When public bodies across the nation are being told to tighten their belts and funds for everything from policing to parks are being cut, where’s the justification for spending more than three quarters of a million pounds on seabirds?
That’s a question some people may be asking today at the news that the European Union Life Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund are between them contributing more than £700,000 to securing a safe future for seabirds in the Isles of Scilly. With further contributions coming from the Isles of Scilly AONB Sustainable Development Fund, the Duchy of Cornwall, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust and Natural England, the overall investment could be even higher.
Yet we would argue, even in these straitened times, it will be money well spent. The 25-year partnership project aims to support the 14 species of seabird that make their home on and around the Scillies. It hopes to secure the future of 20,000 individual birds by protecting and restoring the rocky islets where they breed and nest. It also intends to increase the number of people working in seabird protection and improve the access for those who want to visit the islands to see the birds.
It is easy, however, to look at all investments such as this purely in terms of the wealth they might earn through tourism. Increasingly we need to see investment in the natural world as worthwhile for its own sake. And there is growing evidence that it is. Research, for example, has shown the value of living near open spaces. A recent report, the National Ecosystems Assessment, found that the human health benefits of merely living close to a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year. And while it is more difficult to make a direct link between remote seabird populations and human health, the principle that we are all better off for knowing these birds are thriving, and seeing them from time to time, has been established.
It is only right that as pressure increases to produce more food to meet growing global demand we put more emphasis on managing our land – and indeed our seas – for the efficient production of that food. But a balance must always be struck. And we are moving – rightly – from seeing investment in the natural world as something that is nice to have, but not essential, to something that has a real and measurable value to humankind.
A new book written by environmentalist Tony Juniper entitled What has nature ever done for us? is attracting interest for promulgating the idea that a monetary value – from the pest-controlling efforts of certain birds to the pollinating work of bees – can be put on much of the natural world. Sometimes that value is going to be notional... how, after all, do you measure in hard cash the delight of seeing a storm petrel or a Manx shearwater? Both, however, will be among the species whose future is secured through this latest funding. It will be, we believe, a good investment.