The latest worrying statistics as shared in the recent State of Nature 2023 report cannot – and should not – be ignored by our politicians. The Wildlife Trusts head of public affairs, Elliot Chapman-Jones explains how this UK Government – and the next – will need to step up.
Every three years the UK’s leading conservation organisations and research professionals publish a report using the best and latest data on the status of wildlife in the UK. The world-leading State of Nature report is the most comprehensive health check of nature in the UK and provides a benchmark for how our wildlife is faring.
To date, the results have not been promising.
With report after report sharing the same grim reality one would hope that action would follow to ensure a wildlife-rich future for generations to come. So why is it, that now in its fourth edition, the 2023 State of Nature report continues to paint a bleak picture? The latest report, published yesterday, revealed that there has been no let-up in the decline of the UK’s wildlife. One in six species is now at risk of being lost from Great Britain altogether and wildlife has, on average, declined by 19% since monitoring began in 1970. As a result, the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth.
And the public are aware of this decline – and care. A majority of people think that nature is under threat and needs urgent action to protect and restore it. Despite this, and despite promises from successive governments to halt the loss of nature and “leave the environment in a better state for the next generation” – including a 2019 manifesto pledge from the Conservative Party to deliver “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth” – no party has yet set out an ambitious plan that would actually put nature in recovery.
We risk accepting the state of nature, and the terrifying consequences to our food security, climate, and economy, as an inevitability. But, with an election on the horizon and political parties busy drafting the manifestos they will present to the public, now is the time for them to finally set out a vision for brighter future.
The next election will be a crucial one. The UK committed to a set of 2030 targets to halt nature’s decline and protect 30% of land and sea. If we are to meet these, the next government will have to do the bulk of the work. If they manage, history will look on them kindly: achieving these targets will leave the country a greener, happier, and healthier place.
So, alongside Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Nature 2030 proposals, here’s what The Wildlife Trusts want all political parties to commit to:
1. Bring back the UK’s lost wildlife
It will be impossible to halt the chronic decline in wildlife without making more space for nature. The ongoing decline in species is being driven by the fact that there are too few places for wildlife, and those that do exist are too small, too fragmented, and are not in a good condition.
The next UK Government must work across departments to put nature into recovery by protecting and restoring at least 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. Beavers must be allowed back to all major rivers in England, a nature recovery network should join up wild places, and damaging fishing practices – such as bottom trawling – must be banned.
2. End river pollution and water scarcity
The state of our rivers is a national disgrace. The UK is ranked as one of the worst countries in Europe for water quality, with pollution beyond legal limits caused by a toxic cocktail of sewage and agricultural pollution. Our rivers are no longer suitable homes for wildlife, they are not fit for people to swim in, and we are seeing water availability decrease before our eyes. This is a crisis – and one that the public wants to see urgently resolved.
The next UK Government must sufficiently fund enforcement agencies to do their job. By 2030, nutrient pollution from farming, sewage and development must be halved, there must be stronger protections for our most special places, such as chalk streams, and more wetlands should be created to tackle flood and drought.
3. Fund wildlife-friendly farming
The State of Nature report shows that the intensive way in which we manage our land for farming is the biggest driver of nature’s decline. However, the loss of nature and the impacts of climate change are also the biggest threats to food security in the UK. Food production relies on healthy soils, clean water, and a stable climate.
Farming has huge potential to deliver a green rural renewal if farmers are supported to shift towards regenerative, nature-friendly methods. Many farmers and land managers have gone to great lengths to support wildlife but without being adequately rewarded. The budget for nature-friendly farming should increase to at least £4.4 billion a year to meet environmental goals, alongside supporting farmers to halve pesticide use by 2030 and adapt to climate change.
4. Enable healthy communities
Right now in the UK, poor quality living conditions are damaging people’s health and cutting lives short. It is the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable who are bearing the brunt of this situation, with nearly 9.5 million households in England unable to access green places near their home.
The current situation is unfair – but it does not have to be like this. Improving access to natural, wildlife-rich places where we live, learn and work will transform people’s lives, improving health, happiness and hope. The next UK Government must support the creation of more greenspace in neighbourhoods, fund community-based health services to save the NHS money and give every child the best start in life by increasing outdoor learning opportunities.
5. Tackle the climate emergency by protecting and restoring natural habitats
The continuing effects of climate change are one of the biggest drivers of nature’s loss according to the State of Nature Report. But nature can make a huge contribution to achieving net-zero targets if habitats are restored because peatlands, woodlands, and other wild places store carbon.
The next UK Government must integrate climate adaptation strategies across all departments, create a nature recovery network to help wildlife adapt to change, protect blue carbon stores from damage, and invest in energy efficiency to reduce emissions and people’s bills.
Britain is truly a nation of nature lovers
It’s the reason why Sir David Attenborough was once named as the UK’s ‘dream Prime Minister’. Polling shows that local green space it is the most important thing to foster a sense of pride in people’s communities – even more than pubs or the high street – so it’s unsurprising that even during the hardest times of the Covid-19 pandemic, people across the country turned to nature for peace and solace.
The response from politicians to this year’s troubling State of Nature stats should be to urgently set out plans for how future reports can instead be met with hope. How they will ensure that by 2030 we will start to see a return of the iconic species we have lost, how everyone will have green spaces they can enjoy on their doorstep, and how our rivers will be places for wildlife, not sewage.
Nature recovery is fundamental to improving people’s lives – history will not be kind to politicians that ignore this truth.