Blog by Alistair Taylor, RSPB Senior Policy Officer, Nature Directives

Natural England has this week published a report, “Evaluation of EU LIFE Fund in the UK” which is a case in point for the challenge we face in tackling the biodiversity and climate crisis.

The government commissioned a report into the effectiveness of the LIFE fund, an EU-created fund for nature conservation and environmental protection which has helped support countless UK projects.

The report’s findings emphasise that LIFE funding is unique, the fund has delivered value for money, and is crucial for delivering conservation on the ground for habitats and species, as well as climate adaptation and mitigation.

The evaluation also found that LIFE projects have also delivered social and economic benefits in the UK, including job creation, engagement with volunteers and local communities, enhanced local living environments, increased tourism activity, cost-saving technologies, reduced costs of dealing with invasive alien species, and enhanced delivery of ecosystem services that benefit people and the economy.

Many of RSPB’s achievements in saving special places and reversing the loss of iconic species have only been possible thanks to LIFE funding, including projects to help Little Terns, Roseate Terns , Bitterns, Stone Curlew in the Brecks, Machair in Scotland, and work preventing the vital freshwater habitats at our Titchwell reserve from being destroyed by rising sea levels.

The recent extension of the LIFE programme to the UK Overseas Territories offered a potential lifeline for these amazing places which hold 94% of our threatened species, including the critically endangered Tristan albatross and Gough bunting at Gough Island World Heritage Site.

Brexit means access to the LIFE grants will almost certainly be lost for the UK and the UK Overseas Territories, creating a black hole for conservation funding, with devastating consequences for nature’s recovery unless our politicians act urgently.

The report writers make an excellent case to match LIFE funding with an equivalent UK fund and Defra states work is ongoing to decide how and if this funding will be replaced.

Photo: The roseate tern project is only one of many of RSPB’s achievements in saving special places and reversing the loss of iconic species have only been possible thanks to LIFE funding. By Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

In the event of a no deal exit from the EU, a replacement fund will be needed immediately, but there has been no official statement on what an alternative fund might look like and the government has made no assurances funding will be matched. It is also disappointing that the report did not consider the future funding needs of the UK Overseas Territories and the challenges that EU withdrawal will present. Unique nature sanctuaries within UKOTs are relied upon by millions of rare and red-listed seabirds who breed nowhere else. Restoration projects at vital sites such as Gough Island are already in urgent need of large-scale funding.

The UK Government has pledged to act as a world leader on environmental protection. Yet just six months away from a major milestone, 2020 Decade of Biodiversity, the Government shows little sign of putting its money where its mouth is.

We welcome the Government’s ambitious biodiversity conservation targets, set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan, but time is running out for nature. Progress in the marine environment has been woefully inadequate to date and while the government is saying the right thing about conserving habitats and species on land, the radical action that is needed shows no signs of materialising.

Despite the fact the House of Commons has passed a motion declaring a climate emergency, the two candidates for leadership of the conservative party have made only passing reference to how they will respond to the climate and ecological crisis.

Jeremy Hunt has pledged £6bn for the fishing and farming sectors to ease transition out of the European Union as part of a ‘No Deal Relief Programme’.

But there have so far been no comparable commitments of funding from either candidate about halting and reversing biodiversity loss, or supporting the UK’s metamorphosis to a low-carbon economy, or restoring mangrove forests in the Caribbean Territories to help build their resilience against hurricanes, or protecting the four million square kilometres of ocean that make up the Blue Belt marine nature reserve.

Last week 12,000 constituents met their MPs outside the Houses of Parliament to tell them the Time is Now to end the UK’s contribution to climate change and restore our natural environment.

In a crisis, you must act immediately to avoid disaster. Yet the government wants to delay its decision on the future of these critical conservation funds, in all likelihood until next year.

This does not look like leadership. Parliament is treading water and allowing Brexit to consume almost all of its attention rather than taking the initiative in tackling the climate emergency.

Meanwhile nature is in decline and even current levels of LIFE funding are not enough to reverse the biodiversity crisis.

We need a step change. And that means a significant increase in funding for conservation work, and it needs to happen now.

Anonymous