For the UK Government to have a chance to meet the Prime Minister’s pledge for 30% of the UK land to be protected by 2030 not only will it need the buy in and support from the devolved administrations (who have responsibility for environmental issues outside of England), it will also have to fix the uplands.
For the purpose of this blog and indeed any further comment that I make on the subject, I shall assume that the Prime Minister is not just interested in drawing line on maps, he is also interested in what is happening to wildlife inside these lines. Our designated areas (currently cover 28% of the UK and 26% of England).
If that is the case, using government's own figures, just 5% of land in the UK (and the same % for England) is currently protected and well managed for nature. The 30% target would therefore require a six-fold improvement this decade.
Much of our designated land is in the uplands with 11 out of 15 of our UK National Parks being in the uplands (86% by area). Yet, where there is up to data, these Parks have desperately low proportions of Areas/Sites of Special Scientific Interest in favourable condition For example, we estimate that only 25% of SSSIs (by area) inside English National Parks are in favourable condition, compared to 43.5% in favourable condition outside National Parks (*reference below). Moreover, 53% of SSSIs are in the English uplands and according to Natural England's data, a minority are in favourable condition (for example, just 11.4% upland bog, 11% dwarf shrub heath and 34.4 fen, marsh, swamp).
This means that, for the Prime Minister to be successful and meet his ambition, the dominant commercial land uses in our uplands (forestry, agriculture and grouse shooting) need to change.
We have a long track record in seeking to influence agriculture and forestry policy and at our AGM on Saturday, our Chair, Kevin Cox, announced the results of our review of gamebird shooting and associated land management. We had focused our attention on the two most intensive forms of shooting – driven grouse shooting and the mass release of non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges.
Driven grouse shooting is practiced exclusively in our uplands and in England covers about 300,000 hectares constituting c14% of our uplands. It is occasionally supplemented by releases of non-native gamebirds.
The evidence we presented this weekend highlighted that self-regulation by the shooting community has failed to address the environmental impacts of their industry anywhere near adequately and for this reason we are calling on governments across the UK to intervene.
We have today written to Defra Secretary of State George Eustice today to:
These practices are incompatible with tackling the climate and ecological emergency and have no place in 21st century England.
We think that the case for action in these three areas is irrefutable.
We also argue that the best way to drive improvement in the environmental condition of our uplands will be through the introduction of licenses for driven grouse shoots. We are making considerable progress on this issue in Scotland but recognise that there is not the same level of political support in England. While urging the Secretary of State to reconsider the Government’s position on licensing, we shall also explore new ways to garner political support for this issue in England. We are very clear that unless substantive and effective reform is secured within the next five years, we shall call for a ban of driven grouse shooting.
The UK Government’s laudable ambition to restore nature in a generation requires a comprehensive package of reform. That’s why we shall continue to press for the urgent return of the Environment Bill, why we need the independent Office of Environmental Protection to have teeth, why we need the new Environmental Land Management Scheme to be fully funded and designed to support farmers restore the farmed environment and why we have to take urgent action to tackle the environmentally destructive practices associated with driven grouse shooting. It's also why we are matching this advocacy effort in each of the devolved administrations.
For the Prime Minister to meet his 30% ambition by 2030, change is needed and it is needed quickly.
I hope to report positive progress very soon.
*Cox, K, Groom, A, Jennings, K and Mercer, I. 2018. ‘National Parks or Natural Parks: How can we have both?’ British Wildlife (Volume 30.2, December 2018) . Not accessible online but a link to the issue is here https://www.britishwildlife.com/back-issues/british-wildlife-302-december-2018
When Labour set out to improve the condition of England's SSSIs a lot of people said the usual - 'its very complex' - which was actually rubbish, because something like 70% of SSSIs in poor condition were in the uplands and, as you make very clear, the reasons were already well known. If you then add in that many if not most sheep farms receive more in subsidy than they actually make as take home pay change doesn't look so difficult: it doesn't have to cost a fortune, and it doesn't have to penalise farmers who could earn as much doing less. We need a 21st century view of the uplands: an outcome led approach for carbon & water, people & biodiversity, not the traditional sectoral approach of sheep, grouse and forestry.
Given our excuse of a Prime Minister's track record on keeping his word he'll probably say that what he'd actually said was 3% (or 0.3%). The guy is utterly untrustworthy.