I've been out and about this week seeing a big landscape scale restoration project in Somerset, species recovery in action in Essex and tomorrow I am off to see one of our finest wildlife sites under threat in Norfolk.  

Sandwiched in the middle of these visits, I joined colleagues from WWF, The Wildlife Trusts, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Aldersgate Group to give evidence to the Environment Audit Commiittee to influence its assessment of the UK Government's environmental performance.  

I am glad that the parliamentary committee has decided to conduct such an inquiry.  At this point in the parliamentary cycle, political parties are busy developing manifestos - the basis upon which they will seek election in May 2015.  It is important for them to be reminded of the environmental challenges/opportunities and to learn from current performance to influence future strategy.  I expect the Committee to come up with robust recommendations by the time it reports before the autumn party conference season.

This week's site visits provide some clues about what should be included on the agenda of any future government...

1. Stop the rot

Crawling on hands and knees through a hawthorn bush to check on the progress of turtle dove chicks may not be the most glamorous role in nature conservation, but the current survey work of our science team (which I witnessed today) is building a better picture of what is happening to the population of turtle doves in England and what could be done increase breeding success.  This, coupled with action to reduce hunting pressure on migration and improving understanding of the impacts of and responses to changing land use in Africa, is essential if we are to halt the catastrophic 90+% decline of this iconic species. The Government has committed to preventing species extinction from human causes and a systematic approach to dealing with species declines remains essential: diagnostic research, testing and then rolling out solutions.  This approach is as applicable to turtle doves as it is to hen harrier, the large blue butterfly or to fen orchid.  

2. Protect the best

Professor Sir John Lawton's vision for enabling wildlife to adapt to changing environmental conditions starts with protecting remaining areas of natural and semi-natural habitat.  Yet, nearly two-thirds of SSSI network remain in an unfavourable condition and some are still threatened by inappropriate development, poor management or diffuse pollution.   Tomorrow I am off to see Catfield Fen - a fabulously important site for a range of threatened species - but one under threat from water abstraction.  I'll say more about Catfield next week, because we have to find ways to meet our human needs for food, water, energy and housing without degrading the wildlife and places that inspire us.  So we need Natural England and the Environment Agency working together to deliver the management our sites need, planning systems that prevent the destruction of protected areas (Lodge Hill SSSI springs to mind) and an end to unsustainable activities such as burning on peat soils.  At sea, the same principles apply but we still have a long way to go to get our ecologically coherent network of protected areas.  

3. Restore the rest

In Lawtonian terms this means bigger, better and more connected landscapes.  Returning to the Somerset Levels this week with a team of Defra civil servants and agency staff, we were given an insight into how this vision can be realised.  Having seen marsh valerian, white admiral, purple hairstreak and silver-washed fritillary  and great white egret at Natural England's Shapwick Heath NNR, we crossed a small road and entered RSPB's Ham Wall - restored from an peat extraction site to an internationally important wetland in less than twenty years.   These fabulous sites are six miles from Glastonbury Tor, forty minutes from Bristol, and are increasingly becoming the place to see wildlife in south-west England.  The B&B trade is thriving and it is clear that on the lowest parts of the Levels, there are other opportunities to help wildlife thrive.  This is entirely consistent with the vision for the Somerset Levels and Moors that was struck at the height of the floods - a new landscape richer in wildlife with appropriate farming at its heart.  Maybe it was the sunshine and the wildlife, but I left feeling optimistic that we know how to turn this vision into reality even if we don't yet have all the tools to do it.

4. Bringing it all together

Successive government have had laudable ambition to recover threatened wildlife including the current commitment for this to be the first generation to pass on the natural world in an enhanced state to the next.  Yet, despite the growing appreciation of the value that nature's free services offer us, this ambition has not been matched by governance arrangements or indeed resources.  This is why the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have combined forces to urge the political parties to introduce a Nature and Wellbeing Bill after the May 2015 General Election.  We need a Nature Act to do for nature's recovery what the Climate Change Act has promised in systematically drive down greenhouse gas emissions.  This means legally bindings targets for species recovery and managing our finest wildlife sites, strengthened institutional arrangements to ensure the true value of nature is taken into account in decision making, new mechanisms to protect wildlife and enable people to come together to deliver landscape-scale conservation and measures to help connect people with nature.  This new law would provide a lasting legacy about which any future nature minister could be incredibly proud.

Do you agree with this agenda for the next government?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Yes I think this agenda is pretty sound Martin. However Governments will always hid behind the excuse of lack of finance when they fail to deliver. Therefore I think there are two other main questions to be addressed and answered. Firstly, what are the political parties intensions regarding budget costings and budget allocation to this aganda? One has the distinct impression with this current Government that the environment generally, and the protection and reversal of biodiversity loss in particular, has suffered a large and dispropotionate reduction in budget compared to other Government Departments and also within Defra itself. This needs to be reversed.

    Secondly, while some Government intiatives do require reasonable financial resources allocated to them, there are many that do not, or at least require only minimal cost allocation. As budgets are likely to continue to be tight into the next Government it is important to identify those actions that can be carried out without undue expenditure, the passing of new laws for licensing grouse moors and the allocation of more marine conservation zones for example.

    I think it is important to press the political parties to provide costings against their agendas otherwise, as I say they just hide behind the excuse of lack of finance for failing to deliver their promises as so often they do.With a well costed agenda it would not be so easy for them to do this.