Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I start by offering heartfelt thanks to all noble Lords who feel strongly enough about the great importance of biodiversity to stay and speak in this debate as the last business on the last day before our Summer Recess. I know how much we all look forward to heading off for the summer, as it is a great chance to get out and about and see some of the wonderful species that might be mentioned today, whether peregrine falcons on the cliffs or horseshoe bats. I find it just as much of a thrill to see some of the less rare but no less exciting species such as swallows, sundews in upland bogs capturing flies or just peacock butterflies on the buddleia. I declare an interest as a vice-president of Wildlife and Countryside Link, a member of various wildlife trusts and the Marine Conservation Society and a vice-president of the Council for National Parks.
For several years I have felt very gloomy about the outlook for many species, as no doubt have many of your Lordships. However, I am tempted to feel a bit more cheerful today given the amount of activity that is now going on, so I shall start with reasons to be optimistic. First, it is the International Year of Biodiversity, in which the United Nations has agreed to create the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. That is certainly needed given the extent of the biodiversity crisis, the evidence for which was presented in the third edition of Global Biodiversity Outlook, which made pretty gloomy reading. Although my Question concerns the UK, and the rest of my speech will concentrate on that, I would like the Minister to mention what preparations the UK is making for the meeting in Japan in October and what sort of contribution it will make.
As I say, I shall concentrate on the UK. My second reason for being optimistic is that this week we saw the publication of the discussion paper preceding the White Paper on the natural environment. I am pleased that our Government have chosen to make this a very early priority. The emphasis given to biodiversity in the White Paper will be extremely important and will lay the ground plan of work for years to come.
The third reason for feeling optimistic is Sir John Lawton’s report Making Space for Nature, which the previous Government commissioned. This Government will continue to take on board what Sir John’s final report says. His update in March reported that to achieve a coherent and resilient ecological network we will need to look beyond existing designated sites and take account of landscape designations, local wildlife sites and green spaces.
There are terrific examples of partnership work to build on. I give as an example the Great Fen, a collaboration between Natural England, the Environment Agency, the local wildlife trust and the district council, which joins two national nature reserves and creates more than 3,700 hectares of wildlife habitat. That will bring multiple benefits, not just in biodiversity but in water quality and recreation for local communities. There are multiple benefits from thriving biodiversity, as other things are kept healthy. That lesson runs through a lot of the recently produced work.
That leads me to my fourth reason to be optimistic: the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study published on 13 July. This is a major international initiative that draws attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity and highlights the growing financial costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. It provides scientific and economic evidence of what many of us previously had only a hunch about. Incidentally, one interesting thing that the report highlights is that more than 50 per cent of chief executive officers in Latin America and 45 per cent of CEOs in Africa believe that declines in biodiversity are a challenge to business growth. In contrast, only 20 per cent of CEOs in Europe feel that it is an issue. There is some education of the business sector still to do here.
My final reason for optimism is the report of the European Environment Agency, which talks about the important opportunity to address the shortcomings in the agriculture sector that further CAP reform will offer in terms of biodiversity.
I move on to reasons to be pessimistic. The first relates to history. There have been plenty of efforts by many Governments to legislate in this area. There is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000—I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will speak in this debate, because she and I worked hard to put the biodiversity duty into Part III of that Act—and the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. I should be grateful if the Minister mentioned something about how implementation of that Act is going, especially the designation of MPAs.
The second big reason to be pessimistic relates to the biodiversity indicators published in May, which show that there is still plenty of bad news around, especially for farmland and woodland birds. That relates partly to farming practices. For example, the switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown cereals resulted in a dramatic reduction in skylark chicks. There have been further losses of habitat, including ancient woodland, which is irreplaceable. The Woodland Trust estimates that in the past 10 years we have lost nearly 500 acres of ancient woodland and that 400 hectares—roughly 800 acres—in some 200 woods are still under threat. We have lost further ground in terms of the butterfly population. The results are very mixed. We have made a few gains, so it is not all bad news. However, we do not seem to gain much ground, despite the fact that resources were put into this area. Against a background of cuts in funding, that looks pretty difficult. However, it is not always bad news. At one time, cuts meant that verges were not trimmed so much; the effect on wild flowers, insects and small mammals was almost instantaneous.
Too much tidiness is partly to blame. Gardens are often sterile paved areas, with all the fallen wood cleared and buildings with no nooks and crannies. The old Christmas card favourite of a robin nesting in a rusty watering can would not be easy to find any more. Municipal tidiness is also an issue. Canalised streams and rivers, with their habitat-free concrete sides, are very bad for biodiversity and a very poor way to deal with heavy rainfall, because flood waters sweep through canalisations. I am glad that the Environment Agency, among others, is doing much to reverse this work, to the benefit of biodiversity and flood management. Nottingham City Council is an interesting example. It has created wildflower meadows in an effort not only to improve biodiversity but to reduce the carbon footprint and address flooding issues by absorbing more water run-off.
My final two points concern education. If our next generation does not understand the value of biodiversity, it will not protect it. The Countryside Alliance has just published a strong suggestion for the Government with many reasons why the education of our next generation is falling short. There are not enough school trips and not enough use of the outdoor classroom. We must address that and I would be glad of the Minister’s comments.
My final point concerns public involvement for everyone. This week, we have the Big Butterfly Count, organised by Butterfly Conservation and sponsored by Marks & Spencer, which gives us all a chance to get out and count butterflies. We had the RSPB bird count earlier in the year, while Pond Conservation has the Million Ponds Project, which is going well. A pond, no matter how small, is an exciting example of something that individuals, schools and local authorities can all create.
I ask the Minister how we can begin to improve biodiversity against a background of cuts. My first move in the recess will be to visit the newly opened Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum, which is a hub for all us amateurs who would like to know and contribute more. That will be tremendously exciting.
My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer for giving us the opportunity to consider biodiversity loss. As I listened carefully to her, I decided that she erred more on the side of optimism than pessimism, and I agree with her on that, although clearly there are causes for both. I tend toward optimism at the UK level, but at the global level I take a different perspective. Like her, I start by declaring an interest. I am a farmer and I chair the Living with Environmental Change Partners Board, which is a research collaboration across departments, research councils and agencies. I am a member of the Wildlife Trust and I am proud to be the patron of Pond Conservation, to whose Million Ponds Project my noble friend referred.
The question for debate this afternoon refers to halting the decline in United Kingdom biodiversity, but it is important to set this in an international context. This country is committed to halting its decline through the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which we were one of the earliest signatories. The target set in 2002 for this year, 2010, is going to be a failure, as we shall not get anywhere near it in global terms. In other words, leaders set up targets which were simply not deliverable, and there is a message there that we have to think about carefully.
The causes of biodiversity loss are habitat change, which is often caused by land use changes, economics, invasive species, resource overexploitation, pollution and climate change. I dare say that others can add to that list and no doubt will. However, for any target to be realistic, whether at the global, national, regional or community levels, you have to have a very clear idea about the extent to which those different components are responsible for biodiversity loss. You also have to have suitable monitoring in progress, with research behind it, and then, with a bit of luck and with involvement from all interested parties, you might be able to put in place management measures and policies that will help to address the issue. It is no good setting targets without a very clear understanding of what you are trying to do.
In October there will be a meeting in Nagoya in Japan at which Defra will be committed to supporting new, ambitious targets, yet, at the national level, Defra’s draft structural reform plan talks about replacing the old top-down system of targets and putting power into the hands of people and communities with a better understanding of the practicalities, particularly the economics. This is precisely how we should be tackling biodiversity loss, whether at the international or national level, or at the community level, if we are to stem the loss of biodiversity.
Policies and initiatives which are likely to enhance our biodiversity are much more likely to work if the local community is involved in analysing the problems and shaping the solutions. Therefore, whether at home or abroad, this is where the concepts articulated within the idea of the big society are absolutely appropriate. A partnership of local communities, civil society, members of the public and businesses—not least farmers and land managers—should be setting the local agenda, with of course a contribution from government at local and national levels and other such agencies.
We have in this country the inestimable benefit of a large number of amateur and professional enthusiasts for conserving wildlife, and conservation societies with an enormous membership. My noble friend referred to Butterfly Conservation’s butterfly count. I hope to get back in time to do my butterfly count this evening before the last of them disappear. When I looked this morning, 6,000 records had been posted since Saturday, and I am sure that by the end of the week the figure will be even more impressive.
When we look at who should deliver on these proposals, farmers clearly come high on the list because they are, after all, responsible for 70 per cent of the land mass. However, agri-environmental schemes driven by government and by the European Union are not the only way in which you can help to influence farmers. Those who can also do so are their retail customers. As a fruit grower, I supply a large number of multiples, who are increasingly taking what I consider to be a very healthy interest in the conversation policies that we are adopting on the farm. However, the case for persuading farmers that they should participate in halting the decline in UK biodiversity must ultimately be underpinned by economics.
We have never adequately assessed the value of our natural environment and the services that it provides. At the international level, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment attempted to assess numerous ecosystems worldwide and to begin a dialogue for a science-based approach to their management and restoration. That was an excellent precedent and it is now being followed in the United Kingdom, which next year is due to publish its own UK National Ecosystem Assessment report. It is a massive work to which an enormous number of people—experts and amateurs—have contributed. I think that this assessment will give us the tools with which to understand the benefits to society and the economic prosperity provided by these services. I refer of course not just to biodiversity but to other environmental services as well, but biodiversity is probably the one area, together with climate change and the nutrient cycle, where we are demonstrably and clearly living unsustainably. Our loss of biodiversity is way beyond the natural level and we are clearly exceeding our sustainable practices. We shall have to concentrate on these points. It should then be much easier to make the case for putting in place land management practices for which the land managers—the farmers—will be appropriately rewarded to reflect the benefit to society and, of course, to ensure that polluters from any sector of society carry the cost of their actions.
We should not underestimate the importance of urban gardens and parks. Garden ponds are highly significant as regards the biodiversity that they support. I refer again to Pond Conservation and here I put in a plug: please ensure you do not fill your ponds with tap water. That is not a good idea and it is the reason why so many ponds do not deliver all the benefits that they should.
One of the programmes connected with Living with Environmental Change is Open Air Laboratories—OPAL—which were originally funded by the Big Lottery Fund, which awarded a grant to Imperial College. That is an example of an excellent initiative which has the key objectives of getting more people outside observing and recording the world around them, inspiring a new generation of environmentalists, and encouraging and supporting collaboration between community, voluntary and statutory sectors and academia.
That is the kind of initiative which will do more than any international or national targets to develop and to enhance biodiversity. Regional research programmes and recording schemes, lively natural history societies, and adequate public funding for taxonomy are the basis for an understanding of our biological diversity and they will be the keys for a successful national biodiversity enhancement programme. The reason why I tip, on balance, towards optimism, like my noble friend, is that I believe that the Government have understood the importance of getting wide support from the community. That is to be welcomed.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating this Question for Short Debate.
It is not uncommon for biodiversity to concentrate on the more photogenic species but I shall concentrate on the local picture. My diocese of Blackburn may be thought of as an industrial area suffering from economic turbulence and decline. However, around 75 per cent of the area—the diocese is the Church of England in Lancashire—is classified as rural. Given that background, biodiversity is vital. If the rural economy is to flourish and to continue to provide more than 100,000 jobs in the whole of the north-west, we must maintain the habitats that we have and ensure that they do not decline any further. It is important not to let this issue slip away. We in the church have played, and will play, our part in ensuring that that does not happen.
Recently, there was a conference held at Lambeth Palace of all the environmental officers of the Anglican dioceses. By sharing good practice and working closely together, they are making large strides to promote a healthy environment. We already have ecocongregations around the country and we will soon be launching the ecodiocese movement alongside it. Schools are involved. In my diocese, St Christopher’s Church of England High School in Accrington hosted a very successful ecofair in June, and we hope that many young people will be involved in a bioblitz at Cuerden Valley in early August, where they will be encouraged to get involved in a ladybird project, among other events.
It is fitting that I should concentrate on the young people. I want to echo what the noble Baroness said about education. The young people, of course, are the ones who stand to gain or lose most if we do not take care of the diversity that we have on this planet, which we borrow for such a short time.
Some noble Lords will be aware of a few of the activities undertaken by the Church of England in support of the UN International Year of Biodiversity. In many urban areas, remember that the churchyard is often the only green lung for the community. The rural churchyard can often be a haven of biodiversity surrounded by acres of monoculture. If all our churchyards were placed side by side and end to end, they would form a huge national park. The church currently has over 12,000 churchyards throughout the country taking part in biodiversity projects. Last month, many of them took part in the Cherishing Churchyards initiative, as part of the nationwide project run by Caring for God’s Acre and supported by the Church of England’s national environment campaign, Shrinking the Footprint.
For example, at St Peter & St Paul with St Andrew’s Church, Flitwick, in Bedfordshire, more than 100 species of wild flowers have been recorded in the churchyard. All Saints, Odell, in Bedfordshire has won an award from the Campaign to Protect Rural England for its community-led conservation projects. Even in London, St Andrew’s Church, Fulham Fields, has a dedicated section to its churchyard called the Fulham Fields wildlife garden. Although not a churchyard, the garden at Lambeth Palace—the home of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is not in his place today—hosted an open day in May as part of International Biodiversity Day, run in conjunction with the National Gardens Scheme. Lambeth Palace has one of the oldest and largest private gardens in London, and has been occupied by the archbishops of Canterbury since the end of the 12th century. Its garden has a vast collection of plants and animals within its walls, including an historic white fig tree originally planted in 1555 and its own beehives.
On 22 September, heads of state will assemble at the United Nations to discuss the biodiversity crisis, and the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity is encouraging the ringing of bells all over the world on that day as an urgent call to rouse the world to action. We have already heard from a bishop in Uganda who, while having no bells in his diocese, has suggested involving the drummers of his parishes. I have already invited churches in my own diocese to be part of this worldwide call to action about the importance of biodiversity.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Miller, who reminded us today of 10 years ago when we took the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill through this House, and of the many discussions we had on establishing a biodiversity action plan. I am grateful for the work that she and many others did with me at that time. It was a hugely important step. It was 10 years ago; it seems like only yesterday.
In paying tribute to those who have worked for a long time, it is 30 years since the Wildlife and Countryside Link formed. It issued a report recently which struck me, because it covered each year. If we look back over 30 years, we see how much change has taken place. I follow my noble friend Lord Selborne in saying that I am quite optimistic. There is a lot to be done, but there is greater awareness and understanding than there was even when we were discussing the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill 10 years ago.
I should declare my family interest and my many interests in farming organisations and in wildlife trusts. The Question asks what resources the Government will provide. It gave me great pleasure to look back on the few months for which this Government have been in being. We have had three major announcements. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to one of them. To take them in order, there was the recent announcement by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, about the establishment of Futurescapes, with the commitment to build partnerships with other environment groups, local communities, the private sector and government bodies. In doing that, it is hoped to learn from the major contributions made by others, including wildlife trusts, Living Landscapes initiatives and Natural England’s integrated biodiversity delivery areas. That was one mark straight away.
The second announcement, which may not be relevant today, was the Statement made in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Marland, on energy and waste. Farmers produce food and we use food, but there is also waste, and there is the question of how we use waste to help biodiversity in the long run. The delivery plan announced yesterday committed us to a comprehensive programme of appropriate financial support for renewable electricity and, as part of that, action to exploit the potential of renewable electricity from dedicated biomass, energy from waste and anaerobic digestion. That seems wide of the Question, but it is important. How we live and how we use our resources clearly has an effect on biodiversity. Only two days ago, on 26 July, the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, launched the environmental White Paper, An Invitation to Shape the Nature of England. It is an exciting paper and I hope that people participate in the consultation. Lastly, the noble Baroness mentioned CAP reform. That is too big an issue to cover in the time that I have today, but CAP reform has huge implications for biodiversity.
I now switch to the subject of farming organisations. Farmers land-manage more than 74 per cent of the land. The NFU, the CLA and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust work hard at improving conservation awareness on all farms. The Campaign for the Farmed Environment was launched nine months ago and applies to arable land. More recently, there was a launch about horticultural land. It deals with how intensively farmed land can be sympathetically used to help wildlife.
I turn to two other organisations. One is FWAG, of which the noble Baroness and my noble friend will be well aware. The second is LEAF, of which I am president. Here we are, 19 years on, with an organisation that was started to link the environment and farming together in ways that have developed in recent years. Its “Open Farm Sunday” is well known. More than 180,000 people visited farms on that day. It also runs the green box scheme and recently started the LEAF virtual farm walk, which is open to anyone to access from its site and is a very good way to encourage people to learn more about what happens on a farm. It also organises technical days and speak-outs.
The noble Baroness and my noble friend mentioned taking the message to people so they have a better understanding. I mention FACE, Farming and Countryside Education, which is an organisation that takes the message into schools. Many other groups help. The NFU does, as does the Women’s Food and Farming Union, but we need to do more to get the message out further and wider than is possible at the moment.
I turn to the third leg of my stool. We have government and the farming groups, so it is us as individuals in what we do as individuals and within our groups. I totally agree with my noble friend Lord Selborne that we are trying to work together for the benefit of all. I do not think this is a thing that government or farmers can do alone. Togetherness is the way to succeed. Knowledge exchange, to which I referred earlier, is hugely important. There are ways in which we can get to those who are not lucky enough to be out and about in the countryside or to know how their food is produced or where it comes from. I have mentioned one or two, but there are also school visits, farmers going to schools to help and holiday days where people can go out into the countryside. There is an enormous amount of work undertaken there.
Membership of wildlife groups and wildlife trusts is hugely important because not only does it teach people about what is going on in their local trust area, but it encourages them to take part. Any plans that we have that encourage people to feel part of it are hugely beneficial.
Lastly on that side, I turn to the buying power of individuals. We buy our food and can look at labels—the red tractor flag, a LEAF flag or an assured scheme—to know whether it comes from a recognised source. That tells us how that farmer is producing that food. We have power. I suspect it is a power that many of us do not really appreciate, but I am dreadful when I go shopping and look very carefully.
There are reasons for being optimistic, and there are individual ways in which we can help ourselves to benefit everybody. The noble Baroness posed us much more than a simple cash question. It is also a matter of commitment. This new Government have already shown that they are committed to looking at better ways to make biodiversity work in the widest sense. I am of the view that it is not just us on our own who can do it. I was particularly pleased when Caroline Spelman said in her formal announcement,
“I want to nail a particular myth: that economic gain”—
I pause here because farming must be productive and profitable—
“and environmental protection are incompatible, whereas they are actually inseparable. And all too often we decide that looking after our natural environment is something to be left solely to Government”.
I hope this debate proves that that is not true.
My Lords, this is an excellent debate to have just before we break for the Summer Recess and I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for introducing it. In, probably, two days’ time, I will be travelling from the biodiversity of urban gardens and suburban London—we are not quite there at the minute, but I will be travelling through it—westwards through the monoculture of Salisbury plain, where we have fantastic vistas but not a lot of biodiversity, down to where I live in the far south-west in Cornwall, where one of my great delights these days is that, almost whenever one looks skywards, one sees buzzards and other birds of prey that one would never have seen to that degree even a few years ago. That is perhaps one cause for optimism.
At that point, optimism will end in my speech, but it is good to remember that this is not just about the great joy that we get from seeing the diversity that we studied as children and as adults; we also have a moral need to look after our planet and the things that have been bestowed on us to pass on to future generations. We should not forget that there is also an important economic implication of the loss of biodiversity. It has been estimated—how you estimate these things, I do not know—that some 7 per cent of world GDP may be lost by 2050 if we carry on with the rate of depletion of species that we have at the moment. Then there is the whole area of medical science. We still find nature, rather than the synthetic chemicals that we produce, providing us with many of our solutions to disease, so those areas are important as well.
As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said, there are a number of reasons for biodiversity loss. One is the destruction of habitat. Another is the overexploitation of particular species, which tend to be the larger ones that we all know, see and love. The third important one is climate change, on which I will concentrate today.
I remind noble Lords that five major extinctions have been identified over geological time. It is estimated that we are entering the sixth extinction. In the Permian period 250 million years ago—beyond even the living memory of those in this House—we lost an estimated 95 per cent of marine species and 75 per cent of terrestrial species. If we are moving towards that now, we should be very afraid indeed. The irony is that these mass extinctions are very good for biodiversity. In fact, there are more species on the planet today than there have ever been. The difficulty is that it takes several million years to recover from one extinction and get to the flowering of greater biodiversity later on. The human race is only some 200,000 years old and does not have that time.
The challenges of climate change, global warming, the decline in biodiversity and a further potential mass extinction are great. Why do species disappear in the UK or anywhere else? It could be because some species move northwards swiftly with their own habitats as temperatures go up in the UK, or because of invasive diseases and invasive species, which are bad news for human beings in some parts of the world—malaria is an example. Such diseases can affect other species as well. It could be because of food loss or the symbiotic relationship between species. A well known example is a certain species of plover, which is starting to hatch at a different time from its food, the crane fly, because of the different ways in which those species have reacted to global warming.
The largest threat, however, is probably the acidification of the ocean, as carbon dioxide gradually makes the oceans more acidic. Even now, that is affecting coral ecosystems in particular, which are the basis of food chains in the ocean. What really comes out of all this is the huge challenge for biodiversity, not just in the UK but globally. Clearly we all want to solve this through the mitigation of climate change. However, as so many noble Lords here know, that will not be the answer because many of those changes are already taking place.
I will be slightly unconventional in this debate now. I was delighted to see that the speaker who follows me on the speakers list is the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who is one of the champions of adaptation. Indeed, she is a member of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change. I looked up the sub-committee’s website before I left home and found a useful quotation:
“At present there is little evidence on what successful adaptation over the next five years would look like, how we might measure it and set priorities”.
I suggest to her, the Government and the Minister that one area that desperately needs looking at is the effect of climate change on biodiversity and species loss and what adaptation strategies are needed. I looked at the sub-committee’s work programme but could not find biodiversity mentioned. I know that the sub-committee is in its very early stages of work, but I commend that area as one to be looked at. What sort of strategies are the Government hoping through Defra to implement that will start to enable species in this country to adapt? For example, we could have a string of reserves, but we need to make sure that our existing habitats are resilient enough and that species can go a short distance upwards or from drylands to wetlands to give us more resilience in this area.
I am pessimistic. At the moment, with a background rate of species loss some 100 times greater than is normal in geological time, we have a great challenge. I believe, as do many noble Lords, that with sufficient concentration we can solve this adaptation problem, but it is one of our greatest challenges. I look forward to hearing how the Minister and perhaps even the Committee on Climate Change will be able to confront that problem.
My Lords, I am delighted that I will not be the only pessimistic person standing up today. I was beginning to feel that perhaps I would be my usual dark cloud in a sea of cheerfulness. I should declare an interest as president of the British Trust for Ornithology, the volunteer science body in bird conservation, and president of the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Peterborough. Perhaps I should be allowed an extra minute to read the list of things in which I am involved. I am vice-president of the RSPB and of Plantlife, chairman of the Great Fen fundraising campaign and, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, a member of the climate change adaptation sub-committee. These are my UK interests. As this is a UK debate, I have not for the purposes of the record mentioned my international ones.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for the opportunity to do our bit—playing the Glasgow Empire on a wet Tuesday being the equivalent of the last debate before we break for the Summer Recess—on something as important as this. I know that the noble Baroness believes that there are reasons to be cheerful and reasons to be less cheerful. I am trying to pitch what I say today as a realist because the picture of UK biodiversity is very mixed. The message that comes from what is and is not thriving is that, where action has been clearly targeted and counted, where resources have been particularly focused and applied, and where there is a comparatively small number of bodies involved in delivering, we have seen improvement. For example, our sites of special scientific interest were in a very poor condition. There has been a terrific effort by a substantial number of bodies, but not a huge number, to hit the 2010 target for improvement in quality of our SSSIs. That has been a great success.
That pattern of success has been repeated across some habitats and some species. For example, a clear target was set for heathland re-creation and improvement in quality after a 90 per cent loss, with the progress being absolutely in the right direction. Where there is targeting and resources, and a comparatively small number of organisations involved, it can work. Other habitats and species have not responded, especially those species of the wider countryside and particularly, as has already been said, of the wider farmed countryside.
Farmland bird declines continue. The most recent report by the BTO, the RSPB and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee demonstrated that farmland bird decline has not been halted. I believe that we are struggling in areas where there is insufficient targeting of resources, no clear injection of resources and where the actions that need to be taken are by a very large number of people.
I was glad to see recently that the Secretary of State said that alongside climate change biodiversity loss is the greatest threat we face. We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and others about future threats to climate change: namely, not only the impact on habitats in this country but also the pressure for global food security; population growth in this country, which is possibly enhanced by climate change; and, of course, development pressures. What we need the Government to do, while recognising the financial situation, is pick up the challenge, which is twofold. First, within this financial constraint, we must not lose what we have so recently achieved, so things like the progress that has been made with some biodiversity action plans on species and habitats, and on improving SSSI condition and the quality of our nature reserves must not be allowed to dribble away. Many bodies, organisations and individuals have worked hard on these. Secondly, we need to identify why the current mechanisms in the wider farmed countryside are not working, and then change them.
I have five thoughts for the Government as they consider the natural environment White Paper. The first concerns agriculture and how we are going to sort out the impact of agriculture on biodiversity. The agri-environment schemes are absolutely vital to this. The entry level scheme is too broad, unfocused and untargeted. The pressure has been on reaching the coverage target of 70 per cent, which is admirable in that it would bring many farmers into an agri-environment scheme, but really it is about numbers rather than quality. We need to make sure that we are not just paying people to do the easy things, but to do the right things in the farmed countryside. I believe there needs to be a much greater focus on the higher level scheme in view of its importance in delivering good management on our best wildlife sites and on some of our most threatened species. Moreover, we face a problem in that farmers had been involved in the former schemes—the environmentally sensitive area schemes and countryside stewardship payments—which are coming to an end. I urge the Minister to commit to shifting resources to ensure that increases in the higher level scheme funding that were originally planned will continue.
We need also to look at the other mechanisms in the wider countryside for agriculture beyond SSSIs. I recognise the commitment made by the National Farmers’ Union and others to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, but it is a voluntary scheme and is not yet showing results in the figures. We need now to look seriously at what can be delivered by further requirements for farmers to adopt cross-compliance. There should be simple but targeted actions in return for the single farm payment, a resource for which you, I and every other taxpayer in the country pays £1.5 billion, but which at the moment is not working for its living in terms of delivering biodiversity in our countryside.
The second area I should like to cover is the marine environment. We have another country offshore. It is a wonderful one with hills and dales, trees and plants, birds, animals and fish in it. We all worked hard on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill so I hope that the Minister can confirm the Government’s commitment to designating an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas by 2012, as was agreed. Perhaps I may encourage the Minister to comment on the impact of the cut of £800,000 to the budget of Natural England in the marine field. Given that, can the commitment to the network of marine protected areas be honoured?
The third area has been covered very well by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and concerns adaptation to climate change and the impact on biodiversity. I should say to the noble Lord that I will sit down with him in front of a computer to try and find the work programme and objectives for the climate change adaptation sub-committee because they are there, but perhaps lost in the e-somewhere. I can assure him that in September we will be launching our first report that will give a framework for measuring adaptation, including looking at how we might make progress in measuring biodiversity’s adaptation.
Climate change will put additional pressure on our wildlife and on our protected areas. We must not panic when the important species for which protected areas are designated cease to be there, because inevitably they will shift and change under climate change pressures. However, that does not mean that those areas are any less important. They are the only areas where space is specifically made available for biodiversity, so we need to make sure that whatever it is that wants to move on as a result of climate change has somewhere to move to. On a larger landscape scale, we need to make sure that our SSSIs and natural protected areas are made bigger so that they are more resilient in the face of climate change. We need to develop networks, with corridors and linkages between wildlife sites, so that they do not decline into isolated zoos for biodiversity.
Many fine words are spoken about the ability of wildlife to move between sites—it is called “permeability”—but at the moment it seems to be a religion rather than a scientifically-validated mechanism. We need to make sure that the science is developed to enable wildlife to move and I urge the Minister to protect the science budget and move forward. We need to count whether or not we are doing well on biodiversity. I am alarmed that the PSAs have gone and yet we do not have a clear framework for how we are going to judge success. Many noble Lords will have heard me say before that football would be a bad game if we did not keep the score. I think that football is a bad game anyway, but it would be even worse if we did not keep the score. Biodiversity is like that. Much of the monitoring of biodiversity is carried out by volunteers. As president of the British Trust for Ornithology, I have 36,000 volunteers working on bird monitoring. They are skilled and unpaid and I urge the Government not to cut the government funding that levers that vast amount of free work.
I urge the Minister, in preparing the White Paper not to over-rely on the big society. If anywhere in this country we have had a huge volunteer effort, a huge community commitment lasting more than 250 years, it is in biodiversity, and yet we are not winning, and so clearly the big society is not the only answer. We need targeting, resources and incentives for multiple actors to work—and only government can give that degree of leadership and co-ordination.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer for securing the debate. As this is the UN International Year of Biodiversity, it is right and proper that we should address this topic as many times as is necessary to drive it up the agenda. I declare an interest as a country dweller and a farmer. It is particularly necessary that we address this issue as the world has so spectacularly failed to achieve the target set up in 2002.
I declare an interest in biodiversity as the land I own contains four SSSIs, an SAC, a nature reserve and is part of a Ramsar site. I have certainly learnt a lot about rare plants and invasive species in dealing with the management of it. One of the great delights now is the annual visit of the ospreys, let alone a great cross-section of other migratory birds, including a category 1 species of Greenland white-fronted geese.
Obviously preparations are going on for the next UN Convention on Biological Diversity, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Selborne, which will take place in Japan. It was reassuring to see that the recent G8 Conference in Muskoka issued a communiqué underlining the present failure in meeting the known 2010 target and voicing the need for adopting an ambitious and achievable post-2010 framework. I reiterate “ambitious and achievable” and it would be helpful if the Minister gave the House some indication of the Government’s view of the criteria for such a framework.
Noble Lords are probably aware that in 2006 the EU issued a biodiversity communication and a detailed biodiversity action plan for the whole of the UK. Once again the action required for fulfilment of the plan in Scotland is devolved, but the actions taken in Scotland will help to fulfil the UK’s requirement. Here I am in a position of trying to determine whether the glass is half full or half empty. The picture in Scotland is possibly more encouraging than some mentioned here today, although there is nothing that should lead to complacency. My noble friend Lord Selborne pointed to ways in which we could enlist more members of society to achieve what needs to be done, but there might be some comfort to be drawn from the fact that, according to the 2008 biodiversity report for Scotland, just over 40 per cent of the 41 habitats assessed are stable or increasing in their biodiversity, and that about a third of the 230 species monitored were also stable or increasing. However, we cannot ignore the fact that about 15 per cent are declining. Also on the positive side is the fact that, at the end of 2009, 54 per cent of the biodiversity target was achieved. Much more needs to be achieved to bring remaining habitats to an acceptable standard.
One of the roles envisaged in the Nature Conservancy (Scotland) Act is the monitoring of progress towards Scotland’s 2010 biodiversity targets. By the end of 2009, just six were not being fulfilled. Prime among these seem to be progress in bringing protected sites into favourable condition; the necessity of meeting the target to contain the global mean temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade—this means talking about the whole question of climate change; and the contentious target of establishing the level of fish stocks to produce a maximum sustainable yield. As noble Lords have said, certain measures were put in place by the Marine and Coastal Access Act. I think that we would all be glad to hear from the Minister any indication of progress that might have been made either in designating our own sites or in getting the EU to accept designations and give them proper EU recognition.
I turn to the topic raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I was concerned to learn from a briefing given by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust which I attended yesterday that a survey carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology has shown that, in spite of there now being four times as much land in farm conservation schemes as five years ago, there has been no recovery in the numbers of an average of 19 species of farmland birds. The point was underlined by my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. It is an area that the trust is investigating. Strange things turn up. Apparently, oilseed rape is proving highly suitable ecologically for the overwintering of pigeons, but it does not help the species that are suffering from decline. If ever more money is going into environmental schemes and not producing results, as so many of those who have spoken have said, we must consider whether we are asking the right questions. I know that arable areas are seeing a decline in the number of larks, but we certainly see them on the moors. I do not know whether that means that we are heading in the right direction.
I have one question on what appears to be a blanket policy in the UK biodiversity action plan—we have already touched on it today. It states that if global warming proceeds any further, six species will have to move northward and others are likely to do so. On this I believe is built the policy which states that there is an,
“urgent need to reduce habitat fragmentation”,
which I presume fits in with the concept of wildlife corridors. There seems to be an element of irony in our pursuing this in too much of an unconsidered fashion at the same time as insisting that all farms and holdings have rigorous policies of individual biosecurity in case of the spread of disease. We are all too familiar with the scourge of avian influenza or one of the seven strains of bluetongue which currently threaten us.
I come to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. While wildlife corridors might help the movement of some species, are they not equally likely to aid the spread of pathogens and things that are inimical to biodiversity? We have already seen the ability of Dutch elm disease to work its way from one end of the country to the other even with what we might consider our fragmented habitat. Will it be up to someone in Defra to say where the line should be drawn? We have been left in no doubt by today’s debate as to the challenge that we face, but we must keep as much of a focus on the issue as we can.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, on introducing this subject and, indeed, on the informed and committed way in which she approached it. The Minister might concur with me that sometimes, when speaking from either the Government or Opposition Front Bench, one finds oneself speaking on issues with which one has not had a long involvement. Fortunately, the subject raised by the noble Baroness is one dear to my own heart and one which I have certainly pursued from both the Back Benches and the Front Benches—in both Houses, indeed.
I believe, as the noble Baroness said, that this debate is very timely, particularly given the publication of the Government’s natural environment discussion paper. Indeed, the Minister might even consider this debate as an early submission to the Government for that exercise. I certainly hope that the discussion paper will generate a lot of interest widely. We welcome the commitment to a White Paper; indeed, that commitment was in the now Opposition’s manifesto at the time of the last election. The debate is perhaps also timely, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, because we are beginning the Recess, a time when it is hoped that Members of both Houses can get out into our countryside and appreciate our biodiversity. I do not know whether people will feel optimistic or pessimistic as a result, as the debate has wavered in both directions. Perhaps we can all agree that we wish the noble Earl well with his butterfly count over the summer.
I believe that the concern which has been expressed today very much chimes in with wider public concern on this issue. Surveys show that very high percentages of the public worry about the changes to our countryside and the loss of native plants and animals. Indeed, that concern chimes in very much with local and regional identities; for that reason, I was pleased with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn told us, in relating this subject very much to his local area and diocese. The concern is also reflected at international level. Not surprisingly, the fact that it is the international year of biodiversity has been mentioned. On that, I simply repeat that we cannot preach biodiversity abroad if we are failing to protect and enhance it at home.
There is a clear link, which we all appreciate, between the quality of the natural environment and the quality of life and a general sense of well-being. Indeed, that point was made clearly in the State of the Countryside 2010 report, recently published by the Commission for Rural Communities. There is also an economic benefit. Certainly, the report of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project makes the point strongly that the natural environment has economic value and contributes to economic growth, while its loss has high economic costs. In introducing this subject, the noble Baroness recognised that efforts have been made on a cross-party basis to try to promote and enhance biodiversity. She was also right to stress that, despite the concern and the welcome initiatives, there are a number of issues which it will be very important to address in the near future if we really are to tackle this issue effectively.
The role of agriculture and farming is obviously important here; changing farming practices have had a significant effect on our natural environment. Indeed, I first became interested in this subject when I was a student in the 1960s, at a time when hedges first started to disappear rapidly. It is an irony that grants were being given then for hedges to be grubbed up and that they are being given now to replace them. None the less, despite that fact, there is still something of a loss of hedgerows in our country that needs to be addressed.
There has been progress, as many Members have pointed out today. Farmers are generally much more environmentally sensitive than they used to be, and I recognise that. Although the cynical might say that that is just because they get grants, I do not believe that that is true at all. Farmers, like the whole of society, have become much more environmentally conscious. Indeed, farmers that I know take a great deal of pride in protecting and enjoying the biodiversities and habitats that they are able to create. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, I pay tribute to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, which I hope continues to attract strong government support in the coming months and years. However, there is a very worrying list of endangered species, of which we are all very much aware. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, rightly referred to the work, with which she is very familiar, of the British Trust for Ornithology, whose recent report charts a very worrying decline in precious bird species that are very integral to our countryside, such as skylarks, yellowhammers and grey partridges. Even familiar species such as the cuckoo and the house sparrow are in trouble. These are important issues. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a current effort to try to reverse the decline in turtle doves, which has experienced an 88 per cent decline since 1970. I applaud the RSPB’s efforts in working with Natural England and a group of farmers to tackle that issue.
In practically every speech that I make on this subject, I mention red squirrels in Northumberland. Therefore, I do not apologise for doing so again. I hope that the efforts of local people in seeking to ensure that Northumberland can remain a red squirrel county can be supported by the Government and that investigations are made to see what buffer zones can be created between the red and grey areas, which is very important for all of us.
International action continues to be important, although I recognise that the noble Baroness’s debate is essentially about the situation in the United Kingdom. Even some of the species that we think of very much as British depend also on international efforts because of migration patterns. Therefore, the work in that sphere continues to be terribly important. Fishing, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is also tremendously important in that sense; European as well as international regulations are so important in that area.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I am concerned about the possible effect of cuts on environmental grants in particular. Following our most recent debate on the uplands, I wrote to the Minister’s colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, about this. I know that these areas of spending are not ring-fenced, so some reassurance about spending levels on environmental schemes is important for us. On another point that was mentioned, if we continue to give money for these schemes, as I hope we do, perhaps better checks could be put in place in future on the results of these schemes. If money is used in this way—and I very much hope that it will be—it is important that we should none the less know whether progress is being made and that gains are not being reversed.
I wish that the Government were not cutting themselves off from independent sources of advice such as the Commission for Rural Communities and the Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The Government themselves need an independent check, in many ways, and I urge the Minister to reconsider some of these decisions.
As I have run out of time, I conclude by saying that government action in this area is vital. However, concern on this issue unites urban and country dwellers alike in our nation. It is an important issue for the future and for our future quality of life, and for that reason I hope that this House will continue to promote the subject regularly and determinedly.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer on securing this debate. Her timing is excellent. As she mentioned, 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity and in October my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be leading the UK delegation to the conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya to negotiate demanding new global targets for halting biodiversity loss. We must underpin that international commitment with national action. I confirm the coalition Government’s strong support for that process.
I declare a personal interest as a farmer and landowner who is directly involved as a small cog in this large wheel and a keen participant in fostering biodiversity. Like my noble friend Lord Teverson, I enjoy seeing the buzzards that are now regularly to be seen wheeling around above the trees, just as I enjoy listening to the larks that my noble friend the Duke of Montrose mentioned.
The meeting in Nagoya represents a critical moment in the history of the convention and, indeed, of humanity. We need to consider biodiversity not just in its own context but, as several noble Lords said, in the context of the fight against climate change. As my noble friend Lord Selborne said, we must also factor in the value of ecosystem services to our development and accounting processes, as well as the contribution that they make to our quality of life by inspiring and enriching our lives and contributing to our health and well-being.
As my noble friend Lord Teverson said, only by taking such a holistic approach across biodiversity, climate change and development can we hope to overcome the unique challenges that we face. The importance of this is highlighted by the fact that, despite some successes, biodiversity loss has not been halted in recent years, as, among others, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said.
The commitments that the Secretary of State will make in Nagoya will be on behalf of the United Kingdom as a whole. Action to conserve biodiversity is of course a devolved matter, but it is one on which we keep in close contact with our devolved counterparts, ensuring that the commitments that we make, and our capabilities and appetites for delivering them, remain in step.
This debate is also timely because on Monday the Government launched their consultation on the natural environment White Paper, demonstrating our commitment to protect and enhance the natural environment. It is through this process that we will be developing an ambitious statement by April next year outlining our priorities and setting out a framework for practical action by government, communities, businesses and civil society organisations to deliver on that commitment. My noble friend Lord Teverson asked about our approach to climate change. Climate change will be a theme that runs right through that White Paper.
Of course, the way in which we deliver on our commitments will take its place within the context of our overall requirement to reduce the deficit and reflect the Government’s plans for reducing regulatory burdens. We also know, however, that we can no longer afford the costs to our economy and quality of life that arise from a degraded natural environment. Despite our growing knowledge of the real value of that natural environment, and the significant improvements made in some areas over the last 20 years, it faces major challenges. For years, as my noble friend Lady Byford said, the economy and the natural environment have been pitted against each other, as if they were competing choices rather than mutually interdependent.
For too long, we have been content just to try to limit the damage, yet globally it is estimated that the degradation of our planet’s ecosystems is costing us €50 billion each year, a figure that could rise to the equivalent of 7 per cent of global GDP by 2050. We are choosing to lose the valuable benefits of a healthy natural environment on a massive scale. A vibrant natural environment is not a luxury for the good times; it is a necessity for economic recovery and sustainable growth for the long term. We have the opportunity to be the generation that puts this right. It will take an ambitious and radical transformation in our economy and our society and in securing our future, but the prize is worth it and essential for our well-being. We must grow a leaner, greener economy which properly reflects the true value of nature’s services in the way that it works in its prices and markets, which prevents the costs of environmental degradation and, indeed, which opens up new business opportunities and creates new jobs.
In line with our commitment to shifting the balance of power from big government to what we are calling the big society, as my noble friend Lord Selborne said, we want to work closely with all the interested parties—individuals, businesses, churches, civil society groups, land managers and local authorities—to articulate a new, compelling and integrated vision and set out an action plan for sustaining and managing our natural environment. Therefore, the positive comments from all sides of the House today, which amply demonstrate the keenness of society as a whole to get involved, are very welcome. I also pay tribute to the thousands of volunteers who do conservation work, including the butterfly count of which my noble friend Lord Selborne will do his share this evening, if I do not take too long winding up.
We will do everything that we can to support this vital wider transformation. The coalition’s programme for government already sets out a range of commitments to protect and enhance the natural environment, including: maintaining the green belt, SSSIs—about which the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, asked—and other environmental protections; creating a new designation to protect green areas of particular importance to local communities; introducing measures to protect wildlife; promoting green spaces and wildlife corridors to halt the loss of habitats and restore biodiversity; giving councils new powers to stop garden grabbing, recognising that domestic gardens can offer some of the best habitat for our wildlife, as my noble friend Lord Selborne said; and launching a national campaign to increase tree planting by the private sector and civil society. I declare a personal interest, having embarked on a major tree-planting exercise six years ago. We will also be assessing the scope for action to offset the impact of development on biodiversity. As part of this assessment, we will consider what we can learn from the experiences of other countries.
With restoring and expanding priority habitats in mind, as my noble friend Lady Miller said, we are looking forward to receiving Sir John Lawton’s report of the review on the coherence of ecological networks, Making Space for Nature, later in the summer. My noble friend Lord Teverson asked about adaptation. The Lawton review will provide evidence on which we can build our work on adaptation to climate change. In March, Sir John reported that to achieve a coherent and resilient ecological network we will need to look beyond existing designated sites and take account of landscape designations, local wildlife sites and green spaces. This work will help to inform the development of the natural environment White Paper.
Protecting marine biodiversity, while enabling the sustainable use of marine resources, is also a priority. As we are an island, our marine resources are central to our economic and social well-being. We are committed to managing them in a manner that supports current users but leaves them in a better state for future generations. To achieve this, we are dedicated to a comprehensive marine biodiversity programme which, given the economic climate, has to be focused on priority areas. Our aim is to achieve clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans. To do this, our priorities are to reform the common fisheries policy, to deliver an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas and to reduce by-catch and discards of species in fishing activities. We will lead by example and put the value of our natural environment at the heart of government policy-making.
I turn to some of the specific points made during our debate. My noble friend Lady Miller asked about our commitment to and preparations for Nagoya. The Secretary of State’s personal commitment is clearly demonstrated by her decision to attend in October. She is also involved in a number of preparatory meetings and has already met EU ministerial colleagues and the Japanese Minister this month, as well as Pavan Sukhdev, the leader of the TEEB study, which will be one of the main items discussed at Nagoya.
My noble friend also asked about progress regarding MPAs in the marine context. We will establish an ecologically coherent network of MPAs that will ensure that the range of species and habitats in our waters is protected; 154 marine sites have already been designated and 15 sites are being considered for submission to the European Commission. Further sites will be brought forward. The Government will establish a monitoring programme so that we know whether the network of European MPAs and MCZs is achieving our objectives.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, asked about our more general approach to the marine environment. Marine issues will be covered by the natural environment White Paper. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 established a forward-looking approach to managing marine activities. It created a streamlined licensing system, a new system of marine planning, the Marine Management Organisation and marine conservation zones. MCZs will conserve marine species, habitats and features. The White Paper presents an opportunity to build on that.
My noble friend Lady Miller asked about the coalition Government’s attitude to the concept of the outdoor classroom, and the right reverend Prelate spoke of the importance of young people understanding biodiversity. The Environmental Stewardship Scheme—I declare an interest as a participant in the ELS scheme—has been part of an initiative which has contributed to supporting nearly 800 farms in England offering educational access visits by schools, involving more than 100,000 children a year. The Young Darwin Prize, a competition for the best nature news videos, is another example of Defra’s involvement in encouraging young people to conserve nature and communicating the importance of biodiversity. While still on the subject of young people, I am please to hear from the right reverend Prelate about the success of BioBlitz. More than 20 events are taking place around the country this year, following the successful pilot in Bristol last year.
My noble friend Lady Miller asked about the intergovernmental panel on biodiversity and ecosystems, which is an initiative that we welcome.
Several noble Lords asked about the Government's approach to the economic situation, and how we will reconcile that with our aspirations for biodiversity. Deficit reduction and ensuring economic recovery are the Government's top priorities, but we also know that we can no longer afford the costs to our economy and quality of life that arise from a degraded natural environment. The whole economy relies on a healthy natural environment. Our businesses and industries rely on it for resources and material, and all sectors can save money by using resources more efficiently. Noble Lords have asked a number of other questions that I do not have time to answer today. I will write to them after today's debate.
I conclude by saying that the process that we have started to develop with our White Paper on the natural environment is an open invitation to all interested parties to help inform and influence the Government's plan of action for conserving and enhancing the natural environment. The Government, communities, businesses and civil society organisations can all contribute. We look forward to welcoming contributions from far and wide.
House adjourned at 3.29 pm.