  “The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision-making.”

4. The Natural Environment White Paper (chapter three paragraph 3.6) states “The Government is committed to putting the value of natural capital at the heart of our economic thinking.”