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‘One of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth’: UK faces legal battle over wildlife

A kestrel flies over countryside near Salisbury, England. The birds are being monitored as a species of conservation concern.
A kestrel flies over countryside near Salisbury, England. The birds are being monitored as a species of conservation concern. Copyright Photo by Pauline Bernfeld on Unsplash
Copyright Photo by Pauline Bernfeld on Unsplash
By Harriet Reuter Hapgood
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With the UK government not mentioning nature in its election manifesto, 82 nature groups are holding it to account.

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One in six species in the UK is at risk of extinction, the State of Nature report revealed in 2023. But ahead of the country’s general election in July, are parties doing enough to rectify the situation?

To bring nature back into focus, an 82-strong nature conservation coalition plans to take the new government to court.

The Wildlife and Countryside Link group has already initiated legal proceedings under the Environment Act. Whichever party takes power after next month’s election must show how they will halt the decline of wildlife by 2030 and meet key targets by 2042 on biodiversity, water quality, air pollution and waste reduction, or face further action.

Charities and organisations including the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and WWF UK form the coalition, which has challenged the government to explain how it is fulfilling its legal obligations under its own Environment Act 2021 and Environmental Improvement Plan (2018, updated 2023). 

A hazel dormouse: the species has seen a 51% decline in the UK since 2000.
A hazel dormouse: the species has seen a 51% decline in the UK since 2000.Photo by Anton Lammert on Unsplash

What is the Environment Act?

Under the Environment Act, the government is bound in law to halt the decline in species abundance, improve numbers of endangered species, meet key targets for wildlife-rich habitats and ensure Marine Protected Areas are in favourable condition. 

But the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) says the incumbent government is “largely off track”, with only four of 40 targets for England likely to be achieved.

“It’s time for the culture of non-compliance with environmental law to end,” says Richard Benwell, coalition CEO. “When plans to restore biodiversity and stop pollution aren’t delivering, we can’t afford to stand by. Environmental charities are ready to take legal action where any government falls short.”

When plans to restore biodiversity and stop pollution aren’t delivering, we can’t afford to stand by. Environmental charities are ready to take legal action where any government falls short.
Richard Benwell
CEO, Wildlife and Countryside Link

Fifty years of biodiversity loss in the UK

The abundance of English wildlife has declined by 32 per cent since 1970, while across the UK, one in six species is at risk of extinction. 

Priority species to protect include skylarks, wildcats, water voles, Duke of Burgundy butterflies and Atlantic salmon. Hazel dormice, which have declined more than 50 per cent in the past quarter century, were recently reintroduced to British woodland.

“We have a world-leading Environment Act that commits us to halting the decline of wildlife by 2030, cleaning up our air and protecting our rivers,” says Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust. “It’s something we should be proud of, and any government is required to deliver against it.

“But six years from that deadline, the UK is still one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth.” 

How does legal action against the government work?

Wildlife and Countryside Link’s first step is to write to the government asking why it hasn’t fulfilled its legal duties, especially in light of the OEP’s warning. “If the government doesn't give a satisfactory response [to our letter], Link will consider issuing a claim for judicial review in the High Court,” says Ricardo Gama, the solicitor representing the coalition.

The nature groups cite key failings in the government’s own Environmental Improvement Plan, including that the measures set out and progress on their delivery will not meet obligations to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030. The plan does not quantify or offer scientific explanations for how current measures will ensure targets are met. There is no delivery timetable or accountability.

A skylark mid-song: the species is under threat from changing farming practices.
A skylark mid-song: the species is under threat from changing farming practices.Photo by Heather Wilde on Unsplash

What do the main parties’ election manifestos say about nature?

Labour this week announced its Countryside Protection Plan, which includes pledges to plant three new national forests, stop the use of bee-harming pesticides and help local groups buy land to create green space near them.

The Natural Environment is a key pledge in the Liberal Democrat election manifesto, with the party aiming to end the sewage scandal, plant at least 60 million trees a year, pass a Clean Air Act based on World Health Organization guidelines and “double” nature by 2050.

The Green Party plans to launch its manifesto on 12 June, but its constitutional party objective is to develop and implement ecological policies, so we can expect a nature-centric plan. 

The Conservative Party’s Our Plan, which outlines its five priorities, makes no mention of nature, the environment or climate.  

“Nature recovery is critical for food security, the economy and people’s health,” says Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts. “Politicians should be pulling out all the stops to reverse wildlife declines. Yet time and time again, we’ve been left frustrated by the government’s lacklustre efforts to meet legal targets. This paints a grim picture for UK nature.”

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We have a world-leading Environment Act that commits us to halting the decline of wildlife by 2030, cleaning up our air and protecting our rivers. But six years from that deadline, the UK is still one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth.
Hilary McGrady
Director-general of the National Trust

What happens next?

The government formed after the general election on 4 July will be responsible for upholding the Environment Act. Ahead of the polls, environmental campaigners are organising what they hope will be the UK’s biggest-ever march for nature and climate: Restore Nature Now, in London on 22 June.

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