Significant funding shortfall threatening success of habitat restoration target, say experts

Land use competition, ecological skills shortages, and funding shortfalls will be barriers to DEFRA delivering on its draft habitats target, set to be laid before Parliament at the end of the month, according to a host of experts.

Successfully restoring England’s habitats will depend upon overcoming “a number of barriers”, according to a raft of experts consulted for a POSTnotes publication, which is based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of environmental stakeholders, and externally peer reviewed.

The article outlines how the government has so far struggled to meet restoration targets under the 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP), citing how it fell short of its target to restore 4,700 hectares (ah) of peatland between 2020 - 2021 by 1,100ha, and raises that as it stands, the draft Environment Act target to create or restore 500,000ha of “wildlife rich habitat” outside protected sites by 2042  - 3.8% of England’s land area - could face some serious challenges. 

Firstly, the authors highlight that the Green Finance Institute has reported that in England there is “at least a £21-53bn shortfall in public and private sector funding to deliver all the government’s nature recovery targets over the next ten years,” and that for commitments to protect and restore biodiversity such as habitats, this gap is estimated at £9bn.

It is noted that projects “already often have to combine funding from different sources” which in future may include payments for ecosystems services, such as sequestering carbon under the Woodland Code, biodiversity net gain (BNG) - which is set to become requirement for new developments in 2023 -, and DEFRA’s environmental land management schemes (ELMs). 

However, it has been widely reported in the last two weeks that the future of ELMs is uncertain, with the new DEFRA secretary reported to be considering at least a partial return to land area based payments - where farmers would be paid regardless of whether any environmental improvement works have been carried out. 

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The POSTnote also raises issues around monitoring as a barrier to delivering improved habitats, saying that the government intends to assess progress towards the habitats target through action-based assessment that will record whether an area of land is signed up to a restoration scheme such as ELMs. 

“This will not identify whether the restoration action was successful nor if long-term increases in habitat area are secured. Whether a loss in habitat area occurs will also not be monitored nationally, so overall gains or losses in habitats will not be measured,” the authors write, adding that the Office for Environmental Protection has criticised the target on this front, saying that it makes it “weak from a nature recovery perspective”. 

A shortage of skilled ecologists and environmental land managers is also raised as a barrier to delivery on habitat restoration, as well as the accessibility of “priority land”, largely in rural areas.

The authors write that “this may be in competition with other land uses” such as food and timber production, development of infrastructure, renewable energy production, and carbon storage. 

“State acquisition of land was proposed by experts advising DEFRA on the measures needed to achieve the wider habitats target, but this approach is largely opposed by rural landowners,” write the authors, who add that the National Farmers Union (NFU) has suggested that meeting the habitats target could impact food production. 

DEFRA is currently consulting on its draft environmental targets, published earlier this year. The Environment Act requires that they are published before Parliament by 31 October.