Britain on 'tortuous' road to save flora and fauna

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

An environmental steering group has set the Government a tough challenge to rescue 116 rapidly declining or very rare wildlife species and 14 threatened habitats, at a cost approaching pounds 40m a year.

The report, published today, contains a lengthy set of costed rescue plans, drawn up by civil servants from the Department of the Environment, together with university experts, government agencies, and wildlife conservation bodies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The group claims that the document makes Britain the first country in the world to prepare such detailed plans for preserving its biodiversity in the variety of flora and fauna. The Government has promised to respond to the document in the spring, declaring how many of the plans it is willing to fund.

By 2010, about pounds 37m a yearwill have to be spent if the various habitats, which include native pine woodlands and saline lagoons, are to be preserved, the report says.

It also points out that Britain has already lost some 100 species this century, includingmore than 2 per cent of its fish and mammals, and 5 per cent of its butterflies.

Nine mammals - including the otter, the dormouse, and nine birds - are listed as being in need of support, along with one reptile (the sand lizard), two amphibians (the natterjack toad and great crested newt) and four freshwater fish. Insects and other invertebrates, such as the medicinal leech, are also on the list, as are flowering and other types of plants.

The varied species were chosen for one of four reasons; they are very rare, their numbers have fallen rapidly in recent times, they are unique to these islands, or Britain harbours a large proportion of the total global population.

One species of bird, the song thrush, numbers more than 1 million, but it was placed on the list because of its rapid decline over the past 20 years. It is thought to be a victim of modern farming methods, and is still hunted in France, where some British birds migrate in winter. The action plan calls for a halt to the bird's decline by 2000 by subsidising "green" farming methods, and pressing for a hunting ban in France.

Robin Pellow, WWF's UK director, said that implementing the plans ''will be a long and tortuous road which will require substantial financial commitment from government".