by Peter Reeves
The countryside of England and Wales is renowned for its variety and
beauty. From the Lake District in the north of England to the rolling
hills of the South Downs lies an immense range of landscape. Blending
with this rural scene are thriving villages built of traditional
Since the late 1940s, changing methods of agricultural and urban
development were seen to be damaging areas of natural beauty. From
that time, increasing effort has been made to protect and improve the
Most of the land in England and Wales is privately owned and used by
people for their livelihood. Basically, conservation is achieved by
regulation of land use, financial incentives and management of
special sites to conserve their natural features and wildlife.
Town and Country Planning law is the foundation of present UK
Government policy. This provides strict control over new development.
Decisions by planning authorities are guided by structure plans
setting out the main lines for future land use.
A network of statutory bodies and agencies has been created with
powers to support and implement Government countryside policy. Their
work is reinforced by an array of specific laws that protect wildlife
and access to rural areas.
Footpaths and hedges must not be interfered with. Farmers are
required to store, use and dispose of pesticides safely. The use of
poisons for pest control is strictly regulated. Tree felling is
controlled by a licensing system.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was passed because of an
increasing need for comprehensive wildlife protection. This protects
birds and their eggs, animals, plant species and sites generally.
Under the act, international conventions affecting wildlife have been
Advising the Government upon conservation of the countryside in
England and Wales is a key role of the Countryside Commission. A
projected increase of 4.4 million new homes by 2016 will affect
practically every part of the country. This gives rural planning and
enhancement of the beauty of the countryside a high priority.
Government grant in aid for the Countryside Commission is expected to
be at the rate of 24 million pounds sterling annually until the year
2000. In partnership with other organisations, financial support is
given to protect and manage coasts, national parks, areas of
outstanding natural beauty and forests.
The long-term nature of conservation is strikingly illustrated by the
Community Forest programme. This was initiated jointly by the
commission and the Forestry Commission in 1989. Its aim is to be
double the area now covered by forest over the next 40 years.
Mersey Forest is the largest Community Forest project. Present tree
cover in the district is low, being only four per cent compared with
a national average of 10 per cent. In the Cleveland Community Forest
area in north-east England, 500 hectares of woodland have already
Supported by National Lottery funding, the Countryside Commission is
managing a Millennium Greens' programme. This project will provide at
least 250 communities with a green space where people can relax,
children play and everyone can enjoy nature. The demand for high
quality food at low cost has had a major impact upon the countryside.
Uncontrolled farming methods can damage landscape, rare plants and
By the Agriculture Act of 1986, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and
Fisheries (MAFF) has a duty to balance the demands of agriculture
with other rural interests in England. Parallel arrangements exist in
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where authorities cooperate with
MAFF encourages and helps farmers to conserve the landscape, wildlife
and historic features of the countryside. Central to this policy is
the creation of Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs). This
innovation began when, in partnership with the Countryside
Commission, grazing marshes at Halvergate in the Norfolk Broads,
eastern England, were successfully brought into a conservation
Farmers who enter into an ESA scheme are offered payments to carry
out agricultural practices that conserve or improve the landscape and
wildlife habitats. In this way they are able to combine commercial
farming and conservation.
Apart from this overall concern for the use of agricultural land,
other bodies created by statute are entrusted with aspects of
countryside care. English Nature is empowered by law to designate
sites in England of special interest for wildlife or natural
These includes Sites of Special Scientific Interest of which there
are approximately 3,900 covering 951,186 hectares. Owners of sites> are legally bound to notify English Nature of work that might affect
The Rural Development Commission works for the well-being of people
who live and work in the English countryside. The commission is
concerned to see that job opportunities are created and preserved and
that development enhances the environment.
A major aspect of its activity is rural regeneration achieved by
promoting economic and social needs of areas with greatest need.
Assistance is given to initiatives ranging from business support,
training, community development and help for the disadvantaged.
Without overall protection from damaging activity and pollution,
efforts to preserve the countryside and wildlife would be in
jeopardy. In 1995 the Environment Agency was set up with
responsibility for regulating and managing the environment in England
The agency has an annual budget of 560 million pounds sterling. Its
main statutory functions are the management of water resources and
control of industrial pollution, sewage and waste disposal. Other
duties include river quality maintenance, flood control and coastal
To protect the environment, the agency has wide powers. Legally
enforceable rules to control pollution can be imposed and
construction works undertaken. Whatever methods are used thought must
be given to the conservation of flora and fauna and preservation of
areas of natural beauty.
John Dower House
Crescent Place, Cheltenham
Gloucester, United Kingdom, GL50 3RA
Telephone: +44 1242 521381
Fax: +44 1242 584270
Environment Agency for England and Wales
Waterside Drive, Aztec
Bristol, United Kingdom, BS12 4UD