The government announced biodiversity targets in March aiming to recover Britain’s lost nature. But ecological and conservation groups have criticised the targets for falling well short of what the natural world needs.
The government announced long-term targets as part of the Environment Act on 16 March. It described the targets as “ambitious plans” that will “protect and enhance our natural world”. Amongst the measures laid out was a commitment to “halt the decline in our wildlife populations… by 2030 with a requirement to increase species populations by 10% by 2042”. But this target has come under fire for inadequacy.
On the same day the government published its proposals, the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) said the targets “show major weaknesses”. In particular, the 2042 target for species populations “could see nature in worse condition… than it is today”. And on 31 May, the Guardian reported that 23 scientists from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the Zoological Society of London and the Natural History Museum had written to prime minister Boris John to criticise the plans on similar grounds.
According to the Guardian, the letter explained that:
“the unusual methodology meant the baseline for improvement could be lower than the current situation. This is because the baseline has been set for 2030, eight years from now. The government’s target is for a 10% increase by 2042 from that date, meaning that even if biodiversity continues to spiral downwards until 2030, the government could still hit these theoretical numbers and call it a success.”
In September 2020, the Natural History Museum published its Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII). The scale intends to measure global levels of biodiversity. And analysis revealed that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet with “only half of its natural biodiversity left”. Little had changed a year later, when the UK remained in the bottom 10% globally for biodiversity.
The letter to Johnson said that the government must implement a 2022 baseline for species recovery. And it suggested a 20% or 30% increase in species target from this date. This would put the country on track for 1970-levels of species numbers by 2050. The letter said these targets are “warranted and essential”, going on to explain:
“It is warranted because we have abundant evidence of interventions that work to secure the future of species at risk of UK extinction (eg for bitterns, cirl buntings, marsh fritillaries, greater horseshoe bats).
“It is essential because we need a step change in scale of response to ensure that these species don’t simply survive, but thrive, and that declining but still widespread species such as skylarks and curlews are restored and continue to enrich lives and landscapes across the UK.”
Research for the BII clearly points to the industrial revolution as the primary engine behind the UK’s dwindling biodiversity. But other research has highlighted the role that the shooting industry plays in the ongoing crisis. A paper published in January 2022 on behalf of Natural England, for example, concluded that if driven grouse shooting stopped then the land occupied by those estates could:
“deliver multiple benefits for the environment and the whole of society and help to address the climate and biodiversity crises more effectively than is the case under current upland land uses.”
The paper also highlighted the devastating impact grouse shooting estates have had on raptor populations.
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