The environment is ‘much too important to be left to ideologues’, according to Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson, who called for a more practical approach to its management in a major speech last week to the think tank Policy Exchange. He said that the priorities of economic growth and a healthy environment ‘are not mutually exclusive’, reporting that, in Australia, biodiversity off-setting, the subject of a public consultation here, has reduced applications to develop on native grassland by 80%.

Mr Paterson points out that many of Britain’s most iconic landscapes look as they do because people manage them and that the resultant tourism industry accounts for 14% of employment and 10% of businesses. ‘The Lake District would not look the way it does today without the presence of sheep and the careful management of hill farmers. The Downs would soon return to elders and bracken if it were not for the presence of livestock and active farming.’ Farmers, who manage 75% of the UK, ‘are some of our greatest environmentalists… That’s why it’s important that the British countryside is a living, working one.’

He praised the work of organisations such as the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT) (Country Life, November 13), the GWCT, the Red Squirrel Survival Trust and individuals such as farmer Philip Merricks, who manages the Elmley National Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. By exercising predator control, Mr Merricks has managed to increase the fledging rates of lapwing chicks 10 times more successfully than on a neighbouring reserve where the same methods are not exercised.

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The CRT has trapped 163 mink along 45 miles of the Upper Cam Valley in Cambridgeshire, resulting in the return of water voles, kingfishers and moorhens. The GWCT has demonstrated through its Allerton Project that hare numbers drop sub-stantially without predator control and that songbird numbers double where game management is carried out.

Mr Paterson vigorously disagrees with the accusation made last week by 41 charities, from the Badger Trust to the Ramblers, that the Government is failing on nearly one-third of its environmental commitments. Their report, Nature Check 2013, praises Defra’s work on halting ash dieback, improving fishing policy and protecting rhinos, elephants and whales. However, it says the Government is failing on protection of the green belt, farm-animal welfare, reversing wildlife declines, designating Marine Conservation Zones and establishing the coastal path, which is legislation inherited from Labour.

A Defra spokesman says: ‘Many of the criticisms are unjustified and based on opinion, not facts. Our ambitions are long term and we are making good progress.’ Mr Paterson adds that there needs to be more recognition of the realities of rural life. ‘What we can’t do is look to Government to have all the answers and turn things around overnight. That’s not how Nature works. That’s not how the economy works.’

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