England’s wildlife has been in long-term decline. Many species of birds, butterflies, mammals, flowering plants and insects are less numerous and found in fewer locations than in the 1970s. The scale of decline was highlighted in the State of Nature report launched by Sir David Attenborough earlier this year, which concluded that 60% of species have declined to some degree over recent decades; 31% strongly so. The abundance of farmland birds has declined by more than 50%, and nearly 90% of flowering plants are now less common than 40 years ago. There is also evidence that England’s wildlife is becoming less diverse, with generalist species like the Wood Pigeon and Magpie gaining at the expense of ‘specialists’, like the Skylark.
Habitats and ecosystems have lost out to changing land use and development
England’s wildlife has been losing out to other demands for limited land. This was highlighted by the UK’s first ever National Ecosystem Assessment (UKNEA) in 2011, which found that between the 1940s and 1980s the area of land under crops in England increased by 40%. As a result, many wildlife habitats, such as ancient woodlands, chalk grasslands, lowland heaths, wetlands, upland moors and peat bogs have been lost. The simultaneous post-war urbanisation of many parts of the countryside, with its associated transport infrastructure, has also fragmented many wildlife habitats.
Analysis by the ASC earlier this year (see below chart) found that today only around 4% of England’s total land area (approximately 4,000 km2) currently forms extensive and coherent tracts of relatively untouched wildlife habitat. Over the last few decades nearly 11,000 km2 of once extensive habitat has been broken up into large, but fragmented, patches. A further 2,000 km2 of habitat has been fragmented into small, isolated islands.
The scale of habitat loss and fragmentation has been widespread. The UKNEA highlights that 99% of fens have been drained and converted to agriculture over the last two centuries and since the 1930s some 97% of species-rich grasslands have been lost. Over the same time, around 1,500 km2 of ancient woodlands have been degraded by plantation forestry.
Climate change will make matters worse, and impacts are already being observed
Climate change is placing further pressure on our already stressed wildlife. Increasing average temperatures and changes to rainfall patterns will alter,
Changes in the timing of seasonal events associated with climate change are having impacts on fundamental biological processes. For example, we are seeing some tree species leafing earlier in the spring than they were 100 years ago. Wildlife is highly sensitive to such changes in environmental conditions and in many cases will need to shift northwards to stay within the ‘climate space’ within which they evolved. There is evidence that this is already happening, with some species shifting their range over the last few decades in ways that are consistent with recorded increases in temperature. These include birds such as the Dartford Warbler, butterflies like the Brown Argus and insects like the Long-winged Cricket. Observed warming is also likely to have facilitated a number of recent natural colonisations from the continent, like the Southern Emerald Damselfly. Incidents of water scarcity, severe weather (e.g. flooding) and wildfires are likely to increase in frequency and severity. Milder, wetter winters may also make it easier for some pests, diseases and pathogens to thrive. Studies at both the global level and for the UK suggest that climate change is expected to increase the number and rate of extinctions. The next report on climate change impacts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in March 2014 will highlight further evidence of how climate change is already affecting global biodiversity.
Habitats need to be in good condition and coherent for wildlife to be resilient to climate change
Providing wildlife with sufficient good quality habitat is essential, so it can respond to changes in its climate space and be more resilient to hazards like wildfire, drought, flooding and pathogens.
A review in 2010 led by Professor Sir John Lawton concluded that England’s habitats are currently not resilient to climate change. He called for action to restore degraded habitats, improve the condition of protected nature reserves and, where possible, create new habitat. He also stressed that this action needs to start now, as it will take time for restoration efforts to turn around decades of historic degradation.
The Government has set some ambitious restoration goals…
In response, the Government set some ambitious goals that would go a long way to making England’s wildlife more resilient now and in the future. These included committing by 2020 to:
- Better wildlife habitats, with 50% of protected sites in good condition. This requires reversing the decline (from 42% to 37%) in the proportion of protected wildlife sites in good condition over the last decade.
- More, bigger and less fragmented areas for wildlife, with an increase in overall extent of habitats by at least 200,000 hectares. This requires landscape-scale action to reconnect fragmented and isolated patches, increasing habitat extent by around 30,000 hectares per year on average.
- Restoring at least 15% of degraded ecosystems as a contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation. In England, this primarily means restoring wetland peat bogs and fens that have been lost to agriculture, as they are the most important habitat for storing carbon. The Government has still to agree how it will define ‘degraded ecosystems’ and so has not yet established a baseline by which to assess the area that needs restoring to meet this target.
The Government also has legal commitments under the EU Water Framework Directive to improve the ecological quality of England’s rivers, lakes and estuaries over the next 10 years or so, particularly by reducing pollution from agricultural runoff.
…but even with recent progress these goals are likely to be missed
Over the last few years some progress has been made towards meeting these goals.
- The majority of protected sites are recovering. The proportion of sites classed as recovering has risen from 14% in 2003 to 60% in 2013. This means that these sites now have management plans in place that, if implemented, will return them into good condition in time. This is a positive step, though it is not clear whether the 50% target by 2020 will be achieved.
- On average, around 4,000 hectares of new habitat and 2,300 hectares of new woodland have been created per year since 2007. This is well below the pace required to meet the 2020 targets. The Environment Agency also expect to create a further 2,500 hectares of new coastal habitat by 2025 through their flood risk management activities, though against this 1,700 hectares is projected to be lost due to rising sea levels over that time.
- Nearly half a million hectares of habitat has been under restoration since 2007. While positive, at a rate of around 65,000 hectares per year on average. Until a baseline has been set, we do not know if this in line with the pace needed to meet the 15% target.
- Just over one-fifth of water bodies in England are in good ecological condition. More than half (52%) are classed as being in moderate condition, and nearly one-quarter (23%) are in a poor condition.
Exchequer funding for restoration has been cut, making CAP funds even more important
The main mechanism for delivering the above gains has been funding from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In the last round of the CAP (2007 to 2013), some £2.6 billion of CAP funding was used for the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE), with the UK Exchequer adding an additional £1.2 billion. This fund was primarily used to deliver Environmental Stewardship, a scheme where farmers were paid to make wildlife-friendly improvements to their land through actions like planting new hedgerows, creating buffer strips around the edges of fields and rivers, restoring grasslands and reducing livestock grazing densities. Enough farmers signed up to cover 70% of all agricultural land in England.
The Government are currently considering the extent to which the next round of CAP, which runs between 2014 and 2020, should fund environmental improvements and rural development. The UK will receive just shy of £20 billion of EU CAP funding in total during this period. There is the flexibility to transfer up to 15% of funding from the direct subsidies budget (pillar 1) to rural development (pillar 2), termed ‘voluntary modulation’. Every pound allocated to the RDPE will mean less of the CAP fund going to farmers as direct subsidy, so is controversial. As the Exchequer contribution is due to be more than halved, from £1.2 billion to just over £0.5 billion, the amount that is transferred from direct subsidy will need to be higher if the RDPE budget is to remain broadly at the level of recent years.
The Government should stand by its proposal to transfer the full 15% to rural development
The size and shape of the RDPE will ultimately be a decision for Defra’s Secretary of State. The Department recently consulted on three options. The first is to transfer the maximum allowed under EU rules (i.e. the 15%), which would result in the next RDPE having a similar size budget as in the last CAP round (around £3.9bn in total), after accounting for the reduced Exchequer contribution. The second and third options would see less transferred, resulting in the RDPE budget either shrinking by nearly one-fifth (to £3.2bn) or being nearly halved (to £2.3bn). The Government’s stated preferred option is to transfer the maximum 15%.
It is quite possible that even if the overall RDPE budget remains the same, the amount of money available for habitat restoration will still be squeezed, as Defra is likely to increase the proportion of the fund that will be allocated for wider rural development, such as the roll out of broadband in remote areas. In the previous round less than 20% of the RDPE was earmarked for non-environmental schemes. From 2014 this could be much higher.
Any reduction in environmental funding will have major implications for continuing even the current, very modest, pace of restoration. There is an urgent need to scale up the level of effort if the Government is to meet its own goals. As a minimum, the Government should use the full amount of flexibility allowed under EU rules (15% voluntary modulation) to at least maintain the pace of restoration effort over the next seven years.
A funding gap will still remain, how could it be met?
However, meeting the habitat restoration and water quality targets will require significant resources, with Defra estimating a price-tag in the region of £7.5 billion between 2014 and 2020. It is clear that even the most sympathetic RDPE option for habitat restoration will still leave a shortfall of more than £3.5 billion.
This means new and innovative approaches will be required to deliver the scale of restoration needed. A follow-up to this blog will explore the potential role that private sector investment could play in building environmental resilience, and how this might be encouraged.