Monday 19 November 2007

A Chance for the Cuckmere Estuary

The Environment Agency has recently put out the document “Cuckmere estuary: draft flood risk management strategy” – essentially an outline of a set of alternative proposals for managing the Cuckmere estuary.

The significant feature here is that the Agency’s preferred option is to achieve flood risk management by allowing the estuary to return to a more naturally functioning system.

I strongly support this approach.

The SWT has consistently supported an approach to flood risk management that works with, rather than against, natural processes. The Cuckmere estuary is a particular location where this sort of approach is very appropriate.

The estuary is a good place for wildlife, and a good place for people to visit. This is why it is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is also a tourist hot spot. The Wildlife Trust itself has an education facility there and we make good use of the environmental assets of the valley. However the valley has been severely degraded by past flood defence. The straight canal cut across the valley has isolated the famous meanders, prevented flooding in the flood plain and degraded the habitats alongside the river. There would, rightly, be an outcry today if anyone proposed such a straight heavy-engineered structure in this attractive natural setting.

The impetus to taking a different approach, however, comes from several directions.

First these old flood defences are likely to fail in the near future, so an alternative approach is needed.

Second, with climate change, incidents of flooding are likely to increase. Sea level rise will increase flooding from the sea and increased storm frequency will result in more flood water flowing down the river.

Third is the realisation that with sea level rise we get coastal squeeze. Old flood defences prevent nationally important coastal habitats migrating inland so they erode away with loss of wildlife. If coastal habitats disappear then the full force of incoming waves will hit the sea defences, causing them to erode as well. Thus maintaining hard sea defences where they are requires far stronger, more imposing and unsightly structures than in the past.

Fourth, ironically, the use of modern technology means that the Agency can more accurately model the results of different management options. Therefore, smart use of technology means that they can model how nature works and work with it, rather than constantly battling against it. Smart use of technology means we can work more with nature, rather than against it.

There may be some who fear a change towards a more naturally functioning valley. As humans we sometimes do not like to think of a treasured landscape changing, but change is inevitable and when we compare the alternatives the restoration of a naturally functioning system is by far the best option. The other end of the spectrum is a continuation of hard sea defences, the loss of coastal habitats, the loss of the meanders as they silt up and a re-enforced, stone-lined canal across the valley. Opportunities to restore the wetland habitats in the valley would be lost for at least a generation and the degraded landscape would be unlikely to attract the affection of either visitors or local people.

Even official documents refer to the “deterioration of the meadows as mud takes over”, with concern about the effect to visitor numbers, illustrating a view that all change is bad. If coastal habitats were so unpopular then one would expect areas like Pagham Harbour, Chichester Harbour and the sea front at Bosham to be deserted because of their ugliness! In practice, of course, the opposite is true.

So we have the choice – a highly expensive concrete gutter (paid for by us, the tax payer) delivering virtually no benefit, or a more naturally functioning system with evolving and improving wildlife and landscape.

In practice, of course, there are several in-between possibilities. A more naturally functioning system can still have works done within it to influence the direction of natural change – a managed retreat option. These are progressively more expensive than leaving things to nature as the level of human influence increases. Option 3b, as presented by the Agency, is one of these. The best approach is probably to start from the perspective of a natural system and then add in sensible levels of influence as resources become available.

The alternative – that of hard defences – is more of an all or nothing approach. It is very difficult to add in a level of naturalness when the starting point is a hard engineered structure. Concreting over the Cuckmere estuary is not the answer.

Monday 22 October 2007

The 1987 storm – have we really learned the ecological lessons?

Well the 20th anniversary of the storm has now passed and there have been numerous television, radio and newspaper articles on the subject. But how much have we learned in two decades?

In some respects understanding seems to have moved on quite well. People should now realise that, from the perspective of nature, the storm was a good thing. Surely there is no need to go over the argument yet again (more openings in the woods, more light into previously dark woodland, more diversity, more tree, shrub and flower regeneration, more rotting wood, more living space for wildlife like insects, birds, plants fungi and so on).

Leave the wood alone after the storm and it will regenerate quite naturally and will generally be better as a result.

Furthermore, hopefully most people realise that storms are not only a good thing for nature, but are also quite normal – a storm every century or two is quite frequent in the life of a wood.

Nevertheless, I still hear people talking about a wood “recovering” from the “damage” caused by the storm. This is the wrong perspective. Storms are not damage they are natural disturbance! And it is this natural disturbance that is a good thing.

Move on from there and there are several more lessons that we should learn:

Storms disturb woods in a similar way that traditional management does (i.e. cutting small clearings and allowing natural regeneration). Conservationists have been saying for many decades that good management of woods is good for wildlife. Why? Because management is like natural disturbance.

Storms in woods are not an argument against management – instead storms provide the rationale for why management is so good for wildlife.

Perhaps a surprising lesson from the storm is a view that storms alone do not cause enough disturbance to create the conditions for all our native wildlife!

When I monitored woods after the storm I thought that this was how natural English woods get the open unwooded areas that are needed by all our species that like open habitat. Not so. 20 years later practically all the openings caused by the storm have disappeared. It is clear that other forms of disturbance are also vital to create the natural diversity needed by our wildlife. Disturbances like:

  • Floods Soil slippage and erosion
  • Accretion
  • Insect and fungal attacks
  • The grazing and browsing of large animals.

It is the last one here, grazing and browsing by large animals that we have perhaps underestimated in the past. Today most of our habitats are (or should be) grazed by animals – usually domestic animals. We often think this is not natural, something imposed by man, because we use domestic animals. In fact, however, these domestic animals are doing the same ecological job that wild grazers might have done in the distant past. Removing them from the forest and leaving a wood to grow tall and dark, may actually be less natural than including low intensity grazing within a forest. Thus most people’s view of “leaving things to nature” is actually incorrect, as we have already excluded too much nature.

The next lesson of the storm is therefore that we have to include more forms natural disturbance in our understanding of how nature works. When we do so this explains how we get our meadows, grassland, wetlands, heaths, pastures and so on.

In my view, however, the most important lesson of the storm is how we relate to nature. Many of us seem to feel that humans are in total control. We have beaten nature, we set the targets we want, allow things where we want them to be and that nature, generally, is just a green back-cloth against which “real life” is played.

This is not an attack of farmers, foresters or developers, but is just as true of conservationists themselves. The current trend of setting our conservation targets and then implementing management towards them sounds very business-like, and can deliver a great deal – but it’s not very natural! It implies a control and a superiority over nature that we don’t have.

The storm was a gentle reminder that we need to understand nature and work with it. It was a humbling event, outside our control and impacting heavily upon us. Yet it was good for nature. Instead of imagining we can dominate, crush or control nature, perhaps we should spend more time trying to understand nature and nature’s laws, work with it, maybe repairing natural systems that we ourselves have damaged, where possible encourage it to work better.

We should think less about the targets that we want achieved and more about enabling ecological processes like natural disturbance to function better.

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Climate Change - How can wildlife adapt?

Scientific certainty

There is a high degree of certainty in the scientific community that climate change is happening. The nature, scale and even direction of climate change is, however, probably unpredictable at a Sussex scale. It is also likely that there will be increasing variability in local weather with possible large swings in conditions and less certainty about seasonal weather patterns.

Nevertheless, uncertainty about how climate change will unfold, or what the response of plants, animals and their habitats to climate change will be, must not prevent us from taking action.

A strategy for wildlife conservation
A strategy is needed that presents the best course of action to conserve nature against an unknown and unpredictable future. This means that we need to develop an adaptable environment that is resilient to change, whatever that change might be.

The best chance for wildlife, and therefore for us will be to:

1 – Look after our existing wildlife and wild places.
Future wildlife can only adapt and evolve from the plants and animals that survive today so the importance of conserving current high quality places cannot be overemphasised.

2 – Reduce damage to nature from sources other than climate change.
Nature will have the best chance if we stop pressurising it in other ways.

3 – Increase the variety of our landscape at all scales

In this way so plants and animals always have somewhere to move to in their immediate area as conditions change.

4 – Build ecological networks throughout the landscape at all scales
Maintaining a diversity of habitats, increasing their area and the way they link up and allowing natural processes to shape the ecology and structure of whole landscapes will create the best chance for biodiversity.

The elements above make a good nature conservation strategy even if there was no climate change or if it was not caused by human activity. Building an adaptable, resilient environment is a good approach independently of climate change.

Providing the best chance for wildlife, as well as being a worth while objective in its own right, will also provide the best chance of maintaining a high quality environment that continues to provide the environmental services (such as flood amelioration, climate regulation, nutrient cycling and water purification) on which we all depend. This is not just about conserving the environment for nature, it is also about conserving the environment for people too.

An important element of a strategy for nature in a changing climate is the development of an ecological network for Sussex. This concept will be presented in “A Living Landscape for Sussex”, due to be published in early 2008.

However, and this point is vitally important, even the most effective biodiversity strategy will be overwhelmed if we do not take other action to address the causes of climate change: our continually growing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Monday 24 September 2007

Put the western Weald back in the South Downs National Park

Two years ago there was a Public Inquiry into a National Park for the South Downs. This was only the most recent event in the long running battle to gain proper recognition for the area. I believe the first proposal to protect the area in this way was in 1929, and it was on the original list of National Parks back in 1947. However, the public Inquiry was just the latest development and we have been waiting to see what the Inspector recommended.

I suppose there is good news and bad news. At least the concept of a National Park for the area has been supported. This is to be welcomed. Also there are some extensions recommended by the inspector to the Park. One of these is the inclusion of Woods Mill, the Trust's HQ, so we are very pleased about that. But the recommendation to exclude the western Weald, we consider, is ill-judged.

Why exclude the western Weald?
The argument to exclude this area seems poor. The claim seems to be that the western Weald, whilst being of national landscape quality, is not sufficiently similar to the main block of the South Downs to justify inclusion. This may have a sort of logic about it, but this approach is completely at variance to how National Parks are identified. Making a National Park that just sits on one geological feature (in this case the chalk of the South Downs ridge) is a completely new and fictitious criterion for drawing the boundary.

The fallacy of this approach is clear if you try to put a logical boundary roughly in the area that the Inspector suggests - it isn't possible! You find you inevitably have to wiggle a line through a landscape so crammed with wildlife, historical and landscape interest that any line is purely an act of the imagination. The high quality landscape runs from the top of the South Downs ridge and north well into the western Weald. That's why the original Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty boundary was drawn the way it was!

No-one seems to support this boundary. The vast majority of local people are outraged, first at the idea that their landscape is somehow now second rate, and also because there is a real risk that the area could loose it's protected status and so be subject to pressure for housing development. (Someone more cynical than I might look at the co-incidence of a White Paper requiring 10% more housing than previously with a proposal for a reduced National Park area and therefore fear for their local area!)

What to do?

It's now too late to respond to the Inspector's report but signing the on-line petition is still worth while. So please log in to:

Wednesday 29 August 2007

The Inspectors report on the south East Plan

Last year a panel of Inspectors sat to examine the South East Plan. I gave evidence on behalf of SWT, and many other conservation organisations also spoke. This panel has now reported and we can now see their document.

Any report on a regional plan is bound to be vast so this is just a first impression. We must also realise that there is probably a limited amount that a regional plan, and any subsequent report, can achieve. But it is the most strategic document that we are likely to be able to influence so if we are not happy, we should not be shy saying so.

Just what is being proposed by the plan and now by the Inspectors?

First, the Inspectors recommend that house building numbers for the South East should go up from 29,000 per year to 32,000. In the plan period that’s an extra 62,000 houses. To put that into context that is larger than Worthing just for the extra houses!

The total amount of housing planned for before 2026 is 640,160 – that is equivalent to about 14 Worthing’s. At the recommended density housing will cover 16,000ha, or 160 sq km, (not allowing for infrastructure like roads, shops, businesses etc). This is nearly half the size of the Isle of Wight.

These are worrying figures!

Climate change and our ecological footprint.
Some aspects of both the Plan and the Inspectors report sound quite good. Addressing climate change and a reducing our ecological footprint are examples. Yet all these are merely aspirational. There may be good words on climate change for instance but the overall plan will result in massive increases in greenhouse gas – at a time when the scientific evidence is that a 60% reduction is probably far too little. The plan period runs until 2026, Climate change simply must be addressed in that time.

The panel even attempts to excuse likely poor performance in terms of the aim to reduce the ecological footprint of the South East. It indicates that the increased footprint form all the extra development will be offset by massively reduced resource and energy use elsewhere in the business sector. This may sound good but there is no evidence of these improved efficiencies. There will have to be an awful lot of efficiency improvements in existing businesses and buildings to counteract the increased ecological footprint of over 640,000 new homes.

Transport plans do have some good indications in that the panel wish to see car use reduced, with more restrictions on cars and road charging. The panel, however, “believe it to be unrealistic to achieve an absolute reduction during the life of the Plan”. This reflects a lack of urgency regarding climate change, resource use and the need to reduce our ecological footprint. Again we must bear in mind that this is a 20 year plan – such issues simply must be addressed in this time.

Similarly with airports, the report still asks the plan to cater for a possible extra runway at Gatwick. Again, there seems to be no recognition of the urgency of climate change and the need to consider what to do about the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gases

Nature Conservation.
The nature conservation elements of the plan have remained intact, and this is welcomed. We have, however, campaigned for nature conservation to be pushed higher up in the strategy. We asked for a “green infrastructure” policy to be included as one of the cross-cutting policies. In doing so we wish to see an ambitious ecological network rolled out as a positive environmental agenda so development has to go hand in hand with environmental improvement. This should have been a real basis for a win-win approach. On the face of it we won the argument and a green infrastructure policy is now recommended. The policy itself, however, needs to be considerably improved. It seems simply to refer to urban greenspace – important in itself but hardly the large scale, integrated environmental enhancement that is required to counter-balance such huge development pressure.

Water resources.
Water resources are a problem in the South East, with less water per head of population than in Ethiopia. However, the panel considers that water efficiency measures and water resource development will answer the problem. This sounds good but Water Companies are sceptical that water efficiency can be delivered on the scale required. More importantly this report hits the problem that all reports do at this point – it is committing us to resource development that has not even been properly examined in terms of its environmental effects.

All in all the report from the panel of Inspectors is disappointing but not surprising. People are doing their best but the engine that drives environmental damage grinds on.

This one change please!
If I were to ask for one big improvement that I think could be achieved it would be to have a very positive and expansive ecological network properly integrated into the spatial strategy of the Plan. If we are going to have to have all this development then it must go hand in hand with environmental enhancement. And this environmental enhancement must be orders of magnitude greater than we have experienced so far.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

A Living Landscape for The South East


Imagine recharging your batteries, away from hustle and bustle of cities and towns, in wild areas, managed by nature.

Imagine huge and exciting new wetlands, alive with wild birds, and holding back the water which might otherwise flood our homes.

Imagine nature reserves where flower-rich meadows, downland, and inviting woodlands stretch as far as the horizon.

Imagine being able to walk from your front door into a continuous stretch of wildlife-rich greenspace intermingling with urban areas and extending into the countryside for miles beyond.

Imagine countryside and urban greenspace richer in wildlife than it is today, also helping to maintain our climate, produce our food, and replenish our spirits – a countryside for the 21st Century.

That is what "A Living Landscape for the South East" is aiming to create - an ecological network, a matrix of wildlife habitat extending accross the county and linking up with similar nature networks in surrounding counties.

The need for an ecological network approach

Nature conservation in Britain has often focused on protecting special sites - Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), nature reserves, locally important wildlife sites. This has been essential to stem the huge loss of wildlife over the last century.

This approach has proved successful in defending wildlife where it remains. But it does not give us a way to restore and rebuild the natural environment in the wider countryside and town.

We need to increase the ability of the environment to protect us from flooding and erosion, to soak up carbon dioxide and to recycle nutrients and water (‘ecosystem services’). This will demand the restoration of extensive areas of natural habitat, particularly wetlands and woodlands.

Better access to the natural environment helps improve mental and physical health, and improves quality of life. We need to bring wild places to more people.

Isolated nature reserves and other protected sites are unlikely to be able to sustain wildlife in the long term. Sites will need to be buffered, extended and linked if wildlife is to be able to adapt to environmental changes such as climate change.

Outside of protected sites, once common and widespread species are in catastrophic decline. Reversing this decline needs a new approach.

Wildlife restricted to isolated patches in an otherwise hostile environment is vulnerable and unstable. The dynamic nature of species populations, the impacts of natural and man-made events, and the effects of climate change mean that wildlife needs large, functional areas or networks which give it room to adapt, resilience to change, and opportunity to spread.

"A Living Landscape for the South East" describes a landscape scale network of wildlife habitat that would ensure the long term ecological functioning of the South East Region’s unique natural environment. It expands horizons beyond the protection of existing wildlife sites, and offers a new and exciting agenda for habitat restoration and creation.

"A Living Landscape for the South East can be downloaded from teh Sussex Wildlife Trust web site. . I am also in the process of writing a version of this focused much more on Sussex itself. This should be available in a few months time. In the mean time please download and read the south East version.

A Vision for the Wildlife of Sussex

Just over ten years ago, the Sussex Wildlife Trust published ‘Vision for the Wildlife of Sussex’, an environmental agenda for the next 50 years. The Vision moved away from the defensive approach to nature conservation, in which the ‘best’ wildlife sites are identified and protected. Instead it painted a picture of the sort of environment we should like to see in 2045. To give this reality it set targets for the amount of habitat that might be needed in order to conserve the wildlife of Sussex.

The sussex Wildlife Trust is in the process of writing a document that aims to look at the progress against these targets that has been made over the past 10 years. This should be available in a few months time. It will give a broad overview of some of the major changes that have (or have not) been made over the last decade.

Much of the work in the Trusts Vision was incorporated into the Biodiversity Action Plan for Sussex. this includes a more comprehensive and continually updated audit of activity against targets. for this please follow the link:

What next?

Ten years ago the Vision for the Wildlife of Sussex was imaginative and positive. We think that it has helped to make Sussex a richer county than would otherwise have been the case. We must be equally positive over the next decade. Indeed with the threats from increasing consumption, more population, development pressure, increasing resource use and the likely effects on biodiversity, there is an even greater urgency to produce biodiversity gains now than there was 10 years ago.

A key means of achieving this will be through maintaining the nature conservation value of the county as a whole. We will need to improve the way that wildlife habitats function within the wider landscape, especially with the threat of climate change. So SWT and other conservationists want to create an ecological network, larger blocks of habitat linked in a landscape through which wild plants and animals can move.

This ecological network approach to rebuilding biodiversity has already been taken forward in the “Living Landscape for the South East” ( see other postings on this blog, also: ) produced by the Wildlife Trusts in the south-east. This builds on the approach promoted in Sussex Biodiversity Action Plans and in our Vision, providing an agenda that gives wildlife the best chance on a landscape scale.