Monday 27 February 2012

A Nature Improvement Area for the South Downs

I was delighted to hear that the South Downs has been awarded some £608,000 to become one of the Nations 12 pilot Nature Improvement Areas (NIA). We have been working with the South Downs National Park Authority, along with 26 other partners across the South Downs, to help develop the proposal and this recognition of the project is great news.

NIAs were one of the good commitments that came out of the Natural Environment White Paper published last year, the aim being to enhance and reconnect nature on a landscape scale.
The White Paper stated that government wished to see “NIAs wherever the opportunities or benefits are greatest, driven by the knowledge and vision of local partners”. The 12 pilot NIAs, including that for the South Downs will hopefully therefore just be a starting point.

As pilot NIAs, the successful bids therefore aim to pilot something. The very clear message from the National Ecosystem Assessment, reflected in the White Paper, is that nature is not adequately valued in our economic decision making. We rely on nature for everything and yet most of the goods and benefits we get from nature (ecosystem services) are ignored or taken for granted. The South Downs pilot NIA aims to look at one small part of that equation.

Our chalk downland is vital for the survival of some of our most cherished wildlife – such as the orchid-rich downland turf and uncommon butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy fritillary. As nature conservationists we would like to enhance, expand and join up this valuable habitat. This would be to the benefit of downland wildlife but in the process could improve the Downs in terms of the benefits people get.

Obviously we get food from the Downs – and it is the sensitive sheep-grazing regime that has created the downland landscape we know today. So food, in particular meat from lamb, is a clear benefit.

But a well-maintained downland turf also allows clean water to percolate underground to replenish our water supplies. We get nearly 80% of our water from underground aquifers; erosion, pollution or an excess of fertilisers can damage this and result in large treatment costs.

The South Downs is also a major green-lung to people in Sussex, not least for the major urban centres in places like Eastbourne and Brighton. The enjoyment of the Downs for recreation, exercise or even just the chance to see a Duke of Burgundy fritillary is another benefit we all get which is impossible to put a price on.

A large number of other services are also provided by a rich environment – far too many to list, or put a price on (what price on a bee that pollinates our crops…). But the South Downs NIA will try to make a start at recognising the wider benefits provided by a wildlife-rich landscape.

The farmers of the South Downs are fundamental to all of this. Environmentally sensitive farming is an ethic to many farmers but their returns for practicing it are limited. At present, if they are lucky they may get an economic return by producing food. But all the other benefits they produce are barely recognised. I hope the NIA will help to find ways of rewarding people like farmers and landowners for the benefits we all receive – maybe by looking again at our agricultural incentive schemes or by finding novel sources of funding.

Monday 20 February 2012

Water water everywhere – except when there isn’t!!

Whilst I am writing this there is a meeting going on in London between government, the water industry and the Environment Agency to discuss a likely drought this year.

It may seem strange, in wet, soggy Britain to talk about a drought, especially in winter, because it’s always raining here isn’t it? Well, when you think about it, how much rain have we actually had? A bit of drizzle last week, one downpour a few weeks ago, but apart from that - almost nothing.

Reservoirs, which supply about 20% of our water, are less than half full. 80% of our water comes from underground aquifers, mostly under the South Downs, and these pretty low on water too – probably as low as they have ever been. They are supposed to be full in winter and only get low later in summer. Streams that should be coming out of the South Downs are either low or non-existent, and areas that should now be wet are dry.

Obviously there will be wildlife effects – fish won’t be able swim upstream to spawn, wetland birds like redshank, snipe and lapwing will suffer, there will be fewer invertebrates that feed the rest of the food chain and wetland plants will be more restricted and flower less. Low water levels in rivers will also mean that pollution incidents will be more severe as there is less water to dilute them.

People are therefore coming forward with their own solutions to the problem – desalination plants (hugely expensive, use up large amounts of energy and produce saline pollution), a “national grid” for water (but water is heavy and it would take enormous amounts of energy to pump over large distances) and, of course, more reservoirs.

But reservoirs are not a panacea. To build them we would have to flood what is already there so could wipe out any existing wildlife interest, they are also hugely expensive and might take 20 years to become operational. Also – do the sums – we only get 20% of our water from reservoirs so even if you managed to double their area (unlikely) you would only increase the amount available by 20%. With the population increases, and the per capita consumption increases we talk about, that will not get us very far. And that’s assuming there is enough rain to fill them.

No – the problem is deeper than this. There are too many of us, each with too high a water demand on too small an area. The result is that there is now less water per head of population in the South East than there is for people in Ethopia.

We may be able to achieve some very minor improvements through these technological fixes but we are running up against real environmental limits. Overall, techno-fixes like these will be about as successful as doing the rain dance that was talked about on BBC local radio this morning. And techno-fixes will come with their own problems which could be as bad, or worse, than water shortage.

Water is one of those resources that fundamentally questions our basic assumption that we are able (indeed have the right) to expand consumption in all directions no matter what.

There is only so much water, damage to wetland wildlife indicates that we have over-stretched the resource and the only answer is to live within environmental limits rather than imagine that there are magic technological solutions. This means using less water.

Monday 13 February 2012


A colleague has just been in touch with me to highlight a campaign to make “Ecocide” an international crime. It’s not a subject that I have looked into, but it looks like something worth thinking about. Follow the link for more information:

Ecocide is the “crime” of extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of the territory has been severely diminished. This is certainly not something specific to Sussex, indeed most of the discussion is at international level – examples of “ecocide” given include the Amazon rainforest, the Athabasca Tar Sands in Canada and the oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Niger Delta.

The proposal to adopt Ecocide as an international crime against Peace has been put to the United Nations by British environmental lawyer, Polly Higgins. World leaders attending the Earth Summit in Rio in June 2012 will have the opportunity to agree to outlaw Ecocide (but they may need a little persuading!)

An enforceable law would help close off the flow of damage and destruction at source, and encourage investment into more responsible business activities, turning hopes of a green economy into reality at last.

There are many ways you can help. One is to write to David Cameron to ensure he is aware of the importance of attending the Earth Summit. Also the Eradicating Ecocide website (above) is full of ideas, and you’ll easily see what is yours to do. Be sure to check out “The Ecocide Earth Summit Strategy”.

Friday 10 February 2012

Natural environment white paper – progress

We were very pleased with the publication of the Natural Environment White Paper last June and quite a lot has happened since then to take it forward in Sussex. This is good stuff and I feel that we are working through some of the concerns I had when it first came out.

Two of the initiatives from the White Paper were “Local Nature partnerships” and “Nature Improvement Areas”.

Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs) were supposed to be the development of new or existing partnerships to champion nature and the environment in an area. I had some major concerns about the lack of resources, demanding timescales and rather broad guidance but we have been fortunate in getting funding to develop the idea in Sussex. We are now talking to a wide range of partners with the idea of developing our current Biodiversity Partnership into an LNP. We will not be able to apply for LNP status until later in the year but we hope that this background work will bare fruit.

One activity of a LNP must be to try to embed the value of nature into our economic decision making. Government therefore wants LNPs to have good links with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). This is good, but I not sure anyone has mentioned this to the LEPs. One early job, therefore, will be to try to build better links with the business community.

So, in a few months time, we should have an LNP for Sussex. More of what that might mean another time.

A Nature Improvement Area (NIA) has also been developed in Sussex by the National Park Authority for the South Downs ridge. A very professional bid has been put forward and we know it has got through to the last 15 (12 will be granted NIA status and receive funding to support its objectives). The National park Authority, with the support from a South Downs farmer, did a presentation to the selection panel this week. I am confident that they will have made a good pitch so good luck to them. We will know very soon whether the South Downs bid has been successful.

Since the publication of the White Paper, however, I have always been worried that these 12 “pilot” NIAs will end up as the only ones. The NIA concept is good but these large scale initiatives should be found all over the country, not just in 12 places. In practice I could think of very good arguments for more than 12 NIAs in Sussex alone. It does seem, however, that government does not intend to limit ecological networks to the lucky 12 pilot NIAs. Minsters have now said that they want to see NIAs wherever the opportunities or benefits are greatest, driven by the knowledge and vision of local partners. I am not sure how much, or whether, funding will be available for a proper network of NIAs but the idea that the UK’s failing ecological network will be fixed by just 12 NIAs should now have disappeared.