A perfect storm appears to loom over any attempt to restore wildlife and environmental health to one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
British conservationists were already facing the loss of EU funding and environmental regulations after Brexit. Now, as a deep recession bites, conservation funding is likely to be further hit as donors and philanthropic funders channel money towards human health.
During the austerity of the 2010s, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suffered bigger cuts than any other department. Is there any reason to expect anything different this time around?
Many environmentalists hope there is. The eight-week experience of lockdown has transformed public attitudes towards local green spaces, neighbourhood nature and wild species. Conservation charities are determined to mobilise this new interest.
“We’re definitely in an unfrozen moment with being connected to nature,” said Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB. “There’s this shift from consumer to citizen and all that goes with that in terms of community, place and sense of where you fit in the natural world and the global world. There’s a real opportunity to open that door which is tremendously exciting.”
In the short term, the RSPB (with 50% of its staff furloughed) must meet the challenge of opening up its nature reserves – an area the size of Suffolk. Car parks will open within the next two weeks but bird hides – where physical distancing is impossible – and many income-generating visitor centres will remain closed.
NGOs such as the Wildlife Trusts, with its popular #30dayswild campaign in June, whereby people pledge to undertake “random acts of wildness” each day, are encouraging public engagement in nature by showing its physical and mental health benefits. This will be key to ensuring that nature is seen as relevant by policymakers as society adapts to the coronavirus world.
“Nature conservation charities need to be part of the green recovery,” said Julie Williams, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation. “It’s vital charities are welcomed into a post-Covid-19 recovery programme fully funded by a government that grasps that interest in nature which people are discovering. Could we work in greater partnership with Public Health England and the NHS to help with that health and wellbeing agenda which will be so important as we start to recover?”
Butterfly Conservation and the RSPB are also developing more projects to boost urban wildlife, while the very white conservation sector is acutely aware it needs to become more diverse to encourage a more widespread range of supporters.
Transformed public appreciation for nature and green space may push government policy, but conservationists know their ability to reverse decades of biodiversity losses ultimately depends on funding.
The impact of austerity, according to Matt Shardlow, chief executive of Buglife, is evident in cash-strapped government agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency. “Statutory agencies are no longer delivering even a minimally acceptable service,” said Shardlow.
Although the government announced on Monday a £15m boost for Natural England this year, it will only make up a small amount of the cuts to the body over the past decade, during which funding dropped from £265m in 2008-2009 to a low of £86.5m in 2019-20.
Natural England is responsible for managing sites of special scientific interest. In 2010 the government pledged to ensure half of the SSSIs were in a “favourable” state for wildlife by 2020; that commitment has been quietly dropped, with just 39% in that state.
The key, says Shardlow, is to ensure the countryside is restored so it can perform ecological functions again – prevent flooding, for instance, and become rich once more in pollinators and other insects that provide natural pest control. The most cost-effective method is wildlife corridors so species can move through the landscape when challenged by climate change.
Even in a deep recession, there is money. Under the EU, British farming received £3.4bn each year. The post-Brexit farm subsidy, the Environmental Land Management scheme, is still being developed. If reality matches its vision – public money not for unsustainable farming practices but for public goods, such as preventing flooding, improving soils or boosting biodiversity – nature conservation could be transformed.
“A lot of the £3.4bn does need to go to biodiversity and the environment,” said Shardlow, who hopes that the new public mood will be matched by increased determination within Defra to resist further cuts.
“Defra were very compliant last time,” said Shardlow. “I hope they’ve learned their lesson.”