Nature at the Crossroads

Introduction

Well, maybe more at Spaghetti Junction than at a crossroads. Even though nature is always in a state of turmoil, and has become very resilient as a result, the bad news continues to pile up. Report after report catalogues ‘unprecedented’ losses, especially of insects. (As I write this the first blizzards of blossom are appearing, but I have not yet seen a bumblebee.) If there is a wildlife apocalypse its four horsemen seem to be climate change, pollution, habitat loss and urban development. (Other runners and riders are available.)

Things may go in several directions. Positive changes are taking place in the developed world regarding chemical use. For example in both France and parts of Germany proprietary weed killers are now banned for domestic and municipal use, and Germany has set up a budget of 100M Euros a year for insect protection. In many places there are continuing efforts to phase out neonicotinoids. The downside of this is that as substances like glyphosate and paraquat are prohibited here their manufacturers cynically increase their sales elsewhere. A factory in England is still making and exporting about 20,000 tons of paraquat every year.1

Liquid chemicals sprayed onto crops: England continues to produce and profit from sales of harmful herbicides. Photo credit: Esemelwe, Getty Images.

The most unlikely overall scenario is that governments, including our own, will see the light and change their attitude to nature by enacting strong protection laws, including completely banning the use of demonstrably harmful chemicals, properly protecting the most vulnerable and valuable sites and species, and strengthening and reviving their own agencies, such as Natural England and the Environment Agency (see below). The Government could also move nature up the agenda by making it the responsibility of a senior, rather than a junior minister. Currently it is in the remit for one of Defra’s Parliamentary Under Secretaries of State: it should at least be in the Minister of State’s portfolio, or better still in that of the Secretary of State.

It’s a safe assumption though that this will not happen. Such thinking is at a premium in normal times, but the rise in energy prices, Covid, and the war in Ukraine, are dominating the political and economic agendas. A piece of good news may be that the huge financial losses incurred by major nature conservation bodies because of Covid, seems not to have had as much impact as might be expected. So far as I can tell their businesses are carrying on as normal.

The regulatory agencies

Would that ‘Carrying on as normal’ was the case for the Environment Agency. Its environmental protection budget has fallen from £170M 12 years ago to £94M in 2021. If tackled about this the Government would no doubt say that things have got better, as in 2019 it was only £76M! One of the effects of this is that prosecutions have fallen by as much as 80%, and of 116,000 pollution reports last year only 8,000 were investigated. It is also reported that staff have been threatened with losing their jobs if they reveal the Agency’s inadequacies and alleged failures, and that senior managers have instructed them to focus on income-generating activities.2 Given these factors, when pollution incidents occur what are the chances of engaging the Environment Agency as the regulatory body?

We do though have a new player in such matters. The Environment Act finally became law last year and one of its provisions was the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection. According to its website it ‘ …is a new public body. We were legally created in November 2021, under the Environment Act 2021. Our mission is to protect and improve the environment by holding government and other public authorities to account.’ To do so it will exercise its powers and duties in four main areas:

  • Scrutiny of environmental improvement plans and policies
  • Scrutiny of environmental law
  • Advising the Government on environmental law
  • Enforcing against failures to comply with environmental law.

All very bureaucratic, and three of the four categories above will have at best only an indirect impact on the state of nature. Time will tell whether it turns out to be a toothless tiger, mired in obfuscation and prevarication, a classic ‘Sir Humphrey’ non-solution, or a fearless champion for nature and critic of government and its agencies. Perhaps it is more Kafkaesque than comic. It will though divert human and financial resources badly needed elsewhere.

New opportunities

Also on the plus side, there are a range of other initiatives and programmes coming on stream. The farming world is in the midst of fundamental changes to the agricultural support system, as UK schemes replace those of the Common Agricultural Policy. Three will come under the umbrella of the Environmental Land Management Scheme: the Sustainable Farming Incentive, the Local Nature Recovery Scheme, and the Landscape Recovery Scheme (which will include 15 rewilding projects). In addition Countryside Stewardship will continue for another two years. It is reported though that the schemes are not meeting with much approval from farmers; true to form they are saying that the payments are too low, and details of the schemes are still unclear. They are also concerned at the loss of the Basic Farm Payment in 2028. As with previous support systems there is a fear that owners of large landholdings will benefit most, leading to further losses of small farms.2

The River Itchen: One theme the Local Nature Recovery Scheme will focus on is restoring England’s streams and rivers. Photo credit: Andrew Parkinson, WWF-UK.

Talking of landscapes, a consultation is taking place to develop policies for, and future work in, protected areas (National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Proposals include closer working between the two groups, nature recovery becoming a core purpose, and greater input from Natural England.

As for more urban areas, from next year ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ will be necessary for all new developments, apart from those proposed by householders. The new regulations will require developers to provide a net gain for wildlife and its habitats of 10% in addition to the losses occasioned by the development concerned. That gain can be made on- or off-site. There is a lot of discussion going on about exactly how to measure this, and whether or not this system can be truly effective and not just another piece of greenwash. A consultation on the details is going on now. One piece of really good news in relation to this is that money is being made available for the employment of local authority ecologists. Thirty or so years ago there were plenty of these, but their numbers have been in decline for a long time.

That new funding is rare in all of this. Plans and good ideas are all very well, but without commitments to resource them they cannot achieve their goals. As things stand we are likely to see the number of good intentions growing whilst nature continues to decline.

When all else fails, plant some trees

One other thing is going on apace – tree planting. I have lost count of the number of tree planting projects. It sometimes seems to me that it may be a classic example of the old adage that ‘for every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it’s always wrong’. Tree planting has the advantages that lots of people can participate, it provides instant make-overs of the sites concerned, and it is relatively cheap. The disadvantages include the danger of the wrong trees being planted in the wrong places, valuable habitat being destroyed, and scarce resources being diverted from what may be more valuable and effective activities. Nobody seems to realise that if we just provide the right conditions trees are very good at planting themselves. But we do seem to have a passion for it.

So, is all this the equivalent of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, a genuine step forward in difficult times, or business as usual disguised as a new dawn? I’m not at all sure, but nature does seem to be surrounded by more options than a driver on Spaghetti Junction.

References

Feature image: James Wheeler from Pexels

1 Silent Earth, Dave Goulson, Vintage Books 2022

2 British Wildlife Vol. 11 No. 4

Cite:

Shirley, Peter “Nature at the Crossroads” ECOS vol. 2022, , British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/nature-at-the-crossroads/.

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