Dealing with major threats is one of the Government’s fundamental jobs. Whether it is social unrest, economic disaster or environmental emergency we expect appropriate and timely action to deal with the problems. How appalling therefore that the current wildlife crisis is being made worse by both current policy and new proposals.
Nature strategy in tatters
On the policy front, and even though the UK is the most wildlife-depleted G7 nation, a recent report from Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee described the Government’s underfunded and toothless policies approach as “Failing to halt catastrophic loss of wildlife”. The plans and ambitions may look good, but failure to monitor progress and enforce compliance mean that they are not being realised. Worse still, the committee reports that more money is spent on environmentally damaging activities than on environmental protection.
Part of the problem is of course the recent drastic cuts to Natural England’s budget and establishment. Now it is apparent that those cuts are just part of a staggering reduction of one third of the money invested in conservation over the last five years. The report calls for this to be reversed and Natural England’s budget to be increased year on year. Other recommendations include creating targets for improving soil health, banning tree planting in inappropriate places such as peatlands and wetlands, and protecting all ancient woodland.
Committee Chair Philip Dunne MP summed the situation up as follows: “A poorly mixed cocktail of ambitious targets, superficial strategies, funding cuts and lack of expertise is making progress incredibly challenging”.
Stripping away species protection
The second part of the double whammy is a recent Government announcement of changes to the legal protection for many well-loved and endangered species. This is part of the current quinquennial review of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). The species concerned include water voles, red squirrels, adders, mountain hares, and hedgehogs. According to Wildlife and Countryside Link, there has been, and will not be, any consultation about this, it is a done deal. Amongst other things the changes mean that it will no longer be illegal to kill or trade the species concerned. Link said “It is unthinkable that we are stripping away protections from wildlife. This is a step backwards that we just cannot afford to take”.
The proposals are that species will only retain or be given full protection if they are ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’ according to the IUCN red lists, or are European Protected Species. This means that only those plants and animals in imminent danger of extinction will be included in the appropriate schedules. It is difficult to understand the topsy-turvy logic at work here. How can waiting for a species to be in ‘imminent’ danger be as effective as giving it protection which will help to avoid the danger in the first place?
Link has sent an open letter to the Review Group setting out their members’ “numerous serious concerns”. These include the possible revival of persecution of species such as adders, pine martens and mountain hares, the biosecurity risks of enabling previously illegal trade in wild-caught species such as butterflies and amphibians, the fact that IUCN itself says that its red lists are inappropriate in this context, and that the changes limit action to reacting to, rather than helping prevent “catastrophic species decline”.
Political neglect of nature
Joan Edwards of The Wildlife Trusts says “In the year that the UK is hosting COP26 it is unthinkable that we are stripping away protections from wildlife. Along with other conservation NGOs (we) are calling for a public consultation on the decision”.
It is easy to think and act as if the natural and human worlds are separate entities. They are not, they are inextricably linked. We neglect and damage nature at our own peril. Addressing the issues is as urgent as dealing with the climate crisis, indeed protecting and enhancing nature is one of the tools to use for this. But while the climate moves up the political agenda nature is moving down.