Last month Natural England produced its weighty State of the Natural Environment 2008 report. At 326 pages it is a substantial read and must have taken a lot of staff effort with a dozen or so authors and editors, as well as drawing on the expertise of about 100 of specialist staff.
Overall the report paints a remarkably comprehensive account of the state of our wildlife and natural habitats. Further, it includes aspects on access and recreation which used to be the domain of the Countryside Agency. It is good to see so much information presented as maps since many of us get lost in all the designations like National Parks, AONBs, SPAs, SACs and SSSIs so it helps to have some idea where all these things are. It is also good to see more use being made of the countryside character areas - something that English Nature largely left on the shelf.
So how is it all doing? On the whole it seems, as far as natural habitats are concerned, things are improving except for the freshwaters like rivers and canals. Some of the improvements, on paper at least, seem to be substantial. For example in 2003 only 40% of heathland was classified as being in good or recovering condition, but by 2008 this had improved to 73%. Similarly 70% of blanket bog is now in good or recovering condition. However, "recovering" is not really defined. Does it mean measurable increases in characteristic vegetation, or does it mean simply that land owners are now working to an approved plan?
As far as species are concerned, apart from some notable successes like the stone curlew, many are just holding their own or, like the rare arable plants, continuing to decline.
Almost inevitably there are one or two things that irk. There is a tendency to describe all things that come under Natural England's wing as "protected" with the implicit suggestion that elsewhere the natural environment is ignored or abused. Many farmers and landowners take great care of their wildlife but are not keen to have a government agency stepping in to "protect" it.
There is an attempt to put an economic value on landscapes and wildlife. This is done by asking the public what these features are worth to them - or their theoretical willingness pay. This is good, and it is used to good effect to argue for increased funding from the Treasury for schemes like the Biodiversity Action Plan. These "willingness to pay" figures are of course entirely fanciful but they often add up to several million pounds. The report also puts great emphasis on countryside activities such as walking and mountain biking - also good - of course. But, hang on - totally ignored are field sports such as fishing and shooting. We know from the recent PACEC study that shooting contributes £1.3 billion to England's economy and spends in the region of £250 million on conservation. Real money - not made up; but no mention from Natural England.