Unnatural England

Why does Natural England – the government’s nature watchdog – own less than half a per cent of England?

New maps obtained by Who Owns England under Freedom of Information laws reveal a startling fact: that Natural England, the government’s official nature watchdog, owns just 0.37% of the country.

The arm’s-length body possesses the freehold for even less land – just 50,000 acres, or 0.16% of England. Adding in leaseholds takes the total to 118,000 acres – 0.37% of England’s 32 million acres.

With the government struggling to meet its 30×30 target – a promise to protect 30% of England for nature by 2030 – this revelation surely begs the question: why not give Natural England the resources to buy up more land?

Natural England’s land, mapped

Natural England released a GIS map of their landholdings in response to an FOI request I submitted. The graphic below shows NE’s freehold (red) and leasehold (green) landholdings – and though I’ve tried to make the graphic as clear as possible, the land areas are so small, you’ll have to squint to see them.

To make it easier to zoom in on individual sites, I’ve also uploaded Natural England’s freehold land as a Google Map, below. (The leasehold dataset is slightly too large a file to squeeze onto a Google Map, unfortunately.)

What Natural England owns & how it came to own it

The vast bulk of Natural England’s landholdings comprise National Nature Reserves (NNRs). NNRs were established “to protect some of our most important habitats, species and geology”: they’re meant to represent the pinnacle of the country’s natural heritage. Powers to designate and acquire them were first bestowed on Natural England’s predecessor body, the Nature Conservancy, via the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which also set up England’s system of National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). In essence, the 1949 Act created the basis for most subsequent habitat and wildlife protections in England (and the UK more broadly). The first National Nature Reserves were designated in 1952.

From the outset, the government allowed the Nature Conservancy not merely to designate land as being an NNR, but also to acquire it. In fact, the 1949 Act gave the organisation powers to compulsorily purchase land for nature, if it needed. The original legislation stated:“Where the Nature Conservancy are satisfied as respects any land that it is expedient in the national interest that it should be managed as a nature reserve, they may acquire the land compulsorily” (section 17).

As far as I have been able to discern, these compulsory purchase powers were not exercised by the Nature Conservancy, nor its successor bodies – the Nature Conservancy Council, English Nature, and now Natural England. But, as far as I’m aware, Natural England still possesses these powers – the Act has only been modified, not repealed.

Whether or not it made use of these compulsory purchase powers, the early years of the Nature Conservancy certainly saw it buy up land at a rate of knots. As the historian John Sheail puts it in his book Nature Conservation in Britain: The formative years, “the Conservancy was impatient to acquire… extensive tracts of countryside and coast as rapidly as possible.” It was able to do so partly because the land it wanted was “of little economic value” and hence cheap; but also because central government, at that time, actually listened to expert ecologists and scientists, and granted them budgets. The history of the successor bodies to the Nature Conservancy is one of sadly declining influence, powers and resources, down to the present day.

(Not all National Nature Reserves in existence today are owned outright by Natural England. Some are owned by conservation NGOs like the RSPB and National Trust; some by other public sector bodies like the Ministry of Defence, or by private landowners. This response to a Parliamentary Question in 1988 reveals the breakdown of public versus private ownership of NNRs at that time. The 225 NNRs in existence today cover around 244,000 acres, or 0.7% of England – so about half, by area, belong to Natural England, and half to other landowners.)

In 2010, David Cameron’s government briefly considered selling off the publicly-owned National Nature Reserves – but amidst the furore generated by the proposed sale of the Forestry Commission’s Public Forest Estate, this lesser-known attempted privatisation was quietly dropped.

Years of austerity, however, saw Natural England’s budgets cut to the bone – falling by almost two-thirds in a decade. Recent years have seen budgets start to rise again, but it is well documented that Natural England is struggling to carry out some of its basic functions (like SSSI site monitoring), with precious little resource to acquire new land.

In a nature crisis, why not let Natural England buy more land?

We face an ecological emergency, with numerous species in freefall and habitats in decline. The UK Government has accepted that it has to tackle this, and has pledged to protect 30% of England’s land for nature by 2030. Yet at present, according to Wildlife & Countryside Link, just 3% of England can be said to be properly protected for nature (the area of SSSIs and NNRs in good or recovering condition). Clearly, the government has a long way to go, and little time to do it. So why is it not giving Natural England the resources to acquire more land?

We’ve spent the past six years debating how to better incentivise private landowners and farmers to protect nature, with the government’s new post-Brexit system of farm payments (ELMs) finally starting to bear fruit. But in that time, there’s been precious little consideration of other policy levers for protecting and restoring nature.

One of the most obvious tools that the state has at its disposal is to buy up land itself – particularly in times of crisis, when speed is of the essence. It did so after WW1 to address chronic timber shortages, by creating the Forestry Commission and acquiring the Public Forest Estate; and after WW2 to provide affordable housing and rebuild the country after the Blitz, by setting up New Town Development Corporations and buying land at close to existing use value. The state still regularly makes use of compulsory purchase powers to acquire land for what it deems to be essential infrastructure – and in the 21st century, nature is essential infrastructure. And whilst we might hope that landowners of all kinds respond well to incentives like ELMs, we also know that there are many large landowners who have little intention of changing their ecologically destructive ways (such as the owners of England’s grouse moors, who regularly set fire to our largest carbon store). Shouldn’t Natural England be stepping in and saying to such landowners: change your ways, or we’ll use our compulsory purchase powers to buy your land and manage it better?

Clearly, expanding the size of the state and the amount of land it owns does not sit well with politicians who idolise Margaret Thatcher, privatisation, and ‘small government’. But if this government won’t create a Public Nature Estate, perhaps we should elect one that will.

9 thoughts on “Unnatural England

  1. Despite all the adverse publicity regarding moorland burning over peat, they are currently at it again in North Yorkshire. Meanwhile, those of us who have woodburning stoves are faced with the possibility of being fined for causing air pollution.


  2. Excellent report, as usual.

    Isn’t it odd that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was enacted by Thatcher? And that the Nick Clegg achieved no environmental gain during the Coalition? Or that Blair/Brown achieved so little, and with a whopping majority?

    Politicians – all cheer-leading for HS2 – just piss me off.


  3. “Nature is important infrastructure.” This is a great point – simple honest and ought to be a rallying slogan. Whilst councils have duties to have policies for green (and blue) infrastructure, they rely on private landholders to play along. The planning system needs to move into the fields and the farms and get a grip on this important infrastructure as much it does with homes and gardens. Good article.


  4. Great article. I know ultimately we need a change of government, but has anyone approached Natural England to start the ball rolling? What would be the process to start lobbying for this to happen? I live in a place where Green Gaps are designated in Local Plans and local councils refuse developers planning permission only to have central government overturn the decision and developers keep appealing even High Court decisions against them. The only way to stop them is to buy the land from them to secure it for the community.


  5. Local authority land holdings are available. Could these not be included in the map?
    I work for a landscape contractor working for a water company. I believe the land assets of these water companies can be obtained (they shared shape files with us).


    1. Hi David, this is a blog post about Natural England but I’m assuming you’re talking about the main WOE map at https://map.whoownsengland.org/. Maps of Local Authority landholdings are *not* in fact regularly published by councils; I’m in the process of FOI’ing various councils for such maps, and most have so far rejected my FOI requests. I’ve similarly tried to request maps of water company land, under Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs, as the water firms are subject to this but exempt from FOI), but again, most have rejected my requests. See also my blog posts on on council land: https://whoownsengland.org/2020/05/04/what-land-is-owned-by-councils/ and water company land: https://whoownsengland.org/2016/08/29/liquid-assets-land-owned-by-the-water-utilities/


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