Friday, 14 July 2017

Conservation: challenge and opportunity

Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Head of People and Wildlife, David North gives a personal view of what the challenges ahead might be for our wildlife and natural environment post Brexit and how we can take action.

Few people would disagree that today is a time of great changes. For both agriculture and nature conservation the future is less certain today than for a generation. Though no one knows for sure what the impact of Brexit will be on agriculture and nature conservation undoubtedly, there will be new challenges and opportunities.

Many of us will have come across the term SWOT analysis which stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Now perhaps is a good time to apply this tool to wildlife conservation. Though what follows is purely my personal take on some of the challenges and opportunities facing wildlife conservation -  if this in any way stimulates further thinking about how we can best protect wildlife in changing times then it will have served a useful purpose.

Some of the 1,400 NWT volunteers Elizabeth Dack
Strengths:  The biggest strength we have as a movement is surely a groundswell of public support.  It’s said that more than 7 million people in the UK belong to conservation organisations and both the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have more members than any political party in the UK. 

Weaknesses:  The continuing loss of habitats and wildlife so clearly demonstrated in many studies, including the recent State of Nature reports, shows clearly that despite many conservation success stories in protecting special sites as nature reserves, and some notable species success stories, such as otters and red kites, that the loss of wildlife in the wider countryside has continued in every decade since the 1940s. Our biggest weakness has been our lack of success in protecting formerly widespread and common species in the wider countryside.

Photo: David Tipling

Opportunities:  In recent times each year £3 billion pounds of funding has gone to support agriculture in the UK through the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy.  Some of these funded schemes, such as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), have brought about environmental and wildlife benefits and also provided vital financial support to conservation bodies including Norfolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB and National Trust. However, they have largely failed to prevent continuing degradation of our countryside for wildlife. As we take back national control of agricultural support payments there is a huge opportunity to see some of these funds targeted more effectively at helping farmers and conservation organisations to restore wildlife habitats on a landscape scale.  Given that more than 70% of our countryside is farmed if we are to stand any chance of reversing the destruction of vital wildlife habitats and the declines we see across so many formerly common species then the future structure of agricultural subsidies will be crucial. The government has promised a 25 year vision for nature and this needs to clearly identify how in new ways agricultural support funding will better enable farmers and nature conservation bodies to work together to create a more diverse, more wildlife-friendly, richer and more beautiful countryside for both people and wildlife.

Kingfisher by David North
Threats:  It seems to me that the biggest threat is the low priority given to wildlife and the countryside in political discussions about our future.  This was clear during the last election when environmental issues were barely mentioned by politicians or the media.  The threat is that a healthy and wildlife rich ecology, rather than being seen as the bedrock on which our future health and wealth depends is seen as a minority interest of a few awkward activists and naturalists.  We (and in this ‘we’ I include readers of this Blog and NWT members!) know that healthy, properly functioning ecosystems provide us with clean air, clean water, natural  pollution control, help mitigate climate change, provide free natural flood controls, keep our soils healthy, enable  pollinators to ensure our crops thrive and contribute massively to human happiness, health and wellbeing.  But do our politicians and decision makers really understand and act on this?

So if any of this rings true what can we do?  The Government is promising, for the first time in a generation, an Agriculture Bill (the last major Agriculture Bill was in 1947).  We can make sure our elected MPs know that we want to ensure that any Bill that determines how agriculture support will be provided in future absolutely ensures that the health and beauty of the countryside, and the value of restoring healthy functioning ecosystems rich in wildlife delivering the ‘ecosystem services’ such as pollination, healthy soils, and clean water is high on the priority list. The Wildlife Trusts nationally are working with other major environmental bodies to ensure that conservation organisations speak with one voice to ensure that the environmental protections currently provided through the EU Habitats Directive, EU Birds directive and other European environment laws are not lost when we leave the EU.  You can find out more at 

NWT Foxley Wood by Richard Osbourne
However, as was shown when the plans to sell off public forests were reversed, public opinion is a powerful voice when it comes to politics.  I believe that decisions made in the next few years will be crucial to the kind of future environment our children will inherit.  We can all play a part in ensuring that new opportunities for reversing the declines in nature are taken and threats of weakened laws to protect wildlife averted. But we can only ensure this if we make sure as individuals that our voices are heard. And heard loud and clear by the people who will be taking decisions which will affect our countryside and wildlife for a generation.  If you care about the future of our countryside and wildlife please make sure your voice is heard. Wildlife doesn’t have a voice in the decisions which will determine its future. We need to be its voice.