ENGLAND: State of the Countryside report raises alarm on biodiversity losses

England is experiencing steep declines in biodiversity despite an increase in the number of protected sites and the total area covered by conservation schemes, says the UK Government's own agency in charge of managing the countryside.


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The Countryside Agency (CA) has published its second annual report on the environmental, social and economic health of England’s rural areas.

State of the Countryside 2000 has some good news about the quality of England’s inland waterways and progress with Community Forests, but when it comes to soil erosion, air pollution, the physical condition of English rivers and biodiversity, the data collected by the CA is not encouraging.

Intensive agriculture, property development and the transport sector are the most frequently cited causes for declines in the quality of the rural environment.

Soil erosion

The CA states that an estimated 2.2 million tonnes of soil are lost by water (more is lost via wind erosion) each year in England from 26,300km2 of arable land. The agency specifies that “erosion is not only from steeply sloping land: some 13% of the total loss from heavy arable soils is from flat to moderately sloping land”.

Water quality & waterways

The chemical quality of inland waters in all regions of England has been improving in recent years. The average for the country is a 24% improvement between the periods 1988-90 and 1996-98.

But the CA highlights that the physical condition of inland waterways is declining. A survey of rivers and streams showed that “there were few remaining ‘pristine’ lowland channels flowing through semi-natural landscapes,” states the report. The CA identifies a number of reasons for the frequent cases of extensive reinforcement and re-sectioning of river banks and channel impoundment:

  • land drainage
  • flood defence
  • intensive agriculture
  • urban development

The result, according to State of the Countryside 2000, is a “significant reduction in habitat diversity along stretches of some rivers”.

Another worry relating to the health of waterways is the impact on native flora and fauna from invasive, non-native plant species – Giant Hogweed, Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan Balsam are mentioned by name.

Air quality

The CA point out what the Environment Agency for England and Wales has also highlighted, that “rural areas sometimes experience levels of air pollution greater than those in urban areas”.

Ground-level ozone (see related story) levels fail the Government’s human health standards of 50 parts per billion on average one day in every 12. Ground-level ozone can also have negative impacts on vegetation growth, and levels in southern England often exceed the vegetation health standards in addition to human health standards.

Sulphur levels in ambient air remain a problem in Cumbria and across the Pennines. The CA states that these levels will mean that “critical loads for acidification” will still be exceeded in these two areas in 2010. Nutrient nitrogen deposition is also above levels for heathland plant communities and the CA reports that little is known about the likely time scale for recovery of ecosystems damaged by nitrogen deposition.

Vehicle emissions are a contributing factor to poor rural air quality, but the CA is also keen to point out how necessary private car use is to the majority of people living in the English countryside. Rural car ownership is at 83% of households compared to 70% of urban households and rural households are twice as likely to run more than one car.

With rural traffic levels rising faster than urban traffic levels, the CA’s data suggests that the transport sector’s impact on air quality is unlikely to lessen in the near future.

Biodiversity

The most serious environmental issue facing the English countryside, according to State of the Countryside 2000 is a steep decline in biodiversity. As of the end of March 1999, some 19,678km2, or 14.9% of England, were designated under some type of habitat or species protection. But such protection has not managed to maintain levels of biodiversity. “Currently, the most useful indicator of biodiversity in the wider countryside is wild bird populations,” states the CA. “The trend is one of continuing and serious decline in the populations of a range of wild bird species [see related story]. This is indicative of a broader decline in habitat quality and species richness of wide areas of countryside across England”.

The CA puts the largest share of the blame for biodiversity losses at the feet of agricultural practices, but also mentions new property development and new transport infrastructure as having impacts.

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