Operational update: Coronavirus
20 Jul 2020 04:15 PM
Chief Executive Marian Spain on how Natural England is facing the challenges posed by Coronavirus.
How Natural England is working
In common with most organisations dealing with the effects of coronavirus (COVID-19), Natural England is continuing to follow the latest government guidance and taking all steps necessary to protect our staff and help prevent the spread of the virus.
We have now resumed all fieldwork where it is safe to do so. This includes critical work on species recovery and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) monitoring programmes as well as a full range of advisory and regulatory farm visits. Our National Nature Reserves (NNRs) are largely open for visitors and management work and volunteering activity is underway again.
Staff continue to work at home and the vast majority of work is being carried out as before. 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. However as with many organisations, we still have some on-going reduced staff capacity as a result of illness or caring responsibilities and expect some reduced capacity to remain until September. We have therefore continued some re-prioritisation and redeployment of staff into different work, but across the broad range of functions so you should not notice a difference in the majority of our work.
A thriving and accessible natural environment will remain vital to the nation during and after the coronavirus crisis. We continue therefore to progress the government’s key policy ambitions for the environment, such as the 25 Year Environment Plan, 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.
The majority of our staff continue to work from home. We do have systems in place to allow most of our work to be carried out remotely and Natural England staff can be contacted as usual by email and phone. Our meetings and engagements with customers and stakeholders still continue, but the majority will be conducted via phone, email or video conferencing for the time being. We are holding some socially distanced meetings on site where this can be done safely.
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. Across the Defra group we are assessing how we will gradually reopen offices where it is safe to do so but not all staff will return immediately, so please assume most remain working remotely and use email or phone to contact us.
Our customer enquiries service email@example.com, Tel: 0300 060 3900) remains open. We ask you to use the email option in the first instance.
Our regulatory work
SSSI consent, wildlife licensing, the Wildlife Incident Investigation Service, planning and marine consents all continue as a priority 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, but can visit when it is safe to do so to gather evidence, or ensure our stakeholders can make good decisions for the environment. We continue as before to respond to reports of environmental damage and are carrying out other regulatory visits 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, while we still have reduced staff capacity, whilst 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 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 a number of 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. If there are any concerns about damage that require 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 to inspect and will also take any steps necessary as usual but will ensure social distancing/safe working is observed. You should report any concerns as usual.
Advice to farmers and land managers
We continue to provide technical advice to our customers and the Rural Payments Agency to facilitate agreement offers and payments to the rural community. 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 and this part of our work has remained a high priority throughout the coronavirus crisis.
However, we have adapted the way we give 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, by phone or video or using pictures.
We enabled land managers to develop Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme applications in time for the 1 May application deadline, by giving advice on applications remotely (by phone or video call), so that schemes can be progressed in the absence of a site visit.
We are now returning to face to face visits where safe to do so: all visits are individually risk assessed and our staff follow safe working guidelines. However, for those land managers who would prefer not have a face to face meeting we are also supporting mid-tier applicants through an off-farm advice programme where applicants can contact an adviser and book a clinic session. Applicants receive advice on the options most appropriate to their holding and top tips on ensuring applications are correct. We can offer technical advice and support on Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) by remote/digital means. We are also developing a range of processes to use technology including remote sensing, digital solutions and virtual meetings, to support Countryside Stewardship 2020 applications and on-going agreements.
National Nature Reserves
As we come to the school holidays, I am pleased to be able to say that nearly all our National Nature Reserves (NNRs) are open, and I hope you are able to come and enjoy them safely this summer. It is fantastic to know how many people have valued and visited our NNRs over the last few months.
Staff are now out on site and management and visitor work is underway. I am pleased to say that we have also begun welcoming back our NNR volunteers to help us keep these wonderful places safe and thriving.
Hatfield Moors NNR is sadly still closed following the devastating fire and as restoration work gets underway, and there are also restrictions at Thursley Heath after fire destroyed the board walk. Please note the facilities, such as hides and most visitor centres remain closed and there are also a handful or car parks still closed.
- 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 – the Manor House car park remains closed
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 busy coastal areas 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 so do not bring BBQs with you.
- 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.
Access to green spaces and Public Rights of Way
The restrictions imposed by the coronavirus crisis have shown even more starkly how access to the outdoors and exercise in green space is very important for people’s health, and has the added benefit of contact with nature, which we know is good for physical and mental wellbeing our wellbeing.
We therefore encourage everybody to come and get your exercise at our nature reserves, in town parks and out in the countryside but ask you to 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.
Some landowners are also tying open 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.
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, adapting with them how that work is done if necessary. We are also offering bodies the opportunity to access funds, from existing budgets from Natural England or by seconding staff to work with us. We look forward also to playing our part in helping NGOs make the best of recently announced government support the Green Jobs Challenge Fund so we can continue to work together, both now and in the immediate future and minimise any impact on the natural environment.
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. We continue to work in partnership, even if in different ways safely and enthusiastically.
Marian Spain, Chief Executive