The latest annual update of the UK’s official biodiversity indicators were recently published. This is the final blog post in our three-part series on these indicators. The first blog post explained what the indicators are, the second what they show and in this final blog, Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist, asks if there is any cause for hope:

So, in short, these indicators show us that for a large part, the state of the UK’s nature is continuing to decline. But that’s not to say there aren’t some successes to celebrate, such as the increase in bat populations, largely in response to protective legislation.

And when we look at the ‘pressure’ indicators we can see some (slow) progress in battling adverse impacts. As before, we do need to remember that these measures demonstrate progress, not success – often they tell a story of slow progress, gradual improvements, with a long way to go before we can say ‘job done’.

Black guillemot nesting in harbour wall. Image by Louise Greenhorn (rspb-images.com)

There have been some improvements in air pollution (indicator B5a: Air pollution), as measured by the land area affected by acidification and excess nitrogen loads – but the figures are still worrying with, for example, nitrogen deposition exceeding critical load in 62% of the area deemed to be sensitive to this pollution.

The proportion of fish stocks (indicator B2: Sustainable fisheries) that are known to be being fished at or below sustainable levels has increased – good news – but is still only just over half (53%).

And whilst there has been a long-term increase in the area of protected area in the UK (C1: Protected areas), only half (51%) of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) are deemed to be in favourable condition.

Given the ongoing loss of nature and the continuing pressures that these indicators portray, my eye is drawn to very last indicator in the suite, E2: Expenditure on UK and international biodiversity.

Tanner beetle. Image by Ben Andrew (rspbn-images.com)

With much of our nature already lost – remember, the Biodiversity Intactness Index that we featured in the State of Nature 2016 report showed the UK to be amongst the world’s most nature-depleted countries – and some still in decline, as shown by this indicator release, the public are showing their support for nature conservation; spending by non-governmental organisations with a focus on biodiversity and nature conservation has increased by 20% over the last five years, thanks to the help of their supporters.

They are also stepping up by volunteering – the measure of volunteering (A2), shows that the time donated to assist conservation, has increased by 40% since 2000.

However, it is depressing to note that these increases have not been matched by governmental commitment; indeed, real-term spending on biodiversity by the public sector has fallen by 17% over the last five years, and that this is just 0.022% of the UK’s GDP.

Four-spotted chaser. Image by Paula Baker (rspb-images.com)

What can we do?

Although the Biodiversity Indicators have been developed to track progress across the UK as a whole, biodiversity policy is a devolved responsibility and these indicators are dependent on a wide variety of data from across all four countries.

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate biodiversity or environment strategies, as well as distinct and unique geographical and ecological contexts, and trends and pressures will be different in each country. What the indicators do provide, however, is a useful tool for summarising and communicating a broad overview of trends across the UK.

As Martin Harper pointed out in his blog last month, these indicators should serve as a reminder that we are failing in our efforts to halt the loss of wildlife.

Otter. Image by Louise Greenhorn (rspb-images.com)

If we are to stand any chance of reversing these trends we need legally binding targets for recovery of our nature, soil, water and air in all four countries of the UK, and mechanisms to ensure that they are delivered and that each of the governments in the UK can be held to account on achieving them.

In England this should be delivered via the recently promised Westminster Environment Bill, and we look forward to seeing the details of the Bill later this year.

In Wales there is already a law – the Well-being of Future Generation (Wales) Act – which requires the Welsh Government to set milestones to drive natures recovery. But despite this law being passed three years ago, we are still waiting for the milestones to be set, and it is unclear how much power these will have to drive the action that is needed.

Scotland and Northern Ireland now also need to come forward with their own proposals for strong legislation and robust targets, in order to ensure that we have effective measures in place across the UK.

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