Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Putting the “Wild” into “Wildlife”

BBC2’s Newsnight programme on 28th May had a fascinating discussion about the idea of “re-wilding”.  I haven’t read it yet, but this comes from George Monbiot’s book “Feral”, and it looks like it will give a welcome boost to a public discussion on the “nature” part of nature conservation.

Re-wilding is something I've been fascinated about for many years.  The whole idea of “managing nature” seems an oxymoron – why should we have to look after nature when, by definition, nature is something outside the human so should function for itself?  I used to give talks entitled “if it isn't bust why fix it?” – alluding to the idea that nature is not something that inherently needs tending by humans.  And I've represented the Trusts in meetings of the Wild Britain Initiative on occasions.  Also in Sussex we have established large non-intervention areas on our Reserves where nature is given more of a free hand and we work with one landowner in particular who is experimenting with naturalistic grazing in a large rewilding project.  So the Wildlife Trusts are not strangers to the idea.

It is, however, also true that we live in a “cultural landscape”, where the value of our landscape says something about the interaction between people and nature.  For thousands of years people in Britain have been interacting with nature so the wildlife and habitats we see today is largely a product of that interaction.  It is patently obvious that we do not live in a natural wild state, with the full grandeur of nature all around us, but in a heavily modified environment. Humans manage their environment in order to get products and services (like food and water).  In the process, however, sensitive management for farming and forestry should also be in harmony with nature.  Much nature conservation today aims to look after the best of what remains from this interaction, so very often it is traditional management that we focus on as it is this that has given us the wildlife we have today.

So we apparently have two opposing philosophies: one about nature being a system outside the human and so functioning for itself, the other about a landscape formed from the interactions of people and nature so needing continued management.

But these are not opposites in terms of having one or the other.  Unfortunately the Newsnight discussion did develop towards an all-or-nothing debate but this can be avoided if you see these approaches as being at two ends of a spectrum, rather than opposites.  However, (and here’s the surprise) neither end of the spectrum actually exists!

Nowhere in the UK is truly wild.  Many of the most important species, those that drive the country’s ecology, are extinct here.  Some perhaps never evolved (the mammoth should probably have evolved into a European elephant after the ice retreated).  Humans also constrain nature massively – even the biggest nature reserve you can imagine is tiny in comparison to the area needed for nature to have free reign.  So nowhere is wild, nowhere is natural.  But you might be able to get closer.

Alternatively, however, nowhere is truly artificial either.  Even a field of wheat – managed, sprayed, fertilised and cultivated – is not just the product of human hands.  Humans did not create the soil and soil organisms that are so essential to the crop, nor did we plant all the weeds, introduce the insects or create the water cycle and atmosphere that the crop lives within.  So even “artificial” systems depend entirely on nature.  Much of our landscape, however, is far nearer the artificial than it is the natural.

So, parts of our landscape could be said to fit at different points along this spectrum.  The idea of moving significant areas further along the spectrum towards the natural is an extremely valuable concept and one that the Wildlife Trusts have promoted for years.

To promote the wild we need a deep understanding of what this means in practice.  Wild nature should be one in which all the ecological processes are working – all forms of growth, decay, and in particular natural disturbance.  If some of this is absent then the result would be neglect, not wild nature.  So, to promote the wild, we need to understand natural disturbance – this includes storms, erosion, fire (sometimes), but particularly grazing/browsing and the effect of predators.  Miss out these processes and you do not end up with wild, you just end up with another human artefact. 

It is not possible to have the full range of ecological processes in the UK.  Areas for nature are too small and constrained.  People will not allow all forms of natural disturbance to take place - storms get cleared up, erosion is prevented, natural functioning of rivers is constrained and so on.  Furthermore, we do not have the wild free-ranging herbivores that drive vegetation ecology and we certainly do not allow wild free-roaming packs of top predators, who have a driving influence on herbivore behaviour (the “ecology of fear” effects where herbivores graze and therefore how vegetation grows). 

There are two answers to this shortcoming.  One is to endeavour to put back those ecological processes – and I am completely with George Monbiot on this.  We can re-wild river systems, and the Wildlife Trusts now have several examples.  We can increase the size of our reserves (see The Great Fen Project), and allow storms, erosion and other disturbances to take their natural course, and again we have several examples of this.  We can also put back some semi-wild grazing animals that are often absent (see the Knepp project).  It is perfectly reasonable to aim to reduce management intervention and re-establish natural processes.  We can sometimes get nearer to the wild in a spectrum, even though it may not be possible to actually get there (and in practice we do not know what wild looks like in the northern temperate zone anyway).  Furthermore, we have far too few examples in the UK from the wild end of the spectrum.

The other answer is human intervention.  Some management intervention can be good as it effectively re-establishes the diversity that is lost through a lack of natural processes.  Woods are too small to hold the full cycle of growth, disturbance and decay; so coppicing (for example) puts back a disturbance cycle.  Grazing can be put back in ungrazed areas and even cultivation and soil disturbance just mimics what wild boar would have done naturally.  In practice the vast majority of the English landscape will end up in this category, and rightly so – the continued positive interaction between people and nature in a cultural landscape.

There is space in the UK for more large areas at the wild end of the spectrum, even if they never become totally wild.  But it is essential that we have a good understanding of how wild nature functions and how we can put back some of the missing elements.  Otherwise, instead of getting the wild, you’ll just get degradation and neglect.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The State of Nature

 For the first time ever, the UK’s wildlife organisations have joined forces to undertake a health check of nature in the UK and its Overseas Territories. The report looks at some of the wider issues involved in our changing countryside, the historical declines of habitats and species and asses the status of wildlife in eight different habitat types.   This is a national report but the trends shown nationally are probably reflected in Sussex.  Here are some of the headlines:
  • Quantitative assessments of the population or distribution trends were done for 3,148 species. Of these, 60% of species have declined over the last 50 years and 31% have declined strongly.
  •  Half of the species assessed have shown strong changes in abundance, indicating that recent environmental changes are having a dramatic impact on the nature of the UK’s land and seas. There is also evidence to suggest that species with specific habitat requirements are faring worse than generalist species that are better able to adapt to a changing environment.
  •  A new Watchlist indicator has been developed to measure how conservation priority species are faring, based on 155 species for which we have data. This group contains many of our most threatened and vulnerable species, and the indicator shows that their overall numbers have declined by 77% in the last 40 years.

  • Of 1,064 farmland species for which we have trends, 60% have decreased and 34% have decreased strongly.
  • 14% of all farmland flowering plants are on the national Red List: 62 species in all.
  • Some species groups, such as birds and bats, have benefited from conservation action, particularly through agri-environment schemes. Despite this, many widespread farmland species have failed to recover from the declines of recent decades.

Lowland semi-natural grassland and Heathland
  • Overall, 65% of the 923 species for which we have sufficient data have declined, and 35% have declined strongly. A warming climate may be helping some species.
  • One in four species of flowering plants is threatened in this habitat. Nitrogen deposition, disturbance, inadequate or inappropriate land management, and habitat loss and fragmentation all pose barriers to recovery.

  • Of 886 upland species for which we have information, 65% have declined and 34% have declined strongly.
  • More species have become extinct in the uplands (15) than in any other habitat: 137 upland species, including 131 plants, are on recent national Red Lists.

  • The area of UK woodland has increased, mainly due to conifer planting, but woodland birds have been declining since the 1970s and butterflies since the 1990s. 94 species of woodland moths have halved in number.
  • Of the 1,256 woodland species studied, 60% have decreased and 34% have decreased strongly.
  • 11% of woodland vascular plants are on the national Red List: 30 species in all.

  • Of the 682 coastal species for which we have trends, 60% have declined and 29% have declined strongly.
  • 13% of coastal plant species are regarded as threatened with extinction in the UK.
  • Habitats such as saltmarsh support internationally important bird and invertebrate populations. Huge areas of coastal habitat have been lost or damaged in recent history, as a result of coastal development, cliff stabilisation and changes to agricultural practices.

Freshwater and wetlands
  • 57% of freshwater and wetland species for which we have sufficient data have declined, and 28% have declined strongly.
  • Many characteristic freshwater species have declined significantly over the last 50 years, including the Atlantic salmon, water vole and the aquatic plant frogbit.
  • One in ten species of freshwater and wetland plants assessed are on recent national Red Lists. Some, such as the freshwater pearl mussel, are threatened with global extinction.

  • Of the 550 urban species for which we have data, 59% have declined and 37% have declined strongly. Invertebrates are doing particularly poorly in urban environments and 42% of species (183) are showing strong declines.
  • Despite the fact that brownfield sites provide important refuges for a diverse range of wildlife, including many rare and threatened invertebrates, they are often viewed as ripe for development and receive little protection.

  • UK seabirds have had mixed fortunes since 2000, with some species showing sharp declines. Harbour seals have also declined significantly, especially in Scotland.
  • The state of UK fish stocks has improved recently, but overall, 75% of EU fish stocks continue to be overfished. Skates and rays are no longer viable commercial species in many areas.
  • There is increasing evidence that climate change is affecting the breeding success of UK seabirds, particularly in Scotland.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Balance of Competences - an audit of what the EU does, and how this affects the UK

I recently received this important and potentially worrying blog written by Joan Edwards, the Head of Living Seas in the Wildlife Trusts National Office so simply reproduce it here as I believe there will be many in Sussex who will be interested:

The UK Government has just launched its review into EU environment and climate change regulation. This forms part of a review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU - an audit of what the EU does, and how this affects the UK.

European legislation helps us to manage common resources such as our climate and has brought in policies to help improve our water and air quality.  It has provided strong protection of our habitats and species, especially at sea where national legislation is lagging far behind and, recently, has stalled again (see my recent blog on this).

In many cases, EU policy has led the way, resulting in far more stringent legislation, including the bathing water directive, habitats and birds directive and the air quality directive than may well have been in place if we had relied on national policy.

There are areas where these EU policies can be improved, and certainly areas where guidance and information about the regulations could be made clearer and more accessible. However, what is clear is that many of the decisions we take about the environment have huge impacts, not just nationally but internationally as well. For instance air and water quality can have impacts that are more far reaching than national boundaries and decisions on the quota of fish that we take from our seas clearly affect many nations. One of the biggest challenges facing us at the moment, climate change, cannot be tackled at a national level alone. We need to work in collaboration with neighbouring countries, and wider to ensure that decisions taken have the biggest impact.

From The Wildlife Trusts point of view, what is clear is that we need to continue to make the case for the importance of protecting and improving our environment. Our environment provides us with vital services that underpin our economy. We will robustly respond to this review, to highlight the importance of environmental legislation. We need to ensure that short term economic aims do not end up undermining our environment and ultimately, our economic future.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Brighton and Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere project

Last chance to have your say.

The public is being urged to make sure they have their say on the Biosphere bid in this last week of the consultation.  With over 1600 responses to date, and over 90% support for the Biosphere amongst responses received to date, the consultation is due to end on 22 May.

It was recently extended when the Biosphere boundary was altered to include Southwick and Shoreham and to bring in two new areas near Ringmer.  The proposed Biosphere Reserve covers the whole area between the River Adur and the River Ouse, including the sea.  To the north it follows the South Downs National Park boundary except around Ditchling.  It now has almost exactly the same area as the Isle of Wight.

The Brighton & Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere Partnership is pleased with the response so far.  However, it would like to get more support by next Wednesday if it can.  The more support and feedback from the public, the better it will be for the bid.  However, it’s also important to hear what people value in their local area and would like to see improved.  This information will then be used to bid for funding, where possible, to help realise local residents’ aspirations for the area.

So if you haven’t managed to fill in the questionnaire, please do so now.  Remember it only takes 30 seconds and 7 clicks of the mouse to answer the first two questions, the only ones you are obliged to respond to.  All the others you can skip over, although if you can spare a little time saying what you care about in the area and what you’d like to see improved, it would be helpful. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Ambitious reform of the Common Fisheries under threat?

People across Europe have shown their support for ambitious reform of the CFP. It is crucial that EU Fisheries Ministers don't water down proposals.

At the beginning of February, Joan Edwards (the Head of Living Seas for the Wildlife Trusts) wrote a hopeful blog after the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of an ambitious reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). A meeting next week of EU Fisheries Ministers will reveal whether this promise is likely to be fulfilled or whether the reform process might break down entirely.

We need Fisheries Ministers to commit to an agreement that includes a timeline for fish stock recovery, targeted measures to eliminate excess fishing capacity and the promotion of low-impact fishing. The UK Fisheries Minister, Richard Benyon, does seem determined to do the right thing, but we need him to show real leadership and take control of the talks to ensure that reforms are not watered down. The next meeting of EU Fisheries Ministers, on 13 and 14 May 2013, could be one of the most important meetings in the reform process.

Millions of people across the EU have expressed their support for proper reform of the CFP and MEPs in the European Parliament have voted for ambitious reform. Despite this, a number of EU Fisheries Ministers seem unwilling to compromise on proposals, refusing to negotiate on key issues such as fleet management and discards. Indeed, the only area at present that it seems there is partial agreement on is fish stock recovery plans that can support Maximum Sustainable Yield.

We therefore need your help. We need you to let our Fisheries Ministers know how important this reform by contacting them at: This is the best opportunity that we have to recover our fish stocks and rebuild a sustainable fishing sector - we need to ensure that our Fisheries Ministers take it.