Since it was created in 2006 out of what was English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service, Natural England has carried out a total of 100 successful enforcement actions for breaches of wildlife laws across England – about seven every year.
The majority (70) of these actions are enforcement undertakings – a form of civil sanction entered into voluntarily by an offender. Following a freedom of information request, ENDS can reveal that of these 70 enforcement undertakings entered into between 2012–2019, only five involved a financial penalty.
Furthermore, the financial penalties attached to the five undertakings amounted to no more than £10,000 – small amounts when compared to the Environment Agency’s (EA) use of enforcement undertakings which can rack up to six-figure sums. The two largest undertakings agreed with Natural England came from a utility company in Cumbria and National Grid Ltd in West Yorkshire. Both agreed to pay £10,000 in compensation for habitat damage caused by vehicle use.
Natural England’s deputy chief executive Alan Law said voluntary undertakings were a light-touch approach to enforcement rather than being used for serious breaches where criminal action can be pursued.
Law said: “We would only use an enforcement undertaking where pretty minor damage took place, probably the result of an action inadvertently taken by a land manager. In that instance we wouldn’t usually seek a financial contribution, we would want to see that damage put right which is at a cost to them, and establish a working relationship with the land manager to make sure those issues don’t happen again.”
He added: “But let’s be clear, across most of our sites we have a good long working relationship with the land managers, where things go wrong, those are the exceptions, not the norm.”
The data shows that Natural England agreed with the majority of offenders (65) that remediation action would be acceptable in place of financial penalties.
Natural England’s data shows landowners were the most common offenders. However, only one landowner in the Chichester Harbour SSSI came forward voluntarily – known as a proactive undertaking.
Other offenders around the country include individuals and organisations such as an estate in County Durham, a local authority in Rutland, a Hayton sports club and utility company in Cumbria – ENDS has classified these entities as “other” when mapping the data.
When asked how Natural England keeps an eye on sites most at risk from potential damages, Law said partnerships were key.
“We’re a relatively small organisation so alot of our work is done in partnership with other conservation organisations for example, who will let us know when something is going on that shouldn’t be,” he said.
Across its area teams, Natural England has about 1,000 boots on the ground, Law added: “That’s why we have to work in partnership”.
Click here to view a live table containing details of tens of millions of pounds of financial penalties issued by regulators in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for breaches of environmental regulations.