When questions were asked about why episode 6 of David Attenborough’s BBC programme, Wild Isles, was only shown on iPlayer, the BBC explained that episode 6, Saving our wild isles, was a separate programme, albeit inspired by Wild Isles. It was commissioned by a collaboration between the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in response to the fact that nature in the UK is in crisis: “We are living in one of the 10% most nature-depleted countries in the world”. Their objective is to end the destruction of nature in the UK and inspire us all to help nature recover.
The state of UK nature
WWF tells us that in the UK, “more than one in seven native species face extinction.” The main drivers have been the industrial revolution and the intensification of agriculture. East Anglia is typical of the kind of intensive farming that has resulted in the destruction of wildlife habitats and the pollinating bees and insects.
East Anglia Bylines has reported extensively on the pollution of our waterways from untreated sewage; the dumping of rubbish, especially plastics in the rivers is killing our waterbirds. Every year, there are reports of seals at Horsey in Norfolk suffering, and often dying, from entanglement in plastic.
And our materialistic, growth-at-any-cost, high speed way of life exacerbates the degradation of our environment. Far from being saved, the situation is getting worse.
The effect of climate change
The effects of climate change are visible in our changing weather patterns, which in turn are affecting availability of food for birds, insects, animal life, as well as for us. So much so, that farmers are having to change crops to deal with potential drought conditions this year.
The Government’s 25 year environmental plan
In 2018, Theresa May’s government set out its plan to improve the UK’s air and water quality, promising to be “the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”.
Yet, five years on, we are far from being a country where “plants and animals are thriving”, and where the treatment of our countryside, rivers, coastlines and air can be regarded as “setting an example for others to follow”. Indeed, in 2022, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)’s first monitoring report on the 25 year plan, states that “progress has been slow”– “Our rivers are in a poor state, bird and other species numbers are in serious decline, poor air quality threatens the health of many and our seas and sea floor are not managed sustainably.”
But all is not lost
There are many initiatives countrywide to protect and save nature, from our own destructive habits and also from the effects of climate change; not only by large charitable groups like the RSPB, WWF, Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Rivers Trust, Marine Conservation Society, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Action for Conservation, Rewilding Britain, Butterfly Conservation, but also by individual and community initiatives. These include clearing our rivers and countryside of rubbish, reducing waste (especially plastics), planting more trees, informing children and adults about how to take care of their environment, interacting with and learning to love our natural world, adopting more sustainable approaches to both land management and farming, and volunteering.
Almost daily, there are reports in the media about successful projects that are protecting UK’s nature and preserving biodiversity. Recently the east wetlands of England were nominated as a possible Unesco world heritage site. Not only will this safeguard hundreds of bird species that rely on this ecosystem, but it will provide food for hundreds of thousands of visiting birds, such as curlews and oystercatchers. At the same time, if carefully managed, the area will “reduce the impact of storm surges and flooding”, and protect coastal communities.
The restoration of temperate forests in Wales and the Isle of Man is another attempt to restore natural habitat recovery in Britain.
However, what has been lacking is a clear vision for the future of our natural world and a strategy to achieve it – until now.
A vision to save the UK’s nature
With progress on maintaining a sustainable future for Britain’s environment, being so slow and the urgency so great, the three conservation charities have come together to help save Britain’s nature. Their aim is to create a People’s Plan for Nature, through an innovative and participatory framework that includes a national conversation, a people’s assembly and an action plan that involves everyone.
The national conversation
The campaign began with the public. They were invited to share their thoughts and ideas online and through various events about why nature is important to them and what needs to be done to save it from further destruction. They were also asked to describe any projects they knew about of people working together to protect nature. Over 30,000 people responded during the 4 weeks of the national conversation.
Key ideas and themes
People expressed different reasons why nature is important to them. For some, it is sharing a sense of joy and excitement with family and friends at the sight of rare animals and birds, enjoying the wonder of the sea and mountains. For others, nature is a source of peace and calm, away from their busy lives. Others expressed their pride in the beauty of the countryside, and their historical and cultural connection to the land where their families had lived for generations.
Hopes for the future of nature
Very strong ideas arose when people were asked to imagine how things should be 30 years from now. Top of the list was the importance of integrating our everyday lives with nature, and protecting our natural resources, so that our environment would be safer and our lives healthier. The countryside would be rich in diverse habitats and wildlife; water and air would be clean; farming, fishing, building and production industries would be developed around sustainable values and driven by renewable energy. Importantly, people imagined their lives as part of nature – not something to be exploited but rather protected and appreciated – more as a symbiotic relationship. Thus, nature would be part of key economic, political and social decisions.
The People’s Assembly
A hundred and three people were brought together from all over the country as the first nationwide citizens’ assembly for nature. The group included people from the age of 16, from different ethnic groups and with different levels of education and involvement with nature. Experts gave presentations on a wide range of topics, including the food industry, farming, health, conservation, community engagement and national government. Key topics from the national conversation were discussed and evidence was examined, with the objective of creating a people’s plan for nature that takes account of the concerns of the people of the UK. This took the form of a vision statement for the future of nature in the UK and an action plan for governments, charities, NGOs, businesses and individuals and communities.
Calls to action
The plan sets out 8 areas requiring urgent action now to deliver effective protection and renewal of nature in the UK, each including reasons and the agents to lead and participate in achieving the vision:
- Vision and leadership in assessing impacts on nature of all commercial and policy decisions, and greater collaboration between different campaign groups.
- Regulation and implementation requiring government accountability from a permanent Assembly for Nature consisting of NGOs, industry and public expertise; guidance to avoid negative impacts during transition to protecting nature; stronger regulatory protection and enforcement; provision to support business working to restore nature.
- Nature-friendly farming requiring subsidies to prioritise sustainable and nature-friendly farming and plans to encourage more farmers to adopt nature-friendly methods.
- Food production and consumption calls for a national conversation on reasons to change our diets, stop food waste and eat more sustainable, locally produced food; calls for transparency about the sources of our food and any impact on nature; requires food companies to avoid negative impact on the natural environment.
- Marine protection calls for action to reduce fishing quotas, regulating distribution and enforcing standards; and importantly, calls for new marine national parks.
- Waterways and catchment management requiring the establishment of a new water management framework to protect and restore the health of our waterways; immediate investment in wastewater infrastructure to end sewage in our natural environment; change in our attitude to domestic water use; ecological improvements using nature-based solutions.
- Local access to nature to be recognised as a human right; all infrastructure to include 12% of the space to support biodiversity and allow access to people for their health and well-being; green spaces to be locally managed to support nature.
- Using evidence effectively calls for information about the state of nature in the UK to be easily available; policy decisions to be evidence based re any impact on nature; greater importance renewal with regards the future of nature.
A Legacy in the making
Sir David Attenborough has had a powerful role in informing us about the natural world in which we live and his legacy will be his role in trying to bring us to our senses to ensure Earth has a future. “Our precious wildlife and wild places are on the brink. The UK is one of the most nature-deprived countries in the world.” We have lost 30 million birds from our skies in the last 50 years, and 97% of our wildflower meadows since the 1930s plus a quarter of all our mammals are at risk of extinction.
How many of us would have believed this possible? As one of the richest countries in the world, with a population of dedicated gardeners, explorers, recorders and protectors of the natural world, we have taken our eye off our own backyard and allowed such a reality to take hold.
So, are you willing to take up the challenge and help protect and restore nature in the UK? Join one of your community groups for a walk in nature, volunteer with local eco groups to clean up a river near you, plant trees or help create a new meadow or restore a hedgerow, or join Sir David’s call to Go wild once a week, or join a wild weekender event with the RSPB.
Sir David is unequivocal. “We have a few short years during which we can still make a choice”. Time is running out. Now it’s up to us – all of us – not just to make a pledge, but to act on it.