The country must invest in nature even at times of economic hardship – or pay a “big bill down the track”, the head of Natural England has warned.

Tony Juniper, chairman of the government agency which looks after the nature in England, said a healthy natural environment was essential for national security, prosperity and public health.

He argued England had the targets and policies it needs to deliver a turnaround for nature – but suggested some areas such as reintroducing beavers to the wild were going more slowly than he would like.

In the face of debates over whether the country could afford to boost wildlife and habitats or should prioritise food security over restoring nature, Mr Juniper insisted it needed to be seen as both/and rather than either/or.

And he warned it would take decades to really reverse the declines in species and habitats in the UK.

In an interview with the PA news agency to mark five years in the role, Mr Juniper said concerns raised over moves such as reintroducing beavers meant “we go more slowly than ecologists and nature advocates like me would like”.

Efforts to return beavers, which engineer the landscape to store and clean up water, reduce flooding and create habitat for wildlife, are waiting on Government decisions about releasing them into the wild, with some farmers concerned about their impact on productive land.

Mr Juniper said the species, which was hunted to extinction in Britain, had been missing for 400 years.

“So if it takes another year to get to the point where we’ve got clarity about what we’re going to do, I don’t think that’s a total disaster, although as an ecologist, I can see the huge benefits that would come with that, so long as we can get everybody to the point where they can see it as well.

“We need to carefully and make sure we keep as many people on side as we can.”

Mr Juniper acknowledged that economic considerations affected policy, with spending constraints following the financial crash, and more recently the impact of Covid and the cost-of-living crisis prompted by the war in Ukraine.

But he said: “A healthy natural environment is essential for national security, and indeed for our prosperity and public health.

“And so those are all really big ticket items for our country, is how do you secure food and water supplies, how do you make your country resilient in the face of climate change, how do you underpin key economic sectors?

“But in the end all of them you can trace back to a healthy natural environment having some role and in the case of farming and water, having a pivotal role in being able to keep those sectors going.

“So health, wealth and security at a national level are three reasons why it’s really important to invest in nature, even at times of economic hardship, because if you don’t do it, you pay a big bill down the track,” he said.

A beaver swimming in water (Ben Birchall/PA)
A beaver swimming in water (Ben Birchall/PA)

There is an increasing focus on unlocking private as well as public funding, with new measures such as biodiversity net gain,  which requires developers to finance the creation of habitat that not only replaces what has been lost to development, but increases it overall.

And as part of the new environmental land management scheme (Elms) to replace EU farming subsidies, Government funding is paying for pilot “landscape recovery” schemes by large landowners and groups of farmers.

Mr Juniper said the funding would “pump-prime” large-scale nature projects so they can attract green private investment.

He defended the focus in Elms, which also pays individual farmers for measures such as healthy soil, hedgerows and cutting pesticide use, on “public goods” such as a stable climate and clean water, rather than food production.

He said the public goods focus was effectively correcting a “market failure”, by paying for things that people need but which are not in the market.

While you could argue food was a public good, he said, “I think probably the more useful conversation would be to say, how do we ensure that the people growing this food are getting a fair deal in the market.

“And that’s less public goods and more about the behaviour of the supermarkets, and the trading conditions that shape the prices that people pay in the shops and the prices that the farmers are being paid for all the hard work they’re putting in and the risk they’re taking.”

He added it was necessary to get beyond the either/or question of food production or nature recovery to the both/and question of doing nature recovery and food production together.

Aerial view of wheat fields
Farming relies on a healthy environment, Mr Juniper warns

In the run-up to a general election, Mr Juniper said whoever was in power needed to be thinking long term about the programme of nature recovery and the climate challenge.

Mr Juniper also urged a “widespread appreciation that nature recovery is a hugely valuable investment with multiple returns and not simply a cost.”

“The idea of taking the view that this is a sound investment and requires long term commitment, both of those things are essential”, he said, adding there were benefits in tackling multiple objectives, such as housing, clean water, nature recovery and carbon storage together.

Mr Juniper said he felt “the penny has dropped” in politics, sectors such as agriculture and development and among the public, on the need to deal with environmental challenges.

“This is not really now for want of new policies or for new targets. It’s really now about delivery.

“I think we’ve got most of what we need in terms of the goals and many of the policies to back their delivery, but we’ve got to stick with the programme, it’s long term, it can’t be solved in one parliament,” he said.