ARC’s Conservation Director, Jim Foster, says recent government announcements need a robust response

You would have to be living under a rock to escape the uproar over recent government announcements about the environment. Perhaps luckily, amphibians and reptiles often spend time under rocks, and may be blissfully unaware therefore of how their fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse this week. I won’t rehearse it all in depth here, as others have done this powerfully elsewhere – see commentary by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Wildlife Trusts and CIEEM for starters. To summarise, government seems intent on a de-regulatory joyride that beckons ruinous consequences for both nature and society. Relying on a discredited dichotomy between wildlife or economic growth (as deftly dissected by Natural England’s Chair, no less), government moves look set to dilute environmental protections, hobble schemes designed to boost nature-friendly farming, and allow significant development areas to evade planning scrutiny.

Government announcements threaten the recovery of the great crested newt.
Photo: Jim Foster/ARC.

Amphibians and reptiles are likely to suffer as much as other groups in this hotchpotch of muddled thinking. Legal protection, land use planning decisions and agricultural land management all play an important role in conserving these animals. The issues are more keenly felt for some species – hence we have regrettably witnessed great crested newts (and bats) being scapegoated again. One might have hoped that we’d see less of this – surely blaming newts for economic woes is, well, so 2020?

What makes the recent announcements especially disenchanting for me and many in the conservation sector is the conspicuous contrast with positive moves over the last year or so. In particular, whilst not perfect, the Environment Act 2021 contains much to celebrate, with progressive measures that were often arrived at thanks to substantial advocacy efforts by wildlife charities and networks. Thus, we have a legally binding target for species recovery, a new body to hold government to account, a strengthened biodiversity duty for public bodies, and lots more.

The adder is one of the widespread reptile
species which could benefit from well designed
Species Conservation Strategies

And today (30 September), new measures come into force that should – if well designed, resourced, evaluated and joined up – result in better conditions for amphibians and reptiles (as well as other wildlife). Species Conservation Strategies are one of the lesser known components of the Environment Act 2021, yet they offer great potential for reversing the declining fortunes of wildlife. ARC has been working with Natural England to explore how this new tool could help widespread reptiles, for example – more on that later. More contentious are changes to legislation meaning that developers can apply for licences to kill certain species, including widespread reptiles, for reasons of overriding public interest. The legislation includes safeguards on how licences are issued, and it will be important that Natural England applies the right checks and balances for effective reptile conservation.

ARC's Norden nature reserve, part of the Purbeck NNR

A particularly pleasing move has been a focus on setting goals for species, using the concept of Favourable Conservation Status. ARC has been working with Natural England on how this can guide conservation efforts, for example in describing a vision for species recovery at a landscape scale in Purbeck, Dorset, resolving conflicts between objectives, and setting that vision in a national context. These initiatives should generate more ambitious goals and consistent standards for nature conservation efforts, with a clear species focus.

Yet the recent announcements would undermine these positive steps. I would like to see a reversal of the harmful measures on legislation, planning and farming support, and a re-confirmation of plans for nature’s recovery. It is difficult to square the government’s bold environmental promises with these latest moves. In December, this will play out on the global stage at the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal. Can government really claim to have a world leading environmental programme in that forum, when back home the very policies backing their programme are being eroded so drastically? ARC is working with partners to urge a radical rethink. There will be plenty of scope for readers to demonstrate their concerns in the coming weeks.