Farmers would be glad to see the back of Natural England
"Wildlife in danger from plans to scrap Natural England," a headline screamed last week.
But the screaming was immediately drowned by cheering from the hillsides, pastures and barns of the Westcountry, as farmers greeted the prospect that one of the most anti-farmer organisations ever to be assembled by a Government could be consigned to the skip – with all the other superfluous quangos that have been dispatched there.
A shake-up of this overstuffed, overbearing environmental police force – and all the overpaid, overpriced consultants and subsidiary agencies that feed off it – has been on the cards ever since the Coalition arrived. But it has taken a countryman in the shape of new Environment Secretary Owen Paterson to start doing something about it.
Mr Paterson has let it be known he has a profound dislike of Natural England – as would anyone who has practical experience of life in the countryside. And he will earn the farming community's undying thanks should he decree that the game is up for the quango, which has caused untold damage to relations between farmers and environmentalists since Labour unleashed it.
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I recall conducting an interview with one of its incoming senior figures just a few weeks before the wraps came off. The picture he painted was of an organisation merely there to lubricate the machinery of the countryside, to help and support farmers, to ensure that peace and harmony reigned everywhere.
The reality, of course, has been somewhat different. Natural England has become the stick in the wheel, the sugar in the petrol tank, the water in the oil, so far as rural machinery is concerned. Left largely uncontrolled by those who conceived and created it, it has become a byword for blindly, dogmatically enforcing every syllable of every last footling, gold-plated regulation – often backed up by threats of financial penalty.
It's been a soft touch for "consultants" charging hundreds of thousands of pounds for their advice. It has done untold damage to some of the most precious areas of our landscape. It is currently in the process of squandering (at least) £50 million on coastal access for which there is no proven demand, apart from a predictable request from the Ramblers.
Farmers have learned, to their cost, that generations of patiently-acquired knowledge and expertise count for nothing when set against a second-rate degree in environmental science from a fifth-rate university.
Custom and practice have been rubbished, nowhere more so than on Exmoor which has evolved its own finely-tuned farming regime over hundreds of years and where even National Park officials have had a basin full of Natural England's interference.
Farmers who winter-grazed cattle on moorland were ordered to stop distributing feed randomly and create special feeding stations instead. The result: the creation of unsightly quagmires as the ground became severely poached and, in at least one instance, impassable for walkers.
Then there was the springtime swaling, or burning of moorland, used by generations of farmers to generate new growth for grazing animals and to fertilise meagre soils in the process. But Natural England ruled too great an area was being burnt. And on what did it base this judgment? Management techniques on the grouse moors of North Yorkshire.
So significant areas of the moor – where the vegetation grows much more quickly than it does hundreds of miles to the north – are now covered with towering stands of gorse which present a massive fire risk. The old burning regime is gradually being reintroduced but the unsightly effect of Natural England's involvement will take years to put right.
One of the agency's obsessions has been "habitat creation" – managing areas of countryside to boost a particular species. The most notorious example was a plan to encourage more butterflies to Grabbist Hill, near Dunster, an area of open moorland treasured for its walking and views stretching from the Black Mountains to the Mendips. The habitat was to be created by grazing cattle, according to advice from an expensively hired consultancy, but the plan required nine miles of fencing on land never fenced before. An outcry from local people and objections from MP Ian Liddell-Grainger halted the plan – but the cost to the taxpayer has never been revealed.
I do not believe wildlife will be at risk if Natural England's plug is pulled. Most farmers value and treasure the wildlife on their land but they should be allowed to run their businesses without having the stick waved and penalties threatened.