Last week I wrote about how wildlife is in decline globally. One of the reasons for the grim statistics is development in previously untouched areas. As countries develop and populations expand, forests are cleared, swamps are drained, and habitats are lost in the process. Nature is squeezed to the margins. Today we see those processes at work in places like Brazil or Indonesia, making them the front line of the biodiversity crisis.
A glance at the charts in WWF’s Living Planet Report might suggest that it is these rapidly developing countries that have the biggest problem with declining wildlife numbers. That’s true, but the same land use changes happened in Britain too. The Living Planet Index only goes back to 1970, and we cleared our forests centuries ago. As George Monbiot has explained, many of Britain’s most celebrated landscapes are far from natural. They are highly degraded, but the damage happened outside of living memory. Normality has been redefined, and we don’t know what we’re missing.
As we think about global biodiversity, I believe place like Britain have a particular responsibility. It is vital to the climate, and therefore all of humanity, that those with forests keep them. As a country that lost ours long ago, what right do we have to demand action from others if we aren’t working to repair our own landscapes? It would be hypocritical of us to criticise falling diversity elsewhere if ours wasn’t recovering.
So how are we doing on that? To track our own wildlife, we rely on the government’s environmental indicators, and the latest collection for England were published last week. The report covers air and water quality, engagement with nature, and indicators for key species. Populations of birds, bats and butterflies are used to measure overall diversity health across different land types, such as farmland, wetland and woodland.
It’s a mixed bag. Some things are improving: fish stocks are recovering, forest cover is expanding and locking up more carbon. Marine litter has decreased. Other things are not faring so well. There is a list of priority species that are at risk, and those species continue to decline in both abundance and distribution. Farmland and wetland birds are declining, and so are butterfly numbers. Water quality in rivers has deteriorated in the last five years. A lot of indicators remain the same. Of the 24 short-term indicators, ten of them show no change.
In other words, England could be doing better. Given the low base we start from on biodiversity, we ought to be looking for improvement in most areas.
There are two reasons to highlight this now, including this particular report. The first is that the Natural England Environment Indicators are relatively new, brought in by the coalition government in 2012. They started collecting some new figures, such as conservation volunteering and how many children are visiting natural places. These are important measurements, but they’re at a critical point. There’s too little data to reveal trends just yet on some of them, so they won’t really be used much or cited. That could make them vulnerable to budget cuts. Let’s stay the course on this – this stuff matters.
The second reason, more importantly, is that much of our environmental legislation has taken its lead from the EU. As Britain storms out of the EU in a huff, many of our environmental safeguards will have to be drawn up from scratch. That could lead to stronger protection – the common agricultural policy is environmentally illiterate and has been a decades-long disaster for wildlife. That’s a major opportunity to do better. On things like air and water quality, we may have a battle on our hands to uphold the standards the EU held us to.
That makes this a good time to take stock of where we are, and what needs further work. It’s a chance to identify some priorities so that we don’t just maintain our environment, but improve it, restore it, and pass on a more healthy, more diverse natural England than the one we inherited.