Voter concern about the natural world has hit its highest level in almost thirty years according to a recent poll, and this increase in public support for the environment should come as no surprise to politicians. More than 7.6 million people worldwide participated in the week of global climate strikes in late September this year, and the UK was no exception, with thousands of people around the country walking out of schools and offices to urge the four governments of the UK to do more to tackle the greatest threat to our natural world.
The UK’s wildlife is in crisis. The latest State of Nature Report, published earlier this year, revealed that 15% of species are now threatened with extinction from Great Britain, and almost half of all species assessed were found to be in decline. Urgent and transformative action is needed if we are to stand any chance of reversing this trend, and while we all have an important role to play, it is with the forthcoming election in mind that I turn my attention to how the next UK Government – whoever they may be – can step up to the challenge.
“More, bigger, better, joined up”
In 2010 a review of England’s wildlife sites concluded that our habitat areas are currently too small, and too isolated from one another, to allow wildlife to thrive. Over time the poor condition of these sites has resulted in ongoing declines of some of our best-loved species and has prevented the natural environment from providing the life-supporting services we rely on such as carbon storage and flood relief - effects that will only be exacerbated as our climate changes and species’ ranges begin to shift.
The solution? We urgently need to make space for, and deliver, ‘More, Bigger, Better and Joined up’ sites for nature.
The RSPB are calling for the new UK Government to mandate and fund resilient, connected, ecological networks across England. Rather than just protecting specific nature reserves or sites – as tends to be current practice (& even those are often poorly managed) – efforts need to be scaled up in order to create entire networks of well-managed and protected habitats across both rural and urban areas, allowing wildlife to move around, and species populations to expand and grow.
Our existing protected sites should of course be at the heart of any functioning ecological network. You may remember that in October I reported on the conclusions of the recent Landscapes Review, which called for England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to lead the way in fighting the biodiversity and climate crises. By taking targeted action to recover priority species and habitats within these landscapes, and to re-connect them to the wider countryside, we can create habitat networks that will play a crucial role in protecting and restoring our wildlife, whilst also providing critical ecosystem services and vital green space for local communities.
Some of the main pressures on wildlife in England and across the UK result from how we use our land. This includes the impacts of agricultural management and increasing urbanisation. In order to deliver an effective network of wildlife habitats all investment into the environment needs to be targeted where it will have the most impact. By mapping out the key priorities and opportunities for restoring our wildlife, this will provide a spatial plan that public bodies can use when making planning and spending decisions, in order to ensure that land is used in a way that is in harmony with nature.
Working together for nature
In order to make this ambition a reality across England we need to see effective and positive collaboration between national and local governments, statutory bodies, landowners, NGOs, and local communities. Not forgetting cross border co-operation with devolved governments of course – our wildlife crosses borders and we need to create space for nature across the whole UK. Much of the practical delivery on the ground will need to be led locally. But it is vital that these local networks join to deliver a coherent nationwide network which, if done properly, will be worth more than the sum of its parts. None of which will be possible without UK Government support and overall accountability for getting the job done.
None of this is a new concept. Similar initiatives have been discussed in the past but, as of yet, we have been unable to deliver anything like the scale of ambition required. The ability of the next UK Government to fulfill this depends primarily on them committing to two things – new laws to mandate action, and sufficient funding to enable delivery.
There is a limit to what voluntary action from landowners can achieve, and without legislation to underpin ecological networks they are unlikely to be seen as a priority across government departments, or to be prioritised for resourcing. Without long-term funding that allows us to plan and deliver at both a national and local level, these networks simply will not be delivered. Current funding for biodiversity already falls short of what is needed, and the State of Nature report revealed that public sector expenditure on biodiversity is falling sharply. If the new Government wants to deliver on Parliament’s declaration of an environment and climate emergency they will need to commit to a significant increase in funding for conservation work.
Time is running out
So as the UK finds itself heading to the polls once again, I only hope that politicians are paying attention to the headlines and the calls of voters around them. Our natural world is heading towards collapse - we need to do something, and we need to do it fast. The solutions exist, but in order to implement them we need strong leadership and a government unafraid of transforming our current ways of doing things. The creation of ecological networks is one of a number of tools needed to tackle the nature crisis – let’s hope that this new Government will be the ones to rise to the challenge before our time runs out completely.
To find out more about how you can help nature during this General Election, look here.
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