This Policy Letter seeks approval for the adoption and funding of a Biodiversity Strategy for Guernsey. If approved, it will form the foundation to deliver a key component of the Environmental Policy Plan. The Strategy is not so much a set of specific actions, to protect our valuable wildlife and habitats, but a framework to prioritise scarce resources and to direct those resources to achieve the greatest returns.
I do not intend to, and indeed should not need to, spend time now making the case for the protection and enhancement of our cherished habitats and wildlife. The need to do that has already been agreed by the States and, is now a matter of policy, which is enshrined in the States Strategic Plan. Let me remind members of the principle which we signed up to: It states that we should adopt “…policies which protect the natural environment and its biodiversity by accounting for the wider impacts that human activity has on it”.
The issues are not whether we need to protect our habitats, species and ecosystems and whether we need a biodiverse environment but rather, how do we achieve that and in particular whether simply carrying on doing what we are doing is adequate.
Our living environment has never had to face so many pressures at once: development, disturbance, climate change and a genuine lack of awareness all take their toll. During the last decade or so 15 species of birds, including skylark, cuckoo and Dartford warbler have stopped breeding in Guernsey; another 15 species including puffin, oystercatcher and song thrush have seen serious declines in their populations.
Nearly half of all semi-improved grasslands have been lost in just 10 years and 13 other important habitat types now make up less than 3% of Guernsey’s land area, putting several species at risk.
Whilst the Environment Department does what it can with its limited budgets to support biodiversity on the land it administers, and whilst organisations such as La Société and the National Trust work hard to acquire and manage land through charitable donations and voluntary work, the fact remains that large areas of land and sea are not managed in the best way. Educational resources are limited and fragmented. Data collection remains sparse, and in formats that do not conform to international standards.
This matters because when we seek to engage with the UK, France and even Jersey, to exchange information on invasive species, at-risk species, or species and habitat action plans the information Guernsey has, and its ability to communicate from a solid platform of knowledge, is seriously lacking.
We have a Biological Records Centre, run in partnership with La Société and staffed just 2 days a week with the help of volunteers. Its work has shown that we are losing habitat and species but it has neither the means nor the resources to do anything about it. Our sea fisheries resources are insufficient to carry out stock counts, benthic studies, examinations of the spread of species and possibly the spread of disease.
If we are to sustain our biodiversity and the benefits it provides for future generations then coordinated action is required.
Alderney is already streets ahead of us. Not only do they embrace the management and conservation of their biodiversity but they promote it as a means to support their visitor economy: In the two years since funding to promote their Living Islands initiative began in 2013 the percentage of visitors naming “wildlife” as one of the main reasons for their visit increased from 25% to 42%.
However, in asking for adoption of the Strategy, the Environment Department is acutely aware of the issue of funding in the context of our current financial policy. This is why our Board unanimously agreed to limit our request to the minimum needed to make a difference: £80,000 per year. Were we to be asking for the sort of resources that are applied in Jersey and the Isle of Man, and which would undoubtedly have a greater impact, the amount would have been in the order of £300,000 per year.
We have made it quite clear that £80,000 is not going to fund habitat improvement projects or species reintroduction programmes. But before we can even think about trying to source finance from private enterprise, education and research establishments and potentially EU or international funding to deliver such improvements on the ground, we need to pull together the information and resources we have and to coordinate our actions .
By imposing a cap from the start on public funding it has challenged us to think about how a small, fixed sum of money can be used in the most effective way. Using Alderney as an example, their direct funding of a coordinator enabled the recruitment, training and deployment of volunteer time to build capacity and yield extra resources at no extra cost to the taxpayer. The Alderney Wildlife Trust provides the States of Alderney with in excess of 1,600 hours per year which provides unpaid support for work in relation to biodiversity and international conventions, thanks to its post-graduate involvement through its placement programme. Their Living Islands initiative has generated a further 1800 hours of extra volunteer time based on records taken between 2013 and 2014.
Research institutions are out there and willing and able to undertake work for us but generally not as an ad hoc piece of work specific to Guernsey, rather as a co-ordinated field of interest across several jurisdictions. A properly equipped coordinator can generate the networks, identify the knowledge gaps, liaise with the providers and research institutions and capture additional resources. I ask members to simply look at the Renewable Energy Team to see how extra resources provided as “seed funding” can deliver additional free inputs.
I am aware of the concern that a coordinator is yet another civil servant. But it need not be. If the funding is available the Department could, for example, extend the contract with Environment Guernsey in respect of the Biological Records Centre to appoint a Biodiversity co-ordinator. Other options no doubt exist.
I’m also aware of the widespread support for the adoption of this funded strategy from the public, as evidenced by the petition which is now in excess of 1000 signatures. They fully support the Strategy and they see, rightly, that delivery of the strategy sits first and foremost with Government who have the capacity to enable, educate and implement and where necessary enforce. The States needs to work in partnership with third sector organisations, business, the general public and of course other States Departments. The States can do this and much more through the co-ordinator proposed.
On the subject of support from the community, I have been astounded by the numerous emails and phone calls I have received in support. Many of those asking the States to agree to funding this Strategy are people who give of their free time to benefit the island’s natural environment and biodiversity. One email I received was from the Group Coordinator of the Guernsey Conservation Volunteers. The GCV works every other Saturday morning and averages 700 hours of free labour each year. It works on land belonging to the States of Guernsey as well as La Société Guernesiaise and the National Trust of Guernsey.
I was told that the GCV is regularly contacted by schools, Duke of Edinburgh Award groups and corporate groups wanting to work in the natural environment. There is a huge enthusiasm for these projects but virtually all of these requests are for term time or weekday projects and the volunteers are unable to tap into this enthusiasm and run these projects.
If funding is given to the Biodiversity Strategy, a full time coordinator could tap into this resource and the free labour could be used effectively to benefit our natural environment. If GCV alone provides an average of 700 hours of free labour just working on Saturday mornings, you can imagine the huge amount of free labour that these community groups could give! £80,000 is a small investment that would reap huge rewards for our environment.
Treasury & Resources has expressed its view that we should seek savings from within the current Departmental cash limit to fund this new work stream. I am not going to dwell on this now as it is more pertinent to the amendment which I understand is being laid. However I will state that we have been making those savings for the last seven years from when the Department’s cash limit was cut by 7% in 2008 and since when it has been effectively frozen. This has resulted in what now represents a real terms cut of around £3 million in the Department’s 2016 budget – a significant amount in percentage terms. The awareness by the Department that money is constrained is why we have taken the path we have as it has the best chance of coordinating action from outside of Government at the least cost.
Biodiversity and its conservation and management are, and must remain, central planks of government policy and this places an obligation on the Environment Department to develop measures to meet those obligations. The Department began the process in 2012 as one of its four key objectives for this States term pledged by Deputy Domaille, with the objective of developing a Biodiversity Strategy for Guernsey and of meeting our global obligations by extending the Convention on Biological Diversity to what is now the last remaining jurisdiction in the British Isles and one of a small handful in the world not to have signed up.
There are solid, sound, standalone intrinsic reasons to fund this strategy, but, in the early 21st century, where everything seems to be seen through the lens of the market, there are also overriding economic reasons to protect our biodiversity. The cold, stark fact is that we do not do anywhere near enough to protect our Environment. A caller to the Sunday phone-in recently was taken to task by Deputy Langlois when she suggested that the States do not take the Environment seriously. He upbraided her saying that her comments were unfair and that, quote, in Policy Council the whole issue of the inclusion of the Environment is a major factor in decisions and is constantly on the table”. Well, all I can say is that I must be attending a different set of Policy Council meetings to those attended by Deputy Langlois.
But what has nature ever done for us?
Apart of course, from supplying water, pollinating plants, generating oxygen, creating recycling miracles in the soil and much, much more
Environmental ecology and economic prosperity are inextricably linked. Nature is essential for economic development. It promotes wellbeing. Scientists have estimated that the value of nature to the global economy is nearly twice as big as the worldwide GDP in any given year.
Our living environment is the same one we rely on to attract visitors to this island and underlines the importance we should attach to the biodiversity which is a fundamental part of it.
The findings of the most recent exit survey of visitors, taken by Visit Guernsey, clearly supports this point:
• Over 80% of respondents stated that Guernsey’s natural beauty had a big influence on their decision to visit
• Bird-watching was the second most popular activity after self-guided walks
The Puffin is a symbol for what we know represents the best in our island, it is a wonderful icon which sells the natural heritage of Guernsey, as embodied on the tailfins of our airline’s planes and now on our bus passes.
Sadly, in October this year, the International Union for Nature Conservation formally listed Puffin as a species threatened with global extinction. Surely that is our clarion call to action.
How long will we have to wait before we decide that we want to make sure that the Puffin, along with the rest of our natural biological diversity, will continue to live and thrive here and not be allowed to become just images of what we used to have?
It is biodiversity which is the fundamental cornerstone of our natural environment and it is biodiversity which underpins our four million pound fishing industry.
I don’t want to finish without acknowledging the outstanding contribution made by volunteers. This government, more than ever before, has relied on the third sector. There have been some suggestions that these volunteers should go and fundraise for this £80,000 . Let me be crystal clear. Those members of our society who give of their time to sustain biodiversity in our island are not doing it, as I have heard said, because it is their niche interest or pastime. They are doing it because they absolutely get just how vital it is to try and conserve the natural world for all of us, for our economy, and, most importantly for our children. We should be thanking them, not endeavouring to abrogate our responsibility entirely. We have enshrined that responsibility in our strategic plans, we have given the environment equal footing with social and economic policy, now let us turn that rhetoric into reality. Sir, I ask members to support all propositions.