Natural England
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Operational update: Coronavirus

Chief Executive Marian Spain on how Natural England is facing the challenges posed by Coronavirus.

Update on access arrangements

This week, the government issued new guidance on gatherings, public spaces and outdoor activities. Everyone in England can now spend more time outdoors with up to 6 people including those from outside their household as long as they continue to observe to social distancing rules.

Our National Nature Reserves are still open, but please note the facilities, such as hides and visitor centres remain closed. We have now opened most of our car parks with only a handful still closed. I continue to encourage you to keep checking this page for updates on which car parks are open and twitter (@NaturalEngland) for any other information about our nature reserves.

It is fantastic that so many people have come to enjoy our National Nature Reserves and we encourage you to keep doing so.

However, when visiting Nature Reserves or any other part of the countryside do follow the countryside code and also be aware of the Safer Access To Green Spaces guidance.

In particular we ask you to:

  • Think about avoiding travel to coast or countryside beauty spots – site car parks and local communities have been extremely busy, and it may not be possible to observe the required social distancing.
  • No BBQs or fires. These are unlawful anyway without landowner permission but the risk of wildfires just now is very high
  • Take your litter home with you. There are very limited bins on sites, please do not leave rubbish piled up around bins if they’re already full.
  • Stay on marked paths, following any local signage that may be in place to protect sensitive wildlife and habitats.
  • Keep dogs on leads.

Unfortunately, we have seen fires breaking out on our National Nature Reserves over the last few couple of weeks. Last week, we had a major fire at Hatfield Moor in South Yorkshire. It was a major incident covering 1,400 hectares. And last weekend there was a large fire at Thursley in Surrey which has damaged over 100 hectares of heathland.

We thank our staff and all the emergency services who helped in these unprecedented emergencies. Even though the fires are out, both sites are unfortunately closed to the public.

How Natural England is working

In common with most organisations dealing with the effects of coronavirus (COVID-19), Natural England is continuing to follow government guidance and taking all steps necessary to protect our staff and help prevent the spread of the virus.

We are now beginning to resume routine fieldwork where it is safe to do so. This includes time critical work on species recovery and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) monitoring programmes as well as farm visits as required.

We know that many people across the country rely on our services. This includes the advice and guidance we offer, our regulatory work, and helping to maintain the public’s access to nature in a safe and responsible way. As with many organisations, we still have reduced staff capacity as a result of illness or caring responsibilities and therefore continue to re-prioritise some of our work.

We have put in place measures to ensure our critical frontline services can be maintained. We have confirmed our highest priority work areas for the current time period, which include our customer enquiries, Wildlife Licensing and Incident Investigation services, SSSI consenting services, agri-environment work, planning casework and essential work (including livestock management and health and safety) on our National Nature Reserves (NNRs).

None of the necessary decisions to scale back or pause work were taken easily and we are taking the same difficult judgements as we begin to resume our work. A thriving and accessible natural environment will remain vital to the nation during and after the coronavirus crisis. We keep progressing the government’s key policy ambitions for the environment, such as the 25 YEP, the commitment to move towards net zero and the role of nature in mental and physical health, as well as ensuring that environmental law is maintained through our regulatory activities.

The situation continues to develop and we will continue to publish updates on any changes here.

Staff

Our staff continue to work from home and most will do so for some time to come.

We have systems in place to allow most of our work to be carried out remotely. All can still be contacted as usual by email and phone. Meetings and engagements with customers and stakeholders continue but will now be conducted via phone, email or video conferencing.

Offices

From 24 March 2020, our offices have been temporarily closed to staff and visitors. Please do not attend our offices.

Post sent to our offices will not be opened, so we would advise you to send correspondence by email to our enquiries team wherever possible.

Customer enquiries

Our customer enquiries service (enquiries@naturalengland.org.uk, Tel: 0300 060 3900) remains open. We ask you to use the email option in the first instance.

Our regulatory work

Including SSSI consent, wildlife licensing, the Wildlife Incident Investigation Service, planning and marine consents and comments, work in all of these areas continues as a top priority business so that we can assist all those people, businesses and groups who need consents and permissions from Natural England. Staff are dealing with case work remotely as far as possible.

We continue as before to respond to reports of environmental damage and are carrying out other regulatory visits where it is safe to do so in line with government guidelines on working outdoors. Our development control/planning advice and wildlife licensing functions are particular priorities. Natural England staff working from home are able to receive and respond to consultations/applications electronically. However, we still have reduced staff capacity, we will always do what we can to respond to normal deadlines, please note there may be situations when we can’t, and we ask you to bear with us.

If necessary, we will continue to prioritise consultation responses and licences where the environmental risks are highest and where health and safety is concerned. We also appreciate that our customers and stakeholders are facing similar challenges and will work closely with you to understand what the impacts may be on existing or future Natural England consultation responses, statutory advice and licensing decisions.

More detailed advice, including how best to make contact with NE staff and provide the necessary information is given on our blog.

Site visit and field work

We have re-started field work where it is safe for our staff, customers and contractors, following government guidelines for working outdoors and gradually increasing a range of important site visits where we have staff capacity to do so.

We are carrying out contracted survey work on NNRs and other sites in support of our priority environmental objectives, with the health, safety and wellbeing of all those involved being paramount.

For advice on managing protected sites or species, such as requests for consent for work on an SSSI, then please contact us as normal by emailing protectedsites@naturalengland.org.uk. We will then advise on next steps, making use of existing data where possible but with visits carried out where essential and safe to do so. Bear in mind, though, that we have staff unable to work as a result of the coronavirus and so our capacity to respond may be limited.

The rules about protection of the natural environment are, of course, unchanged by the coronavirus outbreak. In exceptional circumstances, for example, if there are any concerns that immediate action is required to prevent harm, or where serious breaches of the law are reported that merit immediate investigation, then we will make a site visit but will ensure social distancing is observed.

Advice to farmers and land managers

We are working with the Rural Payments Agency on making vital payments to the rural community and helping customers submit their claims and applications. Natural England is adapting the way it gives advice to support farmers, land managers and rural businesses during these unprecedented times. Our advisers are able to give advice without always needing to visit, in particular where they have worked with the farmer before.

In order to enable land managers to develop Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme applications in time for the 1 May application deadline, our staff were able to provide advice on applications remotely (by phone or video call), so that schemes can be progressed in the absence of a site visit. We are also developing a range of processes looking at how to best use technology including remote sensing, digital solutions and virtual meetings, to support Countryside Stewardship 2020 applications.

Natural England will be supporting mid-tier applicants through an off-farm advice programme whereby applicants can contact an adviser and book a clinic session. Applicants will receive advice on the options most appropriate to their holding and top tips on ensuring applications are correct.

We will also continue to offer technical advice and support on Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) by remote/digital means.

Farmers, land managers and farm advisers all have an essential role in ensuring a healthy natural environment, essential for sustainable farming, is maintained now as always. We look forward to our continued work with you.

Guidance on access to green spaces and Public Rights of Way

The government’s priority is to save lives, and the best way to protect yourself and others from illness is to stay alert. However, exercise is still important for people’s physical and mental wellbeing, so the government has said people can leave their homes for exercise. Exercise in green space has the added benefit of contact with nature, which we know is good for our wellbeing.

Enjoying nature in our gardens if we are lucky enough to have them can be part of this. Green spaces such as parks in towns and cities can still be used, and the footpaths and other rights of way in rural areas remain open. Please follow this advice:

The risk of the coronavirus being passed on to others from people using public rights of way and other paths and trails is considered to be very low as long as people follow the government’s instructions to maintain social distancing. But if possible try to avoid using footpaths etc that may take you through a farmstead or other rural business where social distancing may be difficult.

The rights of way network remains open and landowners do not have the legal right to block or obstruct public rights of way. However, in very limited circumstances where large numbers of people are using such routes, landowners may consider the following measures:

  • Temporarily displaying polite notices that encourage users to respect local residents and workers by following social distancing guidelines and consider using alternative routes that do not pass through gardens, farmyards or schools.
  • Offering an alternative route around gardens and farmyards only where it is safe to do so (you must gain permission from relevant landowners and make sure the route is safe for users and livestock) provided that the original right of way is maintained.

It can also be helpful if landowners tied gates on public rights of way open, if it is safe to do so, so that walkers and riders do not need to touch gates.

All our National Trails remain open including newly opened stretches of England Coast Path, however people must follow the government’s instructions to maintain social distancing.

National Nature Reserves (NNRs)

Natural England’s National Nature Reserves are open to the public, and we welcome our visitors to enjoy them freely whilst following the countryside code and the latest government coronavirus advice. You should be aware that visitor facilities such as public toilets and bird hides remain closed.

Our nature reserves are for everyone to enjoy, so we ask you to look after them during your visit and please take your litter home with you, keep dogs on a leash, be careful of ground nesting birds and no BBQs.

We are opening up car parks when and where we can. Our nature reserve staff are working hard to open the majority of our car parks, and to safely carry out additional visitor safety checks. A small number of car parks remain closed until further notice because of additional safety or management requirements.

These are the closed car parks:

  • Yarner Wood car park (East Dartmoor NNR)
  • Bure Marshes NNR nature trail access from boat moorings
  • Rostherne Mere NNR car park
  • Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses NNR car parks: no parking for the history trail as the Shed Yard (in Wales) and Manor House car parks remain closed

As explained above, Hatfield Moors and Thursley Heath NNRs are closed until further notice following major wildfires.

For National Nature Reserves managed by other organisations you should contact the managing body for latest details on any opening restrictions. Please consider when deciding to travel to an NNR or other outside space that other commercial or public facilities in the local area may also be closed and you will want to bear that in mind in thinking about how far you might travel.

Management work on NNRs is currently limited until further notice to essential tasks that are critical for things such as public safety, animal welfare and water level management.

Working with NGOs

We are aware that many of our colleagues in the environmental, conservation and outdoor recreation charity sector may be facing financial challenges, along with concerns about maintaining nature sites during this challenging time.

We will of course continue the funding for the important partnership projects we deliver with our non-government organisations (NGOs) colleagues and I am speaking to a number of organisations about how we can work together even more closely to face our common challenges, both now and in the immediate future, to minimise any impact on the natural environment.

Further updates

We will continue to update this page as necessary with any changes in the situation and our work.

Natural England wishes everyone well during this difficult period. We remain committed to our mission to build partnerships for nature’s recovery, which the nation will need more than ever. I hope that this can bring us all together again in partnership, safely and enthusiastically, very soon.

Marian Spain, Chief Executive

Channel website: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/natural-england

Original article link: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/operational-update-covid-19

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