ECOS 40(5): Gloom & doom, but room for optimism?

State of Nature 2019 Report UK Cover

State of Nature report 2019

Would it not be wonderful if Britain was indeed a state of nature? Alas, according to the 2019 State of Nature report, of that name it certainly is not. Using data from more than 50 nature conservation and research organisations, its 100 plus pages provide a mind-boggling array of figures, graphs and tables on more than 7,500 species of plants and animals. It traces their abundance and distribution over the last 50 years, with a focus on the last 10.

Cause for alarm, or nature’s ebb and flow?

One of the key findings is that our wildlife is experiencing significant change – over the last ten years about 40% of species have declined whilst about 30% have increased. The 50 year perspective shows a smaller overall decline. Broadly speaking it is the generalists that are doing well and the specialists that are in decline, but is this not the constant give and take of evolution? It is said that one in six of the species studied seems to be in danger of extinction here,

Unlike the world in general wildlife seems to have five apocalyptic horsemen. They are climate change, pollution, intensive agriculture, urbanisation and invasive non-native species. Farming methods are particularly crucial: in England nearly three quarters of the land (23 million acres) is farmed, so the ways in which our food is produced affects a huge number of species. The National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters tried to put a brave face on things when she said “Farmers have provided 24,700 acres of wildflower habitat, 86,000 acres of other habitats and 116,000 acres of buffer strips”. Whilst welcome, that comes to less than one per cent of farmland.

A baseline optimum for British nature?

Farming per se is not the problem of course. Whilst preparing this piece I have been reading Mark Cocker’s book Our Place (reviewed in this edition). In it he quotes the late Colin Tubbs, the renowned ecologist based in the New Forest, as saying that in Hampshire biodiversity reached its peak in the middle of the eighteenth Century, after several millennia of farming. This probably holds true for most of the country. Traditional farming certainly gave us an abundance of skylarks.

Misery abounds

Most reports about the State of Nature 2019 report carried lurid headlines, such as this in the Guardian: “Populations of UK’s Most Important Wildlife Have Plummeted Since 1970”. This rather begs the question of who decides what is our ‘most important wildlife’ and infers that it is mainly the species in decline. It also overlooks the fact that those declines have accelerated over the last 10 years. Curiously the Guardian report also suggests that the black rat is one of the species “most at risk”.

CBBC’s Newsround which, bear in mind, is targeted at children, seemed to only carry the bad news in the report. Country Life magazine had “Britain’s biodiversity is dying out, the picture emerging is dire”. Nicki Williams, Director of Campaigns and Policy for the Wildlife Trusts actually talked of “urban jungles”. As someone who used to lead walks called urban safaris this sounded like a good thing to me, but I don’t think it was meant that way.

Leveling the debate

If you read the copy though a more balanced view emerges more closely aligned to the report. For example, the Wildlife Trusts also said that “We know more about the UK’s wildlife than any other country”. The BTO said “Human impacts are driving sweeping changes in wildlife in the UK”. This is less dramatic because, of course, some of those changes are beneficial. Other people quoted pointed out some of the gains and progress being made, although I found no headlines saying “Over the last 50 years 70% of species are stable or increasing”. That gives an entirely different perspective but could be justified from the report.

For me the most measured and informative commentary is that by David Noble, Head and Principal Ecologist at the BTO. I recommend it as essential reading in order to properly understand the situation with the historical land-use context, other factors and various trends to weigh up.

That there are gains is thanks to the efforts of many people and nature conservation organisations. Iconic species such as otters, ospreys, red kites, and pine martens are recovering after being on the brink of extinction here, improved wetlands have brought egrets back, and beavers seem to be everybody’s best friend now. Tree cover is increasing and, although not on a sufficient scale, the Government and others are committed to sustaining this increase. It should be remembered that quality is as important as quantity. Too many trees in the wrong places would only add to the problems.

The problem is that all this good work is mainly addressing the symptoms, not the causes, of the declines. In 2017-18 public expenditure on nature-related activity was £456m, down just over 40% from its peak 10 years earlier, and voluntary sector expenditure was £239m, up by a quarter since 2010-11. That may seem a lot but, set against the unquantifiable and overwhelming forces arraigned against nature, it is insignificant. Until we have the political will to put the natural world at the centre of policy making, and adapt economic and social activities and expenditure accordingly, the declines will no doubt continue. But will Britain’s biodiversity die out? I doubt it.

Footnote. I have deliberately not mentioned marine matters, they are for others to comment upon. Nor have I dealt with the separate figures for the separate countries of the UK and Britain’s overseas territories and crown dependencies contained within the report. Older readers may remember BANC’s publication about the latter Fragments of Paradise.

Cite:

Shirley, Peter “ECOS 40(5): Gloom & doom, but room for optimism?” ECOS vol. 40(5), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-405-gloom-doom-but-room-for-optimism/.

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