A welcome injection of ambition, but a long way to go to get nature off the critical list

This week we joined forces with our environment and animal welfare partners in welcoming the inclusion of the Environment Bill in today’s Queen’s Speech, but are calling for ambitious targets and urgent delivery to turn positive aspirations into truly world-leading environmental laws.

They also welcomed the announcement of new animal welfare laws, but warned that a new expert committee will be needed to ensure that they are effective,

With one in seven UK species at risk of extinction, just over a decade to avoid an irreversible climate change tipping point, and our oceans set to contain more plastic than fish in just 30 years, the proposed Bills must be radical enough in intent and content to tackle the scale of our nature crisis.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link[1], said:

“Everyone deserves a healthy environment, but many local wild places and many habitats and species are still in terminal decline.

“Legally-binding targets for nature are a fantastic step forward and could usher in a new era of environmental improvement, but only if the targets deliver a major dose of ambition, backed by credible plans for change—across Whitehall and across our economy.

“This week, we will be watching for the critical clauses needed for nature’s recovery. The Agriculture Bill must guarantee sufficient funding for greener farming for at least a decade. The Fisheries Bill must include legal limits on catches to restore our seas. The Environment Bill must match aspirational targets with ambitious action.

Environment Bill:

Environment groups particularly welcome the announcement that legally binding targets will be included in the Environment Act. However these must be comprehensive, fit for the scale of the crisis, and supported by a robust plan on how to achieve the targets rapidly. So far, there has been no confirmation that the Office for Environmental Protection’s remit will include climate change, or that it will have access to strong legal remedies in court that will ensure that environmental law is upheld.

Ali Plummer of the RSPB said: ‘The climate and environment emergencies are rightly one of the top concerns for the public and we are running out of time to tackle the worst effects. This Environment Bill is a critical opportunity to put in place real solutions to one of the largest challenges facing us. But to meet the scale of this challenge it must set up an ambitious and legally binding framework to support the recovery of our natural world, with a robust watchdog to ensure we meet these commitments.’

Fiona Mathews, Chair of the Mammal Society, said: ‘With our environment crisis among the top concerns of the population[2], and more than one in four UK mammals at risk of extinction, the Environment Bill should be as great a priority as Brexit for all political parties. This Act and the watchdog it creates will be critical to the future of our natural world, so it is vital that the detail, as well as ambitious targets, are there to deliver real environmental recovery.’

Dr Tony Gent, CEO of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, said: ‘On one-hand the Government is wisely recognising our environmental crisis is so dire that it needs legally binding targets to get nature back on track. On the other it has failed to include climate change – a key driver of the crisis – in the remit of its new watchdog. The Government must ensure this Bill, and the policy and watchdog that come from it, are comprehensive and fit to fight on all fronts for nature.’

Kit Stoner, Chief Executive of Bat Conservation Trust, said: ‘We would like to urge the government to ensure that the protection of the natural environment and tackling biodiversity loss is a top priority. This needs commitment in the form of increased investment along with a strong legal framework and enforcement powers. This will benefit present and future generations and will help to fulfil the aim of being the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it.’

Martin Spray, Chief Executive of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, said: ‘Our freshwaters and the species which depend on them are in a perilous state, and our wetlands continue to decline. Half a million ponds and small lakes and most of our small watercourses are inadequately protected. We now have only around 10% of the wetlands left that existed in Roman times. Current measures to improve water quality and manage water resources sustainably aren’t enough. We are still failing to reduce water consumption to meet the twin challenges of population growth and climate change, while ensuring there’s sufficient water left in the natural environment to support wetland ecosystems. This Environment Bill must include new protections for watercourses and wetlands, and mandatory measures to help businesses and consumers use less water, to set us on a path to a sustainable future.’

Agriculture Bill:

Key to making the new ‘public funds for public goods’ approach work is giving certainty over the funding and guidance that will be available to farmers and other rural land managers during the Brexit transition, and into the foreseeable future. This certainty is essential to enable farmers to invest in helping our natural world to recover, provide greater public access to nature, and to enhance animal welfare. The Agriculture Bill must also introduce clear import standards to safeguard farmers from imports produced to low environmental and welfare standards.

Crispin Truman, Chief Executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: ‘Now is the time to bite the bullet and encourage farmers to farm for the public benefit, giving them the incentives they need to improve nature and people’s access to it. We urge the Government to stick to its guns and not water down the environmental focus and ambition of the Agriculture Bill we were promised.’

Corinne Pluchino, Chief Executive of the Campaign for National Parks, said: ‘With farming taking up more than 70% of UK land, a sustainable farming future is vital for nature’s recovery, but farmers are in limbo over future funding. Guaranteeing full funding for longer, and ensuring new productivity subsidies don’t undermine environmental gains, is key to helping both nature and farming thrive.’

Abi Bunker, Director of Conservation and External Affairs at Woodland Trust, said: ‘To help address the environmental crisis the Agriculture Bill must support a fully integrated rural land management policy. This would enable farmers and foresters to manage the land to sustainably produce food and timber whilst simultaneously restoring and enhancing the natural environment.  Integrating trees into the farmed landscape can play a major role in tackling climate change mitigation whilst supporting sustainable food production and creating much needed wildlife habitat.’

Julie Williams, Butterfly Conservation’s CEO, said: ‘With a species and climate crisis, the next Parliament has a momentous opportunity to put the right environmental and agricultural legislation for England in place to help us save butterflies and moths in the next 10 years. It is the responsibility of all our politicians across the UK to put actions before words to ensure we have a rich natural environment to nurture our well-being and for our grandchildren.’

Emily Wilson of FOUR PAWS UK said: ‘It is vital that the UK retains its reputation of having the highest standards of animal welfare in the world as we adopt a new agricultural policy post-Brexit. The Government has the unique opportunity to go above and beyond current European standards. We need to maintain and improve our welfare standards at home and abroad, particularly with new post-Brexit food trade deals about to be put on the table.’

Animal Welfare:

Today’s announcement of animal welfare measures are long-awaited and very welcome, as is the promise of tougher sentences for crimes of animal cruelty and the hard fought for requirement for Government Departments to give full regard to animal sentience and welfare in all policy.

We are however extremely disappointed not to see commitments for an Animal Welfare Committee to provide independent and transparent advice to all Government departments. Unless a dedicated UK body is established to give the same quality of guidance as that currently provided by the European Food Standards Authority, and animal sentience is explicitly enshrined in UK law, animal welfare will not have the same level of priority or consideration as we leave the EU.

Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive of the RSPCA said: ‘Improved animal welfare legislation has been long-promised and is very welcome, but to prevent a post-Brexit ‘animal protection gap’ this legislation must be prioritised. This is particularly key given the potential for lower welfare standards as new food trade deals are negotiated. Animals’ welfare must not get left behind in the rush to the Brexit finish line.’

Fisheries Bill:

The approach in the current Fisheries Bill falls well short of what is needed to recover fish stocks and risks weakening existing legislation. When the Bill returns to Parliament, the Government must take the opportunity to make it fit for purpose - with binding commitments not to fish above scientifically recommended sustainable levels and measures to tackle fishing-related deaths of protected species. We also need an ambitious UK Marine Strategy that sets clear, time-bound targets to reduce human damage to our ocean. With 11 out of 15 indicators of marine health currently failing, urgent action is needed to ensure our seas are healthy and thriving.

Chris Tuckett, Director of Programmes at the Marine Conservation Society said: ‘The recent UN Intergovernmental report on biodiversity highlighted that overfishing is the biggest cause of marine biodiversity loss in the last 40 years. Only 53% of UK stocks are fished at sustainable levels. This Bill gives us a major opportunity to halt the decline and recover stocks to benefit the marine environment and the fishing industry. The Government needs to fix the flaws in the Fisheries Bill to avoid failing our Blue Planet.’

Sarah Dolman of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said: ‘About 1,900 porpoises, dolphins and seals died in UK fishing gear in 2018, and an unknown number in non-UK gear fishing in UK waters. As winter approaches we anticipate a spate of dolphin deaths on our doorstep, as has happened every winter for decades. The Fisheries Bill must include robust measures for action to monitor and prevent these needless deaths.’