Moved by Lord Chidgey
23: After subsection (1) insert—“(1A) In the range of species which contribute to the target, at least one must be a species that is significant to chalk streams and its abundance an indicator of the health of its ecosystem.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment aims to ensures that at least one of the species which contributes to the target should act as a proxy for being able to assess the health and abundance of species within chalk streams, which in turn will act as a clear indicator of the overall health of chalk streams.
My Lords, allow me first to declare my interests—first, as vice-chair of the All-Party Chalk Streams Group, and as a past chairman of the town council of Alresford, in Hampshire, and a Winchester city councillor at the same time. Alresford lies in the headwaters of the River Itchen, astride the Alre, and it has been around a while—since Bishop de Lucy constructed a causeway taking the road out of Alresford to Basingstoke. Behind it, he constructed a massive freshwater lake, which in the day was teeming with fish of all descriptions. Winchester, of course, lies further down the Itchen, and is a major city of our nation.
Sadly, the eminence of the water pursuits and the value of the river have declined very seriously over the years. This is the primary reason why Amendment 23 in my name, together with Amendments 22, 24, 25 and 26, covers different aspects of the importance of species abundance in our rivers and streams. In this regard, the inclusion of a target-setting framework is a welcome part of the Bill. Putting targets into law brings certainty and clarity, to the benefit of all.
Depletion of species is not a new problem. It is a problem for Governments around the world, which, generally speaking, they have failed to reverse. The UK, however, has failed more than most. We are at the bottom of the league for G7 nations, based on the biodiversity intactness index. The latest State of Nature report showed that around one in seven species is threatened with extinction and more than 40% of species have declined since 1970, according to Greener UK.
Government Amendment 22 is thought to place a very weak duty in the Bill; it does not provide a legally binding commitment to halt the decline in species abundance, which the cross-party Amendment 24 addresses.
My Amendment 23, however, recognises the very great importance of species abundance in our chalk streams and chalk rivers in the south and south-east of England, which are a vital source of clean water, serving the needs of many millions of people across the region. It aims to ensure that at least one of the species which contribute to the species abundance target should act as a proxy for being able to assess the health and abundance of species in chalk streams, which in turn will act as a clear indicator of the overall health of chalk streams.
It is understood that the target proposed in the new clause will be constructed from a range of indicator species, which, taken together, can give an assessment of the level of increase in abundance. It is felt that at least one of these species should act as a proxy for being able to assess the health and abundance of species in chalk streams, which in turn will act as a clear indicator of the overall health of chalk streams.
To achieve the necessary improvements in abundance, action will be required to tackle issues around flow and abstraction, water quality and the need for habitat restoration. In the context of this amendment, it may be helpful to mention some of the indicator species the Government may wish to consider, all of which are good proxies for the overall health of chalk streams. These include the distribution and abundance of: blue-winged olive flies, brook water crowfoot and, naturally, brown trout. In addition, the distribution and abundance of gammarus, a shrimp-like invertebrate measured by riverbed kick samples in chalk streams, are a clear indicator of the overall health of a river.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to what seems to me a fairly simple request. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 24 in my name, and I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for joining me in supporting it. I apologise to noble Lords for a lengthier contribution than I normally aspire to, but for me and many thousands of others this is a crucial issue.
Like others, I have been pressing for a state of nature target to be inserted into this Bill for some time. Indeed, a current petition has well over 200,000 signatures. I was therefore delighted to hear my honourable friend George Eustice’s recent speech at Delamere Forest, when he said:
“Nature is going to be key pillar of our work as host of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26. We were the first major economy in the world to set a net zero emissions target in law. To meet that target we must protect and restore nature, with nature-based solutions forming a key part of our approach to tackling climate change.”
He went on to say something we all know:
“The UK is sadly one of the most nature depleted countries in the world.”
“We want not only to stem the tide of this loss, but to turn it around and leave the environment in a better state than we found it. I want us to put a renewed emphasis on nature’s recovery. And, that is why today we will be amending the Environment Bill to require an additional legally binding target for species abundance for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature. This is a huge step forward, and a world leading measure in the year of COP15 and COP26. We hope that this will be the Net Zero equivalent for nature, spurring action of the scale required to address the biodiversity crisis.”
My noble friend the Minister has just echoed those words.
After that speech there were many virtual cheers, not only from conservation and environmental NGOs but from those thousands of our fellow citizens who care deeply about this issue, myself very much included. Indeed, I am sure that many Conservative MPs were equally delighted to be able to report back to their concerned constituents that this Government, my Government, were taking the steps required to start the decline of our nature.
At the recent G7 summit, part of the communiqué stated:
“We therefore confirm our strong determination to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, building on the G7 Metz Charter on Biodiversity and the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature as appropriate.”
However, I have to say, very regretfully, that when these much-heralded government amendments were laid they were disappointing—really disappointing. I take no pleasure in saying that so much expectation was dashed to the ground so quickly. I suspect that my noble friend the Minister shares some of that disappointment —I will not press him on that—and that somewhere, the original aspiration and maybe even an earlier draft of these government amendments were squashed. I cannot think where. It cannot be the Treasury, as it commissioned that excellent piece of work, the Dasgupta review, which laid out clearly the economic case for restoring nature. It is all a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced and my noble friend will be able to assure me that our simple amendment now has the green light. That would save us all a lot of time.
Why is this state of nature target needed? As I said, the Government have accepted the need to halt the decline of nature. I have already said that this has been managed in the G7 nature compact, the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and the Dasgupta review. The Government have stated their intention to
“halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.”
Previous global agreements to halt nature’s decline failed because global goals have not been matched by domestic implementation. The UN Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 showed that the world had failed to meet any of its targets to halt biodiversity loss set under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Environment Bill is of course largely framework legislation, without a definite environmental objective. Adding a meaningful state of nature target would help upgrade the Bill to landmark legislation, setting a clear direction for environmental improvement.
The Government’s proposal for a species abundance target just does not lock in a level of ambition to halt species decline by 2030. Instead, it merely requires the target to “further” the objective of halting nature’s decline. This means that there would be no fixed date at all for achieving the ultimate objective of stopping biodiversity loss. Under the Government’s proposed approach, the level of ambition for the species abundance target would be set by statutory instrument, along with other targets, in October 2022 at the earliest. Setting half a target of this kind undermines the very purpose of a statutory target. It does not provide a fixed point of accountability, give certainty to investors or create a clear requirement for all government departments to achieve a clear goal.
The Government may argue that it would be appropriate to wait to set the target following consultation. However, I believe that there are three problems with this approach. There is no guarantee of ambition: the final target could fall far short of an objective to halt species decline by 2030 and there would be no statutory obligation to set that target for a later date. This would also show a regrettable failure of leadership. Part of the reason for setting a state of nature target is to inspire action in other countries, but the Government’s approach would mean the target being set after the COP 15 Convention on Biological Diversity talks.
Finally, and very importantly, it would mean a critical delay in implementation. The state of nature target is achievable but challenging; there are just nine years for action. Waiting until 2023 for certainty on the target would mean a critical delay in the action and investment needed to halt nature’s decline.
I have to say as well that I fear that some things that may accelerate the decline might take place before that. Perhaps my noble friend could look into the proposals that widespread reptiles, along with other species, should be removed from Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which were put forward recently by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in its quinquennial review. That would mean, for example, that it would be perfectly all right to kill adders and collect reptiles and amphibians. I have a sneaking feeling that this might be something to do with planning, and in my opinion it is very concerning. However, I digress.
A species abundance target would be based on an index of hundreds of species aggregated to show an overall trend in biodiversity, and the objective would be to bend the curve of the index so that the decline is halted by 2030. The State of Nature index is one example of how that could be done. It measures the fortunes of 696 terrestrial and freshwater species—including, perhaps, those in the chalk streams that the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, has just mentioned, and I have a great deal of sympathy regarding such streams. The index shows a significant decline of 13% in average abundance since 1970 and has fallen by 6% over the past 10 years. Since 1970, 41% of species have decreased in abundance and 26% have increased, while 15% are threatened with extinction from Great Britain.
The index should be designed to cover terrestrial, freshwater and marine species and could include plants as well as mammals, birds and insects, and the precise details of the index could be agreed by statutory instrument in 2022. The important thing is to set the overall level of ambition in law now in this Bill. Ideally, an ambitious target would also set measures for the extent and condition of wildlife-rich habitats and for avoiding individual extinctions. However, a well-designed species abundance target could serve as a reasonable proxy for the overall state of the natural environment, with more detailed targets set later. Realistically, could we achieve this? A 2030 species abundance target should be the first step towards the 25-year environment plan promise of passing on the environment in the best condition, so further long-term targets should aim for the recovery of species and habitats.
After many decades of decline, halting the loss of biodiversity by 2030 will be challenging, but well-established conservation science shows that it is indeed achievable. It will require a combination of halting the main pressures on biodiversity, chiefly from intensive agriculture, unsustainable development, pollution and the over-abstraction of water, as well as positive action for restoration, such as investment in habitat creation.
Many policy options needed to achieve the target are already in development. A strong environmental land management programme, farming regulation, biodiversity gain requirements in development, and protection of 30% of the land and sea for nature could deliver much of the effort required to meet the target. Setting the target would help to ensure that those policies were designed and delivered with the necessary consistency and ambition and that all departments played their part in meeting that goal.
Sadly, without a state of nature target the Environment Bill is, I regret to say, rudderless. It does not set a direction of travel for environmental improvement. Government Amendment 22 falls far short of the net-zero for nature promised by the Secretary of State, because it does not set that level of ambition. A failure to halt the decline of biodiversity would lead to species extinction and economic losses and would compromise the health and welfare of future generations. Without a target in the Bill, this crucial opportunity for the UK to show global leadership ahead of COP 15 will be lost.
Amendment 24, requiring a target to be set that will “meet” the objective of halting the decline of biodiversity rather than the very unambitious “further”, would be a simple and achievable way for the Government to inspire the action and investment needed to help avert continuing ecological decline and begin to restore our natural world. I have to say that this issue will not go away and that I intend to pursue it if the Government do not move further. However, I have every hope that they will do so in order to ensure their credibility on this issue.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and to commend him, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, on Amendment 24, to which the Green group would have certainly given its support, had there been space on the paper for it.
I will, however, go back briefly to Amendment 23 from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, because it is crucial that we acknowledge the importance of chalk streams. It is something I have in the past done a great deal of work on, with concern about the arrival of what has been called unconventional oil and gas extraction and its potential impact on them. I will admit that seeing the noble Lord’s amendment also made me want to revisit amendments that I tabled to the then Agriculture Bill on meadows and hedgerows. They are all things we need to include when we are talking about the species abundance target more broadly.
However, what I mostly want to address is new subsection (4) in the Government’s amendment and the proposed amendments to that subsection. As the noble Lord, Lord Randall, has already set out extremely clearly, this simply does not live up to the promises that the Government made on the species abundance target: the words we heard from the Secretary of State in what was billed as a landmark speech.
Amendment 24 would leave out the word “further”. The Government’s amendment states that they will “further the objective”, and Amendment 24 says “meet” the objective, which is a considerable improvement. However, I have tabled Amendment 26, which would go further. I apologise to noble Lords, because I realise, looking at it, that in the Explanatory Statement I did not really get on top of the complexities of explaining it. The key difference in this context is that I say, rather than to “further” or to “meet” a target, “delivering an improvement”. We have the Government saying, “We’re going to try to at least not get worse”; Amendment 24 says, “We’re going to at least meet a target for species abundance”; and I say, “We have to see an improvement.” That is what would be written into the Bill.
I shall go back, as did the noble Lord, Lord Randall, to the speech of George Eustice in Delamere Forest. I have a couple of quotes from it. It used the phrase “building back greener”. I put the stress on the “er” in that: an improvement. He said that
“restoring nature is going to be crucial”— we are restoring, we are improving. He said:
“We want to not only stem the tide of this loss but to turn it around and to leave the environment in a better state.”
I would say that to deliver on what the Government say they want to achieve, they need the words “delivering an improvement”, or words very similar to those, in the Bill to commit to seeing an improvement.
I shall give just a short reflection on what that means, and I shall go to the RSPB:
“More than 40 million birds have disappeared from UK skies” since 1970. What the Government are offering is, “We’re going to try and stop losing more”; Amendment 24 says, “We guarantee to at least stay where we are”; my amendment says, “We’re going to bring at least some of those 40 million birds back.” That is what it is aiming to do.
We can reflect on a phrase which has been very much popularised by George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and writer: “shifting baseline syndrome”. Older Members of your Lordships’ House may well say, “Well, nature just doesn’t look like it used to when I was a child”—but their grandparents would have said exactly the same thing. We have had a long-term, centuries-long collapse, and if you could get someone in a time machine from 200 years ago and put them into our countryside now, they just would not recognise it, with its total lack of wildlife.
It is also worth looking at the Government’s reaction. The noble Lord, Lord Randall, referred to the Dasgupta review. The Government have, of course, already put out a formal response to that in which they talk about a “nature-positive future”, which I suggest implies that there has to be an improvement: if you are going to do something positive, you are increasing it. That explains why I have worded Amendment 26 in this way, in terms of delivering improvement.
I want briefly to address the rest of Amendments 26 and 27 on the issue of species abundance. I have talked to some of the NGOs that have been instrumental in the petition that the noble Lord, Lord Randall, referred to—250,000 people had signed it the last time I looked to say that they want an improved species abundance target—I will be very happy if the Minister can correct me, but no one has actually defined what a species abundance target means. We go back to our debate on Monday about what biodiversity means: whether it is biodiversity of genes in a large population which has a large diversity of genes, one hopes; whether it is species; whether it is the fact that to have abundant species, you need a rich ecological environment. All those things fit together. Amendments 26 and 27 are my attempt to get the Minister to reflect now, or if not now, later, and explain to us what the Government really mean by a species abundance target.
What I have suggested, in trying to address those different aspects of biodiversity, is to look at the mass of wild species—we are talking about bioabundance. Keeping a few handfuls of tiny populations of every species going is not enough; we need to have lots of the popular species, lots of all species and also population numbers of red and amber list species, trying to address those rarer species on which a lot of the attention in terms of extinction is focused. I am sure all noble Lords have received many representations about Amendment 24, which is certainly a great improvement on government Amendment 22, but I ask your Lordships’ House, as we go forward to the next stage, to think about some wording in the Bill that guarantees building in improvement, not just ensuring no decline.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. She and her colleague from the Green Party can certainly never be accused of falling down on the job. They are persistent; I do not always agree with them, but I salute them for keeping their cause going.
I was greatly impressed by my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge’s speech but I must say to my noble friend, whose personal credentials I do not question for a moment, that his amendments this evening are disappointing, to put it mildly. The speech of the Secretary of State, George Eustice, to which reference has already been made, excited expectations. The amendments that my noble friend has tabled do not—if they will fulfil those expectations, there is a great difference between promise and performance. It is not just the road to hell that is paved with good intentions; in this context, the road to extinction is paved with good intentions. It is not a question of my noble friend’s intentions but of the performance that I think will follow.
I suggest that on Report my noble friend should toughen this up. I ask him to convene a meeting of those are speaking in this debate and others to see whether we can come to a consensus and amendments that will really reflect what I believe is his genuine intention, and what is certainly the desire of a large majority of your Lordships’ House. I urge him to do that, because I do not want this to become a politically contentious Bill; it is one that ought to command the allegiance of people in all parts of the country and in all political parties. I salute the Government for bringing it forward, but say to them, please do not fall down on this. It is crucial that in 10 years’ time, looking back upon 2030, people do not say, “There was a great opportunity that was badly missed.”
My Lords, I agree with the earlier speakers that this part of the Bill needs to be strengthened. I should say to my noble friend Lord Goldsmith with regard to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, why just chalk streams? I know how vital they are but any river will tell you about the environment of that area and its quality within the river.
I have a little bit of good news for my noble friend on the Front Bench. I recently spent three days in Dorset and, driving back, I had to wash the windscreen of my car to get rid of the bugs. It is the first time in many years when I have had to do that. If bugs are getting on to windscreens, it means that something is turning around slowly in nature. It is a good start and I hope that we will all be doing what I had to do on a much more regular basis. I agree that it is desperately boring to do, but it is far better to be bored doing it than not to have nature.
Virtually all land in the UK is managed. There is very little, if any, truly wild land left. When we are considering biodiversity, we must not forget that the land also has to produce food for the population. I again ask my noble friend on the Front Bench the question I asked at Second Reading, or possibly on the first day of Committee—I cannot remember. Does he agree with the figure that 21% of our agricultural land has to be taken out of agriculture and put into bioenergy fuels and trees? If that is the case, it means a 10% increase in the productivity of all the other agricultural land. That will mean a lot of intensification but it can be done if we do that cleverly with supporting biodiversity.
Here I want to talk about something that has almost become a dirty word: management—land management and biodiversity management. We could improve the biodiversity in this country very quickly if we followed the simple rules of getting the right habitat, the right species protection, proper winter feeding and control of predators. That is the four-legged chair on which biodiversity depends. I know that the Agriculture Act will address some of that but it will not necessarily address winter feed and certainly not predator control. The winter feed situation has been hugely compromised by the increasingly efficient agricultural machinery that farmers use and the height at which crops can be cut, leaving little for wildlife.
I mentioned foxes and badgers earlier. It was in that context that I felt that my noble friend the Minister had not answered my questions. What will the Government do to ensure that there is proper predator control carried out in a humane way? I am not talking about the extinction of species but getting a balance. If we are going to get back lapwing, curlew and waders, predators will have to be controlled. It is not just a question of foxes and badgers but deer. They have ruined hedgerows for ground-nesting birds and nightjars, and decimated some trees. In an increasingly urban southern half of England, deer control is becoming a major problem to undertake but if we do not do so we will affect wildlife in a hugely different way. It is not just a matter of our actions as human beings but of nature working within nature.
I know there are certain things over which we have no control, such as climate change. It is bound to affect our biodiversity in ways we do not know. As the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, will know, warmer winters and cooler summers are affecting salmon migration and its appearance in rivers. It is to be hoped that we will do something about that in long term, but it is not a short-term problem that we can solve. Nor can we solve the problem the north winds this spring have caused the bat population—that is not strictly within our hands. My friend, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, talked about the blue butterfly, which is weather-dependent. We have seen a huge increase in the red admiral thanks to a slightly warmer climate, but the other side of that equation is that we have lost a whole lot of butterflies because of the change in the climate. I wonder whether the blue butterfly that the noble Lord mentioned will suffer in the future.
In this debate, on getting an abundance target and improving biodiversity, I hope my noble friend will tell us about the practical problems that organisations are trying to solve. These organisations, such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Nature Friendly Farming Network, are doing huge amounts. They will need some more help and some more drive from the Government as well. Rather than just setting targets, it is the practicalities on the ground that matter.
I am delighted to follow my noble friend Lord Caithness. I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on bringing forward government Amendment 22 and all the amendments in this group. I hope he is not too disheartened by the reaction around the Committee this afternoon. Really, the Government have taken the bull by the horns.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on his industriousness in all the positions he holds. No wonder we do not see too much of him here in the Chamber, but I congratulate him on all his work, at every level of democracy, which he outlined today. I am delighted that he talked about the plight of chalk streams, which I was heavily involved in at one stage in the other place. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, highlighted—indeed, it is a theme of the briefing I was delighted to receive from the Green Alliance—that this is not a problem unique to this country. My noble friend the Minister outlined this when he moved and spoke to the amendments before us this evening. It is not so much that this is a new problem as that we need new solutions to be adopted, but I urge my noble friend to be slightly cautious if we go out on our own limb, as it were, and set very ambitious targets. Is it not the case that we are not the only Government who did not achieve the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed in Japan in 2010? Surely, if we are concerned about being a global leader and about biodiversity in the wider world, he should use his good offices and those of his colleagues in government to ensure that other Governments follow our lead. I was slightly disappointed that my noble friend Lord Randall did not touch on that aspect and took, perhaps, a uniquely domestic approach in the words he used.
My noble friend has set an ambitious target in the amendments in this group. How achievable is meeting those targets by 2030? Obviously, it is something we have signed up to internationally, so I would be interested to know how realistic and achievable those targets are. It is welcome that they will be subject—as I understood him to say—to the same legally binding targets elsewhere in the Bill. Will he use the species abundance provisions set out in these amendments to ensure that there will be timely and regular reviews of all the species, however the Government is going to define them? I am wondering whether we have actually defined these anywhere in the Bill, and I would be grateful if my noble friend would point to where those definitions are.
We all have our favourite species. Mine is the red squirrel, and one of the joys of visiting Denmark each summer is seeing how widespread it still is in parts of Scandinavia and elsewhere. I believe that hedgehogs are under increasing threat; I frequently lift one up and move it from the drive so that it does not make its way on to the main road, where I know that, a few days later, I will see that it is no more. Will my noble friend use this opportunity to look at all our favourite species—I would argue for red squirrels and hedgehogs—and make sure that, where they have been threatened but are now in abundance, we take cognisance of that? I think particularly of the protections that we gave to badgers in 1968. Should these now be reviewed, in 2021, along with those for all species of bats and newts?
I was taken by the arguments made by noble friend Lord Caithness about achieving a balance. He is absolutely correct, and I support him in this, that we should recognise predators such as deer. I hope that the green lobby will bear with me and that I do not get attacked like I did when I said this before: we have to recognise that TB is spread through predators such as badgers and deer and protect our herds of domestic cattle from that. I hope my noble friend the Minister will take cognisance of that balance. This may be in one of the amendments and I have missed it, but I would welcome his commitment to a review of each species, perhaps every five years, being considered. However, I support the amendments in the name of my noble friend.
My Lords, I restate my interests: I chair the Cawood group, which carries out analytical testing of soil, water, waste et cetera; and I am a trustee of Clinton Devon Estates, which is involved in ELMS trials and testing. I fully support the Bill and am enthusiastic about its potential. As has been stated numerous times, it needs to sit in sync with the Agriculture Act and I will comment on that later. I absolutely understand the need for the suite of amendments tabled by the Minister, beginning with Amendment 22.
There is clearly a need to have appropriate targets; otherwise there is a serious risk of not being able to measure success. As I said earlier in the debate, it is important to have a clear sense of direction to motivate all involved in delivery. I listened carefully to the Minister’s response, in an earlier debate, on why soil quality is not included as a target in the Bill. I have to say that it was not very convincing. If the determinants are still a work in progress, the Government should commit to introducing soil when these have been resolved. The setting of targets is, potentially, one of the most controversial parts of the Bill, as is clear from interest in the topic and comments so far. I will issue a cautionary note, so far as the farming sector is concerned. My old farming business participated in stewardship schemes for about 30 years before I retired two years ago; it was one of the first to enrol in stewardship management. We did halt decline in some species and saw a revival in others.
Modern agricultural practices encouraged by the common agricultural policy and, to be clear, by successive Governments in the UK, to produce cheap food—particularly the move from spring to autumn cropping during the 1970s and 1980s—have had an influence on species loss. Farmers have been following government policies and have been subsidised to produce cheap food for the past 70 years, which is why the Government have an obligation to adequately support family farms through the transition period, as outlined in the Agriculture Act, over the next seven years. The Government also need to incentivise those same farmers to deliver measures within the ELMS to address species loss and help deliver the targets that will be set as a consequence of the Bill. This is where the two pieces of legislation need to be absolutely compatible. I stress again that the Government have an obligation and these family farms are vital to the management of the countryside. They are crucial in delivering economic and social sustainability, as well as environmental sustainability and the outcomes that the Government hope to achieve through the Bill.
I am sure that the Minister will reassure the House that the Government intend to support farmers through the ELMS, but everything depends on the values attached to public goods, including the measures required to deliver biodiversity gain, which are as yet unknown. Establishing the value needs careful consideration. Even though farmers have been pilloried in the past by the environmental lobby as the culprits for ruining the environment in the pursuit of cheap food, in my experience, the vast majority of farmers care deeply about their environmental responsibilities and want to see well-functioning ecosystems.
Species decline has taken place over a long period, and restoration for some species will take a long time. In my experience, it may prove to be impossible for some because the factors are complex and not just linked to farming practices. Climate change is a huge influence, the impact of urbanisation is a significant factor and the increase in predators is understated, as mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. This applies particularly to those that prey on farmland birds, which are one of the key current indicators.
There are more predators today than at any time in my lifetime, from badgers to raptors to magpies and even the domestic cat. A pheasant nesting in our garden this spring had 12 eggs; 10 hatched, but within a week she had only five chicks left and, sadly, only one has survived. Ground-nesting birds are seriously threatened today. I hope that the department will consider all the relevant research, including the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust at Loddington, which has been mentioned a number of times, as well as that of the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, in determining appropriate measures to address these challenges.
I absolutely support the case for selective rewilding in parts of the countryside, and there are some impressive examples of it. However, a lot of idealistic nonsense is talked about the balance of nature, which many believe can be restored through rewilding. There has not been a balance in nature since the garden of Eden, due to human intervention. Given free rein, some species will dominate and others will decline or even disappear.
I will make one more important point. I suspect that the Government will set national targets as part of the Bill. However, the environmental challenges vary significantly from region to region and parish to parish. Each river catchment is unique, so measures that are introduced need to be targeted in each area to address specific environmental issues, whether of water quality or individual species decline. This carries a risk of introducing complexity into a scheme that the Government have committed to reducing and simplifying as part of their promise, having left the EU with its burdensome bureaucracy. Let me restate what I said earlier: in light of these concerns, the Government will need to consider the setting of targets very carefully. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us.
My Lords, there was much wrangling over the “state of nature” amendment in the other place. Of course the noble Lord, Lord Randall, also drew the attention of the House to the public petition on this issue, which has now reached almost 200,000 signatures. It is clearly an important issue. I welcomed the Government’s intention to come forward with their own amendment on it but it is a bit of a disappointment. It fails to deliver the Government’s own commitment to reverse, not just halt, the decline of biodiversity by 2030. Other noble Lords outlined the basis of that, but I will simply recap: the Government promised targets that were equivalent to net zero for biodiversity, but these amendments simply do not deliver that.
All this is rather strange because the Prime Minister has played a leading global role in the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and, most recently, the G7’s nature compact. Both those initiatives aim to halt declines by 2030. This welcome ambition needs to be firmly secured in the legislation and in this element of the targets. If we do not set an ambitious target in the Bill, we will look rather foolish at COP 15 and COP 26.
Government Amendment 22 has some wonderful weasel words in it. It talks of furthering
“the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species.”
We need an unequivocal statement. The Climate Change Act has the 2050 net-zero target; we need something equally clear and unequivocal for biodiversity. That is one element but the other is that it needs to be a target that refers to not just halting decline but starting to reverse it. In his letter of
After all, for many years we have been fiddling while Rome burns. The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, talked about 70 years’ worth of agricultural impact on biodiversity, regrettably. When I was chief executive of RSPB in the mid-1990s, NGOs drove—and the Government eventually endorsed—the Biodiversity Action Plan, which aimed to halt and reverse declines in species and habitats. It was a very worthwhile and inclusive initiative but, by 2020, government commitment to that excellent process had evaporated and it was left without any resources. Let that be an object lesson on the commitment, energy, resource and, in today’s case, the statutory backing required if we are to reverse biodiversity decline. We cannot afford to fail this time, as the rate of species decline and habitat loss increases, irrespective of the noble Lord collecting insects on his windscreen.
A chilling statement was made about species decline and extinction, and I do not think it overdramatic to say that every extinction foreshadows our own. It is that important. I support Amendment 24 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Randall and Lord Krebs, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which
“would set a clear requirement for a target to halt the decline in the abundance of species by 2030.”
I also support Amendment 25, in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which talks of not just halting the decline, but ensuring the abundance of species then increases.
I also commend Amendment 202, in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch. It restates the need for a target to not just halt but reverse biodiversity decline. More importantly, it lays out the parameters of a target to be more rounded than simply species abundance—a true “State of nature target”. It adds to abundance and distribution of species
“the extent and condition of priority habitats”.
I too would like to see habitats as part of the target.
My colleagues in the green NGOs advise me that we should grab a species target while the going is good, and that a well-designed target in species abundance could, as the noble Lord, Lord Randall, said, serve as a proxy for the overall state of the natural environment. I want the Government to be more ambitious and adopt a habitat component to the target, as well. Species and habitats are mutually dependent. Without habitats, species are a bit like the old Morecambe and Wise joke about Eric’s piano playing; all the notes are there, but not necessarily in the right order. The habitats bring the assemblages of species together.
I hope the Minister will consider embracing the spirit of these amendments. As the Minister knows and regularly tells the House, the Government have launched a large range of initiatives which have the potential, if properly delivered and co-ordinated, to halt and reverse the decline of biodiversity. The Government should have the courage of their convictions and establish a much more ambitious and robust state-of-nature target.
My Lords, I rise to consider, as a number of other noble Lords have, the definition of species abundance, and to ask what such targets might mean for land management, particularly at a local level. I echo and endorse the excellent earlier comments of the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, and others, on Amendments 36 and 45, noting the unintended consequence of worthy targets. I remind noble Lords of my interests as listed in the register.
I particularly want to speak about the Exminster marshes, a SSSI Ramsar and RSPB nature reserve, traditionally famed and farmed for its early spring lamb—the earliest in England and a staple at Easter Sunday lunches before subjugation of New Zealand’s native ecosystems allowed us to have lamb year-round. The Exminster marshes are now renowned for overwintering wildfowl and waders, as well as ground-nesting birds and much else. I knew the marshes well as a child, which was not yet so long ago, and there is now nothing like the diversity of bird species there was when it was traditionally farmed, even if the abundance of certain species may have increased dramatically.
Since the RSPB acquired part of the marshes, the increase in birdlife has, for the most part, been seen in the non-native Canada goose, traditionally well controlled. Likewise, there has been an increase in the abundance of foxes, badgers and other marauding mammals, as noted by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, which has caused the RSPB to surround its field with electric fences to protect the few nesting peewits that remain. In the surrounding hills, the quantities of wild deer are now so high that young tree plantations all fail and Kenton’s allotments are surrounded by deer-proof fencing that makes them look like a prison camp. Meanwhile, the mitigation cost for one pair of cirl bunting on those same south Devon hills is set at £75,000—yet I have never even seen a cirl bunting.
Species abundance, as many noble Lords have commented, is very complex, and interventions to improve it can have dramatic and unforeseen consequences. Indeed, I have heard the Minister’s brother extolling the virtues of rewilding when launching the Devon environment fund last year. He spoke with particular passion on the introduction of carnivorous wild cats to Dartmoor. I hope he consults with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, if he ever considers such a target, as the Dartmoor hill ponies would likely object to becoming their prey.
The Minister has already said there will be consultation and impact assessments completed before any targets are introduced, but could he please expand on the extent of that consultation? In various places in the Bill, notably in relation to local nature recovery, species conservation and protected site strategies, there are explicit consultation requirements set out. But nowhere do I see an obligation to consult with local land managers—the very people who will be most impacted by the targets and are most responsible for achieving them. Land use is a particularly local issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, has explained. Each of our landscapes has been developed by local communities over centuries, for particular purposes sympathetic to that specific landscape and those who live and work within it. Centralised target setting, or target setting by national agencies alongside local planners, will not be sufficient.
I also note that the date for meeting the proposed species abundance target is December 2030. While I applaud the Government’s desire to set ambitious nature targets and be seen to be taking action now, I would note that this is only a year or two after the end of the agricultural transition period prescribed by the Agriculture Act. Therefore, at exactly the same time as farmers and land managers are wrestling with the largest upheaval in agriculture regulation in generations, they will be required also to meet as yet ill-defined species abundance targets about which they will not be consulted.
If we are not very careful, we will have dead ponies, no trees and wetlands full of Canada geese—until the badgers get their eggs, too. That is not nature recovery.
My Lords, I rise—metaphorically—to support Amendment 25. My support of this amendment is similar to my support of the target for the PM2.5 particulates in the last grouping. In essence, I believe that we have to be ambitious, so I also support Amendment 26 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. But, first, I thank the Minister —he seems to be getting a slightly hard time tonight—for coming up with his Amendment 22 in the first place. However, as others have said, I realise that there are no serious commitments within it as yet—but it is a start and we all hope that we can draw out some firmer detail as a result of this debate.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I believe that just halting the decline of species—that is, a net zero loss of species—is not ambitious enough. We have lost too much of our biodiversity over recent decades. Our generation of land managers, including myself, has been caught napping on our watch. So I think we should be ambitious to positively put right our mistakes, particularly as many of the species which have declined have begun in recent years to level out. I think we should be encouraged by that fact to go for a truly positive turnaround.
Perhaps I can give a small snapshot of this issue—and I have to stress that it is only a small snapshot from a non-scientist. First, there is abundance change and distribution change, and the two results are not currently merged, which strikes me, as a complete amateur, as slightly strange. If a species in question is slightly declining in abundance where it has previously been measured in, say, Dorset, but is now really thriving and growing in Yorkshire, perhaps due to climate change, we ought to count that as a success and feed it into the statistics. But, as I say, I am not a scientist.
In terms of abundance change, in all four nations of the UK there are 2,890 priority species, which have seen a decline of 36% since 1970—that is big. But, sadly, the 670 species on the English list have gone down by approximately 50%, which is obviously worse. Of course, the results are variable: over this long-term period, 21% of species increased, but 63% showed a decline. The worst decline was among the moths, which make up 431 of the 670 species. That in itself is an issue: do we have the weighting of different species right? Should moths represent 64% of the species being measured? This is obviously a complicated matter, on which I am definitely not qualified to comment.
Some species—for example, bryophytes, lichens, pollinating insects and others—are now beginning to level off and indeed rise, possibly because of the warmer climate enabling species to expand their range, but most are still well below their 1970 stats. Birdlife is also beginning to level out. I notice that they seem to be flourishing around the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and her place, if the birdsong accompanying her speech is anything to go by.
Farmland, woodland and wetland birds are still slightly declining, but seabirds and wintering waterbirds are showing early signs of recovery. The bat index of 10 species is also now very much on the way up. Butterflies have certainly recovered well in recent years but, as we know, their numbers fluctuate dramatically according to spring and summer temperatures. The latest figures we have on butterflies are for 2019, but I imagine that they boomed last year as well. In terms of plants, the declines in bog, wet heath, broadleaf woodland, hedges and lowland grassland are all now showing signs of levelling off.
So, as your Lordships can see, I would not go so far as to say that a turnaround has already started, but many of the species have long since reached their nadir. Therefore, a net growth in species abundance is not such an impossible dream for the Government to aim at if they focus hard on habitat restoration and good environmental management. Mind you, it all depends on where you set your baseline for recovery—that is, from when.
Of course, it is hard to forecast what will make a whole raft of species recover. We already have some clear success stories in individual species: the cirl bunting, which was just mentioned, bitterns, ladybird spiders, chalk-hill blues, greater horseshoe bats, et cetera. These are mostly habitat specialists and it is possible to predict what will happen if you restore their habitats, but it is harder to predict what will happen to the wider generality of species. However, it is my belief that we can make a difference if we work hard to create more local habitats both through ELMS and, in particular, through local nature recovery networks.
We can make this work only if every county and every special landscape—national parks and AONBs—really focus on what their local environment can do for this agenda. I support other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Devon, in saying that it is really all about local input into this agenda, and we must focus on that. As I say, if we work hard at this and, in particular, use our field margins to soften the agricultural desert, we can make a big difference. If, for instance, in an area you could get 50% of farms to put 10% of their land into HLS schemes or the ELMS equivalent, I believe that you would see a massive and measurable turnaround.
Talking of measuring, I say that nowadays the monitoring of species abundance is becoming much more accurate. For instance, if you want to analyse the life in any watercourse—river, lake or pond—you no longer have to trap or catch that life; you just take samples of the water and analyse all the various DNA you find in it. It has proven to be very accurate and, I am sure, could certainly help the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, to measure life in the Itchen. Coming from Inverness, I have jokingly suggested that if only we had the DNA of the Loch Ness monster, in spite of Loch Ness being the largest quantity of freshwater in the UK, we could now definitively tell whether he—or maybe she—is there or not.
There is also now an E-Surveyor tool, which is an app that uses computer vision to classify plant species and report on the condition of habitats for pollinators. Farmer-led moth traps also allow the farmer to photograph what is there each morning, and artificial intelligence provides the identification results along with the condition of the farmland habitats. Citizen science has advanced a long way, with data capture tools for butterflies, birds and pollinators. It is my belief that, if we use all these tools at our disposal to give us instant feedback on what works or does not work, we can very soon calculate the best way to restore the right habitats in the right places for our biodiversity to flourish.
I repeat: let us be ambitious about our target-setting. Most species are already beginning to level out and, bearing in mind that we are entering a whole new agricultural world, and that the Bill introduces a whole new raft of boosts for nature—biodiversity gain, conservation covenants, local nature recovery strategies, et cetera—I firmly believe that we can turn this around sooner rather than later. I know that ELMS are still a few years away, and I realise that species abundance reporting is always two years behind the curve but, being an optimist, I would like to hope that we can achieve an overall positive turnaround by 2032. I am sure the Minister will be able to persuade his officials that, given the right focus, both across the nation and on a localised basis, this is definitely doable.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 24, along with the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Jones of Whitchurch. I also support Amendments 25, 26, 27 and 202.
I was going to speak in some detail to Amendment 24 but the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, did such a brilliant job of introducing it that I do not need to repeat anything he said—he said it far better than I could. What I want to say is this: just over 20 years ago I wrote an article entitled “The second Silent Spring?” Those who follow the environmental literature will know that in the 1960s Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring, which was really the beginning of the environmental movement. She showed how pesticides, particularly DDT, were causing irreparable damage to wildlife. My article analysed how intensive farming practices have silenced the birds in our landscapes. We now understand that reasonably well; as I mentioned in an earlier debate, we have some good evidence on which to change farming practice.
Without Amendment 24—indeed, without going further than Amendment 24, as suggested in the other amendments in this group—I will be able to write an article in 10 years’ time, in the early 2030s, called “The third Silent Spring”, which will talk about how government inaction has left us without nature recovery.
Why is it urgent to act now? I will mention a few reasons; they have already been described in earlier debates. The Minister himself pointed out this afternoon that you cannot conjure up habitats overnight. If you need a habitat such as ancient woodland, lowland heath or marshland, you need years to restore those habitats. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said, the species we are concerned about preserving and increasing depend on the habitats they live in.
Secondly, if the cause of decline has been pollution, it will take years for pollution to disappear from the environment and for us to find alternative insecticides or herbicides that are less damaging to wildlife.
Thirdly, as we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, among others, some species are already affected by the impacts of climate change. In the latest climate change risk assessment, published last week, risks to biodiversity and habitat from climate change are listed as one of the eight priority risks for action in the next two years. It estimates that more than a third of species are at risk of adverse effects of climate change. Unless we take action now to improve the condition of those species, they will disappear.
My final point in explaining why action is urgent now is that some species will be adversely affected by chance extreme events. For instance, the population of Dartford warblers in Surrey declined by 88% in 2009 because of a cold snap in the February, in spite of the creation of special protected areas of lowland heath. That emphasises that if we are to build resilience to future chance events, we have to act now and not dither and delay. A legally binding target will oblige the Government to come clean about what they mean by Amendment 22 and how they will deliver it, and will prevent further dither and delay while some species decline and disappear.
I have two more points. The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady McIntosh, and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, among others, asked what the amendment actually means by a “species abundance target”. I am sure all noble Lords would agree that not all species are created equal. For instance, would it be counted as a success if the Government’s policies achieved a target of increasing the abundance of clothes moths, hair lice or food poisoning bacteria such as salmonella? Some people may think those are important species to increase the abundance of, but when people think of halting species’ decline or restoring nature they are surely thinking of a wider range of species—and probably none of those three species.
Amendments 26 and 27 try to provide a more precise characterisation. We have heard a number of suggestions. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, suggested, for example, that species at risk of decline or extinction be a possible starting point. The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, suggested the species in the NGO State of Nature report. Another obvious alternative would be to include the 943 species and 56 habitats covered under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.
I hope the Minister can shed a bit of light in his response on what sort of group of species will be included in the target. I also hope the target will be strengthened, as the amendment suggests. Can he also suggest how the expert group he referred to will combine these different species into a single metric? This will involve some weighting of their relative importance, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, mentioned a few minutes ago.
I have one final point. The Government should be explicit about how potential trade-offs, which my noble friend Lord Vaux of Harrowden referred to earlier, might be managed. Restoring a habitat for one priority species may result in loss of habitat for another. Species A may need more marsh habitat, while species B may need dry meadows. The supply of land in this country is very limited, so choices may well have to be made. I hope the Minister will tell us a bit about how this might be done.
In summary, while government Amendment 22 looks at first sight to be a fantastic commitment, the more you look at it, the more questions it raises. I very much hope, as other noble Lords have said, that the Government will take it away and revise it, to meet the concerns that have been raised about its current form.
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the Committee will now resume. I ask Members to respect social distancing.
I much appreciated and enjoyed the previous speeches and I think we have made a very good case for the amendments that propose to set targets. I speak in support of Amendment 202 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which I believe is the most comprehensive of all the amendments as it takes in the vast scope of what we are collectively trying to do. Like many people, I applaud the Government for both the ELMS and the steps they have taken to start to even think about trying to quantify biodiversity and to set targets.
Biodiversity is, as we all know, fantastically difficult; its loss is as much of a threat to mankind as climate change, but it has only a fraction of the public profile. It is incredibly difficult because it is not a thing you can quantify like electricity or transport. It is complicated and messy but, at the end of the day, it is the thing we all care about. I have just a couple of points to make, as many others I wanted to make have already been raised.
The first is the food system which, despite the excellent recent contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Curry, is neglected across the Environment Bill. It is factually established that food contributes 30% to climate change. It is and has been the driver of biodiversity loss. While the noble Lord, Lord Curry, is absolutely right that no farmer wants a farm that is devoid of wildlife, if you go into certain areas of Norfolk or parts of England with really industrial farming, it is like being in a factory; it is not like being in the countryside.
It worries me that, throughout the Environment Bill, the question of what to do with food is being left at the door of the food strategy. I am an adviser on the food strategy and have seen a lot of what will come on
I also support Amendment 202 because it makes the point that everyone must be responsible for this. I have talked about it before in this House, but the Knepp rewilding estate in Sussex is, at this moment, at threat of having 3,500 houses plonked on its perimeter. It is ironic because, just recently, Natural England—the Government’s own body—designated Knepp a national nature reserve. The Government have said in the 25-year environment plan that:
“New development will happen in the right places, delivering maximum economic benefit while taking into account the need to avoid environmental damage.”
Many noble Lords have made the point that we cannot just settle with what we have, we must increase it if we are to turn the tide and increase the amount of biodiversity. Knepp has done some extraordinary things: it has 2% of the country’s nightingales, an extraordinary quantity of purple emperor butterflies and has reintroduced storks, not to mention that you can go there and understand how the interaction of the grazer, browser and habitat really work.
It seems absolutely illogical that planning permission should be given to that estate. However, as Isabella Tree has said, it is a question of the odds, and the level is “build, build, build”. She said:
“As usual nature is shouldered out of the ring.”
For its local plan, Horsham District Council is expected to meet a staggering target of 1,200 new houses every year from 2019 until 2036. That is within one small council. Obviously we must have homes, but can we not have a little more thought?
It is worrying that we do not have enough joined-up thinking, because if we do not have that, all the gains that we make will come back and bite us. The great brilliance of the Dasgupta review is that it has looked across the board at the economic value of nature. If we undermine it at this early stage, in the year of the CBD and the COP, taking one of our “national treasures” of rewilding and wildlife, and, in effect, destroying the corridors around it that enable the animals to keep moving would be a deep irony.
My Lords, I thank the Minister, who is now in his place, for his introduction of the Government’s amendment on the state of nature target. As other noble Lords have said, expectations were high but a word that has been used in response in this Chamber by Members from right across the House is that there has been a level of “disappointment” in the resulting amendment.
I shall speak on Amendment 24, which I co-signed, and was ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Randall, but I want to give a nod to my noble friend Lord Chidgey and his championing tonight of chalk streams, and on many occasions. He is right to raise the issue and I am sure that when a target eventually appears, it will look to address the need to protect the creatures in our rivers and habitats. We are right to raise the issue tonight.
I also thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Jones, for proposing targets that look not just to halt the decline but to improve the quality or our species. They made important points on which I hope the Government will reflect.
I was struck by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, when he said that the road to extinction was paved with good intentions. That is what we are talking about. We are already seeing extinctions of British species and while we do not quibble with the Government’s, indeed the Minister’s, intention to put our wildlife on a stronger footing for the future, we have to make sure that the footing is the strongest possible. It is clear that the state of nature target proposed in Amendment 22 is not that.
As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Randall, gave a brilliant exposition of what our amendment seeks to do and I am not going to tire the patience of the Committee by repeating it. I shall add just one point about why the target is important and it relates to the upcoming CBD conference in October. As the Minister will know, the committee that I chair, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee, is looking at the outcomes that we want to see from the CBD and what the Government need to do. I am grateful for the evidence that he gave to the committee last week.
Yesterday, we took evidence from a panel of four witnesses, ranging from the green groups to business representatives and economic experts. We had witnesses from the World Economic Forum, the RSPB, Unilever and the International Institute for Sustainable Development. We asked them what they wanted the Government to do to help ensure that we get the best possible outcome at the CBD in October. They were in agreement—the economists, the business representative, the green groups and the international sustainable development experts—that they wanted to see the Government leading from the front with a strong, legally binding target in domestic legislation in order to drive up other people’s and other countries’ ambition.
We know that this is important because of the climate change situation. This is a bottom-up target, not a top-down target, with countries coming together, being inspired by each other and levelling up, respecting the sovereign authority of individual countries working collectively. We need a strong domestic target in this piece of legislation which says to other countries “Come with us on this journey; come with global Britain and let’s leave the world in a better place.” The strongest possible target needs to be in the Bill. That is why Amendment 24 is critical, and why the Government need to act on it.
In conclusion, I pay tribute, as other noble Lords have done, to the work of the many Green charities, both large and small, right around the country which have mobilised the voice of people who are passionately concerned about species and want something done. These charities have done a great job and a service to our democracy in mobilising that support. The Government now need to listen, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and all noble Lords who have spoken so passionately and eloquently in this debate. I have added my name to Amendment 24 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall. As other noble Lords have said, he made such a compelling case that we do not need to repeat all his arguments. I will comment also on Amendments 25 and 202, standing in my name.
As I said at Second Reading, what set out to be a landmark Bill two years ago now seems to be behind the curve in content and ambition. Nowhere is this more obvious than in this debate. The truth is that the Government are running to catch up on this issue—and they still have some way to go.
Noble Lords have given a number of stark examples of the crisis we face in biodiversity decline. Reference has been made to the RSPB report, which describes a lost decade in the UK in which 41% of our species are declining and 10% are threatened with extinction. They include red squirrels—a particular passion of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh—water voles, ghost orchids and meadow clary. A third of wild bees and hoverflies have now been lost. A total of 97% of our wildflower meadows have gone since the 1930s. This crisis is caused by agricultural practices, pollution, urbanisation, habitat loss and climate change. It needs action now.
At the same time, globally, WWF’s Living Planet Report shows that we are losing forests and habitats at an alarming rate, with a species decline of 68%. The UK is adding to this problem through its huge consumer appetite for commodities, which is adding to global deforestation.
Meanwhile, despite all previous government commitments and targets, biodiversity decline has deteriorated further. As has been said, the Government have missed 17 out of the 20 agreed UN biodiversity targets. The Government’s progress report on the 25-year environment plan shows an alarming number of downward arrows for issues such as species abundance and the distribution of priority species. These are important for conserving biodiversity. It seems that all the trends are going in the wrong direction. Something has to change, and it has to change now.
So we are debating today the government amendment on their species abundance target. Of course, we begin by welcoming the target date of
I will follow up on the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, at Second Reading, and which he raised again today. He asked for a definition of “species abundance”, which the Government now seem to favour. He and other noble Lords have raised this issue. I share that query, so can the Minister give a precise reason why this phrase was used? Will there be a clear definition of what it means in regulations or guidance? By what means can we be assured that proper metrics will be produced and that there will be proper measurement? Can you measure a phrase such as “species abundance”?
Furthermore, I hope the Minister, when he reflects on the wording of his amendment, can see how inadequate it really is, because I know he wants to do something about this decline. But what exactly does it mean to “further” the objective of halting the decline in abundance of species? How will “furthering” ever be measured? Will it be another hollow target with no substance to back it up? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that the Minister needs to toughen up these proposals, or live to regret it in the longer term.
So I hope the Minister can see the sense of our simple amendment to change the current intention of creating targets that
“further the objective of halting a decline” to simply spell out that the Government will set targets that will “meet” the objective. It is a simple ask, but it is much clearer about its intent.
It is not enough to halt the decline when we know that the damage that has been done already to our environment. This is why we have tabled Amendment 25 to the Government’s amendment, which would halt and then reverse the decline in species abundance. As the noble Lord, Lord Randall, said, conservationists and all sorts of scientific experts are absolutely confident that a combination of reducing pressures on biodiversity and positive action on species recovery can indeed bend that curve so it goes upwards again. I agree very much with the point the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, made, which was that it is not just about setting the national targets; we can do so much locality by locality, habitat by habitat. Indeed, the ELMS programme has much to deliver on a local level. So we believe that this should be the ambition and intent of the Government, and that it would be hugely popular if it was carried through, as demonstrated by the enormous number of names now added to the public petition on this matter.
I also refer noble Lords to our Amendment 202, which sets out in detail a new “state of nature” clause. This encapsulates the ambition we ought to expect in a Bill of this importance—to bring our neglected landscapes and wildlife back to life. The amendment would set the deadline of 2030 to halt and then begin to reverse the loss of biodiversity. It requires the target to be set before Parliament within six months of the Bill being passed. It requires interim targets to be set. It covers the inclusion of both terrestrial and marine wildlife, and it flags the much-needed need to restore habitats. I thank my noble friend Lady Young for her support on this, and particularly for the birdsong in the background of her contribution. It gave all of us a bit of a lift in this rather dowdy environment. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for adding her support, particularly for that amendment.
While the noble Baroness was talking, she did also mention the problems of the Knepp estate. I do not know whether the Minister feels able to, but it would be really helpful if he would put something on record about these problems—which I know he will know about—of the proposed housing development, because that is a very precious site. If we cannot act to protect biodiverse environments such as that, what are we able to do? I hope the Minister can give some reassurance on this.
Our amendment is a much more ambitious programme than the one we have before us from the Government. It is hugely frustrating, given the number of recent government pledges which have been made but do not seem to be reflected here. Noble Lords have documented a number of them. For example, the Government have tabled their amendments since they have published their response to the Dasgupta report. That response says that the Government are committed to a “nature positive future”. Will the Minister say what that means, if it does not mean reversing the decline in biodiversity?
The response also says that the Bill will be amended to ensure that new national infrastructure projects will provide net gains for nature. This has now been tabled as Amendment 201A, and that is welcome too—but that amendment, too, has some limitations, which we will discuss when we get to that part of the Bill. Given this small flurry of recent amendments, I suggest to the Minister that it might have made more sense to consult on the wording—to consult stakeholders, perhaps, and even some of your Lordships, before these amendments were tabled, to ensure that they were fit for purpose and likely to have broad support.
The Government have also agreed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, as part of the G7 nature compact. Again, a number of noble Lords have referred to that. It seems odd that they are prepared to make all these statements in public, but are not prepared to follow them up in terms of the legislative programme. We are therefore interested to know where these commitments will land, if not in this Bill. How will they be reflected, in the Bill or elsewhere? Perhaps the Minister can clarify how all those commitments will be taken forward.
Obviously, if we do not take this opportunity to tie down those commitments through this Bill, our reputation will, as noble Lords have said, take some hammering at COP 15 and COP 26. The discrepancies will become all too apparent to the developing nations and other nations that we are hoping to impress. So I hope that the Minister will join the dots between the public declarations and what is in the Bill, and explain how the two fit together.
I said at the outset that the Government were running to catch up with the global pledges on environmental action, and with the expectation that those will have the targets and resources to match. I hope that the Minister has heard the frustration—and the unity, across the Chamber, about the fact that we need to be more ambitious. This is an issue that will not go away. I hope that if he is concerned to reverse the decline, but is anxious about how that can be done, he will meet us to discuss it. We have the evidence, and we have the people who can come forward and show how it can be done, to give him some confidence that we can meet those targets, put reversing biodiversity decline on the legislative programme, and make it happen. I hope that he will feel able to respond to those points.
I thank the noble Baroness, and my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for tabling these amendments. Before I respond to them, I must again apologise for not being in my seat at the start of the debate. I do not think I missed more than a few moments of my noble friend’s contribution, and I have been kept up to speed.
Noble Lords have highlighted the importance of setting targets for nature, and of course I share their view, as do my colleagues, on the importance of setting ambitious goals for biodiversity and addressing species decline. The facts speak for themselves, and numerous noble Lords have cited some of the bleaker facts. We know that we are in a period of extinctions that is almost unprecedented; it has been described as the sixth extinction experience. We are told by IPBES that about 1 million species face possible extinction—including, according to Kew Gardens, two of every five plant species. We are losing about 30 football fields’ worth of forest every single minute, and the devastation on land is mirrored by what is happening in the seas. No one can argue that this is not an emergency and a crisis.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that there is no disagreement about the nature of the crisis that we are facing, or that, logically, given everything that we know, this is the biggest concern we face as a species. It is hard to imagine anything that comes close. Interventions cannot be made, or targets set, in isolation so, as far as possible, we are trying, as I have explained on previous groupings, to take a system-based approach to setting the targets. We consider the targets collectively, and understand their interdependencies and how they work together, and this approach will mean that we can set targets greater than the sum of their parts.
The 2030 target for species abundance will therefore sit alongside numerous other legally binding targets in, and developed under, the Bill’s framework. The proposed objectives for these wider targets include improving the condition of our protected sites and restoring and improving the quality of habitats, all of which would improve the “state of nature”. I have spoken already about the importance of ensuring that our targets are based on sound evidence. That is no less the case for this target. Biodiversity is inherently complex and assessing the impact of policies and interventions aimed at recovering our biodiversity demands nothing less than a rigorous, evidence-based process, and that is the approach that this Government are taking.
I reassure the my noble Friend Lady McIntosh, that the significant improvement test—I am not sure which it is—applies to this target as well, which means that every five years the target, like other targets, will be reviewed. That test will assess—and it will be reported to Parliament—whether meeting legally binding targets alongside any other statutory and environmental targets would significantly improve the natural environment in England. The test will capture the breadth and amount of improvement to the whole of England’s natural environment and our new 2030 target will, of course, be captured by this test. The detail of the target, including the metric by which we will measure success, will be set following that evidence-led process. That will include seeking independent expert advice and there will be roles for stakeholders, Parliament and the public. It is really a very wide cross-section of society.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, who both made powerful speeches, as an individual with a commitment to these issues but also as part of a team that share that commitment, I am committed to using absolutely every lever I can and whatever political capital I have to make sure that we deliver the strongest possible target at the second stage, one that genuinely can be said, even by people who are sceptical, to match the full scale of the crisis that all of us today in various ways have acknowledged.
Finally—not finally overall but finally in relation to that point—there is a strong case for ensuring that we do not jump the gun with this target, and that we align it as much as we can with our international commitments under the new global framework for biodiversity. We hope and expect that to be agreed at the CBD’s 15th Conference of the Parties, if things go to plan, just before we host COP here. I think we are probably working harder than any other country to deliver the maximum possible ambition at that COP. We have been engaging in diplomacy on an almost unprecedented scale, trying to get countries to step up and make similar commitments to those that we have been making.
The noble Friend Lord Caithness, asked whether it was correct that 21% of our land would have to shift from agriculture to bioenergy and trees. That is a figure —it is not a made-up figure, but it is not a government policy. The simple truth is that nature enhancement, biodiversity recovery and agriculture are not mutually exclusive. Yes, it is the case that unsustainable agriculture, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, pointed out, incentivised through the destructive common agriculture policy, is responsible for much of the denuding of nature that we have seen over recent decades. It is not the case that agriculture is necessarily unsustainable. There are plenty of examples of farms where food is produced and nature is enhanced. Our job is to reconcile the two, and I hope the new system of environmental land management will do that.
Secondly, there is a lot of marginal land which is not much use to agriculture but which could be regenerated, such as land either side of our waterways—not all of it is marginal but much of it is—where we are creating an incentive to plant or naturally regenerate, whatever is most appropriate, to try to create a nature corridor linking up the entire country. That will not take food out of production. There are also highly unproductive areas that are grazed—overgrazed in some cases—by sheep, where the landowner or the small farmer will have a direct incentive through the new ELM scheme to earn money by delivering public goods, by doing things that the market does not currently recognise. There is huge potential there.
In response to my noble friend, our national parks, as many people have noted, do not have the kind of species abundance that we would like. The New Forest, for example, is one of the most beautiful environments on earth but it is massively overgrazed. There are things that we need to do in order to change the incentives. If the incentive today is that you pay £400 or thereabouts for a head of cattle if they are grazed in the New Forest, then of course there are going to be lots of cattle in the New Forest overgrazing. The same is true of ponies, whose numbers have soared to unsustainable levels.
I acknowledge my noble friend’s comment about the bugs on his windscreen. I want to take this opportunity to commend Buglife on the development of the Bugs Matter app to measure the increase in bug life in this country. I encourage everyone to download it and undertake what Buglife calls a splatter survey between now and the end of August; perhaps the noble Lord can retrospectively take part in it. In addition to that, I reassure noble Lords that we are doing everything we can to bend the curve of insect decline, which is critical to our future and to the sustainability of this country.
My noble friend Lord Caithness and numerous other noble Lords raised the issue of predators. He made a very good point, and I will not counter anything that he said because it was correct. It is an important consideration if we want to enhance biodiversity: we need to recognise that this country is not in a natural state—we do not have the predators that we had thousands of years ago—and therefore there is clearly a role for control, a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Devon. There is the argument that we are never going to achieve the kind of balance that existed in this country 10,000 years ago and it would be absurd to pretend that we could, but the reintroduction of certain species is already having an impact. The pine marten is having a huge impact on the grey squirrel population in some areas of Ireland, and I hope we can emulate that here. There is evidence that the very recently released white-tailed eagles on the west coast of Scotland are consuming vast numbers of foxes; I believe that one nesting site had something like—I hope I am not exaggerating here—30 fox pelts underneath it. So there is a potential solution there, not a complete one but a partial one.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, talked about big cats being released on Dartmoor, an idea that he says my brother mentioned at some event they were both at. In fact, he was recommending releasing the native wildcat. I absolutely assure the noble Earl that wildcats do not eat ponies. They eat rodents, and they might stretch to a rabbit if they are feeling very brave, but there is nothing to fear—they will not eat him or his ponies.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, gave a typically powerful speech on what is undoubtedly the most important issue that we face. I understand her concern that the targets that have been discussed, including those of the NGOs and even those in the amendments here, acknowledge and accept that there will be an element of decline. That is inevitable. It is an appalling thing to legislate for decline, but decline is happening. We are on a downward trajectory both here and elsewhere in the world. That is why our challenge and our objective is to bend that curve. I hope we can do so very soon but there is a bit of bending to be done, and until that curve has been bent we will continue to see decline. That is why—to her point—benchmarking matters so much. What we do not want to see is massive decline over the next eight years and then in eight years’ time we still meet the target, having bent that curve.
I was asked by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, about Knepp. I have gone on the record both here and in other fora to say that it is one of the most extraordinary rewilding sites in Europe, and it is probably our number one rewilding site in this country. We in Defra are learning an enormous amount from the experience of Knepp. So, yes, it would be an absolute tragedy if that work were curtailed by inappropriate or clumsy development or indeed overdevelopment. I have already made that point and I very much hope that, whatever developments take place in, around or near Knepp, they are done in such a way that they do not interfere with that work. That is not something that I can absolutely guarantee because it is not within my remit, but I sincerely hope it is the case.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh discussed the global context and the global challenge. She is right: not one country met the Aichi targets. That is why we are engaging in so much CBD diplomacy; why we are pushing for the biggest possible targets; why we led the 30x30 campaign to protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, to which 80-plus countries signed up; why we are pushing more than any other country for the mechanisms to hold Governments to account for the targets, to try to avoid a situation where the next round are missed as the Aichi targets were missed; why we are pushing for more finance on nature; why we are pushing for the multilateral development banks to mainstream nature through their portfolios; why we are pushing for countries to commit with us to breaking the link between commodity production and illegal destruction; and why we are pushing for subsidy reform. Our international nature agenda is radical and ambitious, and we are seeing progress. Amazingly, countries that we least expected to join us are joining us, so we are beginning to see progress.
Before I conclude, I want to acknowledge the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who questioned why we are focusing on species rather than habitats, a point also made subtly by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. There has been a lot of debate in this area. I have had debates within Defra and with NGOs to try to figure out the best approach. It is not an absolute science, but the view is that if you focus on species, you can measure much more easily. If you focus on the right species, that necessarily means improving habitats, because without habitat, you do not have species. Obviously, if our targets were rats, crows and such things, that would not apply, but we will choose the right species, the indicator species, and that means that we will end up with the habitat improvements that we are all so desperate to see.
We are leading the way with our 2030 species target, which will help to demonstrate our commitment to ambitious domestic action and, we hope, will encourage international partners to make similarly ambitious commitments. Regarding the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, the target will cover a wide range of species. I just mentioned the point about habitats. The species target, if we get the right species, will deliver recovered habitats, including the chalk streams of which the noble Lord spoke so admiringly—and rightly so.
It is important that we get this right, it is important that we do not rush or guess, so I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I think we are all pretty much starting from the same place and wanting the same outcome, even if we are arguing about the process. I hope noble Lords will withdraw and not move their amendments and support the inclusion of this target in the Bill.
My Lords, I apologise for using this vehicle to make a contribution; I had intended to put my name to these amendments. As I explained to the EU Environment Sub-Committee, ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, my knowledge of farming was gained mainly from listening to “The Archers”, watching “Countryfile” and growing a bit of fruit and veg in my garden. However, those programmes educated me considerably, and as I look around the Chamber and on the screens, I see that most of our committee seem to be present in this debate.
I do not dispute the genuine concern of the noble Lord, Lord Randall. However, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I feel that the indefatigability of the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Jones, cannot be denied; it is the hyperbole and, sometimes, the extrapolation and the certitude that give me concern. As someone once said, “Think you in your bowels you could be mistaken?”
Malthus predicted the end of the world through population explosion, which proved wrong. The Chinese experience to control their population is now taking an about-turn. Never underestimate the ability of the human species to react—not always in the right ways. During the pandemic, surely the vaccine development has shown what we can do globally when we work collaboratively. Innovation will play an important part in combating species extinction.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for reminding us of that seminal work by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and his warning of a third silent spring. Before I come back to that, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, accused me of optimism: damned with faint praise, in this debate. Actually, I wanted him to give a holistic analysis of the steps the Government were taking to combat air pollution—which, fortunately, he did.
To return to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his warning of a third silent spring—
I will do in a minute. I just want to make this point. Surely the fact is that we have changed farming considerably: 30,000 miles of hedgerow are not being destroyed, fertilisers are being more accurately applied and there is no tilling.
The Minister has answered most of my concerns. My question is: does he feel confident that the totality of the Government’s approach, whether it is ELMS or the other policies, will indeed enable us to set what he said will be evidence-based targets?
I certainly do. I am brimming with confidence, but we have more to do.
My Lords, I am sorry that I was unable to be present at Second Reading. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, for counselling us to take care on these amendments.
I have two questions on the new target in Amendment 22, with a view to informing discussion on Report. First, it seems that we should be concerned about the loss of species and biodiversity in the aggregate and not in any specific catchment. A balance must be struck. The EU-based regulations, which this Bill replaces, made it possible for planning proposals, for a hospital or for homes, for example, to be questioned under planning law in lengthy and expensive inquiries and even turned down if there was a species issue. If there were a loss of some bats or toads or orchids in a certain area, a proposal could be blocked, even if the species was abundant elsewhere in the UK or in a neighbouring catchment. Obviously, that can slow down important and beneficial investment of the kind promised in our manifesto—and the accompanying planting of trees, new flora and so on. Can my noble friend the Minister reassure me on this issue of specific catchments versus overall targets?
Secondly, picking up on something that the noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, has been saying, it is important to have an eye to cost benefit. Will there be an impact assessment or cost-benefit analysis of the plans the Minister is making for the targets or sub-targets? I would argue that this could be very helpful to him in reaching conclusions on the targets that are set in any regulations, and on the arrangements for enforcing them.
On the second point, yes, when it comes to the individual steps that would be taken by the Government to achieve those targets, they will be fully costed. That applies across the board, whether they are Defra steps or MHCLG.
On the first point, we want a sensible approach. We are choosing species for the targets because, as I said earlier, if we choose the correct indicator species that tells a story about the health of the wider environment. This is slightly different to the point that my noble friend was making, but we also want to move away from a “computer says no” planning approach which is not based on common sense. That is why there are powers in the Bill allowing us to tweak and reform the habitats directive, for example, but I assure the House that the absolute intention there is that whatever changes are made to speed the process up, the outcome for the environment will be at least as good as it currently is under those rules. The whole purpose is to deal with the problems that she has just identified.
My Lords, the Minister suggested that my proposed amendments and my approach were perhaps too ambitious, and that bending the curve was very difficult. He also said that interventions cannot be made in isolation, but does he agree that over decades and centuries, we have made many interventions that could be stopped?
I refer specifically to the issue of predators. The noble Earls, Lord Devon and Lord Caithness, the noble Lord, Lord Curry, and the Minister, referred to the problem of predators and the impact on populations of waders, for example. Until at least 2019, one of the interventions being made was the release of 4 million captive reared pheasants and 9 million red-legged partridges, which, inevitably, is essentially laying out a feast for predators. Stopping that intervention would have an immediate and strong impact; indeed, Wild Justice has already had such an impact.
Again, there is also No Mow May, a hashtag that many may be aware of. I think it was the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who referred to all the insects hitting the windscreen. We are seeing big changes happening already, so did—
Of course, there are interventions which are taking us in the wrong direction and could be stopped. That is my point about subsidies. It is a classic example: we spend billions of pounds incentivising destruction, and we could spend the same amount of money incentivising renewal. That is what we are trying to do internationally. In principle, I agree with the noble Baroness: dealing with damaging interventions should absolutely be part of this.
On her first point about bending the curve, it is difficult —although that was not the point I was making. My point is that the curve needs to be bent, and it will not happen today or tomorrow. There will be a point between now and the next eight years or so when, I hope, we will have bent the curve. Until we have done that, there will be more continued decline. That is the nature of the journey we are on; it is an unfortunate and tragic thing. But we are trying to bend that curve. That means accepting and acknowledging that, in the meantime, the curve continues to go down until it has been bent. We just need to bend it as quickly as possible.
I thank all noble Lords who contributed to the debate on Amendment 23. First, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that whether she sees me or not in the House, much of my parliamentary work takes place with developing democracies, mainly in Africa. That is a long shout from here and tends to be out of the gaze of Westminster.
I thank the Minister for his comments. I am a little unsure and uncertain about how committed the Government are to recognising the importance of indicator species in chalk streams. Some people say that England’s chalk streams are the equivalent of the Okavango Delta—if you know what that is, you will know how important it is. Nevertheless, we will no doubt return to this on Report, so for now I would like to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Amendments 24 to 27 not moved.
Amendment 22 agreed.
Amendments 28 to 32 not moved.
Clause 3: Environmental targets: process