Will new legislation for agriculture reverse the decline of Cornwall’s wildlife?

Thursday 11th October 2018

House sparrow by Ben Watkins

Shocking new figures from the Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (ERCCIS), hosted by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, show a worrying decline in Cornwall’s wildlife. But keeping up public pressure on politicians could create new legislation which helps to reverse the downward trend.

Staff at ERCCIS analysed thousands of species records to estimate the difference in the distribution of various species in Cornwall between 1980 and 2017. The results are bleak, particularly for insects like bees, wasps, ants, and butterflies. These declines will have further negative impacts on other animals higher up the food chain like amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Urgent action is required if we are to reverse species decline and avoid species extinctions in Cornwall.

The study looked at 23 species of bees and estimated that as a group their distribution across Cornwall has declined by 44% since 1980. The distribution of wasps, an under-loved but vital group of insects, declined by 71%. Butterfly distribution across 36 species has an estimated decline of 47%. If that wasn’t shocking enough, the distribution of butterflies that rely on specialist habitats declined by 81%.

Frank Howie, the Trust’s Conservation Strategy Committee Chair said,

“We now know how serious the decline of wildlife is in Cornwall. Charities like Cornwall Wildlife Trust cannot fix these problems alone, saving Cornwall’s species is a shared responsibility; everyone needs to play their part”

New Government legislation could change how our land and seas are managed and reverse the decline. Yesterday (10 October 2018) Defra’s Agriculture Bill had its second reading in Parliament.

The Bill proposes to pay farmers for delivering more than food; payments for reducing flooding, providing clean drinking water, enhancing wildlife and nurturing healthy soils that store carbon for example.

Many farmers in Cornwall already farm in ways that are sensitive to wildlife and minimise impacts on soils and water. The Agriculture Bill could mean that these farmers continue to be rewarded for efforts that currently can go unrecognised but also encourage many more farmers to help reverse the declines by creating and protecting wildlife habitats.

Cornwall Wildlife Trust supports the principles behind the Agriculture Bill; it manages over 5,000 acres of nature reserves and works with farmers across Cornwall delivering advice on how to enhance wildlife.

Fred Currie, the Trust’s Nature Reserves Committee Chair said,

“Cornish farmers manage 80% of the land area, this new legislation, with a different focus for financial support, is a real opportunity to increase wildlife in Cornwall while supporting local businesses.”

This new legislation will only make a difference if it is adequately funded; currently budgets have only been committed up to 2022. Wildlife will need time to recover and increase so the financial commitment will need to be long-term. It is also important that environmental enhancements are happening everywhere, not just in the areas supported by new Defra schemes. Cornwall Wildlife Trust will be looking for more detail and clarity in the Agriculture Bill as it passes through parliament.

Another reason for optimism is the proposed new Environment Bill that will be drafted by Government in the next few months. If the Environment Bill is ambitious it could complement the Agriculture Bill and offer Cornish Wildlife the lifeline that it so desperately needs.

Cornwall Wildlife Trust will continue to work hard locally and with other Wildlife Trusts across the country to influence the legislation and will be asking everyone who cares about wildlife and wild places to show their support and to keep up public pressure on politicians to reverse the decline in Cornwall’s wildlife.