‘Nature is in crisis right now’: UK’s biodiversity loss highlighted in ‘damning’ government report

‘It would be great to believe things are getting better, but they aren’t,’ wildlife expert says

Harry Cockburn
Friday 16 October 2020 15:00
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A turtle dove is now a rare sight in the UK. Overall, farmland birds have declined by 55% since 1970
A turtle dove is now a rare sight in the UK. Overall, farmland birds have declined by 55% since 1970

A government report into the action being taken to fight biodiversity loss in the UK paints a grim picture of the natural world and the finances available to restore and preserve ecosystems.

Using 24 key biodiversity indicators, the report found 14 are in long-term decline, including UK habitats of European importance, the abundance and distribution of priority species, farmland and woodland birds, and fish size classes in the North Sea.

The report also reveals just 0.02% of UK GDP now goes towards funding biodiversity after cuts in public sector investment in conservation amounted to a real-terms fall of 33 per cent in just five years.

Dr Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link - an umbrella organisation comprised of institutions including the National Trust, RSPB, the Marine Conservation Society, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth - told The Independent funding cuts had resulted in “relentlessly bad results for habitats and species”.

He said: “There’s a triple funding gap. Cuts have hit Natural England and the Environment Agency hard, leaving them unable to monitor and protect nature.

“There is a spending hiatus between now and 2024, while we wait for policies like new farming funding to come onstream. At the same time, coronavirus has seriously affected environmental charities, causing projects to be paused or cancelled.

“To begin to turn round these relentlessly bad results for habitats and species will require serious investment in the order of £1 billion additional funding each year in the spending review.

“The bright side is that the investment and regulation needed can go hand in hand with a green recovery. Investing in nature can create thousands of jobs, save billions of pounds in healthcare spending, and make our economy more resilient at the same time as restoring nature. The Spending Review will reveal whether the government has joined the dots.”

The collapse in financial support for biodiversity in the UK comes despite the government report stating: “Biodiversity matters because it supports the vital benefits humans get from the natural environment. It contributes to the economy, health and wellbeing, and it enriches our lives.”

Professor Richard Gregory, head of monitoring conservation science at the RSPB, told The Independent the report reveals “real decline”, and said the lack of investment was “shocking”.

He said: “The shockwaves of Covid-19 have reminded us of the precious relationship between people and nature – and arguably our interest in nature around us has never been so great. Yet the latest government statistics show that nature is in real decline and the UK is on course to miss most of its biodiversity targets.

“It would be great to believe things are getting better, but they aren’t. The farmland bird index has fallen by 55 per cent since 1970 and is down 6 per cent in the last five years. The woodland bird index is down 29 per cent since 1970 and has fallen by 8 per cent in the last five years. The priority species index is down 36 per cent from 1970 and is down 7 per cent in the last five years. The pollinator index is down 30 per cent compared to a baseline in 1980 and has fallen by 2 per cent in the last five years, and so it goes on.

“Nature is in crisis in the UK now.”

He called on the government to address the fall in investment, and to back up its rehtoric on nature by legislating for legally binding targets which must be hit.

He said: “Perhaps most damningly, the new report shows that public sector investment in biodiversity conservation has fallen by 33 per cent in the last five years. That is shocking and a big part of the problem.

“We need a bold plan for nature recovery and bold ambitions and targets to be put in legislation. We need to turn warm words and pledges into well-funded actions for nature and climate at the same time. This is why the RSPB’s campaign Revive our World is calling for legally binding targets to restore nature by 2030 and for a green recovery from the pandemic across the UK.”

The report highlights that only a small proportion of people are engaging with the loss of habitats and species in the UK, with just 11 per cent of people surveyed saying they were “highly engaged with biodiversity loss”.

Meanwhile, almost a third, 31 per cent, of people surveyed stated said they were not aware of a threat to biodiversity in the UK.

Despite this widespread lack of engagement, and the funding cuts, the report also found that between 2000 and 2018, the amount of time volunteers contributed to conservation activities in the UK increased by 53 per cent overall. It increased by 11 per cent in the five years to 2018 and by 5 per cent in the most recent year available.

Joan Edwards, director of public affairs at  The Wildlife Trusts told The Independent it was no surprise for organisations that funding had declined, but said the overall scale of the cuts was “alarming”.

She said: “Government has, for too long, been saying some of the right things but without putting in place the necessary legislation or funding to deliver. It is now more than 200 days since the Environment Bill was last seen in parliament and the delays are stalling the government’s stated ambitions. Back in July, when the chancellor announced an economic recovery package, there was just £40m for nature projects compared to £27bn for destructive road building schemes.

“This week, the government has announced that only two months after construction officially began, the costs associated with the environmentally damaging HS2 railway have increased by a further £800m bringing the budget to nearly £100bn. The Wildlife Trusts, alongside other environmental charities, identified 300 green recovery projects that could start immediately and would help protect nature, tackle climate change and create thousands  of jobs. The estimated cost for this – just £315m. Less than half of this week’s announced overspend on HS2.”

She added: “If this government is serious about its ambitions to leave the environment in a better state for future generations and about demonstrating leadership on an international stage, investment and action need to dramatically improve and the Environment Bill needs to be brought back to Parliament at the earliest opportunity.”

A Defra spokesperson told The Independent: “Today’s statistics highlight some positive signs for our environment and wildlife, such as the contribution of UK forests to mitigating climate change and the increase in many of our bat populations.

“However, there remain huge ongoing pressures on the country’s biodiversity and  many of our native species are in decline, which is why we must continue to act to restore and enhance nature.

“The government has created over 350 marine protected areas; pledged new funding, including our £640m Nature for Climate Fund; and is bringing forward the landmark Environment Bill which sets the framework for introducing legally binding targets for biodiversity.”

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