Heartbreaking – we must all act, now!

Red damselflyYesterday, 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.

Green-veined white butterflyThe 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 A White Bluebellto 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.

A small spiderState 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.

Nature at the Centre

Nature conservation.  We all (well most of us, anyway) think it is a good idea.  Making sure that nature is preserved, conserved and kept in good condition for the next generation.  Except, of course, despite decades of dedicated work, nature is not being conserved.  It is shrinking.  That is not to decry the efforts of those involved in conservation work – I am sure the situation would be a lot worse if we had done nothing – but it simply isn’t holding back the tide of human influence on the landscape and on the species that live there.
There are some species that are doing well, particularly those that are adaptable and can live with humans in towns and cities.  But mostly, numbers are falling, particularly of specialist species that need a habitat that has taken thousands of years to develop – woodland butterflies, woodland birds, farmland birds, grassland flowers and plants, whole hosts of other insects and the creatures that feed upon them, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, fungi.  Nature conservation feels like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a leaky bucket.
The problem is, nature conservation is seen as something that you do on nature reserves.  But these will never be enough.  They are too diverse, too scattered, not connected to each other, and much, much too small.  And vulnerable.  Nature cannot be preserved by keeping it limited to special areas.
Whenever I travel about, I very much get the feeling that human activity is only borrowing land from nature – the trees, bushes, grassland, shrubs, flowers, hedgerows and other habitats are sitting there, just waiting to reclaim what we have borrowed from them.  Occasionally, you come across an old building, completely overgrown with trees, flowers and plants, providing homes for foxes, rabbits, birds and insects.  Very frequently, it seems these buildings have been occupied until quite recently.  We are only borrowing from nature, and borrowing for a short while.  Nature has the power to take things back.
What we cannot do is borrow too much, in the wrong places.  We need to recognise that we are borrowing, not taking, or dominating, or controlling.  Nature needs to be put at the centre of everything we do, not shifted out to the fringes, where we grudgingly make space for it.  It needs to be seen as a benefit for everybody, not a cost, not a regrettable overhead, not an unnecessary expense, not a drag on business and a brake on development.  Putting nature at the centre means that everybody, in their daily lives, and in their businesses, need to think what they can do to make their lives friendly for nature.  And the thing is, it doesn’t need to cost much, or anything at all.  Even taking a human-centred view, there is plenty of research showing that a pleasant working environment, and an environment full of greenery and trees and plants, results in less sickness, better staff morale and better productivity.

We need to see development, such as houses and businesses, as fitting in around nature and not the other way round.  They also need to be fitted in in the best way possible, and where damage needs to be offset, this needs to be high quality habitat, provided in the right place, preferably locally, and result in a net gain, and improvements in connectivity of habitats, so people can enjoy the benefits if they have paid the price of habitat being lost.  And no habitat that is irreplaceable should be lost.
Ambitious targets for conservation will not be met without a fundamental shift in thinking.  We fit in around nature, not nature around us.  If nature is not put at the centre, then nature conservation efforts will repeatedly fail, and will habitat loss will turn into a rout.  We will continue to bail out the sinking ship with a leaky bucket.  Nature at the centre of all we do.  It is the only way to stem the tide.