I was a bit surprised this morning to hear on the radio that England’s wildlife is "under siege" – this seemed a little melodramatic straight after news stories of China’s earthquake victims. Still, it did catch my attention. They were talking about the results of Natural England’s State of the Natural Environment report published today. Key findings include a 50% decline of our native woodland butterflies due to a lack of woodland management, deterioration of grasslands so that only 3% remain rich in native plants, a decline in many wading birds and an overall finding that the natural environment of England is much less rich than 50 years ago. In a press release Dr Helen Phillips, Chief Executive of Natural England, says:

"England needs a new approach to conservation if we are to tackle effectively the modern pressures on land created by climate change and development. The natural environment is increasingly under threat, both within and especially away from protected areas… If we don’t act, there’s a real danger some of our most precious wildlife will be lost forever and our lives will be poorer for it."

On the brighter side of the results, the long-term decline in many of our farmland birds is slowing thanks to more environmentally friendly farming, the overall condition of our most important wildlife sites has improved dramatically in the last 10 years, heathland birds such as nightjars and woodlarks are increasing thanks to better management of our heathland, and species such as the red kite are recolonising their former range after successful reintroduction. Other species that have fared well include the sand lizard and the lesser horseshoe bat.

An interesting finding of the report is that many birds, bees and other insects are deserting intensively farmed lowland areas for better conditions in urban gardens and on brownfield land, which is relatively undisturbed and therefore safer for them. Between 1994 and 2006 pigeon numbers more than doubled, and there were big increases among green woodpeckers, goldfinches, robins and great tits. Some butterfly species are now more likely to be found in suburban areas than in the countryside, at least 40 species of invertebrates are now wholly confined to towns, and more than half of the summer roosts of some species of bat are in man-made structures less than 30 years old. Evidently man-made habitats now make a large contribution to the maintenance of UK wildlife diversity.

Natural England’s recommendations for improving the status of wildlife in England include reconnecting fragmented wildlife-rich areas so that wildlife can move with the changing climate, recreating habitats and funding environmentally friendly farming. The findings from the report led them to publish a Manifesto for the Natural Environment, outlining what needs to be done next, including:

  • finding space for renewable energy
  • restoring the uplands to reduce run-off; and re-creating wetlands in our river valleys to increase flood storage capacity
  • better management of marine protected areas
  • funding of nature conservation at a landscape scale
  • reconnecting people and nature by
    • including green space in developments
    • improving rights of way
    • encouraging physical activity in the natural environment
  • allocating taxes so that environmentally sustainable land management receives the greatest financial reward
  • ensuring environmental protection is incorporated into infrastructure plans

The report has been backed by a number of biodiversity/wildlife conservation organisations (follow the links for their press releases and some of their own recommended priorities for going forward).

Dr Sue Armstrong Brown, the Head of Countryside Conservation at the RSPB:

"This is a timely and hard hitting call which the government must heed and act upon. We are seeing the consequences of decades of ignoring environmental limits. Now, with the climate changing and wildlife crashing worldwide, it is time for a new green leadership. There has never been a time when human action has put so much wildlife in peril. The government should support Natural England’s plans and allocate enough money to put them into place."

Paul de Zylva, campaigns co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth England:

"Ministers must put the environment at the heart of all their policies – including transport, the economy, housing and planning – and invest in the clean, green solutions that would make Britain a world leader in developing a low-carbon economy."

Matt Shardlow, Director of Buglife – the Invertebrate Conservation Trust:

"Dire disintegration of wildlife habitats combined with poor management of the remaining fragments has caused a conservation ‘crunch’ that has left wildlife, and particularly the little animals, in a right state. We welcome the fact that this is now formally recognised by a Government agency and hope that the funds can now be found to address the key problems directly."

Tom Oliver, Head of Rural Policy for Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE):

"The call by Natural England for urgent action to protect England’s wildlife habitats from urban development and climate change should be heeded by Government departments. But CPRE is disappointed that the quality of the human habitat, through the protection of landscape character and a tranquil experience in the countryside is given little prominence. Natural England’s responsibility to speak out and act for England’s outstanding landscapes, whether nationally protected or not, is just as great as its obligations towards wildlife."

What does the UK government have to say about it? Hilary Benn, Environment Secretary:

"I welcome this report as an important contribution to our understanding of our natural environment. The report shows that if we do the right things we really can make a difference and reverse the loss of biodiversity and landscape. That’s why we will be investing £2.9billion over the next five years in agri-environment schemes, for example. We also now recognise that climate change is presenting us with a new challenge in conserving biodiversity and managing our landscapes. We need new approaches to conservation, and we are working closely with Natural England to develop these."

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