Peter Marren: Our wildlife needs a voice

Radical groups such as Greenpeace have a lot to say about carbon cuts but little on the problems of butterflies or bees

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Nature in Britain needs a voice. We are in the midst of a public debate over the relaxation of the planning laws, with the National Trust up in arms and every Nimby in the land preparing for a fight over the prospect of the countryside being concreted over in a new development free-for-all. But we have heard hardly anything about how that might affect the 40,000-odd species of wild creatures, plants and insects that must find ways of sharing our living space. How will they cope when the "sustainable" developments proposed by the Planning minister, Greg Clark, get the nod in the National Parks, the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Green Belts?

If birds and butterflies could speak, they would tell you they have had a lousy year. Government biodiversity targets have done little to help farmland birds such as yellowhammers and corn buntings, whose numbers are steadily plummeting. And if life is hard for birds, it will be harder still for spiders, bugs, snails and hundreds of other creepy-crawlies rarely mentioned in government statistics.

The body that is supposed to stick up for English wildlife is the aptly named Natural England (NE). Unfortunately this Government has ruled that NE is no longer allowed to hold independent views or policies. Besides, its budget has been cut to the bone. So Natural England is most unlikely to say anything that might annoy its paymasters. With next to no public debate, our wildlife watchdog has morphed into a pathetic delivery boy, charged with attending to "customer focus". This leaves England without a wildlife watchdog worthy of the name for the first time since 1949. You might say – and this Government certainly would – that the Big Society can perform the job just as well. There are dozens of wildlife groups, big and small, ranging from the RSPB and the county wildlife trusts, to small, specialist bodies such as Plantlife and Butterfly Conservation. Surely they will bark, even if Natural England cannot?

They can, but so far they have rarely done so. Take the great forest sell-off last winter. Not one of them leapt to the defence of the public forest estate, and the impression you got was that they were looking forward to getting their hands on some of the loot. Jonathan Porritt characterised their tongue-tied stance as a "massive failure of collective leadership". They were made to look irrelevant.

You might at least have thought that the Wildlife Trusts or the RSPB would have had something to say about the emasculation of Natural England. Yet their objections, conveyed via Wildlife & Countryside Link, a UN-like umbrella body, focused mainly on budget cuts, and the fact that our official wildlife advisory body is no longer allowed to advise seemed be much less of an issue.

Why don't they bark? There are a number of reasons. The climate change agenda has captured the more radical groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who have a lot to say about carbon cuts, energy efficiency, and the management of waste, but increasingly little on the problems faced by birds or butterflies or bumblebees, or on damaging developments in the English countryside. Meanwhile, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and, to a lesser extent, the prosperous and powerful RSPB have become more international in outlook. There have been more Google hits for the exotic and endangered spoon-billed sandpiper from Asia than for any threatened British creature. The Wildlife Trusts have the opposite preoccupation: as the bodies that represent county or regional wildlife interests, their outlook tends to be parochial and member-focused. They succeed in being rather less than the sum of their parts.

Moreover, many wildlife bodies have grown used to working with Government as partners. But partnership has a catch. Partners do not like to rat on one another, and especially not when one partner happens to fund the other. Perhaps it is this thought that makes them hesitate, and, in PG Wodehouse's phrase, "cough once or twice, before deciding not to say it after all".

The result is that, at a time when green issues are at the forefront of everyone's lives, we have somehow managed to overlook the greenest issue of all – wildlife. The truth behind the Government's rhetoric about "enhancing biodiversity" is that our biodiversity is doing very badly. In its State of the Environment Report in 2008, little read and soon forgotten, Natural England drew attention to wholesale losses right across the environmental board from peat bogs and limestone grassland to legions of neglected insects, mosses, fungi and pond life, all slowly slipping away.

The problem with placing human enjoyment at the heart of wildlife policymaking is that 90 per cent of wild species could die out tomorrow and no one would notice. We like to see bumblebees in our gardens, but how much does it matter that there are now three kinds where once there would have been 12? We need to separate biodiversity from "quality of life" issues and reassert the moral right of all species to live on the same soil as ourselves.

We need a new focus on wildlife. We need an independent voice, led by a powerful and knowledgable personality who can speak up for wildlife. And not just for ourselves and our own survival, but for the thousands of wild species which might not survive for much longer.

Peter Marren is the author of 'Nature Conservation', published by Collins

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