Plans to Dispose of Nature Reserves in Chaos

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Revealed: Defra idea to cut costs blocked by wildlife charities

Secret government negotiations to dispose of England's most precious wildlife sites in a big money-saving exercise are in tatters.

Wildlife charities which the Government had assumed would take over the running of 140 national nature reserves are refusing to do so without new funding, which would run into many millions of pounds. Their insistence on a big cash injection as a condition of any transfer may mean the whole idea will be scrapped.

The reserves, which range from the Lizard in Cornwall to Lindisfarne in Northumberland, and in size from three-quarters of an acre at Horn Park Quarry in Dorset to 22,000 acres of the Wash, represent many of the finest wildlife sites in the country. There are 224 of them, 140 run by the Government's wildlife agency, Natural England. Harbouring such distinctive habitats as ancient woodland, chalk grassland and lowland heath, and sheltering rare species such as nightingales, orchids and red squirrels, the reserves are regarded as the jewels in the crown of British nature conservation.

Since the election, however, Conservative ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been trying to get rid of the sites run by Natural England. Ministers have been engaged in confidential talks to try to get several wildlife charities to take over the running of the reserves.

Initially, ministers wanted to sell the nature reserves outright, but quickly found there were no takers. So for several months they have been talking about handing them over to the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trusts Partnership, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Woodland Trust, Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife.

These charities do not object in principle to taking on the reserves, and all have the necessary expertise to run them. However, they have raised a number of objections, the key one being money, and in a written warning to Defra, the charities state that "Government must ensure sustainable funding packages are in place to support delivery throughout the length of service delivery agreements". Translation: you will have to pick up the cost for the whole length of the time we run one of your former nature reserves.

There is a further financial caveat: the charities insist that the government must comply with regulations which safeguard staff when their jobs are transferred. This means that the Government will have to guarantee the salaries and pension arrangements of Natural England employees now managing the reserves, which are likely to be more generous than those prevailing in the charities.

The full cost to Natural England of running its reserves is 9.9m annually: this is made up of 4.5m for maintenance and other running costs, and 5. …