by Stephanie Wray, Mammal Society Chair
If you have been living under a rock this week (which may well be a good Covid-avoidance strategy) you may not have noticed the pomp and ceremony of the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Cornwall. The stated aims of the UK Presidency of the 2021 Summit are to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic by:
- leading the global recovery from the coronavirus while strengthening resilience against future pandemics;
- promoting future prosperity by championing free and fair trade;
- tackling climate change and preserving the planet’s biodiversity; and
- championing global shared values.
It is the first time that the G7’s agenda has been so strongly driven by sustainability. In the run-up to this summit, the Group’s environment ministers have already agreed to the global ‘30×30’ initiative which involves bringing into protection at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and seas by 2030, and each party has committed to deliver ‘30×30’ in their own countries. Deforestation was also an agenda item, with the G7 seeking to ensure their countries have sustainable supply chains that don’t involve illegal forest destruction to produce commodities.
These are laudable objectives, but what will it mean for wildlife? Firstly, we need to understand what “protection” of land and sea means. The government estimates that we already have around 28% of land in some form of protected area. However, most of that area is in National Parks. While undoubtedly many of the UK’s 15 National Parks provide important habitat for wildlife, that’s not the primary reason for their designation. National Parks are about celebrating our beautiful landscapes and, while they may be protected from inappropriate development, they can be intensively farmed with all the associated impacts of habitat destruction and pesticide use. If we really want to deliver 30×30 we need to take a strategic look at the ecosystems we need to conserve and define specially protected areas that are bigger, better managed, and better connected.
It’s widely accepted that Britain is a nature-poor country; a large proportion of our wildlife is under threat. The Mammal Society’s Red List of British Mammals https://www.mammal.org.uk/science-research/red-list/ showed that one quarter of our native mammals were at risk of extinction. The reasons for these population declines vary between species. For the wildcat, pine marten, and beaver there has been extensive historical persecution. For bats and the hazel dormouse, habitat loss is the main threat; while the water vole, red squirrel and Orkney vole suffer from the combined effects of habitat degradation and the introduction of non-native species. The recovery of these charismatic and ecologically important species will depend on the creation of an effective Nature Recovery Network across the whole country, not congratulating ourselves on the scale of our National Parks.
The UK Government has already consulted on the import of commodities (such as beef, leather, rubber, soy, coffee, and cocoa) which have an embedded risk of deforestation. Their suggested approach would make it illegal to import such commodities where there was evidence that they had been grown on land where forest had been cleared illegally. The difficulty here is that what’s legal varies enormously from country to country and this approach risks a race to the bottom, placing species such as orang-utan, jaguar, and giant otter at risk of extinction. If you look at labels in your local supermarket, you will see a plethora of products claiming to contain ‘sustainable palm oil’, a product we know to be grown in cleared rainforest, and yet conservationists in Brazil estimate that 90% of all forest clearance is illegal. So where do all these legal and sustainable commodities come from? A better approach might be to require all imports of forest-risk commodities to demonstrate that they had been grown using the principles of regenerative farming and biodiversity net gain.
So, while we are hopeful in light of such strong themes of environmental protection at the Summit this year, there is much to be done. Mammals make good indicators of the health of our natural environment and if the G7 members really intend to make a difference for our red squirrels, wild cats, giant otters, and right whales, it is not too late for decisive action. But there is no time to delay.
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Red squirrel photograph on home page by Melissa Nolan.