Biodiversity Crisis: What Biodiversity Crisis?

NFU president Peter Kendall, speaking at a farming conference last week, claimed there was no biodiversity crisis but “what we do have is a productivity crisis”. He used this argument to lobby Government to increase public sector funding for research and development into ways to increase productivity, as well as taking a potshot at the European Commission’s proposals to reform the CAP and in particular on “greening” the direct payments landowners currently receive for owning farmland. I have already blogged about how damaging are the current proposals for permanent pasture, and Peter has implored farmers not to start ploughing up their grasslands.

Kendall’s remarks, given that they are NFU’s corporate position, came in for some pretty severe criticism from a number of people notably the RSPB’s current and former Director’s of Conservation.

Speaking at another conference yesterday he sought to clarify his remarks saying there had been a “deliberate misunderstanding” and that while “agricultural productivity must be stepped up, that does not mean that we want it stepped up at the expense of the environment.” He then repeated the NFU’s assertion that “there was no biodiversity crisis in this country, thanks to the progress that has been made in” : reducing fertiliser and pesticide use; improving water quality; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; the success of Environmental Stewardship; the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. He claimed biodiversity was important to the NFU and they were “not in any way complacent”.

But then making another comparison between biodiversity and productivity he predicted “But the fact has to be faced that if, in 40 years’ time, biodiversity in Britain is no worse than it is now, that will be a fair achievement. “If productivity is no better 40 years from now, we will be in deep trouble.” He went on “if the aim is to feed 9 billion by 2050 there is a sense of urgency to start dealing with this issue now” before  re-iterating his lobbying to redirect Defra research and development funding towards increasing productivity.

I’m going to start today by looking at whether there is a biodiversity crisis or not.

Biodiversity Crisis: what Biodiversity Crisis?

Is Peter right, that there is no biodiversity crisis now? Well of course it depends on what you mean by biodiversity, and then what measures you use to assess its status. I can go into a great deal of detail on this, as it’s one of my specialist subjects, but I won’t. What I will say is that it makes sense to focus on those species and habitats that have been identified as priorities in a reasonably objective approach, that has taken 20 years to develop (this is the process for identifying species and habitats or principal importance as defined in the NERC Act). I would argue that it makes more sense to use this approach than, for example, someone deciding that the magpie or ragwort are the types of biodiversity to measure to assess whether there is a biodiversity crisis or not.

But here are some figures from the UKBAP Highlights from the 2008 reporting round:

  • 8 priority habitats (18%) and 40 priority species (11%) were increasing or probably increasing.
  • 9 priority habitats (20%) and 144 priority species (39%) were stable or probably stable. •
  • 19 priority habitats (42%) and 88 priority species (24%) were declining or probably declining but the rate of decline is slowing for 9 habitats (20%) and 28 species (8%).

So, overall in the UK, nearly half of all priority habitats and a quarter of all priority species were continuing to decline in 2008. More habitats were declining than all of the habitats that were stable/increasing. Twice as many species were declining as were increasing.

Now you might say, these are out of date – 2008 was ages ago. But actually these are the most up to date figures that we have so we’ll have to use them. In any case, nothing substantial has happened in the last 3 years to change the trends.

What about farmland habitats and species?  Positive trends highlighted in the report included a threefold increase in the area of cereal field margins between 2005 and 2008, but all the semi-natural grassland habitats were assessed as continuing to decline, albeit with that decline slowing.

What about species? Butterflies are one of the best-recorded farmland species groups. This graph (thanks to Butterfly Conservation) shows that the populations of habitat specialists have halved since 1990 and although some species have benefited from Agri-environment schemes, the overall trend is flat after the catastrophic losses of the previous 20 years.

Farmland birds (thanks RSPB/BTO) show a similar trend though the data go back further:

Data on other species groups isn’t so easy to find, but Plantlife gathered strong evidence that plant populations have declined significantly at a county level – averaging a loss of one species of flowering plant per year (1.4 per year in Northamptonshire).

Bat populations have increased by 20% between 1999 and 2010, but this is only after having undergone “severe declines historically”.

Farmland priority habitats include semi-natural grasslands, cereal field margins, hedgerows, ponds and orchards. The area of cereal field margins has increased in recent years. Semi-natural grasslands have all but disappeared from England’s farmland. Hedgerows and ponds were removed wholesale from farmland through the 1970s-1990s but large projects and agri-environment scheme funding have started to reverse these losses.

There is now just 100,000 ha or thereabouts of semi-natural grassland – 2% of all the grassland in England. Semi-improved grasslands can and do support priority species but this is a little understood resource. Outside protected areas, the condition of semi-natural grasslands is little known – a 2005 survey found only a fifth of sites in favourable condition while a quarter had lost some or all of their wildlife value, either through agricultural intensification or abandonment. For more information about grasslands read our report Nature’s Tapestry.

Orchards, newly awarded priority habitat status, are certainly in a bad way as a recent inventory study has found, with losses of over between 1 and 2% a year in some counties, even in the last decade.

Biodiversity in your pocket is a useful digest of indicators, the indicators Defra uses to assess changes in status and trends for biodiversity in England. While plant diversty on arable land was assessed as increasing (not related to priority species, just general species richness), most of the other farmland indicators were either negative or stable.

The picture I’ve painted is not complete, but does show that in general farmland habitats and species have undergone severe declines in the post-war period, and the populations in the last 20 years are either stable at their depleted populaiton levels, or are continuing to decline. Yes there are some exceptions to these figures, but the trends are clear. The Biodiversity Crisis continues.

What Responsibility lies with Agriculture?

The UK BAP 2008 reporting round report identified Habitat loss/degradation (particularly owing to agriculture, changes in management practice or infrastructure development) and global warming continued to be the key threats reported for the highest proportion of priority species and habitats. The proportion of priority habitats  where agriculture was identified as a threat now or in the future was 65% (no change between 2005/2008) but actually increased for priority species from 29% to 35% between 2005 and 2008.

Peter Kendall in his recent speeches has tried to argue that because indicators for things like fertiliser use, greenhouse gas emissions and so on were all positive (ie that use was declining or that emissions were declining), therefore there was no biodiversity crisis. There are two errors here. Firstly he has confused indicators of process, with indicators of outcomes. While the process indicator (declining fertiliser use) may be positive, the outcome indicators (farmland bird index; condition of semi-natural grassland outside SSSIs) is negative. Secondly he implies causation – that because fertiliser use or greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture  have declined, therefore there is no biodiversity crisis. There is no evidence for a causal link.

Agri-Environment Schemes

Agri-environment schemes – especially Higher Level Scheme and the best of the Classic Schemes, have undoubtedly helped to conserve priority habitats and species and although HLS gets only about 10% of all the CAP funding, it delivers most of the benefits of CAP spending for biodiversity.

One process indicator that is repeatedly trotted out is that 70% of agricultural land in England is within an Agri-Environment Scheme and, the argument goes, therefore all this farmland is being managed to benefit biodiversity. This is tosh. The 70% figure comes from counting all the farmland on all the farms that have any land in an agri-environment scheme. A farm can enter Entry Level Scheme and get all its points from managing hedgerows (many do.) But because ELS is a whole farm scheme, the whole farm area counts towards the 70% target, even though 99% of the farm is not being managed as part of an ELS option. The 70% figure is meaningless and it has been abandoned by the Government as an indicator of anything for this reason.

Farmers are key to solving the biodiversity crisis

There is no doubt that farmers are central to solving the biodiversity crisis – many farmers care passionately about the wildlife on their farms, and do everything they can do conserve it and enable it to flourish, within the economic constraints of farming. Farming, after all created the vast majority of key wildlife habitats in this country, and farming will have the main say in whether these habitats, and the species that depend on them, have a future or not.

I’d welcome comments in particular from farmers and from the NFU as to whether they agree with my analysis and if not, which sources of data, or my contentions, they challenge.


About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
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8 Responses to Biodiversity Crisis: What Biodiversity Crisis?

  1. Great blog summarising the state of the natural environment!

    To emphasise the lack of understanding shown by the NFU about environmental issues I would add that a biodiversity and food productivity catastrophe could be just around the corner. Whilst there remains so little habitat (of many types), and in such unfavorable condition, the biodiversity crisis can only become more apparent. Species and habitats, if no action is taken to protect them, spiral into deeper declines and it is negative feedbacks and chance events (e.g. a disease, harsh winter etc etc) that could lead to a complete collapse of species and ecosystems. Many natural processes provide services to us humans and are involved in food production, for example: we already have some strong indications that pollination is being affected, which, if there is a demise of this service, could result in crop failures. There are many more examples of where failing ecosystems could severely impact on our quality of life. Environmentalists, whilst they generally believe in the intrinsic value of wildlife, also understand that biodiversity has a role to play in maintaining our own well-being. The UK prides itself on a ‘green and pleasant land’ – much better filled with songbirds and wildflowers, and all the evidence now points to better health of people that have access to such areas.

    The argument will rage on and on: Wildlife V Food Production, and it is not one that we should ignore but, the NFU should now be embracing the environmental cause, not denying it. The NFU has a large responsibility for promoting appropriate management of the countryside – we all have a stake in its future. If farmers fail to produce food in 40 years time it could be because they have failed to take seriously the biodiversity crisis now.

    Yes, more research is needed to understand the optimal requirements for habitats and species to function whilst allowing farmers to produce adequate food supplies. There is currently limited understanding of these areas and even less filters through to farmers. The NFU needs to put more resources into ‘knowledge exchange’ focusing on demonstrating how sustainable farming can be achieved. It’s a two-way process – farmers and environmentalists working together. Surely, the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ era is outdated?

    I’m interested to know what your thoughts are about Peter Kendall’s comment ‘..if biodiversity is no worse in 40 years time…’. The UKBAP failed to meet 2010 targets and is highly unlikely to meet 2020 targets for restoring/re-creating UKBAP habitats and species. Playing devil’s advocate here, is Peter Kendall’s comment more realistic and achievable than environmentalists’ targets given the pressures? I suppose I am asking whether the current situation provides a state of equilibrium? Do ecosystems function adequately or are they failing?

    • milesking says:

      Thanks very much for your comments Ann – I completely agree – I thought we had moved away from the “us and them” divisive arguments of the past – apparently not.

      You mention Peter’s assertion that it would be a fair achievement if biodiversity was “no worse than it is now” in 40 years time. For the substantial proportion of species and habitats which are declining or whose status is “bumping along the bottom”, then if current trends continue, biodiversity will be in an even worse state than it is now and species will be extinct, habitats completely lost. So if current populations/extent and condition of habitat were just maintained at today’s level, that would be progress indeed. Does that mean farmland species and habitats that were increasing today should have their recovery halted though?

      The England Biodiversity Strategy (Biodiversity 2020) targets are far more ambitious and aim for 90% of priority habitat to be in favourable or recovering condition, 200,000ha of new priority habitat created, and something unspecified to be done about priority species. So the NFU’s position is markedly less ambitious than even the Government’s. Indeed the implication must be that the NFU do not agree with the Biodiversity 2020 targets – perhaps they will come out and say this in public.

  2. Mark Fisher says:

    What a circular argument. Nature conservation in Britain is based on, and the choices made, are heavily dependent on farmed landscapes – wild nature is given little or no space of its own and without intervention management.

  3. milesking says:

    Thanks Mark.

    Could you explain the difference between “wild nature” and the rest of nature.

  4. Pingback: Is there a productivity crisis in Farming? | Miles King's Blog

  5. Mark Fisher says:

    Considering the phytogeography of Britain, have you tripped over any any taiga, tundra, steppe or savanna grassland in Britain recently? Don’t you think you are privileging an artefact of agriculture?

  6. milesking says:

    Thats a bit of a rag bag of biomes to make up your “wild nature” Mark.

    You can see what the potential natural vegetation of Britain would have been (in the absence of humans) on the Map of the Natural Vegetation of Europe, which can be downloaded here, and it’s a fascinating piece of research.

    I can’t see any tundra but there’s certainly heathland and bog, boreal forest (not Taiga), no steppe or savannah grassland that I can see. The vast majority is temperate forest of one kind or another.

    If phytogeography was the only factor influencing biodiversity conservation in Britain, then this would be our bible. Reality dictates that biodiversity conservation and other land-uses such as agriculture, built development, recreation and so on, must work together. And this makes sense, since the biodiversity habitats we have now, have developed as a result of the interaction between people and natural ecosystems over the last 10,000 years or so.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for developing large-scale naturalistic landscapes – what’s happening at the Knepp Castle Estate ( is a case in point. But don’t confuse this with natural vegetation, or wild nature. Knepp is still producing food, and receiving agricultural subsidies! And a thousand Knepp Estate will still only cover a fraction of Britain – do we just let wildlife disappear altogether from the rest?

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