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Environment Bill Amendment: What Could It Mean?

  • Animals
  • DEFRA
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Wildlife

In May 2021, the Rt Hon George Eustice, Secretary of State for DEFRA (Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs) and MP for Camborne and Redruth, announced much-anticipated amendments to the Environment Bill. Within the amendments are several ambitious goals and targets – which, if implemented with political will and enthusiasm, could help to turn the tide on biodiversity loss in the UK. Just what are these targets, and what do they mean? 

A Bit of Background – Biodiversity Loss 

Marsh Harrier at RSPB Minsmere (2021)

The United Kingdom has the unenviable claim to fame as being “[one of the] world’s most nature-depleted countries” (Hayhow et al, 2019). Unfortunately, the label is not for nothing:

  • 43% of British birds are endangered. Over 40 million individual birds have been lost from our skies, woodlands, seas, and fields since 1970; 7 species have become nationally extinct in the last 200 years, and 2 more (the fieldfare and golden oriole) may have already ceased to breed (various sources).
  • 15% of British species are threatened with national extinction (Hayhow et al). These include species such as the red squirrel, Scottish wildcat, hedgehog, and water vole.
  • 1 in 4 of our mammals are threatened with extinction. As well as those mentioned above, this includes dormice, pine marten, and several species of bat (Mammal Society, 2018).
  • 41% of all British species were observed to have declined since 1970 (Hayhow  et al)
  • In 2017, the official JNCC indicators for pollinating insects (bees, wasps, hoverflies, butterflies) was 30% lower than in 1980. 
  • Freshwater species, such as vole, otter, European eel, lamprey, and salmon, continue to be among our most threatened species. The sturgeon has disappeared in recent years (WWF, 2021).
  • One-fifth of the fishery stocks in British territorial waters are “critically” overfished (OCEANA, 2021). 

The reasons behind such widespread and catastrophic loss are many and varied. However, they include agriculture, climate change (the two biggest contributors), pollution, invasive species, disease, overfishing, and poor habitat management. 

It is obvious, then, that urgent action is required. 

What Was This New Announcement?

Eurasian otter, Wildwood Canterbury (2016)

Currently, the Environment Bill is undergoing “Ping-pong” between House of Lords and House of Commons; thus, it is yet to become an Act through Good Old Queen Bes’s Royal Assent. However, Mr Eustice’s announcement promises the following amendments to the Bill before it receives Assent: 

  • Reintroduction Feasibility Studies. 
  • Legally-binding targets for priority species recovery. 
  • 30% of land cover officially protected by 2030. 
  • Restoring 35,000 ha of peatland and banning its sale by 2024
  • The plantation of 6,000 ha of new urban forests by 2025
  • Government department Natural England to receive a 47% increase in funding to boost “Green Recovery”.

If this receives the “go-ahead” when the Environment Bill turns into statutory Environment Act, then this could have major repercussions for the reversal of the “ecological crisis” we are currently in the midst of. 

Additionally, in 2018, the 25 Year Environmental Plan was released by Defra. While the Plan was met with widespread criticism, citing its lack of “oomph” power and clear outlining of how pledges to reverse biodiversity loss would be met, one thing that has garnered a lot of attention is the creation of a “Nature Recovery Network”. In a nutshell, the purpose of this network is for councils, NGOs, charities, governmental bodies, and other stakeholders to collaborate on identifying, creating, restoring, and protecting key areas of habitat that would benefit biodiversity, the economy, and society alike. This would then be brought out into a joined up “network”, through the creation of corridors, such as hedgerows. To quote David Attenborough: “everything is better connected”. Work is already underway on this one – it’s all very exciting and something that The Wildlife Trusts has been proudly promoting for the last couple of years!

That’s All Well and Good…But What Could It Mean?

A Yellowhammer, White Cliffs of Dover (2020)

If this all goes ahead, and is implemented with political will, enthusiasm, and drive, then this may have many (positive) repercussions for nature. 

The Species Reintroduction Feasibility Studies are, arguably, one of the most exciting aspects of the announcement. Could these species benefit?

  • White-tailed eagles are currently only found in Scotland and the Isle of Wight, after decades of total extinction in the country. A Study could see these enormous and magnificent creatures gliding through the skies all across the country. 
  • Red-backed shrike, a gorgeous sparrow-sized bird, has been reduced to fewer than 5 breeding resident pairs; a reintroduction could see it munching on insects again – maybe not good news for insects, but excellent for birders and the ecosystem in general. 
  • We are also losing bees and other pollinators like no-one’s business. In fact, over 20 species of bee and wasp have become nationally extinct since 1850. Reintroducing these species would allow for more of our flowers and crops to be pollinated for free.  
  • Small carnivores, such as the pine marten, have also been severely restricted by hunting and habitat loss; you will now only find them patchily throughout the UK and Ireland (with strongholds in Scotland). However, by hunting grey squirrels and other small mammals, they are important for keeping the ecosystem in check. Is it time to bring them back to wider areas of the UK?
A Eurasian lynx at Port Lympne Reserve (2020)

Is it time to return the lynx – or even the wolf? This is a very controversial question to ask, very understandably so. Farmers may worry about their livestock, locals for their safety. However, a well-planned Study would consider the impacts of such actions on stakeholders, working and liaising closely with those impacted in any way, suggesting mitigation tactics. This is exactly how the beaver was first reintroduced to Scotland (before an unlicenced and unpermitted release a few years later): governmental bodies worked closely with farmers, fishermen, local businesses, and other key stakeholders to ensure that ecological and societal benefits were mutual. It is also crucial to point out that lynx are extremely shy and elusive, generally favouring prey such as deer and rabbit. Wolves are also surprisingly shy, with conflicts being rare – when education and appropriate prevention techniques are implemented. The UK has also lost all large carnivores, sans the fox, which some conservationists have argued is also contributing to the loss of biodiversity. Reintroducing them may help to reduce the number of deer and rabbits overgrazing the forests, all without the need for a gun, encouraging biodiversity to return. For example, endangered birds such as the nightingale may be up to 15 times more populous in areas of woodland where deer are not allowed to trample on their nesting area (Holt et al, 2010). If Defra give the go-ahead for small population reintroductions, such reintroductions could mean huge changes for biodiversity. However, applications to return lynx were turned down by then-Secretary of State Michael Gove in 2018, so it may take a long time and a lot of persuasion to achieve!

Of course, none of this is possible without the creation of new habitat. The pledges for 30% of land coverage to be protected by 2030, and for a Nature Recovery Network, were campaigns heavily endorsed by The Wildlife Trusts. Nature cannot exist in pockets. Wildlife needs the opportunity to move around more freely in order to feed, breed, reduce the risk of inbreeding, and reduce susceptibility to disease and other factors. Habitat fragmentation has been part of the downfall of many of our rarest butterfly species in particular; by providing connection through hedgerows, wildflower meadows, and other vegetation patches, we provide them with more opportunity to disperse. 

A male Dartford Warbler at RSPB Minsmere (2021)

Additionally, by increasing the expansion and size of the protected areas, we allow for more biodiversity to flourish and for wider areas of habitat to be restored. As peatlands store 30% of the world’s carbon, restoring so much of this habitat type will restore the carbon-sequestrating capabilities of these wonderful “Cinderella habitats”, as well as providing us with clean drinking water, sustainable recreation, nesting areas for birds, and innumerable other benefits. Restoring and planting woodlands will also provide a cost-effective strategy in mitigating carbon emissions, while also providing habitats for much-loved species (especially if we use native broad-leaved species such as sessile oak, ash, and maples), reducing aerial pollutants (especially important in urban areas!), reducing temperatures, and, of course, providing areas for us to enjoy in our free time. However, given that the majority of current protected areas are in a terrible shape and have been neglected, this will all need political will, determination, long-sightedness, and commitment to achieve!

The legally-binding targets for priority species is also an interesting question. While, currently, the exact species are unknown, the possibilities could be endless. Are we finally going to stop witnessing the heart-breaking decline of farmland birds, curlews, water voles, stag beetles, and the other 41% of our declining species? 

Finally, while it is not part of the Environment Bill, the new Agriculture Act, replacing the controversial European Common Agriculture Policy, may also signal a bit of hope. Common farmland birds are the most threatened of our avian species, having declined by 57% since 1970. However, the Act provides payment for “public goods” through the new Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS). Participants are paid directly for the creation of wildflower meadows, hedges, native trees, etc., all of which provide breeding and foraging grounds for farmland critters. If uptake is widespread, then this could finally address the enormous damage to such creatures. 

So, are we finally putting a seal on the leak? 

A Reason for Hope

Avocets at RSPB Minsmere (2021)

I believe that there is always a reason for hope. While the UK is currently severely depleted speaking in biodiversity terms, we have the potential to restore it. Recently, I went on a trip to RSPB Minsmere, a large nature reserve in Suffolk. It reignited my hope for conservation in this country.

From those hides on that blistering hot day, I encountered many species that, decades ago, we could only dream of seeing. Dartford warblers. Avocets. Marsh harriers. I heard a booming bittern call three or four times. These species were once destined for national extinction. While now no means “common”, they are here. They are breeding, breathing, and living among us. The avocet and bittern were both once extinct. Since reintroduction in the 1900s, the bittern has oscillated precariously close to extinction a second time. However, both birds have made one heck of a comeback. Over 1,000 breeding pairs of avocets live in the UK, along with nearly 100 pairs of bittern, with numbers increasing all the time. The Dartford warbler bounced back to over 1,000 pairs from fewer than 100. 400 breeding pairs of marsh harrier now “wow” bird watchers, having previously been feared close to extinction. 

We have also bought back other species through time and pure dedication. Otter. Red kite. Beaver. Bison are being reintroduced to Canterbury by 2022. 

I sincerely hope that these amendments are here to stay and that they are implemented with the political will, enthusiasm, flare – and that good old determination. Historically, UK governments have not cared for nature anywhere near enough, and it shows. We have leaked biodiversity for far too long. But we also have the opportunity to put it right – before it’s too late. Yesterday was the best time to start, but today is the next best time.

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Author and Imagery: Sam Lucock

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