Farmland bird and butterfly declines show we are ‘failing nature’

Picture by Gary Longbottom.
Picture by Gary Longbottom.
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Conservationists claim we are “failing nature” after further significant declines in the numbers of farmland birds and butterflies were revealed.

Butterflies including gatekeepers, large skippers, small coppers and small tortoiseshells are in severe decline on farmland, while breeding farmland bird populations hit their lowest recorded level in England in 2013, having more than halved since 1970.

The Natural Environment Indicators published by the Government show better news for England’s seas, with recent improvements in the number of larger fish in the North Sea and marine litter, after a long-term deterioration in conditions.

Around 30 indicators examine short and long-term trends for species and are published under the Government’s strategy for valuing nature in England, by protecting and improving the natural environment, and boosting the green economy.

Breeding farmland birds and butterflies are declining in both the long and short term, while woodland birds and butterflies have also seen numbers fall in past decades, and more recently have shown little or no change.

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, has grave concerns over the future of farmland wildlife if the current public spending trends are not reversed.

“These indicators are further evidence that we are collectively failing nature,” he said. “Given the free services that nature gives us, in turn, this undermines our own prosperity.

“This week’s announcement of further cuts in public spending clearly will not help. Yet, through our own practical conservation we know what needs to be done and we need political will to reboot conservation efforts.

“Let’s begin by properly implementing wildlife laws; bolstering our nature conservation agencies; supporting local communities who want to give nature a home; and ensure that existing budgets, like those for farming, work harder for nature.”

Dr Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, echoed the RSPB’s calls and stated the decline of butterflies is “extremely worrying”.

The indicators did also reveal some good news. Despite water quality in rivers, canals, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters deteriorating in recent years the proportion of fish stocks being fished sustainably is up. The amount of carbon stored by England’s forests is also up, while populations of bats and wintering and breeding sea birds have all increased.

The Environment Department, Defra, responded by saying that the indicators show “we are making good progress” in some areas of its plan to protect and enhance our natural environment.

A spokeman said: “We will continue to take action to reverse the decline of threatened species and drive public engagement with the natural environment.”

Meanwhile a Government decision to permit some use of pesticides linked to a decline in bees has been branded as “scandalous” by environmental charity Friends of the Earth.

The use of two ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticides on up to five per cent of oil seed rape crops sown has been approved despite a European ban. Around 74,000acres will be sown with seed treated with the pesticides to protect from the cabbage stem flea beetle.

Certain neonicotinoid pesticides were banned for two years by the EU in 2013 for use on crops that were attractive to bees.

Defra spokesman said it makes decisions on pesticides on science, adding that a “limited emergency authorisation” was granted in areas where oil rape crops are at high “risk of pest damage”.