Government plans for nature and net zero announced today

Seeds of hope planted but root and branch change on mammoth scale still needed, say The Wildlife Trusts.

Today the Environment Secretary set out plans to restore nature and “build back greener” after the pandemic. The Secretary of State, George Eustice, made the speech at an online event hosted by The Wildlife Trusts during which the public could put questions. The event can be viewed here.

Much focus was given to plans for tree planting, species reintroduction and peatland restoration in England, including a ban on peat sales subject to a public consultation. While it is widely acknowledged that there is a big opportunity for a ‘green recovery’ from Covid19, The Wildlife Trusts fear that there is a real danger of ‘building back’ just as before – for example by investing in damaging new road building and destructive developments such as HS2 rail and Sizewell C nuclear power station, rather than investing in nature on land and at sea on the scale that is urgently needed.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“This is an important step today on a long journey for nature’s recovery. It’s exciting to hear talk of reintroducing wildlife such as wildcat and golden eagle but the success of such projects entirely depends on making a huge amount more space available for nature. What we need is all nature to be abundant once more – humming and buzzing all around us – and we hope that a new legally-binding target to achieve this will step up action across Government. So, while seeds of hope were sown today, root and branch change is still needed on a mammoth scale.

“The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and we got into this mess because natural places have shrunk to tiny, fragmented pockets of land, often too far from communities for people to benefit from contact with nature. Much of our land and sea is degraded and unable to store carbon in the quantities needed to help tackle climate change.

“Vast restoration projects need funding by Government to help it reach their declared ambition of 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. Doing so will help wildlife fight back and enable repaired habitats to store carbon once more. At the moment, only 10% of our land is protected for nature and only half of this is in a good state.”

John Hughes, Development Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, adds: "Shropshire Wildlife Trust is already taking practical action, having planted 17,000 trees this year and is conserving our largest peat deposits around Whixall through the BogLIFE project. We welcome the government's announcement, but it must be turned into urgent practical action". 

The Wildlife Trusts are calling for urgent implementation of:

  • A Nature Recovery Network to be at the heart of the future planning system to enable new nature places to be carefully mapped out, joined up and put where they will work best for nature and people. A healthy and connected natural world will ensure that species have enough space to survive, thrive and move if they need to, in response to climate change.
  • A future planning system that does not jeopardise nature. Defra should hold the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to account so that faster planning does not mean poorer protection for nature. The planning system must help address the wildlife crisis with a new Wildbelt designation to protect land in recovery for nature. Furthermore, there is an enormous threat to marine life from the huge expansion of offshore wind development and we must not forget the role that our seas play in mitigating climate change, locking away carbon. Strategic planning at sea must ensure green energy does not increase the threat to nature.
  • Highly Protected Marine Areas across at least 30% of our seas’ protected network. It is disappointing that in a speech which highlights plans to protect and restore nature, and tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, that no mention is given to the marine environment. We need to restore seagrass and saltmarsh for wildlife and carbon storage as much as we do trees and peat.  
  • A ban on selling peat in compost before the UK hosts the global climate conference COP26 in Glasgow in November this year. The planned consultation must also set an early date for the phase-out of peat use altogether.
  • A tenfold increase in peatland restoration, an end to all upland peat burning and better controls to stop drainage of peat soils for farming. Peatlands are one of the UK’s most precious wildlife habitats, capable of storing huge amounts of carbon, but over 80% of them are in poor condition. It is disappointing that the Government’s initial target is only to restore 35,000 hectares of them; its own advisors have estimated that ten times that – 300,000 hectares – should be repaired in England.
  • A Tree Action Plan which firmly puts habitat creation and nature protection at its heart, creating natural, joined-up woods that are good for wildlife and accessible to people. Important wildflower meadows, peatlands and species-rich grasslands should not be damaged by tree planting. A move towards natural regeneration, where woods naturally grows from fallen seeds, should be a priority because they are better for wildlife.

Craig Bennett continues:

“Today we face a twin nature and climate emergency – these crises are entirely interlinked and one cannot be tackled without addressing the other. The time for procrastination is over and greater urgency is needed on all fronts. The UK hosts the global climate conference COP26 in Glasgow in November this year and speed is vital: now is the time to accelerate nature’s recovery – for wildlife, for people and for the climate.”

Editors Notes

Defra’s press release ‘Environment Secretary makes landmark speech, outlining plans to protect and restore nature, tackle the climate and biodiversity crises and help deliver Net Zero by 2050’ is here.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling for urgent implementation of:

  • A Nature Recovery Network to be at the heart of the future planning system to enable new nature places to be carefully mapped out, joined up and put where they will work best for nature and people.  More about a Nature Recovery Network here.
     
  • A future planning system that does not jeopardise nature. For more information please see ‘Government’s planning reforms must address the nature and climate crisis’ September 2020.
     
  • Highly Protected Marine Areas across at least 30% of our seas’ protected network. For more information please see this page.
     
  • A ban on selling peat in compost before the UK hosts the global climate conference COP26 in Glasgow in November this year. The planned consultation must also set an early date for the phase-out of peat use altogether.
    • Despite a voluntary target set by Government for the industry to phase out peat (amateur sales by 2020 and professional use by 2030), peat use by the horticultural sector remains high. In 2019, 2.1m cubic meters were used.
    • Peat still makes up nearly half (47%) of the total growing media used / sold by the sector.
    • Compost sales to amateur gardens make up around two thirds of this (1.31 million cubic meters), despite the 2020 phase-out target, the increasing availability & quality of alternatives, and the ease with which gardeners can make compost at home.
    • The Wildlife Trusts want to see an end to these sales this year.
    • The remainder (0.76 million cubic meters) is used by professional growers, such as plant producers. This will take longer to phase out.
    • The Wildlife Trusts want to see an end to professional use by 2025, given the severity of the climate and biodiversity crises.
    • See The Wildlife Trusts’ press release: Survey of top retailers: only one in 20 says they will eliminate peat this year. April 2021.
       
  • A tenfold increase in peatland restoration, an end to all upland peat burning and better controls to stop the continued drainage of peat soils for farming.  
    • Government’s advisors the Climate Change Committee have recommended that all upland peatland be restored by 2045 and between 25% and 50% of lowland peats by 2050, to enable the UK to meet net zero goals.
    • We believe this is also necessary to halt and reverse biodiversity’s decline.
    • In England this equates to around 300,000ha yet the Government has so-far only committed to the restoration of 35,000ha. Further targets and funding are needed.
    • The burning of vegetation on peatland is broadly agreed to be damaging, leaving peatland less able to support biodiversity, absorb rainfall to reduce downstream flood risk, and retain captured carbon.
    • Current controls prevent burning on only a small proportion of protected sites; The Wildlife Trusts want to see an end to all peatland burning.
    • Drainage dries out peat soils making them vulnerable to erosion and causing them to release stored carbon as CO2. The water table can be raised across many agricultural peatlands without making farming infeasible. Elsewhere the growing of novel wetland crops (‘Paludiculture’) will allow peatland soils to function more naturally whilst also allowing profitable farming, and in some areas, full restoration to fenland habitat will support biodiversity’s recovery.
    • A combination of these approaches is needed to reduce the massive carbon emissions from lowland agricultural peat soils. Support for paludiculture will be necessary to help with this transition.  
    • See The Wildlife Trusts’ press release: Government inertia on peatlands risks international embarrassment. February 2021.
       
  • A Tree Action Plan which firmly puts habitat creation and nature protection at its heart.
    • The Wildlife Trusts are pleased to see support for natural regeneration and more native woodlands in the Government’s Tree Action Plan, but we are concerned that pressure to meet new targets for woodland creation will lead to planting on important habitats such as wildflower meadows and heathland. 
    • We welcome the recognition within the Tree Action Plan that Local Nature Recovery Strategies can fill in the gaps and join the dots between existing woodlands, while avoiding planting on other precious habitats.  
    • However, despite promises from Defra and Forestry England, in the last year alone we have seen irreplaceable peat soils ploughed up in Cumbria, and conifers replanted on key areas for heathland recovery in Dorset.  
    • We hope that lessons have been learned about planting the right tree in the right place, so that new woodlands are thriving with wildlife and accessible to people, delivering for nature and the climate. 

Species reintroductions

  • Beavers: The Wildlife Trusts are at the forefront of bringing back beavers to the UK. We want to see an ambitious strategic approach to enable their return to help tackle the climate crisis and improve wetlands for wildlife. This can only be done if funding is made available for landowners and local beaver management groups to help reintegrate beaver into our countryside. The Wildlife Trusts’ expertise in bringing back beavers, for example in Devon and Scotland, shows the importance of working alongside landowners and farmers, so that any issues can be managed and resolved in a friendly, locally specific and consultative way.
  • Other species: The Wildlife Trusts fully support the return of lost species, especially keystone species such as top predators such as lynx or wildcat and wetland engineer beavers that are fundamental in restoring Britain’s wildlife.  Restoring species is in line with Government commitments to enable nature to recover.
  • In order to restore species we need a healthy and vibrant Nature Recovery Network, with good condition habitats where wildlife can thrive. For some of these animals, such a lynx, large areas of contiguous woodland cover are fundamental, and Dalmatian pelicans are reliant on large areas of healthy wetlands.  
  • Not only would the introduction of keystone species benefit nature’s recovery, but it would also boost sustainable eco-tourism in the UK, e.g in the Danube Delta pelicans are a big attraction.
  • We welcome codes of practice that would facilitate re-introductions. It is important that such codes are not devised to frustrate reintroductions.