As we welcome in the New Year, it's heartening to see reports that, following a cold spring, the hot summer we experienced across the United Kingdom made 2013 a good year for some of our wildlife. Conditions were ideal for many sun-loving insect species including butterflies, moths and elusive tree bumblebees. They also led to bumper crops of berries, nuts, seeds and other plants, which in turn helped provide important fuel for many small mammals and birds preparing for the winter.
However, if we are to ensure the 'good news' isn't just a blip, and that the long-term declines in our wildlife are to be halted and reversed, a real change in our approach to nature conservation and wildlife protection is urgently needed, and it needs to come from the very top of our society.
We were reminded just how much pressure nature is under by several key reports published in 2013:
Launched by Sir David Attenborough in May, the State of Nature report published by 25 key conservation and research organisations reported that 60 percent of UK wildlife species studied are in long-term decline. More than one in 10 species are in danger of disappearing altogether from the UK.
More recently, in December, the State of the UK's Birds report was published, again by a coalition of organisations. The research that went into this, the 14th such annual report, was used to help update the wild bird indicator project, which measures bird prevalence by type from a starting point of 1970. It presents a depressing picture of slow decline among most types of birds in the UK, in particular among our farmland birds whose abundance has declined to less than half the 1970 level.
These declines reflect complex changes in our landscape, resulting from factors including climate change, agricultural intensification and increasing urbanisation. Some of these changes will be hard to reverse in the short to medium term. However, with enough political and public will, there are many things we can do to help protect the natural world on which we all rely for many of the 'services' it provides.
This brings us to the government's performance as measured by Nature Check 2013, published by the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition of organisations in November and to which Humane Society International/UK made a significant contribution. In this report, government performance across a range of issues affecting wildlife was measured against its own policy commitments, using a simple 'traffic light' scoring system.
Sad to say the government is performing poorly, with nine 'red' ratings; 12 'amber'; and only four 'green.' From the lack of commitment to implementing the 'Biodiversity 2020' strategy, to a lack of progress on marine-protected zones, to uncertainty around planning regulations and their impacts on protected areas, government is failing to provide the necessary leadership and resources across a raft of essential environmental policy areas.
The recently announced increase to 12 percent of Common Agricultural Policy funds from direct farmer subsidy payments to environmental schemes is welcome and will bring much-needed investment, but it was disappointing to see the government capitulate to industry and climb down from the maximum 15 percent transfer it originally proposed.
The protection of some of our most iconic and best-loved wild animals is also being neglected. The disastrous and divisive badger culling policy, the continued lack of protection for our beleaguered hares against the impacts of shooting during the breeding season, and the seemingly ever-present spectre of some kind of repeal of the long-fought-for Hunting Act, which continues to enjoy overwhelming urban and rural public support, reflect how politicised wildlife issues have become. At times it seems government is prepared to sacrifice scientific and public opinion, and even economic good-sense, in order to satisfy the vested interests of certain small constituencies.
We cannot continue to treat wildlife and nature using the same economic and political criteria we apply to other commodities. Our natural world provides us with far more than can ever be estimated using simple economic models.
As we move into 2014, we must demand more from every sector of society - greater engagement with nature for our communities and particularly our children; greater sympathy from industry; and above all greater, more rational, and more sympathetic leadership from all levels of government.
A Happy New Year to all. Let's try and make it a better one for wildlife.
Follow Mark Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fishvetmj