Operational update: Coronavirus – GOV.UK

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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. We are resuming meeting with partners and stakeholders, including outside meetings and visits. Our National Nature Reserves (NNRs) are open for visitors and management work and volunteering activity is under way again.

We are now opening up our offices, albeit with initially reduced capacity in line with health and safety guidelines. Some staff are in offices some days, though many continue to work from home and now that schools are reopening, our staff with childcare responsibilities will also be able to return to working nearer to their normal hours. We know that many people across the country rely on our services and even with these ongoing constraints, the vast majority of work is being carried out as usual. 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. We have continued to re-prioritise our work in line with staff capacity, but across the broad range of functions you should not notice a difference in the majority of our work.

The coronavirus crisis has shown us that a thriving and accessible natural environment is vital to the nation. 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.

Although we have established effective ways of working within current restrictions the situation continues to develop and we will continue to publish updates on any changes here.

Staff

The majority of our staff continue to work from home but with some office-based working increasing as we open up buildings and national nature reserve (NNR) work bases. 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 (whether home or office based). Our meetings and engagements with customers and stakeholders still continue via phone, email or video conferencing but now also on site or in small meetings where this can be done safely.

Offices

From 24 March 2020, our offices were temporarily closed to staff and visitors. Across the Defra group we are gradually reopening offices where it is safe to do so but with reduced capacity, so please use email or phone to contact us in the first instance rather than via our buildings and assume that office-based meetings will be limited for some time.

Customer enquiries

Our customer enquiries service ([email protected], tel: 0300 060 3900) remains open. We ask you to use the email option in the first instance. Post sent to our offices is starting to be opened but we would advise you to send correspondence by email to our enquiries team wherever possible.

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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. We will always do what we can to respond to normal deadlines, however, while we continue to have reduced staff capacity, there may be situations when we are not always able to do so, 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 contact 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 [email protected]. 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, which is key for sustainable farming, 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.

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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: all visits are individually risk assessed and our staff follow safe working guidelines. However, those land managers who would prefer not have a face-to-face meeting can contact an adviser and book a phone or video session. We continue to support applicants through direct liaison with the Rural Payments Agency and we are issuing legal consents where appropriate to support management of SSSIs.. 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 agreements.

National Nature Reserves

I am pleased to be able to say that all our National Nature Reserves (NNRs) are now open, and I hope you are able to come and enjoy them safely. 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 under way. We have also begun welcoming back our NNR volunteers to help us keep these wonderful places safe and thriving.

Please note the facilities, such as hides and most visitor centres remain closed and there are also a handful of car parks still closed:

  • Yarner Wood car park (East Dartmoor NNR)
  • Bure Marshes NNR nature trail access from boat moorings
  • Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield NNR – the manor house car park remains closed

When visiting NNRs or any other part of the countryside, please follow the countryside code and also be aware of the Safer Access To Green Spaces guidance.

In particular we ask you to:

  • Think about the needs of local communities when considering travelling to busy coastal areas or countryside beauty spots. If site car parks and surrounding areas are likely to be very busy, avoid those areas for the time being and help observe social distancing.
  • No BBQs or fires. These are unlawful anyway without landowner permission but even as summer ends, the risk of wildfires is still high so do not bring BBQs with you.
  • Take your litter home with you. There are very limited bins on sites, so 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.

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We therefore encourage people to come and get exercise at our nature reserves, in town parks and out in the countryside but 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. If possible, try to avoid using footpaths 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 colleagues in non-governmental organisations (NGOs), adapting with them how that work is done if necessary. We are also offering organisations the opportunity to access funds from existing Natural England budgets or by seconding staff to work with us. We are also 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.

Further updates

While we are still not fully back to normal ways of working, the vast majority of our work is now being fully delivered. I don’t therefore expect to need to update this page as frequently as before, but will do so if there is any significant change in the situation and our work, for example if a local lockdown restricts what we can do.

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

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