Is Britain too poor for wildlife?

Friday 31st January 2014

Investment is needed to save the White-clawed crayfish from extinction, but funding cuts have brutally slashed all efforts to rehome endangered populations. This does not feel like a poor country so why are we stopping protecting our environment?

The UK government spent just £12.75 in 2012 on your behalf to protect the UK environment, some of this was spent conserving wildlife and its habitats. To put this in perspective they spent on your (and each and every individual’s) behalf £420 on military defence and £1,616 on the National Health Service.

At the same time 60% of species are in decline and other measures of wildlife health, such as the Farmland Bird Index and the Rothamsted moth monitoring network are showing that once common species are becoming sparser and scarcer, sometimes dramatically so.

The UK has agreed which species are threatened – there are lists of EU wide and UK protected species, including the biodiversity lists of species requiring conservation action, produced in 2007.

In many cases society knows what to do to protect and save the endangered species, but it is NOT doing it.  We know that we depend on a healthy environment and that species are key to a healthy environment, indeed almost everyone thinks that causing extinction is wrong, and these principles are enshrined in international legal frameworks. 

So why are we letting British species go extinct?

In some cases the answer appears to be very simple – money.

On Tuesday Andrew Whitehouse, our South West Manager, and I met with the wildlife minister Lord De Mauley.  We explained that the White-clawed crayfish was a very special animal – our biggest freshwater invertebrate with a lot of cultural connotations.  I was delighted that Lord De Mauley completely got this, recalling happy experiences fishing for crayfish in his local stream when a boy. 

Matt Shardlow & Andrew Whitehouse with Lord De Mauley

We explained that the introduced and invasive American signal crayfish is driving our native species to extinction through predation, competition and, most potently, by spreading a deadly plague. Our summary addresses some of the ecological and economic costs of American signal crayfish. Again Lord De Mauley understood, pointing out the similar problem with squirrels, and agreed that this was a very bad state of affairs.

We explained that to conserve the species we need to create ‘ark sites’ where we can rehome endangered populations at a relatively safe distance from their nemesis. Lord De Mauley questioned if a solution to the plague could be found in time to prevent the extinction of the White-clawed crayfish in British rivers – his own officials explained that they were funding research into a technical solution, but that this was as far away as ever. Lord De Mauley accepted that ark sites are an important part of saving the British crayfish from extinction.

We explained that in 2012 there were 21 projects in the UK focussed of saving the native crayfish and creating ark sites but that in 2014 there are only 2 left and there is NO work to create ark sites! Read more information about the decline in efforts to save the crayfish.

Why this dramatic halt in action to save the crayfish from extinction?  Certainly not an improvement in status!  It is protected by Habitats Directive which requires member states to maintain it in ‘favourable conservation status’, to monitor the population and to report its status to the EU – its current status is ‘Unfavourable (bad)’.

We explained to Lord De Mauley that there are three major causes for the termination of efforts to save the White-clawed crayfish from extinction, all financial:-

1. The Aggregates Levy was a tax applied to mineral extraction, and spent on improving the environment.  Gravel pits can make great ark sites so this was a super source of funding until 2010 when the Treasury clawed the tax into central government funds.

2. The Environment Agency was a strategic funder of crayfish conservation work, but its budgets have been hammered and practically all of their work on saving species has come to a sudden halt.

3. The BBC Wildlife Fund also underpinned some crayfish work, but Director General George Entwistle, decided in 2011 that the BBC was not going to raise any further funds to protect the environment and the BBC Wildlife Fund has been wound up.

Again Lord De Mauley seemed to understand. His brow furrowed, palms faced the ceiling, he rocked backwards in his chair and, with clear regret, was pained to say "there isn't any money".

He also felt that the Aggregates Levy would probably never be returned to its original purpose of improving the environment; that the Environment Agency could only prioritise work that protected life and property; and he couldn’t think how the BBC could be encouraged to do their bit for the environment.

Of course I felt sympathy for Lord De Mauley and the 50% cut in funding that Defra is currently experiencing, but I have a lot less sympathy for this Government’s priorities. 

Is defence 33 times more important than having a healthy environment?  Which would you be able to live without?

Are the badger cull and blanket river dredging – neither of which are able to achieve their intended objectives – a good way to spend millions and millions of pounds?

The White-clawed crayfish could be saved with a £100K a year investment for ten years – for a supposedly developed and ethically responsible country this is truly peanuts.

What example do we set other countries if in 2014 we are still failing to halt the extinction of our own iconic species?  Other endangered species such as the Ladybird spider and the Bedstraw hawk moth have also seen all government support cut away.  Only showing remorse for our disappearing biodiversity will not convince others to look after rainforests, whales or elephants.

Where is our national pride?  Where is our leadership?  Where are the funds needed to tackle the extinction of our species?

What do you think?  Should Government take a role in saving the White-clawed crayfish from extinction?  Log in above to leave your comment below.