Conservationists voice concern as environmental policy faces massive shake-up
Britain's countryside and wildlife face a looming "perfect storm" of threats to environmental protection, conservationists warned last night.
The threats are headed by the possibility of massive cuts to EU funding for farmland wildlife schemes, which provides hundreds of millions of pounds annually to help British farmers look after the often-declining species on their land, from birds to butterflies to bumblebees.
The cuts may be outlined this week when EU leaders, including David Cameron, meet in Brussels to decide their budget for the next seven years - a budget which seems certain to be slashed.
But also greatly concerning environmental campaigners is the real possibility that the Government's wildlife watchdog, Natural England, will be swept away and merged with the much bigger Environment Agency. If this happens, it will be the first time since 1949 that there will no longer be a dedicated official body acting as a champion for habitats and species.
At the same time, local authorities are making swingeing cuts to their own environmental services and staff, an extensive new road- building programme is threatening valuable wildlife sites, and Conservative ministers are looking again at the possibility of undoing powerful EU wildlife laws which provide the strongest countryside protection of all in Britain.
Any of these threats would concern wildlife lovers, but the fact that they are all coming together has senior conservationists seriously alarmed.
"We may be witnessing the greatest shake-up in environmental protection for a generation," said Martin Harper, director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
The greatest concern among environmentalists centres on possible EU funding cuts. Funding for agri-environment schemes from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the biggest single pot of money for wildlife protection available in Britain.
About 450m is spent annually on these "Environ- mental Steward- ship" schemes in England alone, 75 per cent of it coming directly from Brussels (with the rest put in by Whitehall), with another 70m- plus spent on similar schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
They have made a real difference in enabling farmers to repair much of the damage caused by intensification of agriculture - bringing back birds whose populations have been devastated, such as the skylark, and in particular the rare cirl bunting, whose recovery would have been otherwise impossible.
But when EU heads of government meet in Brussels on Thursday they seem certain to reduce the Union's …