New report describes The Wildlife Trusts’ vision of a Wilder Britain

The Wildlife Trusts call for the creation of a Nature Recovery Network

A Nature Recovery Network should be supported by a new Environment Act

June 13th 2018

The Wildlife Trusts have published a report for the Westminster Government “at a time when Britain stands on the brink of its biggest ever shake-up of environmental rules.” [1] As reported in previous articles, the Government has held two significant consultations in recent months – one on the future of farming policy following the UK’s anticipated departure from the EU, and one on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework. [2] In response to those consultations, The Wildlife Trusts launched their report at an event for MPs at Westminster. The report describes The Wildlife Trusts’ vision of a wilder Britain and how to achieve it. The vision includes the creation of a Nature Recovery Network, supported by legislation in the form of a new Environment Act. In a news story, The Wildlife Trusts said:

“The Wildlife Trusts’ new report shows how a Nature Recovery Network can be established by mapping out important places for wildlife which need to be protected as well as key areas where habitats should be restored. The Wildlife Trusts believe new laws are needed, including an Environment Act, to ensure this happens. Local Authorities should be required by law to produce local Nature Recovery Maps to achieve the new Government targets to increase the extent and quality of natural habitats, and turn nature’s recovery from an aspiration to a reality.” [3]

The news story goes on to say that The Wildlife Trusts’ report comes at a critical time for wildlife:

“It coincides with the final week of two key government consultations which present a rare opportunity – the first in living memory – to influence the future of both national farming and planning policy and how these impact on nature in England. Precious wild places and the species that depend on them have suffered steep declines over the past 70 years; intensive farming and urbanisation have been significant causes. Now the public has a chance to call for change, so that planning rules, farming support, and regulation work together towards the recovery of nature and wildlife. The Wildlife Trusts are urging people to respond to both consultations.”

Stephanie Hilbourne, Wildlife Trusts CEO, said substantial improvements were needed to farming and planning policies in order to help nature’s recovery, and an ambitious Environment Act was needed to put nature’s recovery on to a statutory footing.

Local Wildlife Sites and National Planning Policy

As mentioned in a previous article, the development of a ‘Nature Recovery Network’ is one of the Government’s aims in its 25 Year Plan for the Environment. [4] The Wildlife Trusts argue that to take this forward “Nature Recovery Maps should be at the foundation of future farming and planning policy, guiding habitat creation by farmers and housing developers to ensure it achieves government targets for wildlife’s recovery.” The news story also points out that policy protection for Local Wildlife Sites – “important havens for wildlife that are supposed to be recognised in planning policy” – has been dropped from the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). As reported in a previous article, the proposed changes to the NPPF focus on measures to boost house-building. [5] However, The Wildlife Trusts argue that dropping protection for Local Wildlife Sites is a backward step that would undo basic protection for 42,000 of these special places for wildlife. [6]

In their response to the consultation on the proposed changes, The Wildlife Trusts point out that about 36 square miles of land are used by new developments every year; hence “the outcome of this consultation is hugely important for wildlife.” The Wildlife Trusts want to see rules that protect wildlife and secure recognition of Local Wildlife Sites, which lose protection under the current proposals. Three further policy requirements are highlighted: firstly, planning policy should require wildlife habitats to be integrated into new developments; secondly, all developments should result in a ‘net biodiversity gain,’ meaning developers would be expected to make improvements for wild species and habitats; and thirdly, local planning strategies should require all new developments to contribute to a national Nature Recovery Network.

As for farming policy, the changes that The Wildlife Trusts would like to see here seem to coincide with the draft proposals set out by Defra. [7] The Wildlife Trusts say that they want to see rules that reward farmers and land managers for the benefits they provide for society, “like clean water, healthy soils and a wildlife-rich countryside.” Secondly, they want the Common Agricultural Policy replaced with a system that supports public benefits and environmental outcomes for society; and thirdly, they want to see changes to the culture of regulation, “making it easier for farmers to help nature without being weighed down by unnecessary paperwork, inspections and bureaucracy.”

Disconnected Nature

Moving on to the report, Towards a Wilder Britain begins by describing a vision of a “green, healthy, and happy” Britain in 2040, where “nature is normal.” The vision includes sketches of green developments, wilder cities, a buzzing countryside, sustainable fisheries, returning whales, fertile soils, and restored uplands. This is followed by a description of the “depleted, fragmented, and fragile” Britain of 2018, where 250,000 miles of road divide the landscape, creating a barrier for many species; plastics, pesticides, and atmospheric pollution are causing problems for wildlife; hedges in arable areas are disappearing; parks are “green deserts;” and people in urban areas live in artificial surroundings. In short, people have become disconnected from nature, and nature has become disconnected from itself.

As an example of the “nature disconnected” problem, the report cites Askham Bog, an ancient bog on the outskirts of York, cited as “a familiar story.” The report says that Askham Bog was one of The Wildlife Trusts’ first nature reserves: “It is a unique place, thousands of years old, and teeming with specialised wildlife, but it faces problems that are common to nature reserves all over the country. It is already bordered by a golf course, a landfill site, a major road, and railway. Now it is at risk of being sealed off completely from the landscape around it. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has fought off two applications to build on its last remaining boundary.” The report also includes a map that shows estimates of ‘biodiversity intactness’ across the UK. The report says that the UK index of 81% is the 29th lowest out of 218 countries assessed by researchers, who suggest that such biodiversity loss ‘might exceed planetary boundaries.’

The report quotes Sir John Lawton, who led a Government review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological networks, titled Making Space for Nature. Published in 2010, the report said: “There is compelling evidence that Local Wildlife Sites are generally too small and too isolated. We need more space for nature.”

Reconnecting Nature – A Nature Recovery Network

The report also includes a quote from Sir David Attenborough, who said, “Every space in Britain must be used to help wildlife.” Pursuing the theme of “making space for nature to meet the needs of wildlife and people,” the report calls for the creation of a Nature Recovery Network, characterised as “a joined-up network of habitats that allow wildlife and people to thrive in housing estates; on farms; in nature reserves; on road verges; along riverbanks; in parks and gardens; on office roofs; and in the hills.” The report explains the need for such a network as follows:

“Nature conservation in the last century succeeded in protecting some vital wildlife sites, but wildlife has still declined as a result of damage to the wider environment. Protected wildlife sites alone cannot meet the needs of wildlife or society. To achieve that, we also need to provide effective protection for the many other places in the landscape that are still rich in wildlife despite the many pressures they face. And we must invest time, effort, commitment and money into bringing wildlife back across a far wider area, stitching back together Britain’s tattered natural fabric of wild land. We need to create a Nature Recovery Network that extends into every part of our towns, cities and countryside, bringing wildlife and the benefits of a healthy natural world into every part of life. Letting flowers bloom along road verges, installing green roofs across city skylines, planting more street trees to give people shady walks in the summer, encouraging whole communities to garden for wild plants and animals. A network that brings wildlife into every neighbourhood would also provide fairer access to nature for people. Studies have shown the benefits of living close to nature, but many people are deprived of these benefits.”

A Vision of a Wilder Britain

The report paints a picture of a wilder Britain which shows how space can be transformed in ways that benefit wildlife and people. For instance, the UK’s road network could be transformed by green bridges that allow wildlife a safe passage from one space to another. [8] The report says that green bridges should be a part of transport infrastructure projects, whilst road verges could be better managed for wildlife by mowing later in the year. Urban areas, home to 80% of the UK’s population, could be transformed by new parks, street trees and plants, green roofs and green walls, all of which would provide greener neighbourhoods, increase biodiversity, help to reduce flood risk, reduce overheating from concrete and tarmac, and thereby provide health and wellbeing benefits to people, who would be more able to experience nature in their daily lives.

On public spaces, the report says that two thirds of amenity land consists of short-mown grass, and that such spaces could support eight times more wildlife if they were transformed into wildflower meadows. On farmland, the report says that 70% of land in the UK consists of farmland, “so creating and managing habitats for wildlife on farms is vital: hedges, ponds, ditches, field margins and trees all help to provide a network of habitats for farmland wildlife.” The report also says that there are about 430,000 hectares of gardens in the UK, which have huge potential to help pollinators such as bees if more wildflowers were planted: “a network of small patches could help bees thrive in urban areas.”

Turning the Vision into a Reality

The vision of a wilder Britain becomes clearer with further details of the Nature Recovery Network, and the steps that are needed to achieve it. The report describes those details as follows:

“A Nature Recovery Network is a joined-up system of places important for wild plants and animals, on land and at sea. It allows plants, animals, seeds, nutrients and water to move from place to place and enables the natural world to adapt to change. It provides plants and animals with places to live, feed and breed. It creates the corridors and areas of habitat they need to move to in response to climate change. It connects wild places and it brings wildlife into our lives. It can only do this effectively if, like our road network, it is treated as a joined-up whole. The Network would include nature reserves and Local Wildlife Sites, and parts of National Parks. It would also contain peat bogs, heaths, meadows and cliffs; road verges, parks, gardens, hedges and woods; and rivers, streams, ponds and lakes. At sea, it would include reefs and sandbanks, rocky shores and sea-grass beds, many of them designated as Marine Protected Areas – Britain’s ‘Blue Belt’.”

The report describes four stages in creating such a network. The first stage involves greater protection for the wildest places, which include nature reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and Local Wildlife Sites (“our core sources of wildlife”). At sea they include Marine Protected Areas. The report says that these places need to be protected from harm, improved through better management, and where possible increased in size. The second stage involves making connections between those wild places through wildlife corridors: “Smaller patches of habitat can act as stepping stones and corridors between bigger areas. This means creating and looking after features like hedges, ponds, streams, small woods and meadows, to provide habitat and make it easier for wildlife to move through the landscape.” The third stage involves consolidating the overall area for wildlife by requiring land management and development to strengthen the network and not weaken it. The report says the overall area of wildlife-friendly land will increase by looking after our wildest places and creating the habitat corridors between them. This overall area needs to be safeguarded to ensure that wildlife populations are less likely to decline. The fourth stage involves finding space for wildlife in the wider landscape, “characterised by nature-friendly development and farming.” This stage would include encouraging a wide range of people to increase the amount of wildlife habitat in places like farms, parks, retail parks, churchyards, road verges, gardens and golf courses, and would need high standards of basic regulation.

Regulation: A New Environment Act

The need for regulation brings us to what The Wildlife Trusts describe as the most important requirement to achieve the vision of a wilder Britain: a new Environment Act. The report says that a new Environment Act “would commit successive future governments to increasing the diversity and abundance of our wildlife and making it a bigger part of everyone’s daily lives; and to improving the health of our air, soils, rivers and seas.” The report continues:

“This Act would build on the foundations of existing wildlife laws. It would be about nature’s recovery and rebuilding society’s connection to the natural world. It will need to ensure that regulation, investment, public spending and practical action work effectively together. To achieve this, it must place a duty on Local Authorities to produce Local Nature Recovery Maps, setting out where and how nature’s recovery will be achieved. And it must require government departments and agencies to use these maps to guide and coordinate their efforts.”

The report says that a new Environment Act will need ambitious goals; strong principles (to ensure that the needs of the natural world are central to all government decision-making and that polluters pay for their polluting activities); clear standards (including measures that set out how governments and other organisations will be held to account); and independent institutions to monitor and review progress, oversee compliance with the law, and to ensure that everyone can challenge public decisions effectively when necessary.

Nature Recovery Maps

The report describes Nature Recovery Maps as a key tool in the regulatory process, and as a means of achieving a Nature Recovery Network:

“Building a Nature Recovery Network requires detailed information: where wildlife is abundant or scarce; where it should be in future; which places are most important; and where there is opportunity for positive change. The critical tool is a Local Nature Recovery Map. Government must require Local Authorities to publish these maps, which would identify areas where the greatest benefit for wildlife and people can be achieved. They would focus and coordinate effective action, funding and regulation.”

The report says that these Nature Recovery Maps should be developed locally with the full involvement of civil society and other stakeholders; evidence-based using the best available data and technology; long-term but reviewed regularly; part of a national network aligned with neighbouring Nature Recovery Maps to create a national Nature Recovery Network; and endorsed by statutory documents approved by the Secretary of State.

The maps would be used to ensure that key wildlife sites are strongly protected as the basis for nature’s recovery (“critically, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Local Wildlife Sites”) and that other sites are protected for future restoration. Local Nature Recovery Maps would also be used to ensure effective regulation of potentially damaging land management activities such as hedgerow removal or ploughing permanent pasture; and to ensure that new housing, industrial, commercial, and infrastructure developments receive consent only in the right places and has a net positive impact on the Network. Legislation would require local authorities to contribute to the implementation of the Network, and public and private funds should be channelled so that contributions from developers, for instance, are targeted for maximum wildlife benefit.

The report says that farmers, foresters, land managers, developers, investors, public bodies and regulators all have a role to play in making the Network happen. As for the rest of us: “All of us can help by taking action for, and providing space for, wildlife where we live and work. On their own our actions can feel isolated or small, but linked together every garden, window box, field margin, street tree and riverbank makes a difference.”

The Aire Valley: A Case Study of “Public Money for Public Goods”

The report includes examples of four pioneer projects that demonstrate, each in their own way, how a Nature Recovery Network could be achieved in practice. The first is a case study of the Aire Valley in Yorkshire. This long-term study, carried out by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, looked at alternative ways of spending farm subsidies, using the “public money for public goods” model which has been taken up by Defra in its proposals for the future of farming. [9] The Trust carried out research using three upland farms in Yorkshire as case studies to show how current farm incomes would be maintained or increased. The report explains the background to the study:

“A long, thin river catchment, the Aire starts in the Yorkshire Dales, running through the heart of Leeds and out to the Humber estuary. Although it has some very high quality habitats, much of the catchment is now too wildlife-poor and fragmented to prevent local species extinctions. Changes of land use in the Aire catchment have made flooding more likely. The Aire also suffers from pollution, mainly urban and agricultural run-off, particularly in failing parts of the river identified by the Environment Agency.”

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust used data from a range of sources to model how current farm payments could be applied differently to achieve environmental outcomes. The datasets were used to create a series of ecological maps of the Aire Catchment, which showed the location of current habitats, the location of potential habitats, and other features which included current payments to farmers and land managers, water quality, flood risk, and public access to the uplands. The study showed that under a new system of public money for public goods, a huge range of environmental and social benefits could be provided for the same amount of money paid to land managers and farmers at present. The benefits included improved access to the countryside; reduced carbon emissions; a significant reduction in flood risk for Leeds, Castleford, and other areas; and an increase in habitat for wildlife, including new broadleaved woodland and upland heath.

Pioneer Project: “The Wildlife Trusts work across land and sea”

The second pioneer project is a Regional Sea Plan for the Irish Sea, based on The Wildlife Trusts’ report The Way Back to Living Seas, which sets out proposals for a new UK Marine Strategy and was published in 2017. [10] The report says that with all sea users involved in its development, “the plan would guide how we develop marine industry, how we fish within environmental limits, and how we regain a sea full of wildlife.” The Wildlife Trusts explain that a national Marine Strategy provides an overarching plan, which is then made concrete in Regional Sea Plans and a nationwide network of Marine Protected Areas: “with these in place, national plans would give us the opportunity to manage our seas in a joined-up way.”

Pioneer Project: Lincolnshire’s verges

The third pioneer project is a six-year study by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust of Lincolnshire’s road verges, which demonstrates the nature recovery potential of the 800 square miles or thereabouts of the verges bordering the UK’s roads. The report says that between 2009 and 2015 the Trust trained and coordinated volunteers to search 4,800 miles of the county’s verges for wildflowers. The information obtained as a result led to 159 new Local Wildlife Sites being designated, and better protection for 150 miles of verges, amounting to 200 hectares of grassland rich in wildflowers, many of which can only be found elsewhere in nature reserves. The report says that by working with local people with local knowledge, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust has formed a conservation strategy to bring back the county’s vanishing wildflowers, and trials are now in place with the County Council to fund road verge management for biodiversity.

Pioneer Project: Wildlife-friendly housing development

The fourth pioneer project is a wildlife-friendly housing development at Kidbrooke in London, the result of a partnership between London Wildlife Trust and Berkeley Homes. The report says that Kidbrooke Village will provide more than 4,800 new homes and 35 hectares of varied, semi-natural open space for its residents. The centre of the site is Kidbrooke Park, “which will be designed to be a green corridor for people and wildlife, a natural area weaving between the new houses.” The design includes play areas bordered by species-rich grassland, heather and copses of trees, a chalk stream meandering beside open lawns, and a reed-fringed wetland nestled between high-rise buildings. The reports says that “these green spaces will provide habitat for birds, bees and other wildlife as well as helping with local flood mitigation and water management… These new habitats will also connect to a wider network of green infrastructure beyond the site.”

The Wildlife Trusts argue that if our towns and cities are to be great places for wildlife and people, “we will need the right development, in the right place, done in the right way,” and that Nature Recovery Maps will be an essential guide to help investors and developers make the right decisions.

Environment Secretary announces National Park review

The creation of a Nature Recovery Network received some encouraging news shortly after The Wildlife Trusts’ report was published, with the announcement by Environment Secretary Michael Gove that he would be launching a review of England’s National Parks. [11] The review will consider whether to expand the network of National Parks as well as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Writing in the Telegraph, the Environment Secretary said: “The creation of National Parks almost 70 years ago changed the way we view our precious landscapes, helping us all access and enjoy our natural world. We want to make sure they are not only conserved, but enhanced for the next generation. Are we properly supporting all those who live in, work in, or want to visit these magnificent places? Should we indeed be extending our areas of designated land?” [12]

As reported by BBC News, the Environment Secretary said that the UK’s population growth, combined with changes in technology and a decline in some habitats, meant it was time to look afresh at these landscapes, and he stressed that the goal of the review was not to diminish the protection of natural areas, but to strengthen it in the face of present-day challenges. [13] Journalist and former government aide Julian Glover has been appointed to carry out the review. Michael Gove said Julian Glover is a “passionate advocate for the countryside” and he wanted him “explicitly to consider how we can extend and improve the protection we give to other precious landscapes.” Julian Glover said: “Our protected landscapes are England’s finest gems and we owe a huge debt to past generations who had the wisdom to preserve them. The system they created has been a strength, but it faces challenges too. It is an honour to be asked to find ways to secure them for the future. I can’t wait to get started and learn from everyone who shares an interest in making England’s landscapes beautiful, diverse, and successful.”

The announcement was welcomed by Margaret Paren, Chair of National Parks England, who said: “As we approach the 70th anniversary of our founding legislation, we look forward to a future where their beauty is enhanced, they are loved and accessible for everyone, and they continue to support thriving communities in these working landscapes.”

The review was also welcomed by Tony Juniper, the Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns for WWF-UK and formerly Director of Friends of the Earth, but he also took up The Wildlife Trusts’ call for a Nature Recovery Network, with the warning that we need to do more. “Nature will continue to be at risk unless we have a plan for its recovery enshrined in law through a new Environment Act that’s backed up by a strong watchdog with real powers of enforcement,” he said.

The results of the two recent consultations on farming and planning are expected to be announced later this year.

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Green bridge over the A21, near Lamberhurst, Kent, giving access to Scotney Castle. © Copyright N Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The caption says that the A21 is a 63-mile major trunk road running from Lewisham in Greater London to Hastings, East Sussex. A Wikipedia link reveals that the Lamberhurst bypass was opened on 23 March 2005 and cost £18 million. The green bridge was included in the scheme. In a press release issued on 31st July 2015, Natural England said that the Scotney Castle green bridge “enabled the historic drive to the castle to be preserved, reduced the impact on the local landscape, and was soon being used by dormice” – see Note [8] below. The photograph was taken in 2011.

Notes

[1] Towards a Wilder Britain – Creating a Nature Recovery Network to bring back wildlife to every neighbourhood was published by The Wildlife Trusts on May 1st 2018. To download the full report, click here. For a summary, see the item “Nature Recovery Network” on The Wildlife Trusts website.

[2] For the consultation on the future of farming, see the ENA article “The future for farming: UK Government publishes proposals for a post-Brexit agricultural policy”. For the consultation on proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, see the ENA article “Revised National Planning Policy aims to boost house building”. Both consultations closed last month and the results are expected later this year.

[3] See the news story “New proposals for a wilder Britain – critical moment to reverse the decline of nature” on The Wildlife Trusts website.

[4] See the ENA article “UK Government publishes its 25 year plan for the environment” for details of the Government’s environment plan.

[5] See [2].

[6] See the ENA article “Wildlife Trusts Report – Local Wildlife Sites need greater protection”, which describes the state of Local Wildlife Sites as reported at the end of 2014. For a more recent report on the state of nature in the UK, see the ENA article “The State of Nature 2016 – New report examines the causes of wildlife decline in the UK”.

[7] The proposals for future farming policy would replace the Common Agricultural Policy with a system that “pays public money for public goods;” introduce an environmental land management system to replace the current system of basic payments which are largely determined by the amount of agricultural land that a farmer owns; and reform the culture of regulation whilst making it easier for farmers to apply for funding. See the ENA article “The future for farming: UK Government publishes proposals for a post-Brexit agricultural policy”.

[8] In a press release issued on 31st July 2015, titled “Green bridges: safer travel for wildlife”, Natural England announced the publication of a report on green bridges, undertaken by Land Use Consultants on behalf of Natural England. The press release said that the report, which looked at evidence from 56 examples across the world, was the first worldwide study of green bridges, also known as landscape bridges or wildlife overpasses. The scientific study found that green bridges could become an important part of the sustainability of future transport projects by integrating roads and railways into the surrounding landscape, and by providing benefits such as joining up wildlife habitats and connecting colonies, “as they are also used by wildlife as a home in their own right.” Green bridges create safe crossing points for wildlife movement (as well as people), and also benefit pollinators. Natural England said:

“Green bridges are usually planted with a variety of local trees or shrubs and other vegetation. They allow birds, mammals and insects to keep moving despite a road or railway blocking their path. Green bridges are common in Europe and North America, but only a few have been built in Britain… One of the most celebrated spans the A21 at Scotney Castle in Kent in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Completed in 2005 as part of a dual carriageway by-pass for Lamberhurst, it enabled the historic drive to the castle to be preserved, reduced the impact on the local landscape, and was soon being used by dormice.”

Earlier this year, Highways England issued a press release that showed photographs of a green bridge across the A556, near Mere in Cheshire, which was used in March 2017 as the site of an official opening ceremony of a new £192 million bypass. Initially planted with a mixture of hedging and plants, Highways England said “the extensive planting has given birth to a flourishing green border which is providing a safe passage across the road for badgers, voles and other small animals, insects and birds.” See “A556 green bridge is winter wonderland”.

[9] See [7].

[10] The Wildlife Trusts’ report The Way Back to Living Seas, which sets out proposals for a UK Marine Strategy, is available from The Wildlife Trusts’ website by following the link on their news item “The Way Back to Living Seas”.

[11] See the news story “England could have new national parks in Gove review” on the BBC website.

[12] See the Telegraph article “Our National Parks are a magnificent asset that needs protecting. How can we make them even better?” by Michael Gove.

[13] See [11] for the source of these quotations.

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