No specific guidance

Yesterday Defra replied to a complaint I made. They thanked me for my “emails of 5 January, 30 June and 1 August” and apologised for the long delay in replying which was due to them receiving too many emails from people “Defra is currently dealing with high volumes of correspondence.” *deadpan face emoji*.

Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil seed heads, ripe and ripened – the twisting like a brandy snap happens as the pod dries out and explosively releases the seeds

Anyway, if you have studied conservation at all and conservation of plants in particular, you will be aware that the fundamental purpose of our conservation activities is to conserve as much within-species genetic diversity as we can. We do this because we can’t know which particular genetic traits in (say) wildflowers are important; you might be delighted to see a Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil smothered in flowers and be less inclined to preserve one that only had a few flowers, but if the many flowered one died in a summer drought whilst the few-flowered one developed deeper roots to be more drought tolerant then you could have made the wrong decision.

Except it’s more complicated than that because Common Blue caterpillars rely mainly on the foliage of Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and some plants may be more edible than others and there is nothing visual for a person to choose between them. Actually, it’s more complicated than that because there is bound to be a variation in each Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil plant’s ability to fix nitrogen which relates to their ability to form a root symbiosis with bacteria from the genus Rhizobium or Bradyrhizobium and that in turn may affect the fungal diversity of the soil (if the nitrogen compounds leak out into the soil too much) and all the microbes that live there too.

Your best option is to save as much variation as possible and spread your bets against future climate change in general and in specific at the site in which your plants are growing.

And given that is just a few sentences on one plant species it’s easy to see that it’s complicated. It follows that if you were wanting to advise conservation practitioners on what best to do you would need a team to study all the science, spot gaps where more science needs commissioning to aid understanding, commission the science, read the results, and then produce expert guidance.

A very upright and vigorous Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil used in landscaping for a flood relief scheme by the Environment Agency and unlike any of the Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil found in Heritage Habitats locally (photo in May 2022)

“We can confirm that we do not hold specific guidance on conserving within-species genetic diversity on GOV.UK.”

said the reply from Defra. As far as I know that is the first official acknowledgement that there is no specific guidance on how to best conserve England’s genetic diversity on the government’s main information channel. Even though I knew, because I’d checked, it’s still shocking to me that for the most fundamental thing in conservation there is no guidance from government. There are masses of words on conservation and strategies and all sorts of stuff like that – oodles of it – but it seems like the whole of the conservation profession has carefully ignored the central purpose of what we are trying to do and for the life of me I can’t work out why.

When I wrote my complaint I thought that perhaps it was Defra’s role to produce guidance for other public bodies under the Biodiversity Duty because the Law states “[F2The] public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity.” and one of Defra’s functions is to provide guidance for public bodies, right? I’m asking because I’m currently trying to find an existing law that I can use as a lever to help protect England’s Priority and Heritage habitats (mainly Ancient Grassland as that’s what I am interested in) because it is legal to destroy them and the genetic variation they contain, unless they have SSSI designation or you plough the soil of a site greater than 2 ha in size.  

It’s possible I am wrong about Defra’s role because they replied

“With regards to the duty to have regard to conserving biodiversity, which is provided for in Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, there is no requirement for Defra to provide guidance to public authorities on conserving within-species genetic diversity.”

That answer made me think of the political satire ‘Yes Minister’ which I loved watching on tv as a child and I wonder if Defra’s answer was technically correct as there is no specific mention of the need to provide guidance written in the Law. Maybe Defra has no requirement in law to produce any guidance at all – I don’t know. It looks complicated to me.

Colour variation in naturally occurring Wild Angelica flowers

In this case I will be writing to ask the newly formed Office for Environmental Protection to investigate and let’s hope they are able to do as thorough a job as the Office for Statistics Regulation were able to do with Defra’s decision to publish two completely different numbers for the extent of the same habitat, Lowland Meadow (see https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2020/01/10/mis-reporting-of-the-data-in-england-biodiversity-indicators-priority-habitats-2018/ ).

And as an added plea, if you work in conservation then do ask your boss if they have any up-to-date information on how best you can conserve within-species genetic diversity in your patch. I don’t think anyone has done such a scientific review for England as yet so they won’t be able to give you any information, but it is important that whoever makes the decisions or decides the strategy in your organisation knows what information they are lacking. They might even do something about it.

As ever, a thank you to whoever answers my emails at Defra – genuinely much appreciated. I’m very glad to live in a democracy where we can actively question how the government operates – though I’d be happier if everyone voted for a political party that cared a bit more about conservation, and people for that matter.

Email exchange as follows: –

5/1/2022

Hello

Do you have any guidance available on the importance of conserving within-species genetic variation as part of complying with the law, in particular the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, Section 40?

I’m currently investigating how public authorities undertake their biodiversity duty. To conserve a species we must conserve the within-species genetic variation of that species; the law informs public authorities that they have a “duty to conserve biodiversity” and so logically they must conserve within-species genetic diversity of our native species and therefore I would expect the government to supply guidance or advice on how to do this.

I have been unable to find any guidance on your website page of guidance for the biodiversity duty https://www.gov.uk/guidance/biodiversity-duty-public-authority-duty-to-have-regard-to-conserving-biodiversity and I know from your answer to a previous question EIR2020/22996 that Defra did not carry out an appropriate assessment on whether any within-species genetic diversity would be lost before starting the Badger cull.

As part of my book on England’s Ancient Grasslands I am looking into how well our native grassland plants are being conserved by public authorities but also covering broader issues of conservation where appropriate to provide context.

Many thanks

Martin Allen

No answer from Defra

30/6/2022

Hello

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has said I need to follow the Defra complaints procedure with regard to my conservation query and I think it relates to polices/legal issues https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-environment-food-rural-affairs/about/complaints-procedure#policies-or-legal-issues  which says I should address my complaint to the Head of the relevant policy division. I rang the Defra helpline to find out who that might be and was given this email. Please forward my email to the relevant person with Defra to answer.

I am writing to point out that Defra is not fulfilling the requirements of https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/16/section/40  with regard to providing guidance to public bodies on conserving within-species genetic diversity of native plants.

Conservation of native plants means we need to protect/conserve within-species genetic diversity but Defra offers no information on how to do this to public bodies  (Natural England have no native plant conservation strategy to protect within-species genetic diversity: Access to Information Request – Request no 5205 ), and so as a consequence public bodies have no access to scientific information on whether use of non-local wildflower seed purchased from a seed merchant for habitat creation will be deleterious to the local genetic diversity of those species and as such no way of assessing whether they are complying with the law.

Defra are aware of the requirement to conserve within-species genetic diversity of native plants as the document Defra use to define biodiversity (“Defra defines ’conserving biodiversity’ as set down in chapter 1 of the 1994 Command Paper ‘Biodiversity: The UK Action Plan’ (Cm 2428): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/272038/2428.pdf ” EIR2022/00670) makes its importance very clear. The webpage https://www.gov.uk/guidance/biodiversity-duty-public-authority-duty-to-have-regard-to-conserving-biodiversity#:~:text=As%20a%20public%20authority%20in,enhancing%20a%20population%20or%20habitat gives no indication that within-species genetic diversity is important and I can find no guidance from Defra on the matter.

Because Defra is not providing appropriate guidance (the exercise of [its] functions) to the rest of the public authorities, then Defra is not carrying out its duties with respect to the Law.

If you think that is not the case please outline why, so I can then take that information to the OEP to investigate if that proves necessary.

If you need more information from me to answer my complaint then do let me know.

Many thanks

Martin Allen

I’m currently writing a book on Ancient Grassland in England (as we have no definition for it in literature or protection for in law; nor do we have protection in law for national priority habitats that are not designated SSSI) and as part of that I am looking at how to use existing law to protect them. If public authorities are genuinely bound to the law to “conserve biodiversity” (i.e. within-species genetic diversity) then the seeds from ancient grasslands automatically become a source for creating new grasslands – conserving the original sites and local within-species genetic diversity.

My blogs on the subject are here  https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/local-flora/

No answer from Defra after a month (20 working days) “We aim to respond to queries within 20 working days, however due to the current volumes of correspondence we are receiving there could be a significant delay.” Defra

1/8/2022

Hello

I’m just following up my complaint as I haven’t received a reply yet. If there is a problem with replying can you please let me know

Many thanks

Martin

Defra reply 3/8/2022

Dear Martin Allen,

Thank you for your emails of 5 January, 30 June and 1 August about the availability of guidance on the importance of conserving within-species genetic variation to help public authorities fulfil their own duty. I apologise for the long delay in responding. Defra is currently dealing with high volumes of correspondence.

We can confirm that we do not hold specific guidance on conserving within-species genetic diversity on GOV.UK.

With regards to the duty to have regard to conserving biodiversity, which is provided for in Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, there is no requirement for Defra to provide guidance to public authorities on conserving withinspecies genetic diversity.

Yours sincerely,

Ministerial Contact Unit

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