This post is by Matt Williams, trustee of the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust.
In 2019, I led a small group of young people and their parents on a guided nature walk around Lugg Meadows. We heard a kingfisher, talked about how otters might be present in the river and watched a red kite circling nearby. As a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), this section of the River Lugg is protected for its importance for biodiversity.
But on 1 December this year, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, which cares for it, discovered that a stretch of the river, around a mile long, had been bulldozed. This will have a significant impact on wildlife in situ and downstream as well. A huge amount of soil has been released into the water, which will smother gravel beds where fish such as salmon and trout spawn. The lack of vegetation will mean that every flood this winter will result in more soil being lost into the water.
Normally, work of this kind requires different types of consent from a range of government’s statutory environmental agencies. There are varying reports from different parties involved about the reason, and permission, surrounding this incident. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and its agencies, are investigating and the police were also involved in gaining access to the site.
Regardless of the outcome of this individual incident, it underscores several important lessons.
Statutory agencies need resources to be the guardians of the environment
The ability of the Environment Agency, Forestry England and Natural England to respond in such a visible way to this case is, sadly, the exception rather than the rule. It has been widely reported that Natural England has suffered significant budget cuts. Its funding has dropped by £165 million since 2008, although Defra is yet to announce what the agency’s settlement will be after the government’s Spending Review last month.
Natural England is playing a leading role in the development and delivery of the Nature Recovery Network. This will see existing designated sites, the jewels in the crown, restored and protected, and connected by 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitat. Sites like Lugg Meadow should be at the heart of the network, with surrounding landowners working to make the wider countryside more hospitable to wildlife. However, at present only 38 per cent of SSSIs are in ‘Favourable Condition’ and, in 2019, only 54 per cent of them had been monitored in the previous six years. Having the capacity to monitor the condition of the country’s most important nature sites, and to act to restore them, is essential to restoring nature. For half of SSSIs that are in poor condition, no reason has been identified. If the government is to achieve its ambitious environmental agenda, it must give its agencies the resources they need to understand and restore nature.
The Environment Agency is also struggling with a lack of capacity, and Unearthed (Greenpeace) reported earlier this year that teams tasked with responding to pollution incidents have fallen in size by 15 per cent (even while the Agency’s overall budget and staff have increased).
An independent environmental watchdog will be a vital safeguard
In some cases, there may be reason to believe that environmental laws will not always be properly followed. A strong and independent environmental watchdog will be vital to enforce the law and, in some cases, possibly even to hold the government’s own environmental agencies to account. However, the government’s recent amendments to the Environment Bill (for example, giving it the ability to advise the new watchdog on what constitutes a ‘serious’ matter) further weaken what was already looking more like a tame puppy than an emboldened watchdog. The new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) must have independence from government advice, and of its funding and staffing, otherwise the body supposed to police the government risks being in its pocket.
The most effective way to give this watchdog financial independence would be for it to be able to submit its own estimate of its funding need (something which could still be secured in the Environment Bill).
The OEP should also be able to look at similar or repeated incidents or breaches of environmental law. This may allow it to undertake a strategic review or to tackle serial offences. Again, the Environment Bill could be amended to give it this power.
We must work with landowners to promote good soil and flood management techniques
Water and soil are inextricably linked. Increasingly intense rainfall means that more soil may be eroded off the land and clog up waterways. A report from 2014 by the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management makes it clear that widespread dredging (as is often called for) is not a solution to flooding, can have complex consequences, and potentially increase flood risk downstream.
Not doing harm to the environment is not something we should need to reward, but should be part of good land management practice. But farmers and land managers who work with nature and help to restore it should be rewarded by the new agricultural system. Initiatives, such as Catchment Sensitive Farming, run by Natural England, can help to provide tailored advice to farmers on soil management that reduces impacts on the water environment.
Going further than this, and returning rivers closer to their natural state, can help to reduce flood risk by slowing the flow. This can also benefit wildlife and store carbon if trees are planted as part of this as well. Public funding, or even private markets for ecosystem services, should reward the multiple benefits that land management approaches such as this can deliver.
The new Agriculture Act, and wider government ambitions, have the potential to contribute hugely to the restoration of nature. But they must be backed by sufficient independence and resources for the bodies meant to do this, and by championing and rewarding those farmers and landowners who pioneer approaches that benefit nature.