This post is by Dr Mark Avery who writes daily at Standing up for Nature and was formerly conservation director at the RSPB.
There are 500 days until the 2015 general election and so time is running out for the coalition government to impress the electorate with its green successes. In 2013 there have been two major NGO reports which indicate wildlife is still declining in the UK and that action by the Westminster government is inadequate.
Back in the spring, wildlife conservation and scientific organisations produced the State of Nature report chronicling gains and losses of wildlife over the years. It generally makes for miserable reading ; we are losing common plants, insects and birds from our lives. The story is now so familiar that it tends to lack much bite.
We have become accustomed to the slow decline
Rather little of that wildlife decline can be blamed on the current government after 13 years of Labour rule and only some of it can be blamed on the previous Labour administration. Wildlife responds over many years to policies that affect the wider countryside and the wise or foolish decisions of one government are part of the legacy they leave for their successors.
Wildlife declines are year-on-year declines rather than sudden impacts, and that makes them more difficult to detect and more difficult to promote as problems. We have become accustomed to getting a little bit richer each year, and average life expectancy increasing a little each year, and being able to travel abroad a little more cheaply each year, and these gradual aspects of a better and longer life are taken for granted. Similarly, we have become accustomed to wildlife being a little less obvious and little more endangered each year and it’s almost as though this is part of progress too.
If only the losses of turtle doves from our fields (84 per cent since 1995) had occurred in one year rather than spread out over two decades then maybe we would pay more attention to them.
Losing wildlife doesn’t lose elections
Governments always say they care about wildlife, and it is clear that the public certainly does as evidenced by the viewing figures for wildlife programmes and the membership numbers of wildlife conservation organisation, but millions of wildlife-lovers don’t seem to scare the political parties when the election looms. It’s rather difficult to lose an election on your handling of the farmland bird crisis.
And that’s why the second NGO report, Nature Check, is important. This assesses progress against government’s own promises. Against 25 areas, the report gives the coalition four green, 12 amber and nine red lights. You can judge for yourself whether or not they are fair.
When naturalists get together, they usually end up, often quite quickly, bemoaning the fact that they can’t get decision-makers to do enough for the natural world. Part of the problem really is the long term nature of the decline in wildlife. When the turtle dove, a formerly common species in south east England in my youth, goes extinct in the UK in about ten years’ time, it won’t be the fault of any single government, and certainly not of whoever is in power then.
Who serves wildlife well?
Our political parties do not treat the natural world as a battle ground. It always seems, and I speak as a Labour Party member, that Labour is rather clueless about the countryside and has very little to offer, until it gets into power and then it muddles through quite well, whereas the Conservatives know a lot about the countryside but once they get into power seem keener on killing wildlife, like badgers and buzzards, than protecting it. UKIP is unattractive to anyone who loves nature because its main policy would remove the protection of EU legislation from our wildlife; and the Liberal Democrats have always said the right things, but there remain doubts as to whether they would ever do them. Party politics is an area rich in disappointment for the wildlife enthusiast.
And then there are the wildlife NGOs, lots of them. Far too many in my opinion. If you were looking for a minority interest made to look even smaller by the way that its proponents are organised, then it is nature conservation. There are too many voices and they aren’t speaking loudly enough. If threatened wildlife could set up some NGOs then it wouldn’t come up with the fragmented bunch of wildlife NGOs that we have at the moment.
One is left wondering whether nature is well-served by wildlife NGOs, politicians or the public. Maybe the Christmas break will inspire us all to do much better. Have a happy Christmas, but remember that the two turtle doves may not be with us for much longer.