The government has agreed to a huge expansion in its baseline list of wildlife species and habitats in serious need of help.
All the organisations promoting biodiversity in partnership with the government agree that the new list of 1,149 plant and animal species and 65 different types of habitat is a big improvement on the previous one, which dates back to the mid-1990s.
But it is also clear, despite some real conservation successes, that the government does not yet have the policies or strategy to halt the overall decline of species and wildlife habitats.
Joan Ruddock, the Environment Department (DEFRA) minister in charge of biodiversity, restated the government’s commitment to halting biodiversity loss by 2010 (a Labour manifesto promise) when she launched the new priority species and habitats list last month.1
But only her department appears to believe the UK will achieve this. “It is extremely ambitious and it’s very unlikely we will meet it,” said Robin Wynd, the RSPB’s biodiversity policy officer.
There were 577 species and 49 habitats on the previous list. This has now been extensively revised in an exhaustive, expert process lasting three years. More than 500 people from statutory bodies, conservation groups and academia were involved, along with many amateur naturalists.
The criteria for inclusion on the list have not changed fundamentally. In a nutshell, species are included if:
- The entire global population is threatened.
- The UK has a significant part of the global population and the population here has declined moderately.
- Numbers in the UK are in rapid decline.
The criteria for habitats is broadly analogous. For example, if the UK has a significant proportion of earth’s total area of a type of habitat in global decline, it goes on the list.
The number of species and habitats has grown dramatically because of advances in monitoring and scientific knowledge. Hundreds of obscure terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates, fungi and lower plant species have been added when previously ecologists did not really know if they were rare or threatened.
But some common bird and mammal species also appear for the first time because they are now known to be in rapid decline. These include the cuckoo, house sparrow, lesser spotted woodpecker, starling, herring gull, hedgehog, mountain hare and harvest mouse. Every reptile native to the UK finds itself on the new list – which also covers 88 marine species, including the fish we most commonly eat and a couple of sea horses.
The list of habitats in need of conservation has not grown quite so dramatically, but some additions are widespread. All of the UK’s thousands of ponds are included. Previously only chalk streams were included, but now a much wider variety of rivers is covered. Traditional orchards have been added, and so have post-industrial sites – known as open mosaic habitats on previously developed land, they harbour key species and redevelopment has shrunk their area. However, most terrestrial habitats are semi-natural and associated with traditional farming and forestry.
Although the species list has doubled, 123 animals and plants have been removed. A few have gone because they are extinct, and there is no realistic prospect of reintroducing them – among these is the large copper butterfly. Others were taken off because scientists are now confident they are not in decline or as rare as was once thought. The common pipistrelle, the UK’s most abundant bat, comes off because its population is regarded as stable.
A few – including a fern, lichen, moth, butterfly and water beetle – were delisted because agreed conservation targets have been met and the species is doing well.
When it launched the revised list the government made much of the successes of the 13-year-old Biodiversity Action Plan, a partnership that embraces the statutory nature conservation bodies in the devolved administrations, local councils, conservation NGOs like the RSPB, some businesses and farmers. Listed species like the cirl bunting, stone curlew, booming bittern and lesser horseshoe bat are all doing well, said Ms Ruddock.
But despite growing awareness of the importance of biodiversity and increasingly ambitious conservation projects, the overall picture is not rosy. A year and a half ago, the UK Biodiversity Partnership and DEFRA published a progress report on the action plans covering species and habitats on the previous list.2The report found that although trends had improved since the 1999 and 2002 reporting rounds, 27% of priority species were in decline while only 11% were increasing. For habitats, 38% were in decline and 22% increasing. Most action plans were falling short of their targets.
It said the biggest current and emerging threats to habitats were construction projects – mainly new housing and coastal development – and damage caused by farming. Those were followed by climate change, invasion by alien species that change the habitat, habitat loss due to incorrect land management, and air pollution.
Conservation groups find it difficult to be optimistic. The government has stated its intention to speed up infrastructure and housing development to meet the pent-up needs of UK economic and population growth (ENDS Report 391, p 5 ). The boom in world cereal prices is encouraging crop farmers to use their fields more intensively, while the European Commission says it wants to abolish set-aside farmland, which has provided wildlife habitats. Meanwhile high feed costs threaten the viability of livestock farming, which helps maintain several priority habitats.
And then there is accelerating climate change and sea level rise, forecast to put many species and habitats under pressure. Before industrialisation, they could respond to changes in climate by shifting their range to more accommodating locations. That becomes more difficult in an intensively farmed and urbanised landscape where useable habitats are fragmented and far-flung.
The experts who revised the priority list also assessed what actions were needed for each species. For hundreds of the species, there is a lack of knowledge about how they live, where they are found and why they are declining – so further research, surveying and monitoring is required. For a handful, legal protection is recommended. For the rest, the recommendations range from changes in habitat management at single sites through wider habitat creation and restoration up to broader policy changes. Policies for planning, air and water pollution, fisheries, forestry and adapting to climate change all feature, but agricultural policy figures most frequently.
There is clear agreement about what is required to turn the loss of biodiversity around in a time of climate change. There needs to be widespread recreation of large areas of the semi-natural habitats that have shrunk in the past 50 years, as well as maintenance and restoration of what remains. This has to be done in big patches – like the large fenland and saltmarsh projects under way in East Anglia. But it is also required in many small patches across the country to provide wildlife corridors for species to move along as the climate shifts.
This smaller scale work should take place along canals and rivers, in parks, nature reserves and private gardens in towns and cities. The great bulk of it, however, will depend on farmers working in the open countryside – who will need long-term, secure funding to deliver it under agri-environment schemes.
“We have a long way to go, but we now have some very good examples of how to do it,” said John Everitt, head of rebuilding biodiversity at the Wildlife Trusts. There had, he said, been real progress in improving the condition of government-designated sites of special scientific interest. “Now we need a step change in the scale of habitat re-creation.”
The government has introduced a new duty “to have regard to conserving biodiversity” for all public bodies including local councils, utilities and government departments under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERCA). But there are no means to enforce this duty, short of seeking judicial review of a decision that arguably ignored it.
The government’s nature conservation agency Natural England is now considering the new priority list before advising government later this year on what should go on a statutory list of species and habitats “of principal importance” in England. Under NERCA, the Secretary of State for Environment must take steps, and promote others to take steps, to further the conservation of species and habitats on this official ‘section 41’ list. There are similar statutory listing processes for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The conservation NGOs are now debating with Natural England what should go on this Section 41 list. The RSPB’s Robin Wynd says every one of the species on the priority list that is found in England – some 850 of the 1,149 – should go on the list, along with some extras that may be doing well in other parts of the UK but are declining in England. He gives the hen harrier as an example.
But Natural England worries that the longer the list is, the more complex and difficult it is for councils and other bodies to take account of all of the species and habitats on it in need of protection and enhancement. “What we don’t want is a huge, incomprehensible list that council planners chuck into a cupboard and forget,” said David Henschell-Wood, who leads on biodiversity coordination at Natural England.