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Peak District conservation failures highlight why nature recover funding must be tied to results

The UK is facing a countrywide nature-loss crisis.


Many of our most precious animals and plants are still falling in numbers, despite huge amounts of public money going into the sector.


Just this year the government announced another £750m to be spent on woodland and peatland restoration projects, as well as a £25m species survival fund.


The RSPB, considered the largest nature charity in the country by their own accord, has annual turnover of £165 million.


The National Trust, who manage large amounts of land across the country, have income at nearly £650 million. This is a huge amount of public money already being spent, and yet everyday a new nature recovery appeal is launched.


This raises serious questions as to what on earth is happening to the money and why the country seemingly has so little to show for it?


Furthermore, why is it that up and down the country the small number of spots where nature is still thriving is almost unanimously on land privately managed, and privately paid for, by sporting interests? The answer is clear, because there is personal responsibility, motivation and accountability when it comes to private land management. Not so in the charitable conservation sector.


No government officials can claim to be capable practitioners, that is not their job. Their role is to identify the projects and causes that are deemed the greatest priority in the national interest and to ensure support is provided to them.


The execution of that support into tangible impact can only be carried out by experienced practitioners, who understand the realities of land management.


This is where conservation charities, who are the recipients of millions of pounds worth of support, are all too often found lacking. Whilst there are clearly some genuine experts working within the conservation sector, striving to make a difference, there is also far too much mediocrity and short-sightedness amongst those working on the ground.


Conservation requires three fundamental elements: habitat management, food sources and, crucially, predation management. Without this, no matter how much public money is thrown at it, it will fail. Spending large amounts of public money on electric fences to prevent predators just doesn’t work, as the RSPB found out last month with their avocet colonies at Burton Mere Wetlands.


One of the clearest examples of this failure is at Lake Vyrnwy in Wales where the RSPB took over the management of a thriving manage moor, abundant in wildlife, only for it to lose almost all the ground nesting birds within just a few years despite spending millions on it. The reason for this is a failure to effectively control predators. The irony of course is that the worse it gets, the more public money it receives to try and rectify its own mistakes. This just compounds the problem.


Yet still this vicious cycle continues. Just this week in the Peak District, another self-styled Nature Recovery organisation, let it be known that the National Trust are in line for a £20 million grant for ‘protected sites’ from DEFRA. This, we are told, comes on the back of the charity reportedly spending £700k just on outsourcing the writing of the pitch document.


What measurable targets have been attached to this tender remain unknown. How is anyone going to determine the public benefit brought by providing the National Trust with another £20m of public money?


Residents of the Peak District need no reminder of the environmental damage that has been inflicted locally in recent years by several vast wildfires taking place on the National Trust managed Marsden Moor.


Whilst any government efforts to improve protected sites should be applauded, all public grants must be quantified by measurable targets and success, as they are in every other sector. Those targets are currently sorely missing.


Another example from the Peak District is the ‘Moors for the Future’ organisation, which employs over 30 staff plus volunteers.


In a recent circular email, the tax payer funded organisation claimed their success included: ‘planning summer vegetation survey campaign to meet requirements for current projects, and to maintain key long-term trajectory data’ and ‘248 visits to site in total’, which equals 8.2 visit per person per month to monitor. What that means they were doing rest of the month we’re unsure.


Those familiar with the work of Moors for the Future suggest their achievements are largely confined to planting thousands of sphagnum plug plants in wholly inappropriate places so they never stand a chance of succeeding.  


This is just another case of much of the charitable conservation sector working with no set targets, almost no success to show for the funding they receive and, consequently, nature in this country continues to be significantly depleted.


For the nature recovery in this country to have any chance of success in the future an urgent change of approach is needed.


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