Every five years (isn’t quinquennial a lovely word?) the UK statutory agencies review various lists of ‘protected’ species. A regular review is a good idea for any biological list, including lists of conservation priority.
However, in this case, the recommendations have led to uproar as the statutory agencies have ganged up on a range of threatened species – recommending downlisting of their protection (which doesn’t protect them that well anyway). I don’t know why they’ve done this, it may be through unclear thinking, it may be through political pressure or it may be something else. Maybe they just had an off day – they have a lot of them these days.
The proximal mechanism for this change of priorities is an overreliance on extinction risk. Why do I say overreliance? Well, extinction on planet Earth is a big deal – we don’t know anywhere else in the universe where you will find Blue Whales so I’m glad that they are less close to disappearing from the universe than they were when I was born. However, the smaller the geographic area one considers the less important extinction in that area becomes as a measure of conservation importance. To take it to a ridiculous extreme, there are species going ‘extinct’ in my back garden (and coming back again) every day. That is a ridiculous extreme, but so, I would argue, is the overreliance on GB extinction risk with to little context of the outside, bigger, world.
The extinction of the Golden Oriole as a breeding species in England, or the UK, would be a shame, and something to be resisted, but there are literally millions of pairs of Golden Oriole in Europe and there are rarely more than a handful in the UK – UK extinction is trivial really (though it’s a lovely bird).
Let’s take another example (another bird I’m afraid, but I know what I’m talking about when it comes to birds, usually) – the Skylark. Skylarks are not going to go extinct in the UK, probably. not very soon anyway because there are over a million pairs of them. But Skylarks have declined massively in numbers in my liftime – there used to be more than twice as many of them when I was at primary school, maybe even when I was at secondary school. So, if we lost the same number of Skylarks in the life of a current 9-year-old girl, as we have since I was a 9-year-old boy, then Skylarks would be extinct in the UK in about 50 years time (actually, a bit sooner, I think). Which is the more important, the loss of a few pairs of Golden Oriole or of a million pairs of Skylark? UK extinction risk is not a good measure of conservation priority here. And this is thinking that was done for birds a long time ago – over 25 years ago by some clever people and me.
I’d say the Adder is the Skylark of reptiles, and it certainly isn’t the Golden Oriole of reptiles.
It is not always possible to be confident of the motives of a person or organisation by their actions so it is a matter of speculation as to why this is happening. A concentration on the narrow and not very helpful concept of GB extinction is entirely in line with having a more parochial , UK-centred, view of life – we’ll see more examples of that in this post-Brexit life, and maybe this is one of them (but maybe it isn’t). But this is certainly a way of clearing out a load of species from their current protection, thus making it easier to let built development run wild with fewer constraints. I fear this is a thin end of a massive wedge. What else is protected now, isn’t likely to go extinct in GB, and could have its protection removed? Badger? Hen Harrier?
Surely not? Well, once the Westminster government gets around to watering down the provisions of the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, as I am sure they will if given the chance by the electorate (and they have a good three years ahead of them in any case), then one is left with the Wildlife and Countryside Act – and this move is watering down its protections. You wouldn’t start with the Hen Harrier and Badger, but that might well be where we are heading. Anyway, I’m on the side of the Adder in any case – the Skylark of reptiles?