Magpie Mine, a scheduled monument near Bakewell, showing rolling fields and drystone walls.
Magpie Mine is a scheduled monument near Bakewell, which is under an agri-environment scheme. © Elaine Willett, Natural England
Magpie Mine is a scheduled monument near Bakewell, which is under an agri-environment scheme. © Elaine Willett, Natural England

Natural England and Covid-19

By Elaine Willett, Historic Environment Principal Adviser, Natural England

As the Covid-19 emergency gathered pace thousands of miles away, Natural England colleagues were embarking on perhaps the most ambitious and exciting environmental opportunity for a generation.

Our departure from the EU necessitates the creation of three major pieces of environmental legislation that present enormous potential for us to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. Natural England had worked hard to ensure that the ambitions set out in these new laws become a reality.

It felt like we were at the precipice of something really good. And then we, along with organisations across the nation, were forced to take all necessary steps to protect our staff and customers by preventing the spread of Covid-19; we went into lockdown.

Natural England has always been committed to flexible working, and the vast majority of staff can work from home. All our offices are closed and site visits are on hold. We have reprioritised our work to reflect the pressures of increased staff absences. Changes to the way in which Parliament operates have inevitably delayed the passage of those key pieces of environmental law.

The impact of these measures on our historic environment will be hard to quantify for some time yet. An undeniable significant consequence of lockdown is an economic one. The impact of such a sudden reduction in income across heritage sites dependent upon tourism to survive will be felt for many years to come.

Furloughing staff is making it hard to meet the day-to-day management requirements at fragile sites such as parks and gardens.

Land managers seeking to enter complex historic landscapes into Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship agreements may experience delays in drawing up their feasibility studies due to the restrictions. Existing agri-environment agreement holders may find it hard to complete vital restoration works to traditional farm buildings, historic field boundaries or archaeological monuments due to a lack of contractor availability.

However, significantly reduced visitor numbers at some of our most fragile sites is resulting in a welcome respite, allowing nature to recover a little. Members of the public seeking out new opportunities to exercise closer to home mean previously unvisited sites and landscapes are now a regular highlight in people’s routine, bringing with it both the risk of harm and an opportunity to engage and inspire that new audience.

We recognise the incredible pressures placed on our partners and customers during this time, so what is Natural England doing to help?

We’re still very much ‘open for business’. Our dedicated staff are focussed on delivering the Government’s environmental ambitions.

We continue to support our partners and stakeholders with expert technical advice. We are developing partnerships to deliver a Nature Recovery Network that extends the length and breadth of England, helping to preserve our most important historic landscapes. We are sharing our knowledge and unique expertise to help Defra create the post-Brexit Environmental Land Management scheme which will include provision for the conservation of heritage sites.

And we have been testing new and innovative ways of using Natural Capital models to account for the value of the public goods our historic environment provides, to more fully articulate the values embodied by our environment.

We are working with Government to deliver the recommendations of the Glover Review, which has significant potential to deliver nationwide landscape character improvement. We continue to provide expert advice to managers of heritage sites within agri-environment schemes, ensuring that a healthy natural environment, essential for sustainable farming, is maintained now and for the future.

As the nation emerges from the current crisis we’re determined to make sure that our green spaces are greener, our natural environment is stronger and the public’s connection with it is deeper than ever before. The vital role that our environment plays in the nation’s mental health and wellbeing has never been more important, and our historic landscapes have a crucial part to play in helping to recover our mental, as well as environmental, resilience.

The climate emergency still demands immediate action and nature recovery remains fundamental to the future prosperity of the country. Appreciation of the role that our historic landscapes play within Government’s environmental ambition is explicit within the 25 Year Environment Plan, and Natural England is uniquely placed to develop new ways to recover nature that integrate the management of the historic and natural environment.

Lockdown or not, here at Natural England our work has only just begun.

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