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Precious nature: Snakeshead fritillaries and dandelions on North Meadow, Cricklade - an uncultivated water meadow of 110 acres that contains 80% of the UK population of the Snakeshead Fritillary. Photo: Nick Warner via Flickr.
Precious nature: Snakeshead fritillaries and dandelions on North Meadow, Cricklade - an uncultivated water meadow of 110 acres that contains 80% of the UK population of the Snakeshead Fritillary. Photo: Nick Warner via Flickr.
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Rallying for wildlife - we need a Nature and Wellbeing Act

Martin Harper / RSPB

9th December 2014

MPs will be lobbied today by wildlife supporters desperately concerned at the declining state of Britain's nature, writes Martin Harper. Despite clear warnings that both 'protected' sites and threatened species are faring badly, politicians find it all too easy to look the other way. Hence the need for a Nature and Wellbeing Act.

I do not see the same energy being invested in tackling the ecological deficit as is the case with the economic deficit. This needs to change!

400 people who love and care about wildlife are (with a squirrel called Bob) taking part in a rally in London today.

They will come from all parts of England and will visit the House of Commons to urge their MP to include strong commitments to nature in their 2015 election manifestos.

The event is being organised by the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, the League Against Cruel Sports (90 years old this year - happy birthday!), and my predecessor, Dr Mark Avery. It is also supported by Butterfly Conservation, the Mammal Society and the Ramblers.

I'm looking forward to it. I expect it's going to be cold, but I am sure that won't stop folk using their voice for nature. The call for action is compelling ...

The declining state of Britain's nature

Last week's Defra biodiversity indicators report showed that nearly two-thirds of England's finest wildlife sites are not in favourable condition. There has been a decline in the area of these sites in favourable condition from 44% in 2003 to 37.5% in April 2014.

The trend since 2010 does not look too rosy and the Government's target of reaching 50% in favourable condition by 2020 looks a long way off.

The State of Nature report, published in 2013, showed that 60% of species (for which we have trend data) have declined in my lifetime and one in ten UK species is at risk of extinction. And if the dramatic cuts in public spending heralded by the Chancellor's announcements last week fall in the wrong place it could be at the cost of nature. 

Unless the value of nature is fully accounted in decision-making, we fear the situation will become even worse. The prominence of housing and infrastructure development in the Chancellor's autumn statement risks casting a long shadow over the future of many of our finest wildlife sites.

These include Lodge Hill (here) in Kent, where housing threatens to destroy the only protected site for nightingales in the UK.

Politicians must take our ecological deficit seriously

The threats are real and challenging: habitat destruction, over-exploitation, pollution (especially climate change) and the invasive non-native species. These are being driven by a growing population, consuming more and a failure of the economic system to capture the value of nature in decision-making.

Despite the growing evidence of the link between a healthy environment and our own prosperity, politicians seem increasingly preoccupied by other factors that might affect our economy.

I do not see the same energy being invested in tackling the ecological deficit as is the case with the economic deficit. We are in danger of passing on our natural environment to our children in a depleted state. This needs to change which is why people have taken to the streets outside Westminster.

We have made it simple for our politicians and have come up with three priorities. We want action to protect and restore wildlife - and here's how.

1. Celebrate and defend the wildlife laws we have

We must fight any weakening or dilution of the laws we have, such as the EU Birds and Habitats Directives which provide the foundation for nature conservation in this country.

In September 2014, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asked new Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to consider merging the two directives into a modern piece of legislation.

The context of this announcement was an aggressively deregulatory and pro-growth agenda and therefore it is clear that 'merge' is code for 'weaken'. This would be a disaster for nature conservation ambitions in this country and across Europe.

The Directives were established on the principle that no Member State should gain competitive advantage by trashing their environment. And this principle is respected by many businesses today. For example, Cemex, a global cement company recently said in defence of the directive

"These create a level playing field, and give our stakeholders confidence that we are operating to high standards."

Despite what some may think, they do not act as a block to development. The 2012 Defra review of the Habitat Regulations designed to implement the directives in England showed that the main problems facing developers was a failure of implementation.

And, most importantly for any politician that wants to help nature, they work: research conducted by RSPB scientist showed that the Birds Directive has successfully protected those species considered to be at most risk and in need of most urgent protection across the EU - and has made a significant difference in protecting many of Europe's birds from further decline.

2. Fully implement the laws - and clamp down on wildlife crime!

We must demand that the law as it is is fully implemented, ending wildlife crime so that threatened species like the hen harrier are able to fly free from harm.

This year's Birdcrime report documented 164 incidents of shooting and destruction of birds of prey. We believe that these published figures represent only a fraction of the total number of incidents, as many crimes remain undetected and unreported, particularly those that occur in remote areas.

The hen harrier population, in particular, continues to reflect this persecution. In 2013, there were no successful breeding pairs left in England despite there being enough habitat to support over 300 breeding pairs.

We need politicians to wake up to the fact that without action, this bird could be lost from the English countryside. And action must start with cracking down on illegal killing.

3. A Nature & Wellbeing Act

We need a secure legal underpinning nature's recovery by establishing a Nature and Wellbeing Act to mainstream nature in decision making, to establish long-term targets and powers to help meet them.

Defra's biodiversity indicators are a timely reminder that we cannot rely on good will and an ever-dwindling pot of money to restore nature. We hope our proposed legislation will drive nature's recovery in the same way that the Climate Change Act (2008) has begun to systematically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.

We know that action cannot be achieved by governments alone. Real change will also come from changes from other parts of society especially from developers, farmers, the grouse shooting community and other land managers.

But despite the state of the nation's finances, government can still and must play its part. And that's why people are coming to London to see their elected representatives. Thousands of people that are unable to attend have already written to their MP to urge them to take action for wildlife.

Civil society is united in its desire for a more positive relationship between people and wildlife.

We want 2015 to be the year that we take nature seriously and we expect politicians to recognise that in their election manifestos.



Support our Act for Nature campaign, asking your MP to back the Nature & Wellbeing Act.

Martin Harper is Conservation Director of RSPB. He blogs on the RSPB website, where this article was first published.


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