Conservation charities warn against merger
Conservationists have warned of a wildlife and landscape "disaster" if two countryside agencies are merged.
The claim comes amid a Government review which could combine Natural England and the Environment Agency, which have bases in Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset, employing hundreds of skilled staff.
The heads of more than 20 environment groups, including Friends of the Earth, the RSPB and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, have written a joint letter arguing that scientific expertise in mapping endangered species was needed now more than ever and said the two organisations have "different remits and areas of expertise".
"In a single body, because the Environment Agency's core business is flood defence, there will be inevitable pressure to prioritise this over wildlife and landscape, and their enjoyment by the public," the letter to The Times said. "This would leave Britain without a government agency devoted to protecting the countryside for the first time since 1949, which would be a disaster for our landscapes and wildlife."
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With major bases at Bristol as well as smaller offices in Blandford, Taunton, Bridgwater, Exeter, Truro and Bodmin, any merger would reduce the workforce and impact on the region where there are several fragile sites of significant environmental and scientific importance such as areas of Devon that provide a habitat for the high brown fritillary butterfly and vulnerable sites in Dorset that provide habitat for the Dartford warbler and the sand lizard.
The Wildlife Trusts, an organisation representing 2,300 nature reserves said the loss of Natural England's independence would make it harder to protect some of the most fragile habitats in England.
This includes areas that that support populations of skylark and many species of orchid. The merger, which would follow a similar move with counterpart organisations in Wales, comes after Environment Secretary Owen Paterson launched a review of Natural England in December.
In Wales, the devolved Environment Agency, Forestry Commision and Countryside Council for Wales will be rolled into one next month.
Natural England was set up to protect the country's plants, animals and landscapes, while the Environment Agency is a larger organisation whose responsibilities include flood defences and pollution.
The organisation enforces wildlife laws such as the licences for the badger cull that will begin this summer in Somerset and Gloucestershire and the body's experts are the act as the Government's main scientific adviser on conservation.
The charities fear that the two could be collapsed into one organisation as a cost-saving measure.