In my 30+ years of working with environmental issues, I don’t think I have seen before so many stars aligning in such a potentially good way. This constellation of stars is so complicated it can be hard to see what is actually going on. But look behind the clutter and there are some common messages, one of which is a widespread agreement that we need to reverse the declines in nature and wildlife and move to a more healthy, sustainable, biodiverse and productive lifestyle. To do so requires some pretty fundamental changes in our thinking and what we consider normal and acceptable.
Especially since WW2 there have been some enormous and increasing pressures on our natural environment (for even longer at sea): the industrialisation and intensification of agriculture; the inexorable spread of housing development; the huge increase in fishing boat engine power; competition for space on, and around, a small island; the population explosion; people, especially children’s disconnection with nature; and the overuse of and dependence on fossil fuels driving climate change.
With changing baselines all of this change is an insidious spectre at what should be the feast provided by our greater knowledge, experience and improved technology. Most of us only remember back 10 – 50 years, and so the changes don’t appear so huge, but over longer timescales they are profound. We are losing wildlife, from insects to birds and habitats, from wildflower meadows to heaths, at an alarming rate. However, as I’ve written in numerous previous blogs, are we depressed and beaten down? No, far from it. Today promises to be the start of a brave new world where we acknowledge these issues, recognise the value of a healthy environment and take some action. We have had so many successes in the past. We just need to build on them. In Dorset we have fabulous wildflower meadows in the west of the county, better managed fish stocks at sea, otter populations recovering, damage to heaths reversed. The list goes on thanks to DWT, its supporters and a range of like-minded organisations.
The stars aligning
So what are these stars that are aligning and what are the reasons? Firstly my guess at the reasons are:
a. The situation worsening to a point where it just can’t be ignored. Look at weather changes, bee numbers and fisheries catch declines for example.
b. Good science and research into both the declines and the opportunities. From recent studies on insect population declines to better understanding as to how environment underpins business development.
c. An environment minister that does actually know his sustainability from his elbow. Minister Gove does seem to be driving an agenda of nature restoration, more sustained if not sustainable business development, and improved public health.
d. Some great lobbying, profile raising and successes by the Wildlife Trusts, The Green Alliance and many other partners, that show environment and development need not be in conflict, as well as support from industry groups like the CLA and local authorities.
A major step forward was the publication of Defra’s 25 Year Plan for the Natural Environment, supported by no less than the Prime Minister herself. More of a vision than a plan, but with a focus on most of the right things to make our countryside, healthier, more diverse and more safely protected. Three of the main things the 25-Year Plan calls for are a nature recovery network, environmental net gain and connecting people with nature.
Defra has also recently proposed an Agriculture Bill which is calling for public benefits for public money. In other words paying farmers to look after the natural environment that sustains us and the farming industry, rather than just subsidising the industry as Basic Payments currently do.
Working at a landscape scale
All this from government is ground-breaking stuff, but then add some concepts that are finally coming of age after years of gestation. One such concept is rewilding - a much misunderstood concept. In Britain, and particularly in Dorset DWT is focussing on rewilding as a landscape scale opportunity. It isn’t about bringing back wolves and mammoths, but rather about farming and managing more natural landscapes that will provide us with a range of services such as flood prevention, soil protection and pollinator support.
Another concept gaining traction is natural capital which I’ve blogged about previously. A useful means of getting business and development to consider and value the natural environment.
With these concepts and more local, on-the-ground initiatives such as catchment partnerships, and a range of building development protocols, I think we are getting to a tipping point on the seesaw whereby we have enough of these initiatives and concepts to show that looking after nature really works - for nature, for people and for business. However we need one last shove to get it over the line, to recklessly mix metaphors.
The big thing we need in order to pull all this together is an Environment Act for the UK. This is especially true now that we are leaving Europe and all its environmental protection laws and sector subsidies such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. To push for this Act which the Wildlife Trusts have been advocating for years, we will, across the country, be running a Wilder Britain Campaign. This will give people an opportunity to take action, to show to government the level of support there is for nature, and prescribe the features we want to see in such legislation.
These are indeed exciting, complicated and even unstable times, but there are so many opportunities that I am confident the tide will soon turn, as it must if we are to survive as a species, let alone hand over Dorset in a better state to the next generation.