To save British wildlife we need to understand and appreciate those who own and manage the land, says Teresa Dent, chief executive of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Imagine our countryside alive with wildlife. Green lanes erupting in clouds of butterflies as you pass, water-meadows dappled with the flight of lapwings and moorlands filled with the cries of curlew, plover and other birds; the sort of richness we see only in documentaries about remote rainforests and tropical reefs.
There really were such times in Britain. The first naturalists in the world lived here and in the 18th century, just before the population boom and Industrial Revolution, the journals and letters of people such as Gilbert White captured a Britain abundant in natural diversity, long before the need to save British wildlife became so pressing. Most of it has gone.
In the past 50 years alone, 60% of 3,148 species studied in Britain have declined, one-third of them seriously, and it’s not just the iconic birds and butterflies that have diminished. From bats to beetles, much of what once made our countryside so rich and rewarding is in a dismal state.
Even where the job of producing wildlife has been taken on by the large conservation charities, the results have been little better, as was acknowledged in the State of Nature report last year.
CAN AGRI-ENVIRONMENT SCHEMES HELP SAVE BRITISH WILDLIFE?
It is not as though we are not trying. The UK’s agri-environment schemes offer a way to save British wildlife, designed to make farmland more environmentally friendly, are the envy of Europe; £480 million a year of EU money is spent and more than 70% of English farmers participate. In the past 30 years these schemes have poured more than a hundred billion pounds into the creation of wildlife habitats with £100 million of this targeted at lapwing recovery. Even this has seen a poor return as lapwings declined by 49% in England and Wales between 1987 and 1995.
Taxpayers’ money goes into environmental agencies in England and all the devolved areas, notably: Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales and their “watery” equivalents. The Environment Agency, for example, employs around 11,300 people and is responsible for a budget of about £1 billion; Natural England employs around 2,000 and has a budget of £193 million. Then there’s the voluntary sector, of which my organisation, the GWCT, is a proud member. The British people are immensely generous to our wildlife charities; the two biggest – the RSPB and the county Wildlife Trusts – have a combined annual income of £260 million. The RSPB has as many staff as Natural England.