Leading article: How to safeguard our natural heritage

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The Independent Online

As any walker will know, it is often necessary to climb to higher ground to get a true impression of the lie of the land. The same applies in the field of conservation. We can chart the decline or resurgence of a single species of insect, or wildflower, in exhaustive detail, but it is not until we examine such trends in relation to each other that the bigger picture comes into focus. Natural England has sought the higher ground with its first comprehensive survey of plant and wildlife in England. And the snapshot it has taken of the English countryside should alarm us all.

By drawing together a wide range of research and evidence, the Government's conservation agency has found that the natural environment is far less rich than it was half a century ago. There has been a marked decline in the population of adders, bumblebees, farmland birds and grassland flowers. Woodland butterflies have declined by 50 per cent. There have also been substantial decreases in the population of wading birds on unprotected grasslands. Moreover, pressure on the environment is building. Natural habitats across England, from salt marshes to grasslands, are deteriorating. As is the case around the world, the major threats to our natural environment are climate change and economic development.

This report is not a counsel for despair. It argues that where targeted conservation measures have been implemented, they have made a difference. For instance, the long-term decline in many farmland birds is slowing, thanks to more environmentally-friendly farming. The report notes that species such as the red kite have been successfully re-introduced. And the designation of "sites of special scientific interest" has improved the biodiversity of several habitats.

Natural England proposes reconnecting fragmented wildlife-rich areas through the creation of "wildlife superhighways". Among the other suggestions are a new national park around the length of England's coastline and improved use of public funding for farmers to deliver a better natural environment. The last idea is actually already in progress thanks to reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which has undermined the link between production and subsidy. But Natural England is right to argue that this process needs to happen a good deal faster.

There is also a strong message here for ministers, as they step up the pressure for the creation of a host of "eco-towns". There is a social case for new developments to ease the chronic shortage of housing supply in the south of the country. But these towns must be truly environmentally-friendly. Any developer who has merely dusted off an old proposal for a dormitory town, while lazily adding on a few token "environmental" features, must be given short shrift. Any hint of "greenwash" must be rejected. These communities need to be truly sustainable and sensitive to the surrounding natural environment.

Another impressive aspect of this report is that it has resisted a knee-jerk opposition to all future development. Natural England is aware of the need to balance immediate environment concerns with the longer-term imperative to boost England's renewable energy production. To this end, it helpfully intends to identify suitable locations for onshore wind farms.

The report's proposal for a "landscape-scale" approach to conservation and development is sensible. Instead of fighting individual conservation battles, we need to take a more holistic approach. Care for the natural environment should be a determining factor in all building projects, from wind farms to eco-towns. If we are to preserve our natural heritage, we need to change our perspective.