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Andrea Leadsom: Brexit a unique chance to develop UK-specific wildlife policies

Published 14/09/2016

Intensive agriculture's
Intensive agriculture's "overwhelmingly negative" impact on nature has helped drive the declines, the report said

Brexit provides a "unique opportunity" to create policies which suit the UK's wildlife and habitats, Andrea Leadsom has said.

The new Environment Secretary, who campaigned during the referendum for leaving the European Union, was speaking at the launch of a report warning more than half of UK species have suffered declines in recent years.

Wildlife such as water voles, turtle doves, hedgehogs and willow tits have seen precipitous declines, while one in seven - some 15% - are at risk of vanishing from UK shores, including the high brown fritillary butterfly and freshwater pearl mussels.

The report points the finger at the "overwhelmingly negative" impact of intensive agriculture as the most significant cause of the declines, although farmers said intensification had halted and landowners were "embracing the conservation agenda".

It comes as the debate intensifies over the future of subsidies for farming after Brexit - with £3 billion paid to UK farmers largely for owning land under the EU-wide common agricultural policy.

A group of Conservative MPs, including former environment secretary Caroline Spelman, has called for future payments to focus on protecting the environment, while the National Trust has said subsidies should only go to wildlife schemes.

Ms Leadsom's speech did not address how she saw the subsidy regime shaping up in the future.

But she said there was a need to explore "innovative" ways of funding, pointing to a pilot scheme which saw companies and developers pay for natural services such as wetland creation or using biomass from nature reserves to create clean energy.

"I want to see more of this new thinking. I want to encourage enterprise while making it easier to protect the environment."

And she said: " Following our decision to leave the EU, we now have a unique opportunity to develop a set of policies tailored to the needs of the United Kingdom, our species and our habitats."

Sir David Attenborough said: "Whether we like it or not, Brexit has happened," requiring a rethink of measures on the natural environment.

"That gives us a huge opportunity to refine the legislation to match our particular patch of the world."

He called on politicians to use the State of Nature report to see what was happening, and help the UK go "in a way that has not been in our hands for years".

The study, from 53 wildlife organisations, shows that 56% of almost 4,000 studied land and freshwater species suffered declines in numbers, or areas where they are found, between 1970 and 2013.

An assessment of 8,000 species shows that 1,199 species are at risk of disappearing from Great Britain, the report said.

Climate change was having a mixed effect on the fortunes of wildlife, while draining wetlands, a lack of woodland management and urbanisation were among the factors hitting species.

But changes in farming due to government policy is key to declines, with a loss of mixed farms, changes to sowing patterns, a switch from hay to silage in pastures, increased use of pesticides and fertilisers and a loss of habitat taking their toll, the report said.

Conservation charity Plantlife's Dr Trevor Dines spoke of seeing small, wildlife-rich areas of land near the farm where he grew up, ploughed up.

He said: "This sort of gradual attrition, a field corner here, a small copse over there, has been the story of the our countryside for many decades.

"It's a story of a death by a thousand cuts, each small act seemingly insignificant, but each one carving out a much bigger picture."

He said 97% of wildflower meadows - an area one and a half times the size of Wales - had been lost, with much turned into "improved pasture" which he likened to a factory floor or "green concrete".

Most people would like to see a mixture of intensive pasture and wildlife meadows, he suggested.

"But the pendulum has swung far too far over towards production, big agri-business has won and we need much more of a balance across our entire landscape, both wildlife and production, not one or the other."

National Farmers' Union vice president Guy Smith said that in terms of numbers of livestock, agricultural products such as pesticides and the area of crops grown, farming had not become more intensive since the early 1990s.

"Therefore it makes little sense to attribute cause and effect to 'the intensification of agriculture' in the UK in the last quarter of a century when there hasn't been any.

"Other causes acknowledged in the report, such as urbanisation, climate change or increasing predator pressure need greater attention," he said.

And he said farmers had embraced conservation, restoring thousands of miles of hedgerows, leaving the borders of their fields to plant wildflowers for birds and bees and ensuring cleaner water and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

:: Species at risk of becoming in extinct in the UK include: distinguished jumping spider; high brown fritillary butterfly, freshwater pearl mussel, the water beetle Laccophilus poecilus, mole cricket, bog hoverfly, Lundy cabbage flea beetle, New Forest beech lichen and the scarse grey flag caddisfly.

:: Species which have seen the greatest declines in the UK include: corn buttercup, shepherd's-needle flower, garden dart moth, white-letter hairstreak butterfly, fork-tailed flower bee, water vole, hedgehog, turtle dove, and willow tit.

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