This week I delivered a speech setting out a raft of new government policies for the environment. One of the things that we have valued more during this pandemic is the ability to have access to the natural world and outdoor spaces. With all of the restrictions in place and three lockdowns which have required us to stay at home, the ability to get out and exercise, and form a connection with the natural world has been important.
Many people have had increased awareness of the link between our own health, and economic prosperity, and that of the planet, and there are a number of projects that aim to help those suffering from some mental health conditions to get out and others that use outdoor spaces and nature as a teaching resource for children.
The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. Over the last 50 years, much of the UK’s wildlife-rich habitat has been lost, degraded, and many of our once common species are in long-term decline. Between 1932 and 1984, we lost 97% of our species-rich grassland. Five species of butterfly have disappeared from England in the last 150 years. And our farmland bird indicator stands at less than half its value of 1970 – following a precipitous decline during the 1980s and 90s, and further losses since.
Our new policies aim to move the emphasis away from just slowing the pace of nature’s decline towards nature’s recovery. One of the things we have announced is a new target to reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2030 and we are the first country in the world to set such a target. We have also set out plans to treble the rate of tree planting in this country over the next few years and to treble the rate of peatland restoration. If we can restore peat habitats to their natural condition, then these landscapes become an important carbon store. We also plan to introduce a new designation to improve protections for long-established woodland and set out plans to support the reintroduction of species like the Golden Eagle that once existed on our island but became extinct.
One of the tools to help deliver our new ambitions will be our new agricultural policies. Our environmental land management schemes - the Sustainable Farming Incentive, Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery – will pay farmers for environmentally sustainable actions, support local nature recovery, and deliver landscape and ecosystem recovery.
This is also a big year for the environment internationally. We will continue to explore opportunities to build and strengthen our approach to climate change and to reverse biodiversity loss in line with our new leading target. We will be at the forefront of driving international ambition and action on nature at the CBD COP15 and the G7 in Carbis Bay in June, and on nature-based solutions at COP26.
Once this pandemic is over, we will have an opportunity through our new policies to do more both to increase and improve the number of people who access our beautiful countryside and to do more for nature’s recovery within these designated areas. With our near nature plan, we will leave the environment in a better state for future generations - and turn the tide on the decline that we have seen in recent decades.