February 28, 2024

Ministers are “window dressing” with nature policies announced to “cover up” the government’s failings on environmental targets, wildlife groups have said.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) found earlier this month that nature in England is at risk of falling into an “irreversible spiral of decline” because of the government’s failures to meet its legally binding targets on species abundance and water quality.

Instead of providing a detailed response to the OEP, the government has issued an announcement that it will ban the industrial fishing of sandeels to celebrate a year since it announced its legally binding environmental improvement plan (EIP) targets. These targets are to replace the oversight of the EU and are part of the Environment Act 2021.

Ministers announced in 2022 they were planning to ban the fishing of sandeels, subject to consultation.

Joan Edwards, the director of policy and public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts, said: “No amount of window dressing can cover up the fact that the UK government has failed its environmental targets.

“The Office for Environmental Protection has already revealed that progress on around half the government’s nature goals is either static or moving in the wrong direction.

“Of 23 environmental targets assessed, none were found where progress was demonstrably on track. So it’s hard to welcome the government’s attempt to put a positive spin on their appalling record of continuing nature declines, river pollution, authorisation of a bee-killing pesticide, and failure to implement the promised peat ban.”

Environmental experts have said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) still has not shared how it plans to halt the decline of nature by 2030 while species including insects and birds are still falling in abundance.

Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “The closure of sandeel fisheries and restrictions on bottom-trawling in protected areas are excellent decisions.

“The urgent question still remains how Defra will scale up and speed up action to halt nature’s decline by 2030, after last week’s warning from its wildlife watchdog, the OEP.

“For [the] government to get back on track to meet its legal targets, today’s announcements mustn’t just be a birthday present for the EIP, but the start of a new normal in nature-focused decisions across Whitehall.”

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Ministers have said these announcements are part of a package that will help nature improve. The closure of the sandeel fishery will take place in English waters in the North Sea from April.

The government has also announced further targeted restrictions on damaging bottom trawling and promised a new framework for national parks and protected areas to help them better deliver for nature.

Steve Barclay, the environment secretary, said: “We’ve made a lot of progress since we launched the EIP – we’ve planted nearly 5m trees, improved public access to our beautiful countryside and accelerated the adoption of our world-leading farming schemes.

“Protecting the environment is fundamental to the prosperity of our country and our new commitments will drive forward our mission to create a cleaner and greener country for all.”

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