An alarming warning comes from Spring Watch presenter Chris Packham this week (read it here), concerning the gulf between wildlife diversity in our nature reserves and that within the wider countryside.
All of this comes about from 70 years of agricultural intensification, urban sprawl and infrastructure expansion. Our network of Nature Reserves is piecemeal, widely scattered and has no strategic plan or design. All the studies of wildlife populations and distributions show that our current protection measures are simply inadequate. When was it decided that wildlife should be looked after within nature reserves and everything else could be trashed?. Oh and by the way there is no money for managing nature reserves as they are “unproductive”.
Farmers, have been all too happy to call themselves “the guardians of the countryside” but have clearly failed on an epic scale. Grants and subsidies have not required them to assess the ecological effects of any agriculatural improvements and no mitigation measures have been required. Urban and transport planners have fared little better. We only see occasional tiny wildlife schemes which are totally overwhelmed by the scale of the impacts of modern farming, organics included. One of the major failings of the Common Agricultural Policy.
The ecology and conservation professionals have not helped at all. For 30 years the emphasis has been all about protecting rare species and not about habitat conservation. All the millions spent on bat and newt surveys have only just managed to halt the decline in these species. A fraction of this money spent on landscape scale habitat conservation works would have boosted their numbers through the roof. The majority of our nature reserves are poorly managed or neglected due to inexperienced staff and lack of management funding. During the New Labour years the government thought that they were spending millions on the environment by boosting the number of public sector jobs within the environmental enforcement agencies. Hardly any money actually got spent on habitat creation or improvement but it employed lots of potential labour voters.
But we do now have ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’. Michael Gove’s ambitious plan to direct agricultural support towards tangible environmental benefits. An exciting vision for some in a post Brexit world from the man who promised us £350m a week for the NHS. Some real thought has gone into “A Green Future” but it provides no detailed mechanism for achieving its aims and most alarmingly, no authority to hold the government to account for any failures or backsliding. The current system of agricultural support works through central control and micromanagement. Implementing Countryside Stewardship grants is already an enormous struggle so root and branch reform is required.
The plan is more cake and eat it. What levels of food production does the country really want? You can not have more food production and more wildlife – which Michael Gove is claiming. More ecology = less food = more imports = less sustainable nation. Discuss.
Still at least there is a plan and it is a commitment to consult further. Currently the Labour Party are holding consultations on a wide range of policy issues including the environment. Their brief for the consultation is just that “brief”. A few lines on protecting biodiversity and improving access to nature, but then at the last election Labour managed a pledge in their manifesto to plant a million trees if elected. The 2015 Conservative Party manifesto promised to plant another 11 million trees over the next five years, but planting is well behind schedule. In 2015-16, 642,000 trees were planted in England. In 2016-17, it was 802,000. Clearly the lights are out and there is no one home as far as understanding the countryside is concerned.
So in an age of populist political parties within a divided nation, we will all have to work hard to raise the profile for nature conservation, based on the ecological data that we now have and keep it high on the political agenda. Chris Packham is a brave campaigner who’s career has been put at risk by the influential grouse moor lobby and others who put their own interests before our wildlife. We must make sure his voice is not censored at the BBC.