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Teresa Dent CBE, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

A Real Opportunity for Conservation

The nation's approach to conservation isn't working well enough. For generations the approach has been based on protection and prescription. Legislation is protective and conservation programmes are prescriptive. A species in worrying decline is typically given legal protection – even though the real threat may come from something legislation cannot address. Conservation programmes pay landowners and farmers for following habitat management prescriptions, but these fail if they are poorly applied or not backed by other measures.

Overall protection and prescription have largely failed to arrest a continuing decline in biodiversity; Government targets, such as the Farmland Bird Index, continue to fall short, yet GWCT research has clearly demonstrated what needs to be done.

Modernising the nation's approach to conservation could transform the prospects for many declining species and leaving the European Union gives us the increased flexibility to concentrate on conserving populations, rather than protecting individual animals.

Special protection, where it is needed, might vary regionally and could change with time or be condition on circumstances. Environment Stewardship, as well as supporting habitats through prescriptions, should also reward real improvements in biodiversity that can be measured locally.

Under current legislation, designed as a "one size fits all" across the EU, wildlife protection measures have been a blunt instrument. For example, special protection of red squirrels and water voles failed to stop their disappearance because the true cause of their demise has been the spread of American grey squirrels and mink.

A better approach would have been effective control strategies against mink and grey squirrels in the first place – something the nation did when it eradicated the South American coypu in the 1980s. In some case, special protection can have unintended consequences. The Badgers Act, for example, has achieved what it was designed to do, but the result may be detrimental to other species such as hedgehogs and bumble bees.

We should pay for what works. Farmers and landowners should be given clear incentives to increase the wildlife on their land. In many schemes, it is assumed that the conservation of a species depends on the provision of its habitat. Research shows that this is not always the case. Animals usually need a mosaic of habitats and their life cycles can be compromised by other factors such as intensive farming or predation. Successful conservation addresses these other factors too. Now is an opportunity to shape conservation policy to recognise this.

Rewarding farmers and landowners for successful results would encourage them to pick the right options within environmental schemes, put them in the right place and undertake other measures to support them. We accept that devising a payment by result top up scheme is not easy. It will depend on selecting good indicator species that can be readily identified and recorded and where their conservation would also enhance the prospects for a range of other animals and plants.

The decline of Britain's wildlife continues partly because the current system fails to find practical solutions to specific wildlife problems and does not reward conservation success. Reforming both elements would improve the prospects for much of our countryside wildlife.

Mrs Teresa Dent CBE

Mrs Teresa Dent CBE has been the Chief Executive of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust since 2001, which is a charity that seeks to promote game and wildlife management as an essential part of nature conservation. In 2014 she was appointed to the Board of Natural England, which is the government's adviser for the natural environment helping to protect England's nature and landscapes for people to enjoy. Teresa was named Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for "services to wildlife conservation" as part of the 2015 Queen's Birthday Honors and is a fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. Previously she was a partner with Strutt and Parker working as a farming and business management consultant.

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