You may have missed it; yesterday the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs launched the England Natural Environment Indicators. Yeah, we all go, what? Why?
Well the why is easy to answer, the Coalition Government in the Natural Environment White Paper made a commitment:
Yesterday’s launch was the publication of the report on those indicators. This is not a new idea and we have had biodiversity indicators before, but these are aimed to address some of the underlying themes of biodiversity conservation.
But what are the indicators and what relevance do they have? Many of us are involved in formal or informal monitoring of the natural world; in my little patch I have seen an increase in the numbers of hares but a decrease in the number of hedgehogs, but are either of these facts significant and should we be looking to take action to deal with any potential causes of the changes?
The UK has a long history of collecting information on species and habitats. Repeated surveys over significant periods of time can be used to evaluate the impact of policies and actions to conserve biodiversity. But data analysis in this form is scientific and impenetrable to the untrained, hence the idea of a headline suite of indicators, easily understood and communicated to all, supported by additional data and background information to aid interpretation and provide more detail.
There are a number of elements that go to make a good indicator: detailed, reliable, responsive, policy relevant, etc. Indicators can be a great way of demonstrating that action is valuable to a sceptical public or Treasury. But there is always the risk that the policy tries to fix the indicator rather than the underlying biodiversity issues.
What does this new suite of indicators tell us about woodland? Of the old style indicators, both widespread breeding birds and butterflies in woodland showed long term declines (comparing 1990 to 2011) but more recent stability. However, this masks some interesting individual stories with coal tit, amongst others, increasing by more than 25% whilst willow tit has declined by up to 92% in some areas. Many of the declines in both groups are linked to changes in woodland structure caused by cessation of active management and increases in deer browsing, but the some of the bird species worst hit are long distance migrants where non-UK impacts are causing concern.
One of the newer indicators introduced is seeking to assess the management concerns by monitoring the percentage of woodland in active management. There is no long term data but the short term analysis suggests that the situation is improving.
There is an indicator of forest carbon stock (improving) and a new indicator of ease of access to local woodland, which has yet to be developed but will be based on the Woodland Trust data from Woods for People.
What is obviously lacking is any measurement of either woodland cover or rate of woodland creation. Unfortunately this indicator set pre-dates the Government Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement of January 2013, which set a new target of achieving 12% woodland cover by 2060, but this is a good example of where indicators can be really useful. Monitoring an indicator over a five or ten year period would allow us to judge whether the policy and actions set in place are likely to result in the aim identified or whether intervention needs to take place.
So, indicators, interesting and useful, but not in themselves the solution to declines in biodiversity.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer