Nature needs to be taken seriously - protecting our wild places is not an optional add-on

The countryside, and its wildlife, makes us happier, healthier, nicer, calmer – so why won't politicians act to protect it?
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The Independent Online

"It's exciting to have a real crisis on your hands when you have spent half your political life dealing with humdrum things like the environment." This was Margaret Thatcher at the outbreak of the Falklands War, and it shows what we're up against when we try to get political commitment on such humdrum, trivial matters as the death of nature and the end of the world.

But you have to keep trying, in the belief that there will come a time when questions about the future of the planet, and the world we leave for our great-grandchildren, will have some kind of relevance to politicians. It's possible – just possible – that last week's Conference for Nature will help in the process of shunting conservation up the political agenda.

The tone was set by Sir David Attenborough; who else? It was attended by Nick Clegg, Germaine Greer, and others from business, politics, utilities and conservation. There was backing for the idea of a Nature Bill, or call that a Nature and Wellbeing Act if you like. The Lib Dems are planning to commit to such an Act in their manifesto. This follows last year's remarkable audit of the UK's wildlife, the State of Nature report: what emerged from it was more shocking than any vague feeling that things aren't quite as they should be.

The report revealed in hard figures that 60 per cent of all non-human species in the UK are in decline: and that a tenth of all species is in danger of extinction in this country. In other words, we are running out of nature – and if we think that matters, there is a good deal of urgency about the business.

Last week, I was on a boat with the Wildlife Trusts off the north coast of Cornwall looking for dolphins; a fly-past of several hundred Manx shearwaters performed a ballet just above the wave tips. This is a rich and valuable chunk of sea, and it was proposed last year as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). It didn't make the cut.

The Government spent £8m on a consultation that produced a list of 127 marine sites worthy of protection. Of these only 27 became MCZs. As an illustration of the way that governments deal with nature, it was a classic: mixing tokenism, contempt and the expedient with platitudinous self-applause.

Thirty-seven more sites are due for consultation next year, including the part I was on near Newquay. That's good but the whole business lacks urgency, and urgency is exactly what is required. It's like pushing a peanut up Parliament Hill with your nose – a simple task made unnecessarily difficult. Last week, Medway Council gave planning permission for 5,000 houses to be built on one of the most important wildlife sites in the country: it will be destruction on a scale not seen for 20 years, obliterating grassland and ancient woodland, and shattering a population of nightingales, a bird in steep decline in this country. Once again, the message is: nature is expendable.

The proposed Nature Bill is full of important ideas involving commitment, specific targets for recovery, mandatory requirements to consider nature in decision-making, support for threatened species, ways to allow everybody – children especially – to have more and better contact with nature, and the inclusion of care for the natural environment in the curriculum.

But in a way these don't really matter. It is not about details but principle. It's about greater commitment to nature in national and political life. If that can be established, better things will follow. We must get rid of the idea that nature is trivial, peripheral, disposable, humdrum, politically uninteresting and nothing to do with me.

Nature is as central as the stuff we breathe and drink. Attenborough said: "From the food we eat to the popular bedtime stories we read our children, nature touches everyone's lives more deeply than we can possibly imagine."

Two wildlife issues have caught the public's imagination in recent months. One is the illegal shooting of birds of prey, which has taken place within national parks and, on occasions, on land owned by the National Trust. This has inspired a good deal of healthy anger: whose countryside is it anyway?

The second is the falling numbers of bees and the decline of other pollinators, which a YouGov poll found was the environmental issue that most worried respondents. The loss of pollinators touches us at an atavistic level: it's obvious that things can't be right, obvious that we need to do something, obvious that, as we destroy the natural world, we destroy ourselves.

But there are also positive reasons for looking after nature. Thousands of pieces of research have demonstrated what we knew all along: that we are happier, more peaceful and healthier when we have access to the natural world. Walking in the country is the nation's most popular leisure activity. On a nice weekend, we flock to nature as bees (if there are any) to blossom: to pub gardens, golf courses, the seaside, parks, rivers, lakes and woods.

We heal faster with nature, we work better with nature, we are nicer to each other with nature, we feel happier with nature. Nowadays we call this basic truth of life wellness or wellbeing, and speak of it as a human right. And yet we are losing the stuff that makes it possible.

The great conservationist Gerald Durrell said: "The world is as delicate as a spider's web. If you touch a thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads. We are not just touching it, we are tearing great holes in it." It's time this truth was recognised by the people we elect to govern us.

There is no great dichotomy here. It's not people on one side and nature on the other. We humans are part of nature. We can't be separated from it. Destroy nature and we destroy what makes life worth living and we also destroy ourselves. So perhaps it's time we started to take it seriously.