Review finds nature needs more space

A Government-commissioned review says wildlife sites need to be better managed, bigger, more abundant and better connected to halt biodiversity decline and cope with climate change.

“We are seeking a step change in the way we deliver nature conservation. Without it, all the evidence points to the fact that the slow, downward spiral of wildlife loss will inevitably continue.”

So argues the final report of a government-commissioned review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network. 1 It sets tough challenges for the environment department (DEFRA) as it prepares a white paper on the natural environment.

The review panel, chaired by Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s chairman Professor Sir John Lawton (see p 8), says that designated wildlife sites need to be better managed, bigger, more numerous and better connected – usually in that order of priority. Connections take the form of ‘wildlife corridors’ like rivers and hedgerows or ‘stepping stones’ like copses, used by species to cross intensively farmed areas (ENDS Report 426, pp 36-39).

The report does not specify how much more land needs to be designated and managed for conservation. It is “a repair manual, not a detailed plan”. But it does make 24 wide-ranging recommendations, and calls on government, councils, NGOs, and business, particularly farmers and rural estates, to join  in “changing the direction of travel”.

Only that change can provide a coherent and resilient ecological network, enabling species and habitats to cope with climate change and the pressures posed by intensive farming, pollution, and development.

The review estimates the cost of doing this at £600m to £1.1bn a year, to be shared between the public, private and NGO sectors. This includes sums already being spent on the existing, inadequate network of sites. While the report does not specify how much more needs to be spent, it amounts to a few £100m a year.

But government is looking to spend less. In particular, conservationists fear DEFRA will cut the Higher Level Environmental Stewardship scheme which pays a minority of farmers to manage their land in ways which conserve valued species and habitats, often on designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

The report says the scheme “must be retained and properly resourced as the single most important tool for maintaining and expanding the most significant areas of priority habitat and populations of priority species”.

With the public sector owning half of all terrestrial SSSIs, the report also fires a warning shot about selling these. Public sector sites which have high existing or potential wildlife value must not be sold, unless this value is secured for the future.

The review says local council planners have a major role to play, often collaborating across boundaries. Government should make it clear that councils’ legal duty to “consider biodiversity” under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 “includes planning coherent and resilient ecological networks”.

Its recommendations on planning challenge the government’s own planning agenda, which stresses more freedom for councils and less direction from the centre (ENDS Report 427, pp 44-45).

The review’s most eye-catching recommendation is for government to fund a competition to implement 12 ‘Ecological Restoration Zones’, each costing some £500,000 a year to run. Managed by public-private-NGO consortia, each zone would cover hundreds or thousands of hectares, restoring and enlarging wildlife-rich habitats. Some would be near to, or penetrate, big towns and cities.

“People should not have to travel hundreds of miles to enjoy butterfly-rich meadows or singing skylarks,” says the report.

DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman said the review acknowledged government alone could not tackle biodiversity loss. “If ever there was a time for Big Society to protect our natural environment, this is it.”

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