Is this our Silent Spring moment?
Last week the government published the latest statistics on wild bird populations in the UK, which show that the UK is in trouble. The statistics may have slipped under the radar for many given the election’s dominance of the news cycle, but they are a must read for anyone who cares about our natural world.
The latest report shows the relentless decline of many farmland bird populations across the UK. Many of our most loved birds are in trouble including the lapwing, turtle dove, starling, skylark and corn bunting.
Perhaps the most startling thing about this report is that, in many cases, the cause of the decline is known and can be attributed to changes in farming practices and management, increased use of pesticides and historic hedgerow removal.
Major choices have to be made
In 1962, Rachel Carson catapulted concerns about pesticide use in the US into the public eye in her book Silent Spring. Following this there was an intense debate that eventually led to a ban on the pesticide DDT for agricultural uses and also helped to inspire the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
For many years, regulation and the use of pesticides in the UK has been largely decided at the European level. However, after Brexit there are major choices to be made about our future use of pesticides.
With the advent of new environmental legislation through the Agriculture and Environment Bills, we have an opportunity to fundamentally change the way that we manage and care for our land. With the right support, farming can not only provide the healthy food that society needs but also deliver more for nature and help tackle climate change at the same time. Although there are many examples of where this is being done already, it is not business as usual for all farmers.
Here are some priorities for the government to reset the way we manage our land:
- Public money for public goods must remain the guiding force of future agriculture policy. The Greener UK coalition is calling on all parties to support a new Agriculture Bill that puts this principle at its centre. It would see farmers rewarded for providing public benefits such as clean water, clean air and thriving habitats for wildlife. Long term, substantial funding for farmers should be part of the new contract between the government and land managers.
- The Environment Bill must lead to ambitious targets to halt the decline in nature and bring about positive improvements. Environmental Land Management Schemes and Local Nature Recovery Strategies will be essential to deliver these improvements as well as targets on restoring and creating new habitats, protecting key species and reducing pesticide use.
- Environmental principles such as the precautionary principle must be enshrined in law. The government claims that the Environment Bill does just that, but it is wrong. The bill relegates these important legal principles to a policy statement. Instead, there must be an express requirement on public authorities to apply the principles in their policy and decision making. That is the current position and that is what is needed to at least maintain existing protections. Anything less is a regression from current standards.
- The government’s proposed Local Nature Recovery Strategies must be fully integrated with the new payment system for land managers. The decline of nature means there is no time for dysfunctionality and they must get off to a flying and solid start. Their design and management must involve nature groups, land managers, expert advisers and practitioners.
- Ministers’ ruminations on high environmental standards must be turned into legal commitments. Future governments will be guided by Acts of Parliament, but warm words are often conveniently set aside when other political considerations come along. A transparent and accountable approach to trade, with people and parliament given a full say in negotiations, will be essential to maintain high standards.