Friday 17 December 2010

Record response to the Natural Environment White Paper

My blog has been a little quiet over the last month – too much other stuff to do. But, following my last missives on the subject, you may be interested to know how the consultation on the White Paper went. Well, I think it’s fair to say that the input into the consultation was pretty good - a record number of people according to the DEFRA press release.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said:

“I’m delighted with the overwhelming response that we have had to our call for ideas on the Natural Environment White Paper. We’ve received over 15,000 replies from individuals, NGOs and businesses, which goes to show that people really care about the natural environment and want a say in how it is managed.

“This is exactly the kind of debate that we had hoped to stimulate. A healthy environment is something that we all need, and all enjoy, so it’s vital that people get involved. We will take these ideas forward as we look to create a new vision for our natural environment and seek opportunities to enhance its value".

This overwhelming response provides a clear message to the Government that people care passionately about the natural environment and want to see bold and ambitious action to support its recovery.

Thousands of people therefore chose to take action and show how much they value wildlife. I suppose a record response is pretty good, but in Sussex alone I wrote to 17,000 memberships so presumably some decided not to respond – shame on them!

More good news is that Debbie Tann, the Chief Exec of the Hants WT, and a good chum, has been seconded into the DEFRA team to help write the White Paper. So hopefully she’ll be able to exert some influence.

So, things are moving on. If you want to see my response to the consultation go to,
where you will also find the response of the Sussex Biodiversity Partnership.

Work continues to develop the White Paper for publication in the spring. As part of this, more detail has now been published on defra’s thinking so far on "biodiversity offsetting", where society is compensated for environmental loss through building development, by a developer paying to create or restore an area of habitat elsewhere. More on this in a later blog post.

Friday 15 October 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 6

The Lawton review is a pretty good starting point as a general guide for how well our environment is working in terms of delivering our ecological requirements.

Its conclusion is clear:

“…England’s collection of wildlife sites .... does not comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network even today, let alone one that is capable of coping with the challenge of climate change and other pressures....”

However the report also concludes that
“Making space for nature to establish such a network will make efficient use of scarce land and resources, and deliver many benefits to wildlife and people.”

So – we’ve failed so far and we must do better in future.

The report therefore sets out 24 recommendations for what needs to be done in order to make the coherent, resilient ecological network that we need. Together these recommendations provide very helpful background for what we should be asking for from the new Natural Environment White Paper.

I will now summarise just a few of these recommendations (probably including something of my own bias!) – readers may like to consider them, maybe download the document itself, if you want to respond to the full (15 question) consultation:

First ecological networks should be identified and protected, for instance through planning policies. Furthermore the important elements that make up networks (internationally important sites, SSSIs, priority habitats, Local Wildlife Sites, ancient woodland etc) must also have strong protection. There should be no question of throwing the baby out with the bathwater – conservation and enhancement of what remains is the first priority.

A key recommendation is then for the establishment of Ecological Restoration Zones (ERZs). These should be “large, discrete areas within which significant enhancements of ecological networks are achieved, by enhancing existing wildlife sites, improving ecological connections and restoring ecological processes”.

It also recommends that we need to make space for water, restoring natural processes in river catchments and reducing the pollution and nutrient loads that flow into rivers.

An impetus from this review is therefore for the development of significant areas where ecological restoration takes place – not just looking after what we have now (although that is the vital first step) but major landscape-scale restoration of the environment. The review recommends 12 ERZs to start with. But, in my opinion, if we are talking about rebuilding the ecological health of the entire country then that must be seen as just a start. This does not mean that these zones are “wild” areas, left entirely to nature and where people are kept out. Sustainable management for multiple benefits is the starting point.

The review also touches on how this might be implemented. Current financial mechanisms (such as Environmental Stewardship and tax incentives) need to be better directed and modified, and new ones need to be brought in. The government should promote economic approaches that will favour conservation management by stimulating the creation of new markets and payment for ecosystem services, to ensure that the values of a wider range of ecosystem services are taken into account in decisions that affect the management and use of the natural environment. There could be new systems of “biodiversity offset” developed – where impacts on the environment in one place are “offset” by payments for enhancement somewhere else. These seem, to me, to be pretty good principles, although there could be a lot of devil in the detail.

In summary I think there are two major themes coming out of the review that a new Natural Environment White Paper must address:

  • First is the theme of major landscape-scale ecological restoration – Ecological Restoration Zones, river catchment restoration, re-instatement of natural processes and a large “ecological network” philosophy. England has failed to meet its 2010 biodiversity objectives so what is needed now is an order of magnitude grater than anything contemplated in the past.
  • The second is in recognising the value of ecosystem services and developing financial mechanisms to pay for them. We can no longer ignore the value what nature provides for us. Often this will mean paying landowners for the multiple benefits that environmentally sensitive land management can provide – whether by grants, incentives, tax mechanisms, direct market payments or biodiversity offsets.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 5

The third of the main drivers behind the forthcoming White Paper is the “Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network”, chaired by Professor Sir John Lawton. This was published last week and, after getting a sneak preview of earlier drafts it is interesting to see how this has turned out.

You can look at the whole document, or the summary on the defra website (under "making space for nature") at:

I would thoroughly recommend that you at least look through the summary. You can then draw your own conclusions on the scale of the changes that might be needed to address its conclusions.

In my mind this review should be absolutely fundamental. I’ve talked about ecosystem services and so far much of the discussion is at an international scale (with The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) or national scale (with the National Ecosystem Assessment). These are good but it will all only start to mean something when we get down to how areas/places that we know are actually doing as functioning ecosystems – “do England’s wildlife sites comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network”.

Basically the review asks whether our current approach is going to deliver an environment that conserves healthy, functioning ecosystems that maintain biodiversity and provide us with all the ecosystem services that we need. If we look out of the window, will what we see deliver what we need. Unsurprisingly the answer is “no”.

The review gives the aim of an ecological network as one where:
“compared to 2000, biodiversity is enhanced and the diversity, functioning and resilience of ecosystems re-established in a network of spaces for nature that can sustain these levels into the future, even given continuing environmental change and human pressure.”

Underpinning this are three objectives:

  • To restore species and habitats to levels better than in 2000 and that are sustainable in a changing climate.

  • To restore the ecological and physical processes that underpin ecosystems, thereby enhancing the capacity to provide ecosystem services.

  • To provide accessible, wildlife rich, natural environments for people to enjoy and experience

The review then looked at the current situation to see whether our existing approach works. To do this it tested against 5 attributes:

  1. Does the network support the full range of biodiversity?

  2. Is the network of adequate size?

  3. Do the network sites receive long-term protection and appropriate management?

  4. Are there sufficient ecological connections to enable species movement?

  5. Are sites valued by and accessible to people?

The review essentially concluded that our current scatter of wildlife sites does not comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network. Indeed of the 5 tests above it is only the first that is substantially met. I know any one of us could have told government this but it is highly significant that a government commission, drawing on a wide range of evidence and expert opinion came to this inevitable conclusion.

From my brief overview, I would say that this is a good review. It says a lot that we have been saying as part of our Living Landscape approach. It also seems to come to similar conclusions about what is needed to reverse the situation and deliver a coherent ecological network. More of that in future blog posts.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 4

In my last blog I tried to summarise current descriptions of “ecosystem services” – descriptions mostly pinched from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. This time I’d like to go a little further and talk about how wildlife, or biodiversity, fits in this overall approach.

It might help to see ecosystem services almost in a hierarchical sense:

  1. First you have the services that underpin all other services. These are often the “support” and some “regulating” services such as nutrient cycling, plant growth, soil formation and the major ecological processes like evolution and interaction between species. These are the “primary ecological functions” on which all other services sit.

  2. At the next level are the “final ecosystem services” – the services we actually see or experience such as crops, livestock, trees, waste breakdown, the local climate, meaningful places and a diverse wildlife.

  3. Finally are the “goods” we receive such as food, drinking water, energy, flood control and recreation. Some of these goods have a recognised financial value to us, some have a financial value but it is not recognised and some have non-monetary values.

As in my last blog, you can find a far better description at the UKNEA web site:

This is summarised in the table below:

This hierarchy is important. We often only see the goods we get, many are poorly valued, we often take them for granted and often consider them in complete isolation from each other or the environment on which they depend. Yet these goods are the products of ecosystem services which are in turn reliant on the primary ecological functions.

So where does wildlife fit in? In practice it is fundamental at every level:

Ecosystems are made of wildlife. So biodiversity underpins the primary ecological functions that all subsequent ecosystem services and the goods we receive rely on. All the big-picture ecological functions, like nutrient cycling, plant growth, climate control and pollination, all rely on healthy, functional ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems are composed of a rich biodiversity and, conversely, a healthy ecosystem is also indicated by the health of its biodiversity.

At the next level biodiversity fits in in a very practical way. It provides the species that make up our crops and livestock, provides wood, fibre and pharmaceutical products. So wildlife is central to our provisional services.

Wildlife is also valued by people so is central to cultural services. It is important for spiritual enrichment, in recreation and in education. The wildlife of an area also helps to define that area and give a sense of place. All of this has repercussions in terms of physical and mental health, and in terms of how desirable a place may be to live and work in.

This outline for the value of biodiversity to ecosystem services is summarised in the table below:

To conclude, therefore, a superficial understanding of ecosystem services could miss the central importance of wildlife. Indeed if some ecosystem services are over-emphasised then we could end up with a business as usual situation with wildlife being further compromised away. But when it is thought through a little it should be clear that biodiversity is of fundamental importance to the effective provision of the ecosystem services on which we all depend.

Thursday 2 September 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 3

I’ve mentioned the idea of “ecosystem services” in previous blogs. It is now a concept that should be very important in the design and implementation of a white paper. Perhaps it might be worth saying a little about what this actually means.

What are ecosystem services?

It is not a new concept, but at present it is perhaps best articulated by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which I’ll be talking about in future blogs, so for a good description I suggest you go to:

However, in brief, an ecosystem is a natural unit of living things (animals, including humans, plants and micro-organisms), and their physical environment; ecosystem services are the benefits provided by ecosystems that make human life both possible and worth while. So, it may sound like jargon, but it does what is says on the tin – it’s all the essential stuff that nature gives us.

This is a very high level definition, however, so in order to be useful ecosystem services are broken down into 4 main types:

Provisioning services; the products we obtain from ecosystems such as food, wood, drinking water, energy and pharmaceutical products.

Regulating services; the benefits we get from the regulation of ecosystem process such as flood control, influence of the global and local climate and disease control.

Cultural services; the non-material benefits from ecosystems such as spiritual and religious enrichment, cultural heritage, recreation, tourism and a sense of place.

Supporting services; these are the ecosystem functions that support all other ecosystem services, things like soil formation, nutrient cycling, plant growth and ecological interactions.

The problem is that very few of these essential ecosystem services are financially valued so we tend to emphasise some and forget about the others. This point may link in with comments made by Mark Fisher after my last blog. We have so over-emphasised provisional services (ie food) that we have skewed our ecology, left it degraded with much loss of biodiversity, and our ecosystems are now delivering other services less well.

There are dangers in focusing too much on ecosystem services (or rather from allowing its description to be perverted), especially when attempts are made to put a financial value on them. Ecosystem services may have a value but that does not mean you can trade in them – you can’t always buy or sell ecosystem services. Also, financial valuing sometimes implies choice (you can have it if you can pay for it) – a difficult leap as these are essential services. I also worry when people talk about trade-offs between ecosystem services – again are they looking for an excuse to over-emphasis some whilst forgetting about others (business as usual)?

These dangers are real but the concept is valuable in that it is making large numbers of policy-makers take notice of the environment when they didn’t before.

I will take this idea of ecosystem services a little further in my next blog.

Friday 27 August 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 2

In my last blog I pointed out that an international study – “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) is one of the drivers behind the new Natural Environment White Paper. I’ve mentioned this before (see my blogs on 23rd July and 25th May 2010), but I thought I’d now try to talk a little bit more about it.

This will be a difficult task as this study has been done by some of the greatest brains on the planet. I am sure I will not do it justice so the best thing for readers to do will be to go to the original work through this link.

But, in case you do not feel moved to do so, I’ll have a go at presenting my own take on the subject:

TEEB is an independent, global study launched by the European Commission to produce a report on the economics of biodiversity loss. It aimed to bring together expertise from all regions of the world in the fields of science, economics and policy to enable actions to be taken in response to the impact of the loss of biodiversity.

The key point that this study brings out is something that we should all know, that conservationists have been stressing for decades but which everyone, in practice, simply tries to ignore. Our ecosystems, biodiversity and natural resources underpin our economies, societies and our individual well-being. There is no escaping from it – the environment is the system; economies and societies are sub-systems relying totally on the environment. To be sustainable, sub-systems must not damage the systems on which they depend. But at the moment they do. This will change.

The value of our natural environment’s myriad benefits are overlooked and poorly understood. They are rarely taken fully into account in normal economics or in day to day decision making. Loss of forests, soils, wetlands, coral reefs, fisheries, etc etc are all often economically invisible. We are running down our natural capital stock without understanding the value of what we are loosing.

Part of the study showed that the economic loss from degraded forest ecosystems alone (and they probably only measured the easy bits) is far greater than the financial losses the world experienced in the worst part of the recent global credit crunch.

The degradation of soils, air, water and biological resources can negatively impact on public health, food security, consumer choice and business opportunities. Furthermore, the rural poor are often most directly reliant on natural resources and are often the hardest hit. (Nature conservation is not just a hobby for the rich).

Our current economic model is letting us down. It is only capable of valuing some things and only in the present, whereas to make sensible decisions we need to consider everything that the environment provides now and in the future.

Maybe if I make up a Mickey Mouse example it may help make the point.

Let’s take the South Downs. Without intervention, the only economic benefit would be intensive agriculture. The only thing we can value is food. Divergence from this might be seen as “artificial interference”, a promotion of “inefficient farming” or just an emotional desire. In practice, however, food is just one of the services that we get from the South Downs, but perhaps the only one that we put a “£” sign against. However, the South Downs also provides clean water for people to drink, it has soils which hold carbon and cycle nutrients, it supports species that help with pollination; good management prevents flooding, controls erosion, maintains soils; the landscape attracts tourists, provides recreation and maintains our sense of place and well-being. And many other things as well. Many of these other services are simply not considered in any valuing exercise. These values, however, are very real. Indeed, when you look at the complexity of what a landscape provides, using it only to provide food in the short term must be considered a very inefficient use of land.

So you get to one of the TEEB conclusions – when you do the sums, the benefits you get from a natural area are worth 10 to 100 times more than the cost of protecting it. And we haven’t even mentioned the higher ethical reasons for conserving nature.

This highlights key messages for the Natural Environment White Paper:

  • Maintaining nature is a basic need.

  • Its economic value is orders of magnitude greater than the short term gains from destroying it.

  • You can’t protect nature by just treating it as a special interest.

  • We need to alter our economic model so nature’s fundamental importance is given primacy.

Friday 20 August 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 1

This could be one of the biggest jumps forward for nature conservation for decades so I will devote several blog posts to it over the next few weeks. If you plan to do only one thing for nature in the next decade then engagement with the White Paper should be that thing! So please watch these posts – I’ll do my best to provide what information and guidance I can (from my own particular bias of course).

A new Natural Environment White Paper could be the biggest move forward for the environment since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949. It was this, and other changes around the same time, that set the scene for all that followed. There were improvements in the 1960s, in 1981 with the Wildlife and Countryside Act (the first time Sites of Special Scientific Interest received formal protection) and with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000. But the major stimulus came from forward looking people and an initiative that started in 1941.

The staggering thing about this is that Britain was busy doing other things in the early 1940s! Yet people of vision still found time to stimulate some of the most fundamental changes in the way we look after nature. The economic woes of today are a pin-prick in comparison to the problems the UK had in the 1940s so we have no excuse for not taking forward the job that was started all those years ago.

It is likely that there are 3 main drivers behind the push for a new Natural Environment White Paper:

  • An international study called “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB).

  • The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UKNEA).

  • The Lawton Review on Britain’s ecological network – “making space for nature”

I will look at each one of these in turn in later blog posts.

However, also behind the White Paper was the lobbying of the Non-Government Organisations, in particular the Wildlife Trusts.

Before the election we stressed the need to move on to all political parties. Although things can always improve, current approaches are good at protecting the best of what we have. There have been further improvements with the development of Biodiversity Action Plans where the emphasis was on improving and expanding as well as conserving. However, any restoration has been far too slow to effectively halt damage to wildlife and rebuild the losses of past decades.

We have failed to meet the national objective of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010. There is now a new target for the whole of Europe which aims to halt the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems by 2020. More of the same is not an option. It is clear that a step-change is needed in our approach to the natural world.

We therefore pushed for a major shift from government (whoever got in after the election) and this White Paper is the response.

The nature of the discussion document “An invitation to shape the Nature of England” gives the impression that some of the messages are sinking in. For decades we’ve had to put up with decision-makers treating the environment as a “nice to have” – something very much in the background against more serious matters like making money. Now, however, the discussion document talks about how the natural environment underpins our prosperity, health and well-being. The questions invite us to think about how we embed the true value of nature in decision making, how we manage natural systems more effectively, reduce our ecological footprint and how we can think big and take a landscape-scale approach to managing our natural assets.

Maybe there is hope. Maybe someone’s been listening to us!

In future blog posts I will look at each of the major drivers behind the White Paper.

Monday 2 August 2010

A Natural Environment White Paper

Could this be a major turning point for the environment and its wildlife?

For a few years now the Wildlife Trusts have been lobbying the main parties to develop a major new driver for the natural environment. On Monday 26th July Caroline Spelman announced the start of a consultation period for a new “Natural Environment White paper”. Could this be the Living Landscape White Paper that we were proposing? See the discussion document “An invitation to shape the nature of England”.

Current approaches to the natural world focus on protecting what we have – think of nature reserves or Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The basic method is to put a line around an important area and look after it. We should not be derogatory about this - it is the vital first step. However this is less than the basic minimum, it could not work by itself as there are inevitable continual losses through compromise and “balance”. So, over the years we have seen strengthening protection for our natural world but (with a few significant exceptions) we continue to see the loss of species and the degradation of habitats.

We also see that, whilst people do cherish the natural world, it is still totally under-valued in political and financial terms. We know the financial cost of nature conservation but we don’t know the financial benefit. So whenever there are cuts, the axe falls heaviest on “nice to haves” like the natural world.

A new approach is needed – one that not only protects but which fully recognises the value of nature and which restores, expands and connects our natural environment to make it a healthier place that enhances the wildlife we cherish and provides the services we rely on.

Before the election the Wildlife Trusts lobbied all the major political parties to get commitment for a major re-think over the natural environment. We were delighted that they all seemed open to the idea, but would anything actually happen when a new government was formed?

Well this “Natural Environment White paper” could be the product we are after. There is now a 12 week consultation period, in which people will be asked for their views. And after that people will be organising workshops to bring ideas together.

The introduction to the consultation document makes interesting reading. It reflects much of the “Living Landscape” thinking that the Wildlife Trusts have been promoting for several years, now picked up by several other environmental NGOs as well. Maybe this reflects some success from the political lobbying the Trusts have done around the country. Perhaps the time we took in Sussex to talk to our own MPs, some of whom had major shadow positions before the election, was time well spent.

The Trust will be writing to all of our members in the next few weeks with more information and to ask you to become involved in the consultation. This is a major opportunity – indeed if you do only one thing for wildlife in this decade then I would suggest that engaging in this consultation this should be that one thing one thing!

Friday 23 July 2010

The Value of Nature and the Nature of Value

On 13th July the first “Global Business of Biodiversity Symposium” was held as part of the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. This was the back-drop to the publication of a major report by an international study called “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity”.

This is global stuff! We hear little about it in our press (but see my May 2010 blog), but there are some mighty intellects trying to work out how to correct the market failure that is our economic system. The point of this symposium was to highlight how business can address the inconsistencies in our current economic valuing systems so we take better account of the natural capital on which we all depend. For a fascinating insight I suggest you go to the web site:

and read some of the quotes from different key people who attended (including the Wildlife Trusts own CEO – Steph Hilbourne). There's also a short film that makes interesting viewing.

The best thing I can do here, however, is just to quote Pavan Sukhdev who has led this international study:

"Our economic compass is faulty and must be updated to better reflect the roles of human capital and natural capital in our economy. We must ensure that the costs and benefits of conserving nature are calculated as best as possible, recognised by leaders, businesses ad citizens alike, included in the accounts of society and managed in order to be distributed more fairly across communities and to remain sustainable for generations to come

We have been losing trillions of dollars of losses per annum as a consequence of our global economic mechanism failing to account for the natural capital that underpins industries such as construction, tourism, energy, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. We must recognise the nature of value and the value of nature and move now to create a sustainable future.

We stand here at a fork in the road of human history – they are signposted “brown economy” and “green economy”. Both paths appear economic in the short term, but only one leads us to a long-term future. It is the path of the “green economy” – a path to recognising and conserving the value of nature, creating jobs and industries and helping tackle poverty."

Monday 12 July 2010

Wishful thinkers lose again.

After a third enquiry the scientists at the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia have been exonerated again. (You remember – that great outcry caused by some leaked emails that had the media wondering if scientists were just making all this climate change nonsense up). And with this another straw that the climate change deniers have been grasping at has also been taken away.

Even if any fault could ever have been found, this ridiculous hounding of a very small number of legitimate scientists does nothing to counter over 200 years of climate change science.

Around the world there are thousands of scientists working on climate change and the overwhelming vast majority say not only that climate change is happening but that it is humans that are causing it. The wishful thinkers, hoping that this can all be made to disappear, are always looking for any scam to try to deflect reality.

There is a clear and obvious strategy in place by climate change deniers. Make climate change look complicated, confusing, “just a theory”, invent controversy, imply disagreement amongst experts and deflect with all sorts of unsubstantiated claims. It was exactly the same when pro-smoking lobbies tried to undermine the link between smoking and ill-health.

This time, or course, the deniers have a lot on their side. Giving up smoking is easy by comparison. Accepting climate change means that we may have to change our lives – and few people want to hear that. Nevertheless, climate change is happening and trying to find imaginary cop-outs simply delays necessary action.

Perhaps a particularly bad aspect of climate change denial is the anti-intelligence, anti-education culture it relies on. As a result, scientist who have spent a career studying climate change (or anything else for that matter) have become “experts” or worse “government scientists”, so are thought of as esoteric, unreliable and out of touch. I have seen blogs where the view of a self-appointed “man on the street” thinks himself far more respectable than any number of climate change professors. Maybe we should use the same principle in other sectors? Medical doctors for example, have spent decades perfecting their skills so obviously must be way out of touch with reality! Next time we need an operation maybe we should consult some man in the pub instead.

In spite of the deliberate strategies to confuse there are some basic facts from which it is impossible to escape.

200 years of climate science amassing vast amounts of evidence points in the same direction – climate change is happening and we are causing it.

Carbon dioxide is known to create a greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide is increasing and the greenhouse effect is getting stronger.

The measured effects of climate change cannot be explained by natural processes alone. It can only be explained when human-emitted greenhouse gasses are included.

Every year our society emits carbon dioxide that it took nature 3 million years to lock-up! Any logic should tell you that 3 million times too much of anything is unlikely to be good!

At the same time human-caused damage to the world’s ecosystems has never been greater, reducing the ability of nature to respond to any imbalance.

You might claim, against all the evidence, that there is some unknown natural process that is going to save the day. Some unknown negative feed-back loop will appear and soak up the surplus carbon dioxide, or counter the effect of increasing temperature. It would have to be an unknown phenomenon because all the known ones are already incorporated into climate change models. This strikes me as wishful thinking at a neo-religious level! We would not take this approach in the economic arena (just keep spending the money, our bank accounts will magically top themselves up at some stage!) so why does anyone give it any credibility when deniers wish to magic climate change away using the same logic?

Let us be clear. Human-induced climate change is a reasonable hypothesis supported by the vast majority of the evidence and the experts in the field. I have only ever met one or two climate change deniers that I would give any credibility to at all; by and large climate change denial is just an emotional response.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

At last, some news in a newspaper!

Well maybe I’m being unfair, but I don’t tend to buy national newspapers as the news is always the same – and usually badly reported. But at last, on Saturday 22nd May the Guardian ran an article on things that actually matter. And it was given a decent level of priority – front page news.

This was a full article making the economic case for global action to stop the destruction of the natural world.

To some of us it may be sad that we have to make an economic case to conserve the natural world. Surely the natural world should lie above the petty economic squabbles that seem to dominate the world. But if that is what it takes to make the bean-counters take notice then maybe that’s what we should do.

The gist of the article is that, while we always seem to know the cost of looking after the natural world, we seldom calculate the benefit. Costs are easy and obvious – benefits are hidden but vital. Not surprisingly, if you do some calculations then the economic benefits from the natural world are 10 to 100 times greater than the cost of looking after it. A while ago I heard someone refer to calculations like this as a “poor approximation of infinity” – and I tend to agree, but even so this approach can be helpful. At least it should make the politicians and policy-makers sit up and take notice.

This is not a new subject. The idea of ecosystem services has been around for a long time. For those of you who want to find out more the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is where some of the recent impetus sprang from, so here is the link:

The work that the Guardian referred to is a major international initiative called “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) – and this has some fascinating stuff:

It also has to be said that some good work is being done in Britain – see the UK National Ecosystem Assessment at:

If all this work is taken seriously then, fairly soon, there should be a shift in how economic valuing works. Nature will be viewed as the huge asset it really is and will be taken properly into account in all decisions. If it is not taken seriously then the same shift will be painfully forced upon us, in the longer term, as we end up paying for services that were once provided by nature for free.

Just to make sure I do not get too optimistic though – in the same issue of the Guardian there was a shorter report on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was reported in the same old way – an oil spill was in the process of damaging some wildlife-rich piece of coastline. Dull-headed people could still read this and conclude “a shame, yes, but we need oil and maybe the loss of some pretty wildlife is unimportant by comparison”. If on the other hand it was presented in terms of the huge and long-term economic loss due to damaged ecosystems as a result of the oil then maybe the equation might look rather different.

Thursday 13 May 2010

The Coalition Government should now have a higher ambition for nature

As the new coalition government publishes its agreements, The Wildlife Trusts around the country are calling on it to raise its game in policies on the natural environment and commit to a White Paper on Nature.

Not only is nature conservation a fundamental “good” that any government should be aiming to enhance but there has been a growing recognition that our natural environment provides vital life-supporting services as well as enriching our sole. We need to take a long hard look at the way we make decisions about our land and ensure that the natural environment is restored. The Wildlife Trusts including us at the Sussex Wildlife Trust have therefore been calling on an incoming government to produce a new White Paper to fundamentally shift the ground in terms of the ecological restoration of our environment. Our wildlife is not just something we should “try not to damage too much”, it should be something that we positively aim to restore. A White Paper would identify the policy changes needed to restore our natural environment and ecosystems”.

The Wildlife Trusts, including the Sussex Wildlife Trust, have been working with the main political parties nationally to encourage them to be more ambitious with our environment. Before the election, The Wildlife Trusts wrote to the Leaders of the three main parties urging them to commit to introducing a White Paper on Nature and also to ensuring the designation of an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas by 2012. These letters and the replies from the Party Leaders can read at

The Sussex Wildlife Trust also asked the Prospective Parliamentary candidates about their commitment to the natural world and their responses can be read on our web site.

We have had some measure of success in that all three main parties recognized this in their manifestos. All have promised to do more for the environment including, in the case of the now ruling party, a promise to develop a White Paper. In a letter to the national office of The Wildlife Trusts during the election campaign, our new Prime Minister, David Cameron, recognized the importance of conserving our natural world for future generations. He said it was important to make a clear pledge that a Conservative Government would produce a White Paper on protecting the natural environment, including a focus on restoring habitat.’

Furthermore commitments have now also been made in the recent coalition agreement to develop measures to promote green spaces and wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats and restore biodiversity.

So - the commitment is there, the promises have been made and there is plenty of help available from non-government organizations like The Wildlife Trusts. OK – it is early days but hopefully we can expect some delivery soon!

Tuesday 4 May 2010

What your Prospective Parliamentary Candidates say

A few weeks ago the Sussex Wildlife Trust sent a questionnaire out to each of the Prospective Parliamentary Candidates in Sussex. We asked some basic questions about where their parties stood on a few key questions regarding wildlife and our environment.

It is slightly disappointing that relatively few responded. This is a busy time for all candidates so perhaps we should not be too uncharitable, we have had contacts with MPs of all persuasions over the years and have generally been given a good hearing. But as a key wildlife charity for Sussex I would have thought that they could have at least replied with a link to their own manifesto statements on the subject -I suspect that if we were a health charity asking about the NHS or a Chamber of Commerce asking about plans for the economy then we might have got a stronger response. I hope (and trust) that this rather weak response is not a measure of the various candidates commitments to the environment.

Nevertheless, we do have a range of responses from politicians from various backgrounds and I would encourage you to take a look to see where they stand.

As a charity the Sussex Wildlife Trust will not be making comments on the relative merits of the responses; we will leave that to you.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Blue Bliss!

“Contrails”, “condensation trails”, “vapour trails”, “the fluffy white lines that follow jet planes around” – whatever you call them, we’ve had around a week without them. Clear blue skies, and for those living anywhere near Gatwick, a week of tranquillity that normal countryside residents enjoy all the time.

Now we’re back to skies criss-crossed with contrails, the sound of birdsong once again drowned out and Sussex once again relegated to the position of a transport hub.

It’s good to live life with quandaries, and flying is one of them. I love flying – if I had my life again I’d probably want to be a pilot. And we do make use of planes to enrich our lives by experiencing places we’d otherwise not be able to get to. What is more, planes are far quieter and more fuel efficient than in the past. But there are just so many of them. Part of me was celebrating the unexpected quiet of skies without planes; the other half of me was worrying about a rare trip to Europe I have planned next week to learn about ecological networks in Germany. A classic quandary – a conservationist doing environmental damage in order to learn more about conservation!

These choices are unpalatable. We live in a global society so have friends and work/personal relations all over the place. We also rely on resources and communications at a global level. Yet the act of living and benefiting from such a society is destroying the things we like, and is ultimately damaging to our very existence. Climate change deniers get over this by pretending it is not happening; extreme environmentalists get over this by opting out. The rest of us sit in the middle feeling guilty. I even heard a poet on Radio 4 put in verse how selfish she felt for enjoying the quiet!

So – I have worries and concerns about the features of modern life and yet by living in modern society I contribute to these concerns, whilst also gaining from their benefits. We are all hypocrites today.

We’ve heard a great deal about the terrible consequences to the UK from the lack of flying in terms of damage to the economy, but very little about the benefits to the environment. We’ve heard even less about whether we should be flying as much as we do at all.

Airports can be hugely damaging to their local environment, with much habitat loss directly caused and also caused by associated infrastructure. Air travel is also the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gases. Furthermore, the gases produced by flying have a greater effect than those produced at ground level. If we are serious about reducing greenhouse gases, but also want the planned growth in air travel, then in a few decades the only industry left in Britain will be air travel – Britain’s emission allocation will be totally taken up by flight so no other industry will be allowed to produce any emissions at all. If economists saw the choice for the economy as flying or every other industry then we may get a different perspective on what air travel actually does to the economy.

Cheap air travel might be seen as a temporary window on the world. It has only started very recently in human history and it is unlikely to last very long – at least for the majority of us. So how can we make best use of the short-term bonus of cheap air travel?

Thursday 15 April 2010

Pester your Prospective Parliamentary Candidates!

As we rush towards another general election we find that, as usual, the huge interest in wildlife and the environment is once again marginalised as the media focuses on more traditional election topics. But the high level of support for organisations like the Sussex Wildlife Trust (there are far more members of conservation organisations than there are members of political parties!) shows that our natural heritage is important to people as well.

Despite huge conservation effort and great successes, like the designation of the South Downs National Park, our wildlife is still under threat and in decline. The next government faces real challenges to reverse this trend. We have therefore contacted all the Prospective Parliamentary Candidates to ask them how their parties will tackle the threats to our natural world and how they plan to protect and enhance the wildlife and landscapes of Sussex.

We will be putting their responses on our web site, as we get them, after 19th April. They should make interesting reading and perhaps give an insight into a potential new government so please take a look on:

In addition we would like our supporters to speak up for wildlife by asking Prospective Parliamentary Candidates questions about how they plan to safeguard our natural heritage. We suggest you ask the following (all members will have received a suggested list of questions in the last mail-out):

  • Now that 30% of Sussex is within the South Downs National Park, how will you ensure that the rest of Sussex is protected against threats such as development pressure?
  • Disposing of our rubbish in landfill is damaging our natural environment. How will you ensure the sustainable management of waste so that we can become a zero waste society?
  • Climate change poses a serious threat to wildlife. What measures will you take to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change?
  • How will you ensure the species and fragile habitats of our marine environment are protected?
  • The UK has failed its international obligations to halt the decline in biodiversity by 2010. How will you ensure that we meet new targets to prevent further loss and damage to wildlife?

Thursday 28 January 2010

Stop The Adversane / North Heath Development

4000 houses – a development the size of Billingshurst and Pulborough added together – are threatening to engulf the tiny hamlet of Adversane.

This area, at the moment, is quintessential rural Sussex – just look at the pictures in my October 2008 blog. It lies alongside the picturesque Arun valley, within sight of the New South Downs National Park, surrounded by ancient woodland and a matrix of species rich hedgerows and grazing land . Government policy itself says that we should be putting new development on “brown field” sights, not in the heart of the countryside.

The Adversane New Town proposal fails any test of reasonableness in so many areas – yet proposed it is.

STAND (Stop The Adversane/North Heath Development) is a small group of concerned local people who have formed to oppose this proposal. And yes I do have a vested interest in that I live in the area as well!

STAND, along with many individuals and organisations, has already written its objections. It is continuing its campaign by organising a petition in an effort to persuade Horsham District Council to remove this threat

Please Sign this Petition without Delay

STAND’s Petition, for ‘signature’ by those who object to the proposed New Community, is now available online at (Please visit regularly). If you prefer, you can obtain hard copies of petition forms from Andrew Swaffield at Beverley, Gay Street Lane, Pulborough RH20 2HW. There will also be a paper Petitions posted to people who live in the area.

The purpose of the Petition is to show the extent of continuing opposition to the proposal by those who live or work locally or who may be affected by the development. Please sign and ask others to do so.

The Petition asks for first and last names, postcode and email address (these are mandatory for the online version). We also ask you to volunteer your home address, telephone number; these are optional but will help show that the Petition is genuine and that the results have not been fabricated. The details may be used specifically to keep those interested in STAND’s objectives informed of news and progress unless we are told that you do not want them to be used for that purpose.

STAND is anxious that its Petition has the highest credibility and, thus, by signing it you will be confirming that you have not signed another identical Petition arranged by STAND, e.g. a paper one. This confirmation will not stop anyone from sending a separate Submission to Horsham District Council with reasoned and detailed objections.

This development is only one of many being proposed around Sussex. It is not a matter of objecting to one and trying to push the development somewhere else. The whole concept of continual growth in housing numbers needs to be questioned along with the many dubious proposals for their location.

Friday 22 January 2010

No Laybrook Landfill

Last night I was delighted to go along to a local group meeting, excellently chaired by Shipley Parish Council, to hear objections to a large landfill site being proposed between Thakeham, Coolham and Ashington. Evening meetings may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is always an education and I am always impressed with the quality of the case that local people can put together when they are worried about something.

And the proposed landfill at Laybrook is a major worry. Over 4 million tons of rubbish over 21 years, many thousands of lorry movements per year, destroyed tranquillity, impact on local wildlife including the threat of damage to one of the most innovative wildlife projects in the country.

The developers, however, have “Thakeham Village Action” to contend with and the case being put together is not just a NIMBY reaction, but an excellent articulation of how we should not even be thinking about landfill in the 21st century. We are running out of holes in the ground anyway and this should stimulate us to find much more appropriate solutions to our waste problems. There are many alternative approaches out there and practically every other European country is doing far better than us. Why is it that German people only send 3kg of waste per person to landfill, whereas we send 320Kg?

Throwing things away is an unacceptable side of our consumer society – there is no “away” left and every time we put something in the rubbish bin we should think where it will go. We can’t complain about rubbish dumps at the end of our gardens if we fill up a wheelie bin every week. The only long-term solution is a zero-waste society – create less waste, recycle much more, and even the waste that remains should be a resource for something else.

We now have just a week to object to this proposal, and I would recommend that everyone who chances upon this posting should put in an objection. The details are on the “no Laybrook landfill” web site.

Also, of course, these holes in the ground are not devoid of wildlife. One of my previous blog postings includes some excellent information from Pip Edgecombe showing just how valuable this particular area is. These sites are assets and we should be able to come up with far better ideas of what to do with them than fill them with rubbish. The company at the Laybrook site has been making profit out of brick making from clay won from that site for a very long time. And good luck to them. But rather than trying to make yet more money by turning it into a waste dump, surely the more responsible thing to do would be to turn it over to the local community, maybe developing it as a local nature reserve so it can add to the value of the Knepp Wildland project next door rather than threaten it.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

A winter wonderland

Snowy weather, like we’ve had over the last couple of weeks, always makes us wonder about how wildlife copes in such conditions. Between now and spring is generally the time of year when most mortality happens. Food, for most wildlife, is scarce at the very time when they need it most so, unfortunately, this is the time when the weakest tend to die.

Even in a truly wild situation, when all the predators were still roaming the primeval wildwood, it is likely that it was winter, rather than large carnivores, that had most effect on the populations of herbivores like deer and small mammals.

At present we have more deer in the countryside than at any time in history, and their grazing is often damaging woodland. If their numbers are knocked back by a harsh winter then plants and regenerating shrubs will stand more of a chance in spring.

But, walking around, you may be able to see another side to winter. If you walk through the woods you see trees bent over because of the weight of the snow, often there are major branches broken off and lying on the ground. If you look at woods in parts of Europe, where snow is more common, even in summer you will often find trees and shrubs inexplicably bent over in an arch-shape. This is cause by the weight of snow in winter. You can start to see some examples of this in our woods following the snow. Evergreens like holly seem to be effected most and I have seen several large well-shaped holly trees broken to pieces because of all the snow that had built up on them.

To start with this looks like more death and destruction. But this is part of the ecology of the area – an intimate part of the way the environment works not just some disaster that it has to recover from.

A winter like this changes the “structure” of habitats like woodland and forest. It re-shapes them, damaging some trees but leaving others, opening up the canopy in places. This is creating diversity. A winter like this could well help make our woods more open and sunny when the spring does eventually get here, allowing plants that were becoming overshadowed to thrive.

I can make one guess at what might happen as a result of winter 2010. Woods in England have gradually become more overshadowed over the last few decades. This may partly be because there is less management - less cutting to provide firewood and so on. But it could also be part of an ecological change because of a lack of harsh winters. Holly has become more abundant in some woods and, as a dense evergreen, many other plants have been overshadowed and woods have become poorer. As conservationists, we have become a little worried that this apparently natural change seems to be having a negative effect on nature. Perhaps this is where harsh winters come in. Holly seems to have been most heavily effected by the snow so may now be at a disadvantage. Furthermore, animals like deer and rabbits have very little to eat at this time of year. It is likely that they will turn their attention to the bark of holly trees – not something they would do if there was something else to eat (have you tried tasting holly trees?!) but surprisingly nutritious. So, as well as being knocked back by physical damage from snow, holly bushes may now find themselves killed by ring-barking. Effectively, in the absence of harsh winters, holly may become too competitive and so reduce the richness of a wood. When a harsh winter hits then holly is knocked back, enriching the forest.

So, the direct effects of winter may be harsh and will indeed kill a lot of wildlife. But it may be that the structural diversity will improve and this could create the conditions suitable for a rich wildlife in the future.