New government, new threats to wildlife

There’s a new government in the UK and an almost completely new team in Defra, but they’ve already made their mark by making statements which, taken at face value, look like an attack on the legal protections that apply to sites, habitats and species and also the greener policies that are being developed for farming in England. If you live outside of England thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to deal with this lot, and thank your fellow voters that similar things aren’t happening in your neck of the woods.

What is happening now all goes back to Brexit. I blame David Cameron.

Post-Brexit there has always been the likelihood that some of the most ardent Brexiteers would rather mindlessly start hacking away at any legislation that had the ‘EU’ label on it, things such as the Habitats and Species Directive (actually invented by a former British civil servant and MEP called Stanley Johnson – yes, Boris’s father). With its massive majority this government was able to give itself Henry VIII powers to amend legislation without full legislative scrutiny and it looks like we may see those used in future. This is really bad news for wildlife, and we are likely to see environmental protection reduced in the name of economic growth. A lot of things are being reduced at the moment, such as the value of the pound, confidence in the UK economy and so why should the environment get away untouched? Watch this space.

But also, at the same time, it seems as though the only environmental bright spot in Brexit, the chance to come up with a better way to encourage wildlife in the farmed environment, is also being swept away – dramatically and without warning.

The background to this is that the Common Agricultural Policy has not done a good job for wildlife over many decades, but then, the clue is in the name, it started as a post-WWII policy on food security with lashings of money for farmers and has slowly evolved to have green edges, but so slowly that the impact of intensive agriculture on wildlife has outstripped any net ameliorating impact of agri-environment schemes. the declines in wildlife on UK farmland have been greater than elsewhere in Europe – maybe we were better Europeans or was it simply that our farmland has been farmed to within an inch of its remaining wildlife and that hasn’t happened to quite the same extent elsewhere in the EU?  Surely, we could do much better with our brain power out of the EU? Well, the scheme in England that has been shelved, perhaps temporarily, perhaps not, has been groping towards that position. It has to be said that Defra looks as though it has been struggling with the development and roll out of a new scheme – not so easy standing on your own feet is it?

So, the big danger, the always predictable danger (and yes, I am exercising quite considerable restraint in not saying ‘I told you so’) is that we get the cuts to protection of sites, species and habitats and get no bright new environmentally friendly management scheme to soften the blow. I didn’t vote for Brexit and have never voted Conservative – how about you?

Maybe it won’t be that bad, there really might be quite a lot of thrashing around before any of this gets sorted out. For a very sensible view on things listen to Farming Today and Dieter Helm talking about this issue this morning at the end of the programme (click here).  See also this Defra blog (click here) claiming to be misunderstood – do you believe them?

There’s a masochistic part of me that wonders whether the more the new government destroy the UK economy the more likely it is that a new government in just over a couple of years might be able to make a new start to environmental protection. Wishful thinking?


13 Replies to “New government, new threats to wildlife”

  1. Mark,

    This was entirely predictable, and predicted…by me…as a guest blog –

    Whenever I am reminded of this, I wonder what ever happened to Richard Wayre (whose previous blog I was rebutting). He never responded to my blog. I’d be genuinely interested if he were prepared to revisit his views – does he still hold them?

    The only fortunate (and may be I am clutching recycled paper straws here) point is that whilst the Tories have an 80-seat majority, Liz Truss doesn’t enjoy the benefits of this in the way she may have thought she would. Given the clamour for her to go (!!!) and letters reportedly already being sent in (!!!), her ability to command and control her party is not at all clear, and not all in her gift. Will she make Christmas? …Halloween? …the end of this week?

    The danger is real – there will undoubtedly be a huge push for environmental protections to be diminished, diluted or deleted. But…this is going to annoy and frustrate a sector of the electorate that may not be paid up members of the Conservative Party, but would traditionally vote for them – millions of RSPB, Wildlife Trust, National Trust plus the myriad of other environmental NGOs, so I think any role back, whilst voiced, is not a certainty. Further, there are the farmers who will not all share the same view as the NFU; and professionals like me, who work in the planning system (and there will be 10,000s of us – so a niche but not a tiny voice) whose highly skilled jobs could be at risk.

    If you ask me, Liz Truss has failed to ‘read the room’, is clearly tone deaf when it comes to the public’s views on the environment, and in combination with the economy, has surely put her in an excellent position to eclipse Alex Douglas-Home as the PM with the shortest tenure?

    Boris must be wondering whether to unpack his proverbial plough, or just rely on a garden fork for the time being!

    1. I have now been disappointed several times over when believing that the government has been so bad that the Labour Party could not fail to win the the next general election but surely this time we have reached the bottom of the barrel and Truss will not get a second term. Whether or not she manages to survive until the end of the current five year term remains to be seen but I fear that in even a short space of time she can wreak a great deal of harm. Like many American Republicans, she appears to have a nihilistic streak that makes grabbing and clinging on to power the only purpose and to this end she will trash anything and everything as she pursues the basest nationalistic impulses of the electorate. In the face of this it is hard to feel any optimism for the fate of wildlife.

  2. I agree with a great deaL of what you say. But isn’t the key issue here to balance farming (feeding a growing population) with increased conservation needs? How to achieve that?

    As someone who remembers rationing I understand the post-war ‘must be self-sufficient’ concept. One of the key issues today is our absurd food import need. These cost the planet a fortune in environmental damage. Do we need strawberries at Christmas? What is our obsession with soya all about? I don’t fuss about importing EU food but avocados? Although have you seen the hectares of glasshouses in Holland and the poly tunnels in Spain. Not all good by any means. No wildlife there.

    Red tape is a real nightmare for farming, and I have first hand experience. Slacken the reins a bit. If we bred less we would do less damage to the planet. Simplistic but true. And, by the way, I have always voted conservative, but this PM is barking. I wouldn’t have voted for her in a million years.

        1. So that is a yes on voting Tory then.

          And can we stop idealising the suffering and rationing of WW2, please. It was a horrid necessity brought on by a calamitous series of foreign policy failures throughout the preceding decade, a state of existence to be endured until the times of plenty could come again. It was not something that was hoped to be permanent nor a virtue in and of itself, and seeking to replicate it as one is rank stupidity of the highest order.

          1. I think you have missed Austringer’s point. I don’t believe that he was idealising rationing and the suffering it entailed but rather the contrary, suggesting that it was something to be avoided. How we ensure that everyone can be adequately fed and whether the answer is to ‘slacken the reins’ on UK farmers are clearly debatable issues but Austringer surely has a point in questioning the sustainability of some of the food imports we participate in as a nation. Suggesting we can do without (tasteless) strawberries at Christmas is hardly a call to return to the privations of WW2.

    1. The solution is simple as always Austringer: consume less and have fewer children. The problem is that people are selfish. (We could do with a lot more justice too of course, and that’s mostly caused by selfishness too.)
      PR wouldn’t hurt either, to stop this electoral dictatorship we are moving towards (already in?)

  3. Yes, it all goes back to Brexit, and I too blame David Cameron. I also blame Jeremy Corbyn. If Labour had had a leader campaigning wholeheartedly for Remain, we might still be in the EU. And Corbyn is directly responsible for the Conservative’s huge majority now. But as Richard Wilson suggests, hopefully not one Truss can rely on.

    1. If I remember correctly, Corbyn said he was 70% in favour of staying in the EU, an appraisal that coincided with mine, that there were good things and not so good things about it and that with time it could be improved, in contrast with the extremes of all good or all bad. Also he was leading a divided Labour Party. The pity is that Lib Dems and Remain Conservatives wouldn’t hold their noses to combine with Labour to agree to a soft Brexit.

  4. Nicely summarised, Mark. It seems to me that Richard’s point about Truss failing to ‘read the room’ is bang on. In fact I would like to congratulate and warmly thank her for doing so, as her Government has thereby already achieved something highly significant and encouraging. She has managed to jolt the RSPB out of complacency and get them to show some teeth, catalysing a very broad spectrum of conservation organisations to follow suit. Crikey, even Tony Juniper showed some teeth momentarily over the weekend before (it would very much seem) being ‘spoken to’ by Defra and reverting to toeing the line on Monday. Prior to this hamfisted lot taking charge, I’m not sure I could have ever conceived of a situation where the CLA, RSPB, National Trust, Plantlife and so on are all levelling similar criticisms directly and forcefully at Government. My hope is that this represents a sea change and that Truss and her team may have inadvertently struck a significant blow for nature conservation and finally debunked the myth that this, and previous administrations right back to Cameron’s ‘Greenest Government Ever’ and arguably beyond were ever interested in anything other than substituting actions for words. An awful lot has been lost while we have dealt with such platitudes since the Rio Treaty of 1992.

    PS. On the other hand, Minette Batters failing to read the room is just funny.

  5. Utterly sickening, but not unexpected. It’s interesting that there’s going to be a motion presented at the National Trust AGM that it halts all rewilding of farmland it owns – the argument is that we need to maintain our food security. Aye those same people putting it forward will no doubt be lobbying to end better quality farmland being sold to developers and for something to be done about the 30 to 40% of our food that gets wasted. I will try and ask them.

    Eating less would help food security and waist lines too at a time of a national obesity epidemic. A bit less animal protein wouldn’t hurt and what about growing more of our food on some of that currently close mowed greenspace in urban areas – also more convenient for the educational work needed so the public understand where their food comes from and how to appreciate it. A hundred and one better options for improving food security and our health and saving wildlife than continually pumping money into highly marginal farming that does a better flooding peoples’ houses than feeding them, floods more fertile lowland farms too.

    It looks like the ‘ideology’ that brought down the guillotine on any real rewilding in Wales has spread its tentacles nationally. I’m so glad that some farmers are starting to publicly rebel against the NFU’s blatant anti conservation while it states with a straight public face it cares about wildlife. Contemptible organisation that’s never the target for as much open criticism and being publicly challenged as it really should be.

  6. The food security arguments are rubbish -see my guest blog on this site.

    When Defra was formed I said it was MAFF in sheep’s clothing. The sheepskin is slipping, and slipping badly – well on the way to removing the e for environment altogether and the rumour that NE may be ‘absorbed’ isn’t surprising as it’s been evolved into primarily delivering agri grants rather than doing wildlife and countryside.

    What is almost certain, whichever way things go, is that the countryside (mainly farmers) is going to lose serious money – I’ve seen between £800 m minimum and 1/2 (£1.6 billion) suggested and despite farmers being the Tories friends I think they’ll still lose out along with the rest of us as there are yet more swingeing cuts to public services to finance Liz Truss’s disastrous pseud-economics.

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