state-of-nature-reportPublished last week amid as much of a blaze of publicity that the media ever grants to environmental issues, the State of Nature report was launched by veteran documentary maker and national treasure Sir David Attenborough at the Natural History museum. The report represents a groundbreaking collaboration between 25 of the UK’s leading wildlife and conservation organisations led by big-hitters such as the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB 

Whilst the report makes a brave attempt at striking an optimistic note by highlighting some of the conservation success stories that have occurred in recent years such as the recovery of species such as Corncrakes, Red Kites and Otters from the brink of extinction, much of the content makes grim reading: 60% of species have declined in recent decades, 31% strongly so. Some bird species that used to be a byword for the British countryside have declined alarmingly – Nightingales down by nearly 50%, 73% fewer Nightingales and a shocking 90% of Turtle Doves gone.

The existence of comprehensive baseline data against which to measure progress is patchy and varies between different species but the partnership has developed a new ‘Watchlist’ indicator, which tracks overall trends in the populations of 155 species listed as conservation priorities in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Since 1977 the indicator has dropped by an alarming 77% and, despite strenuous conservation efforts and the higher profile of environmental issues generally in recent years, between 2000 and 2010 there was an 18% decline.

Given that over 80% of the UK population live in urban areas (Office for National Statistics figures), we can reasonably ask what difference it makes if some species, often known only to scientists specialising in a particular field, have become extinct. Many people have never heard a cuckoo call or watched a buzzard soar on a thermal, so why is important if it becomes less likely that they ever will in the future? It is even more understandable to question why the loss of less charismatic species such as invertebrates and fungi should excite public concern.

The answer depends on whether we view nature and the diversity of species it contains in purely functional, utilitarian terms or if we believe that having more species is by definition better than having fewer (greater biodiversity). This is where approaches that attempt to place an economic value on the natural world such as the State of Natural Capital report, published in April 2013 can fall short in their efforts. Despite its shortcomings, this approach does represent a significant step forward in attempting to assign an economic value to elements of the natural world that deliver so-called ‘Ecosystem Services’. For example woodlands planted in river catchment areas slow down the rate at which rainwater runs off hillsides and into rivers. The value of this service is the cost of the flood defences that would otherwise have to be built to achieve the same mitigation.

It order to perform this service, and so be assigned this value, it does not much matter if the wood in question is an ancient oak wood teeming with a wide range of life and supporting a complex web of ecosystems or a plantation of non-native conifers that contains a fraction of the number of species as this has no effect on the ‘ecosystem service’ that it provides. In fact the conifer plantation, being faster growing, may well be better at mitigating flood risk than the ancient oak wood. So, in terms of the ecosystem services approach, the conifer plantation is of greater value. It also probably has a higher economic value as it will produce a higher yield of timber in a shorter time than the oak wood, although it would have to be felled in order to realise this value, which is exactly what the Valuing Natural Capital approach seeks to avoid. Ask any conservationist though, and they will tell you that the oak wood is of immeasurably greater value for wildlife than the conifer plantation and therein lies the problem: immeasurably greater value.

This overly simplistic approach to calculating the real value of nature is also the reason why the Governments proposals for ‘Biodiversity Off-setting’ have been criticised. When it comes to the natural world and its complex inter-relationships between species and their habitats, the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts.

It is a management cliché much favoured by proponents of management by Key Performance Indicators that “what gets measured gets done” which leads to the inevitable problem that often what is of most importance cannot be measured and therefore does not get done. This has led to a well-documented cultural crisis in the National Health Service where things that cannot be measured – such as humanity and compassion – often did not get done as staff were so busy chasing after the things that could be measured and so had a KPI assigned to them.

So the true message of the State of Nature report is not that the decline in species is bad for economic growth, that the UK’s international competitiveness will be damaged or even that some vital ‘ecosystem service’ will not be delivered. The real underlying message is that a part of our national heritage has been lost, that some of the species with which human beings have shared these islands since the end of the last Ice Age have gone, never to return. And this loss diminishes us all.

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