Conservation action plan 'will lead the world'

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Britain will next month launch an action plan for saving its own threatened species and habitats. Drawn up by government and voluntary conservation groups, the draft strategy will be presented as a model for the rest of the world.

There will be individual plans for safeguarding 114 plant and animal species and 14 different types of habitat, all declining or at dangerously low levels.

For each species and habitat the plan will set out its present status, how it can be maintained or increased and what it will cost. Funding the total programme would require at least pounds 100m a year but some of this money is already being spent,and about half of its comes from voluntary conservation groups.

Graham Wynne, director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "It's a draft strategy which John Gummer [the Secretary of State of the Environment] deserves credit for supporting. Now we'll have to see if the entire Government can deliver."

The action plans cover popular threatened species found across continents, like the European otter, but there are several obscure ones unique to Britain. On the islet of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel, is a species of wild cabbage which only grows there. On it lives a beetle species which is in turn unique to that cabbage.

Including both makes the point that humanity should at least try to avoid wiping out any species through its own population growth and economic development, rather than devoting all efforts to charismatic species like the tiger.

The UK list includes 10 mammal species, nine birds, three reptiles and amphibians, four fish, 30 insects, 15 other invertebrates, 20 flowering plants and 25 lower plants including ferns and mosses. Many are unique to Britain.

Among the birds is the skylark, which still numbers hundreds of thousands but has undergone a precipitous decline due to the spread of modern farming methods.

The shorter habitats list includes the Caledonian pine woods of Scotland, lowland heaths of the kind which once covered much of southern England, and fens. There is a target to increase heathland area by 23 square miles.

Drawing up the strategy has taken nearly two years, and involved the RSPB, the network of county wildlife trusts and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Also taking part are small voluntary groups like Plantlife and Butterfly Conservation.

The UK is one of more than 100 nations which have ratified the UN Biodiversity treaty, signed at the Earth Summit in Brazil three years ago. The strategy is Britain's way of implementing the treaty. "It's important that rich countries should give a lead to the developing nations on conservation," Mr Wynne said. "If the Government acts on this the UK will be giving very positive signals for others to follow."

Most developing countries have much greater biodiversity - variety and numbers of species - but face greater problems in conserving it. A combination of poverty and rapid population growth mean natural habitats are rapidly being destroyed along with tens of thousands of species.

The only way of saving them is to protect large areas of habitat and it is now recognised people living around them must be given an incentive to join the protection effort.