Whilst looking at twitter on Sunday evening I saw this amazing tweet from New Zealand.  The sheer number of moths involved reminded me of the ‘moth snowstorm’ that environmental journalist Mike McCarthy described in his wonderful book of the very same name. A sight that no longer occurs in the UK. A thing of the past.

So, it was sobering to see Monday’s Guardian front page carry the story about ‘insect-ageddon’.

Caterpillar of swallowtail butterfly resting on stem of milk parsley (Fabian Harrison, rspb-images.com)

It’s clear that not all is well with insect populations with growing evidence of declines.

Here in the UK, the 2016 State of Nature report compiled data on over 1,800 species of invertebrate, of which 42% were in moderate or severe decline – more than for any other group. Overall our measure of invertebrate abundance and occupancy had fallen by 29% since 1970, a greater fall than for vertebrates or plants.

The UK butterfly indicator – used by the government as a measure of how insect populations more widely might be faring – has shown dramatic declines since 1976, with habitat specialist butterflies declining by 77% on average, and butterflies of the wider countryside showing an average drop of 46% over the same period.

And we also know that the main driver of species decline is agriculture.  This is why I agree that “unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of a few decades”.  And just not just insects – birds, other animals, plants, the whole life support system.

We are currently working with over 50 organisations involved in the research and conservation of the UK’s nature, compiling and analysing data to publish the third State of Nature report later this year. This will provide the best statistics yet on trends in the UK's wildlife, with a clear picture on how the UK’s invertebrates are faring alongside plants and other animal groups.  I expect that it will be another wake up call for all of us to act.

And just this morning, a new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on the scale of environmental breakdown we are facing.

To quote its summary,

“Human-induced environmental change is occurring at an unprecedented scale and pace and the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic outcomes in societies around the world is rapidly closing. These outcomes include economic instability, large-scale involuntary migration, conflict, famine and the potential collapse of social and economic systems. The historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake.”

That isn’t pulling any punches. It’s stating what will happen if we do nothing. The evidence is clear that something must be done, and quickly. But what should that be?

I have written previously about what we need to do to win the battle save nature.  But, in the UK there are some immediate steps we must take.

As a result of the UK vote to leave the EU, governments across the UK have several new pieces of legislation in the pipeline that could help address some of these issues.

We have the prospect of strong new environmental laws to underpin nature’s recovery and new agriculture legislation that transforms the way we manage land. Done properly, these have the potential to be something truly transformative: world-leading legislation to not only prevent further declines and degradation of our natural world, but actively promote its recovery and restoration.

They ‘could’ take us towards a place where ‘moth snowstorms’ once more become a thing of the future, not the past.

But we need to act fast.  The window of opportunity to avert catastrophe is closing.

  • Excellent piece. 

    However, we do not have "the prospect of strong new environmental laws to underpin nature’s recovery and new agriculture legislation that transforms the way we manage land". We have the prospect of a statutory body ostensibly set up to protect the environment, but with the power the government has retained, it will be a body which has as it's instruction from government to "get rid of the green crap".

    Because of the failure of bodies such as the RSPB, who have failed for no reason to do with them, to ensure an adequate act is place in legislation, but who have not warned that this is happening, I find the body launched today Wild Justice to be our sole remaining hope of a biodiverse UK, by taking such failed statutory bodies to court over their failure

    The NGOs must warn us of the consequences of the impending failure to put in place a strong environment act, which sets up a body which can be set up to fail as natural England has failed. You may yet regret the decision to ask for a judicial review recently, which has so far not reported it's findings, as I have previously said.