Over 80% of British adults believe that the natural environment should beprotected at all costs. Yet, a recent report suggests that “government progress on commitments to the natural environment has been largely static” (1). Indeed, the budget for DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has been slashed by 10% (£37m) and a reduction in green levies is likely as the government attempts to reduce domestic energy bills.
Has the government lost interest in the environment? Or do we care too much about nature?
John Burton and Hannah Stoddart
To discuss this further, the Cabot Institutehosted a public recording of BBC Radio 4′s Shared Planet, a show which explores the complex relationship between the human populations and wildlife. John Burton, CEO of the World Land Trust (WLT), was the first panellist and is a well known journalist and conservationist who has raised £19m for nature conservation in Africa, Asia and Central and Southern America. He believes that we should think about policy on “the life scale of an oak tree” and that further measures are required to protect the environment, both at home and abroad. The second panellist, Hannah Stoddart, is the head of the economic justice policy team at Oxfam GB and believes that fairer redistribution of wealth is more important than wildlife conservation.
How the UK could look if we reintroduced missing megafauna to the landscape.
Do we care about nature?
A new report, by the Environmental Funders Network, suggests that one in ten UK adults are now a member or supporter of Britain’s environmental and conservation groups (2). This equates to nearly 4.5 million people, with 81 organisations protecting species and 78 working on climate change. Although 44% of funding is allocated to biodiversity and nature protection, only 7.3% of total funds have been allocated to the climate and the atmosphere. This suggests we are more interested in ‘traditional’ environmental issues than climate change. A recent research project by the RSPB indicates that four out of five UK children are no longer connected with nature (3). Dr Mike Clarke, the chief executive of the RSPB, explains that “…nature is in trouble, and children’s connection to nature is closely linked to this”. At a time where UK species are in decline, are we doing enough to engage young people in the natural world?
An alternative to conservation
Both John Burton and Hannah Stoddart agree that nature is important and that conservation can help protect endangered landscapes. However, many conservation sites are maintained in ”favourable condition”. In other words, they are kept in the condition they were found when designated as conversation sites. A alternative concept, known as rewilding, attempts to reverse the destruction of nature by standing back and allowing nature to control its own destiny.
Currently, farmers have to prevent the development of foreign or exotic vegetation on their land. This results in the development of bare land, lacking in biodiversity. Removal of the ‘agricultural condition’ rule and the introduction of rewilding may allow this land to flourish once again. George Monbiot, author of Feral, is particularly interested in the reintroduction of megafauna,large animals that existed at the end of the last glacial period (>11ka) (4). It seems hard to believe, but over ten thousand years ago, elephants, rhinoceri and camels roamed Europe while other animals, such as bison, wolves and wildcats, were particularly widespread throughout the UK.
Indeed, the re-introduction of missing species can have a profound effect on wildlife. In 1995, grey wolves were reintroducedto Yellowstone National Park for the first time in 50 years (5). The elk population, who were now at risk of predation by wolves, began to redistribute. This allowed willow and aspen trees to flourish and increased the habitat for certain bird species, small mammals, beavers, and moose. This effect, known as a trophic cascade, suggests that careful reintroduction of megafauna into the wild can allow ecosystems to flourish. However, rewilding can backfire. In 2008, endangered Mallorcan toads were reintroduced into the natural population but were infected with Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a well-known fungus that can threaten amphibians (6). As a result, the Mallorcan toads are now in danger of being wiped out once again. Despite this, I believe that rewilding in the UK is feasible and could allow the public, especially children, to reconnect with nature in new and exciting ways.