International Year of Biodiversity: is the celebration really a wake?

2010 is the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity.

During this year, according to the UN:

“The world is invited to take action in 2010 to safeguard the variety of life on earth: biodiversity”.

And we certainly need some action for life in freshwater in England and Wales where 80% of ponds are in poor condition, 75% of rivers and streams are failing to achieve ‘Good Status’ and unpolluted water has been all but eliminated from large parts of the landscape. And although things are a bit better in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, even in the remotest areas of the Highlands there is worrying, and unexplained. evidence of declines in stream wildlife from the Countryside Survey 2007.

All of this makes the daily reminders of the forthcoming cuts in the spending of public funds (aka ‘your money’) on the environment especially alarming.

So we know that one third of the staff of the governments conservation agency – Natural England – will be ‘let go’. Whatever you think about quangos this will mean less conservation being done –  there’s no magic pot of money available for voluntary organisations (like Pond Conservation, Buglife, Plantlife, RSPB and the other groups that make up the UKs voluntary conservation movement) to simply take over. And even if we could raise this money by signing up new members (rather than it coming from taxes) this will take time. To replace the 800 staff to be lost from Natural England for just 1 year would need, assuming they are paid the average wage, roughly half a million new members to join environmental organisations, each paying £40/year. This is the equivalent of the RSPB growing from its current membership of just over 1 million to 1.5 million – so no small ask. For Pond Conservation, our new membership scheme is only scratching the surface of what needs to be done: even though people are joining up daily.

And its not just staff cuts. We know that one of the best funding schemes for practical habitat creation and management – the so called Higher Level Stewardship scheme – is in the balance. This isn’t simply money going to undeserving farmers: much of it is spent by conservation organisations and landowners managing the very best wildlife habitats and the farmers in this scheme are invariably excellent, committed and knowledgeable lovers of the countryside.

The wonderful Otmoor ponds I featured here are on a site where HLS payments allow tenant farmers, working with the Defence Estates organisation, to look after the land in an old-fashioned, wildlife friendly, way.

We’re seeing cuts too in the science budgets of the Environment Agency – including in research on the effects of so-called diffuse pollution which affects practically all ponds, lakes and rivers – a curious move given that the Audit Commission pointed out recently that the Agency needed to do more in this area to get value for money.

None of these changes is going to help stop wildlife declines.

With the news of further bird declines this week, that invitation to take action during International Year of Biodiversity looks all the more essential.

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