Yesterday, a groundbreaking report was published as the result of a collaboration between all the major conservation organisations in the UK, entitled The State of Nature.
It is not a surprise to hear that wildlife in the UK is in a very bad way. Over 60% of species are declining and over 30% are declining rapidly, and over 10% of species are in danger of extinction in the UK. These declines have continued, more-or-less unabated, for the last 50 years and are still going. There are isolated examples where species are bucking the trend because of conservation efforts, or by displaying flexibility over habitats – otters, cirl buntings, bitterns, Adonis blue butterflies – but the trend for the majority of species is inexorable decline. Species that were common when I was younger, such as hedgehogs, small tortoiseshell butterflies and lapwings, are all plummeting. Even those formerly seen as pests, present in abundance, are on the way out – house sparrows and starlings are examples.
What is alarming about this continued decline is that it is taking place in spite of us knowing all about it, in spite of the presence of legislations, regulations and designation of protected areas, and in spite of the efforts of a plethora of conservation organisations.
There are some fundamental problems here: nature is seen as something to fit around the edges of human activity; nature is seen as something that hinders economic growth; nature is seen as having a net cost and thus its preservation is a luxury we can’t afford ; nature is treated with positive rhetoric and negative action.
The fact is that we are fundamentally connected to nature. Nature is part of human life and our experience. It is absolutely essential to the economy and delivers benefits that far outweigh the costs – as outlined in the Government’s own National Ecosystem Assessment that places a high economic value on nature (http://sd.defra.gov.uk/2011/06/national-ecosystem-assessment-synthesis-report/ ) . On the same day that The State of Nature was released, the Government outlined best practice in Payment for Ecosystem Services (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/payments-for-ecosystem-services-pes-best-practice-guide).
Yet we give with one hand and take with the other. The Government commissions reports on woodlands and forests, ecosystems, best practice and the Lawton report Making Space for Nature, and this is good rhetoric. The problem is that it is not being translated into practice. Far from it – it is being undermined by initiatives such as HS2, fracking, updated planning regulations that make it much easier to build on green belt land and much harder to ensure that habitats are protected, and withdrawal of resources from police forces who are struggling to prosecute those who flout existing laws. Opportunities have been lost to extend statutory protection to ancient woodland, to green belt, to implement marine nature reserves. We have biodiversity offsetting looming – a way of ensuring that development can occur on high-quality, irreplaceable habitat simply by putting in a larger area of lower-value habitat elsewhere.
The threats to nature are everywhere, but mainly come from reductions in the area, quality and connectivity of habitats. There are other pressures too, including climate change, use of agricultural chemicals, and changes in patterns of grazing (largely due to economic pressures on farming). These pressures come from trying to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of the smallest amount of land, and ultimately to ensure that large business interests are favoured at the expense of the small, the sustainable, the eco-friendly, the traditional, the high-quality and thoughtful approaches.
Ecosystems are complex. Humans are part of them. What humans are not are masters over ecosystems. Exploit a system to the point of collapse, and it will have unintended consequences and ultimately, if that is your only consideration, it will cost money.
Why are we allowing this to happen? However have we come to this? There is a staggering amount of ignorance, resulting from the disconnection we have from nature. We think it is nice to see pretty birds, but we really aren’t bothered what they are, and feel only a mild twinge when we notice that they aren’t there. We favour conservation of the furry and feathery, but don’t care about the insects, plants, creepies and crawlies upon which our whole ecosystems are built (and the State of Nature report shows larger declines among invertebrates and plants). We think it is nice to have nature reserves and nature parks, but don’t give a thought to the impact we have, every day, every waking hour, in our every action, on the wildlife around us. We have lost the connection, and with it the respect that we should have.
What can we do? What we cannot do any longer is deny responsibility for it. By this I mean personal responsibility, as well as grumbling about what Governments and Corporations do, although this is also important. We all have a responsibility to do all we can to halt this decline. This means changing the way we live and the way we think, and most of all, it means we all need to act both individually in our own houses and gardens and parks, as well as acting to put pressure on Governments, Corporations and Businesses and the EU to change things. Nature must not be seen as something that is in the way, but something that needs to be incorporated into our lives, as a blessing, not a curse.
State of Nature is an indictment of our inaction – conservation organisations work hard, have a little success, but it is not enough. If we want nature to be here, providing the benefits it does for society, then we must start caring for it, all of us, all over, in every part of the country. Blame the Government? Maybe, but we elect the Governments, and are ultimately responsible for the way in which parties draw up policy and must lobby to get these policies changed. We cannot brush this under the carpet. Ultimately, our own survival depends upon it.