It seems unbelievable to me but it is 20 years this week since the launch of “Biodiversity Challenge.”I am going to celebrate this anniversary with a series of blogs this week, and possibly next.
Challenge, as it became known, was a gauntlet thrown down, by the 6 leading nature NGOs of the time. It was thrown at the feet of John Major’s government, challening him to adopt with alacrity the Convention on Biological Diversity. This was the Convention that his Environment Secretary John Selwyn Gummer (now Lord Deben) had done so much to bring into the world, at the previous year’s Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio Summit also created the Climate Change Convention.
We knew the Government had intended to produce a report stating that all was fine and there was no need for us to produce a plan – they were just going publish a list of the “59 steps” that were already being taken. With hindsight it was almost colonialist in its attitude – ” you new countries, you need to produce plans for your wildlife; but us, the mother country, we already know how its done, and we are going to tell you how we did it so successfully. But we are not going to do it. Now run along.”
RSPB, under the leadership of Graham Wynne, had brought together The Wildlife Trusts, Friends of the Earth, Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and WWF in the summer of 93 and as a very new and very “green” head of conservation at Plantlife, I found myself thrown into the world of conservation policy and politics for the first time. We were going to get our rebuttal out first.
We started work on the report in September and launched it in December. It was a mammoth effort and incredibly exciting – everyone threw themselves into it with great enthusiasm. We wanted to change nature conservation in the UK, and I suspect others were thinking about making waves beyond our shores too.
The Convention on Biological Diversity or CBD for the first time required every country on the planet to produce a plan and commit to doing tangible things to prevent their biodiversity from declining. Targets should be set and monitoring programmes introduced to tell how well everyone was doing.
Graham had been head of planning at Hackney Council before joining RSPB and he was very keen on a plan led approach. RSPB had been trialling species action plans for rare birds in the early 90s and we all thought it was a good idea to role them out. Challenge introduced the idea of species and habitat action plans into the world. It should also be said that these were intended to be a bit of a trojan horse, as each one would, as well as doing direct actions for species and habitats “on the ground”, also include the policy and legislative actions needed to achieve the conservation of species and habitats; rather naively in retrospect we thought that if Government could see that their policies on agriculture, water, pollution, forestry climate change and so on, kept cropping up in every plan, the overwhelming weight of evidence and the requirement to implement the plans would lead to wholesale policy change for biodiversity.
The report also looked at each sector of the economy and identified what impact they were having on biodiversity and what steps were needed to be taken to reduce that impact.
Perhaps the single most significant shift in conservation policy advocated by Challenge was that conservation action should be based upon which species and habitats had highest priority, with priorities being determined by objective criteria: global threat, international importance, rate of decline, and absolute rarity. Up until then nature conservation was about SSSIs, plus a very small and select band of species (mostly bird and mammals, the odd butterfly and orchid) mostly chosen for their charisma. Wildlife Sites were still in their infancy and entirely local.
Agr-environment schemes were also very new, ESAs mostly focussing on landscape restoration; and Countryside Stewardship was still in the hands of the Countryside Commission!
How the landscape has changed.