29 Dec 2016

Major initiatives to help species in decline – here in the UK and around the world – must be welcomed. The UK government’s new 25 Year Environment Plan is a much needed statement of intent.

The emphasis on everyone playing a role is crucial to success. Each and every one of us should indeed do our bit.

However, in many areas this plan but does not go nearly far enough. As one of the UK’s leading conservation and education charities, it is our duty to speak out now to address aspects of the plan which require serious improvement.

Longer term planning is certainly valuable but the challenges facing the environment urgent and immediate. This 25 year plan risks delaying the vital action needed.

The target to eliminate avoidable plastic waste is 2042 – if we wait this long there will be more plastic in our environment than wildlife. Much of what we cherish will be lost. We are in danger of kicking the environmental can down the road along with all the other plastic waste around it.

We are facing an extinction crisis right now. Worldwide, iconic wildlife species including black rhino and Sumatran orangutans could be extinct within a decade. In this plan the government sets out a list of achievements so far in improving our global environment, but it is short on the new commitments needed to prevent these species’ extinction.

For example, if we are to prevent our consumption of household products and food items from destroying the rainforest homes of species like the Sumatran orangutan then supporting initiatives like sustainable palm oil production is vital. The plan recognises the progress that has been made with the promotion of sustainable palm oil and proposes to take a similar approach to other commodities that affect deforestation but the target of convening just one roundtable discussion on this in 25 years is wholly inadequate. This is one of the most urgent challenges in global conservation and we expect much more.

Closer to home, familiar and formerly widespread species such as the hedgehogs, water voles and the small tortoiseshell butterfly are declining fast. They face extinction in the UK well within 25 years if we don’t act quickly.  Many species rely on our network of protected sites which must all be restored to favourable condition within 25 years (not 75% of them as the plan un-ambitiously proposes).   

The proposal for a ‘Nature Recovery Network’ covering 500,000 ha in addition to protected areas is more encouraging. However, we would call for more detail on how this can be achieved. Current projects such as the Wildlife Trusts’ living landscapes and RSPB’s Futurescapes could provide the blueprint, as well as initiatives like our Wildlife Connections campaign which is connecting wildlife habitats in urbanised areas.

Even with a renewed effort to improve habitat, many species will need a helping hand if they are to return to our landscape so it is good to see species recovery in the plan. Once again, however, no real targets are set. It is imperative that work on the reintroduction of native species goes far beyond the plan’s proposal to develop a ‘code’ and best practice guidelines, which are already produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

There is a strong emphasis on creating more woodland in the plan and the commitment to plant 11 million trees is eye-catching. However, it should be emphasised that planting more trees is not always good conservation and careful attention to how, where and what trees are grown will be needed, so as not to destroy other habitats of high conservation value for example.

The government’s Nature Friendly Schools programme is potentially valuable, but more attention is needed for secondary school age pupils and the commitment of £10m in funding is not nearly enough if we are to successfully engage a generation of future conservationists.

This plan is a start but we are concerned that it fails to grasp the urgency of the crisis we now face. We, as conservationists, call for much more ambitious and measurable targets to be set.  The time to act for wildlife is now.