Wildlife Trusts urge caution over Government Agency review

Wednesday 12th December 2012

Today, DEFRA launched its triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England. This comes at a critical time of constant cuts (more than 30% at the last spending review) and challenges to their role and independence emerging from the Cabinet Office. Both could threaten their ability to protect our environment.

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscapes at The Wildlife Trusts, explains: “Better cooperation between the agencies is important. Simply merging them into a single organisation would be a costly distraction and prevent them from focusing on the work at hand. This is bad timing for nature just as pressure ramps up, increasing the possibility of yet more roads and unfettered development. There are so many pressing issues that require these agencies’ urgent attention.” (See background statistics below).

Ensuring that we have clean air and water, the right agricultural systems, and natural spaces for our children is not something to put at risk due to an economic recession.

The outcome must reflect the Government’s ambition to restore the natural environment in a way that does not leave the country’s rivers, woods and meadows – our natural heritage - under threat. This is an opportunity for the Government to ensure both agencies are able to deliver its ambitions set out in the Natural Environment White Paper and Marine and Coastal Access Act.

Paul Wilkinson explains:  “The Government must show that it values nature and reflect on what it means to people across the country. It must ensure that its environmental agencies are adequately resourced and focussed on working together to champion both the long and short-term interests of the natural environment. Ensuring we have clean air and water, the right agricultural systems, and natural spaces for our children is not something to put at risk due to an economic recession, however deep or long that is.”

This review comes as the Government is also considering the recommendations of the Independent Forestry Panel. It will also undertake a review of the Marine Management Organisation and Joint Nature Conservation Committee – all will have crucial implications for our natural heritage. 


Background:

The state of biodiversity in England is now so serious that Natural England recently commented:
‘To stop further losses, and ultimately reverse biodiversity loss, it is consequently not sufficient just to achieve no further habitat losses; there is a need to move to net gains’ [1]

• Only 37% of SSSIs are in favourable condition. Sample surveys of non-SSSI habitats indicate their condition is worse.
• Only 31% of non-SSSI grassland sites were recently assessed as favourable.
• The losses of priority habitats, which have been greatest in the twentieth century, are substantial. For example, 97% of species-rich grasslands were lost 1930-1984, 80% of lowland heath was lost 1800-1980, over 90% of fens were lost 1637-1980 and 81% of grazing marsh has been lost (historic-1997)[2]. None of 104 lowland heathland sites surveyed in 2005 and 2006 were assessed in favourable condition.
• Natural England estimate that 12% of SSSI area is currently at risk of dropping out of target condition – with 62% of this problem relating to agri-environment schemes, particularly in the uplands, where renewal of expiring agreements is likely to require additional investment. Only 54% of SSSI land is under agri-environment agreement and NE state that ‘this is unlikely to increase significantly in future years’ [3].
• In 2008 73% of priority habitats in England were estimated as declining as a result of agricultural practices [4].
• In 2011 only 27% of Water Framework Directive (WFD) river water bodies were assessed as at good ecological status and it is estimated that over two-fifths (42% in area) of all floodplains have been separated from their rivers. 
• About 50% of river stretches may be at risk of failing Water Framework Directive quality objectives due to diffuse phosphate pollution[5]. Diffuse pollution is the main cause of unfavourable condition in river Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The additional habitat needed to move to a situation of net gain is significant. Farmland birds are estimated to need an additional 65,000 ha of certain types of priority habitats to halt current declines. Moreover, the time lag between habitat loss and species extinctions means that, in Natural England’s words, England is carrying an ‘extinction debt’[6].

 

Notes for editors:

The Wildlife Trusts (TWT)  wildlifetrusts.org
There are 47 individual Wildlife Trusts covering the whole of the UK.  All are working for an environment rich in wildlife for everyone.  We have more than 800,000 members including 150,000 members of our junior branch Wildlife Watch.  Our vision is to create A Living Landscape and secure Living Seas.  We manage around 2,300 nature reserves and every year we advise thousands of landowners and organisations on how to manage their land for wildlife. We have 35,000 volunteers and host around 17,000 events engaging people with nature every year.  We also run marine conservation projects around the UK, collecting vital data on the state of our seas and celebrating our amazing marine wildlife.  Every year we work with thousands of schools and our nature reserves and visitor centres receive millions of visitors.  Each Wildlife Trust is working within its local communities to inspire people about the future of their area: their own Living Landscapes and Living Seas.

References:
[1] Farming and Biodiversity (July 2012) – A report to Defra by Natural England p7
[2] Lawton et al (2010) Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network. A Report to Defra.
[3]Farming and Biodiversity (July 2012) – A report to Defra by Natural England p16
[4] JNCC 2010
[5] Mainstone et al. 2008
[6] Farming and Biodiversity (July 2012) – A report to Defra by Natural England px