It would seem that the British love the countryside more than almost any other nation, yet we have come to live amid one of the most denatured landscapes on Earth. We have many organisations dedicated to the protection or conservation of aspects of our environment but they rarely work together and indeed may work against each other as I will show later. Some of these organisations have huge membership. The National Trust has 5 million members, one in 13 of the population and 1 in 10 of all voters. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has 1.2 million members, while the Wildlife Trusts have 800,000. Then there are twelve other organisations all with substantial support: Friends of the Earth UK (300,000), the Woodland Trust (227,516 and claiming 500,000 supporters), Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (over 200,000). Greenpeace (120,000), Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) (over 60,000 including my wife and me), Butterfly Conservation (26,000), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (19,586), British Trust for Ornithology (17,256), PlantLife (11,000), the John Muir Trust (over 10,000), Hawk and Owl Trust (7,000), and Marine Conservation Society (5,500).
While some people will belong to more than one of these organisations, nevertheless the total membership adds up to over 8 million. Contrast that with the membership of the main political parties in the UK. As of January 2018, Labour had 552,000 members, compared to 124,000 Conservative members reported in March 2018. As of April 2018, the Scottish National Party had 118,000 which considering their members will almost exclusively come from the Scottish population of circa 5.4 million means it’s the largest per capita; the Liberal Democrats 101,000, the Green Party 41,000, UKIP 21,000 and Plaid Cymru 8,000 members. These totals come to just 965,000, so eight times as many of us subscribe to a nature conservation movement than to a political party. So why don’t our apparent desires have the desired effect?
In 2013 some of these organisations and a number of others, twenty five in all, did
collaborate to produce the first publication of the State of Nature
(2013) report. It summarises all types of expertise from herpetologists (amphibians/reptiles) to mycologists (fungi), and looked at organisms you’ve probably neither heard of (bryophytes), nor seen (liverworts). But it also covers bats, birds, bugs, bumblebees and butterflies. It investigated the health and prospects of British wildlife in a way that had never been attempted before. It analysed population data of 3,148 different species and it concluded that of these 60% had declined in the past 50 years, and 31% had declined badly. About 20% of these species were threatened with extinction.
Particularly badly affected are once common farmland birds such as grey partridges and turtle doves. Their losses exceed 90% since 1970. The farmland bird index has been utilised right across Europe, and Britain has the worst statistics of any of the countries. Yet while the RSPB boasts 1.2 million members its equivalent in France (League pour la Protection des Oiseaux) has 46,000 members. The German counterpart (Natürschutzbund Deutschland) has 478,000. The Dutch Vogelbescherming Nederland has 154,000 while the Spanish version (Sociedad Espanola de Ornitologica) has 12,000. If we factor in the relative populations then the UK membership is more than twice the size of the Dutch, three times the size of the German, 25 times greater than the French and 87 times that of the Spanish.
Since the 2013 report State of Nature 2016
has been published. This now includes the capacity to extrapolate from the disparate figures an overarching unified assessment of how nature fares in any country. This specific metric – the Biological Intactness Index (BII) – calculates how complete a country’s biodiversity is and how much has disappeared as a result of human activities going back centuries. The BII suggests that the UK has experienced a significantly greater long-term loss of nature than the global average. We are among the world’s most nature-depleted countries. If one considers just England the figure is 80.6% and in a list of the 218 countries on Earth for which BII values have been calculated, England is twenty-eighth from the bottom.
The writer and naturalist Mark Cocker brings great clarity to these problems in his outstanding book Our Place[i]
which has the subtitle Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?
He then tries to answer his own question by outlining Ten Truths about the British Environment and what mankind has done and is still doing to it.
Coastlines have been better protected largely through the National Trust. Density of occupation is a significant factor as the UK, particularly England, is one of the most densely populated nations on Earth but it’s not the only factor as monocultures like sheep and non-native conifers have displaced much more diverse wildlife and plants in the hillsides. Indeed species diversity can be much greater in urban and suburban areas causing the great naturalist Tony Hare to say: ‘Whenever people talk to me about the British countryside, I ask ‘What countryside?’ ‘. Mr. Hare became so despondent about all this that he took his own life.
My own CPRE leads on the battle to protect the Green Belt and I fully support them in this. I am currently supporting a local protest movement over a plan to build a giant waste incinerator on Green Belt land just a few miles from our home. One of CPRE’s main arguments is that there is plenty of so-called brown field land on which such developments could be built. But some brown field sites may also be rich in wildlife. There needs to be a coordinating principle that can work in everyone’s interest.