The sober assessment of Britain’s battered wildlife, as reported in the State of Nature Report of 2016, prompts a resuscitated call for new approaches to acting on wild words. There is an irony here. We are facing possibly the most serious disruption of long standing wildlife habitat in a generation, bearing in mind that throughout history humans have always altered wildlife viability. Yet we are also contemplating the scope for an exciting ecological renaissance of landscape connectedness which could lead to a flourishing of adaptive resilient wildlife for our offspring to embrace, where otherwise the tendrils of existence for established species are progressively being dismembered.
Here are the headline conclusions of the State of Nature Report for 2016:
A new measure that assesses how intact a country’s biodiversity is, suggests that the UK has lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average. The index suggests that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The loss of nature in the UK continues
The overall losses of terrestrial and freshwater species is over half for the period 1970 to 2013, admittedly with some hopeful recovery for some species here and there. The consequences are that if nothing is done then large areas of the nation will be stripped of wildlife within another generation. Many youngsters born today will likely never see or hear what were once commonplace wildlife sights and sounds in the countryside of their grandparents. By any standards this is a catastrophe. To lose species creates the insidious scope for a moral anaesthetic. It is easier not to mourn for what you do not know has lived.
This places fresh attention on the strong safeguard of vital habitats of the key remaining species. But also we need to draw attention to the scope for increasing the possibilities for wildlife renaissance through exciting creative work in landscape based ecological connectedness. I must make clear I am not advocating any further diminishment of existing species and habitats. I am advocating the parallel and integrated emergence of landscape scale management innovations. These lie in the proposals advanced in the UK 25 Year Plan fronted by the Prime Minister, but promoted by the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Scattered throughout this potentially path-breaking document are five sets of proposals which seek to capture the new ecological age of connectedness, cooperative funding, long term investment with intermediate paybacks, and cross property boundary fecundity of action and innovations.
Of course the official 25 Year Plan may prove to be just another firework: lots of flash and light quickly followed by darkness. If this is not to be the case wild words need to be turned in to wild action. This is the purpose of this blog.
There is a sort of ecological revolution brewing. Like all revolutions its adherents are proclaiming revelation, while its many detractors seek to impose the friction of wariness. The champions are Chris Thomas and Jane Hill of York University. They are setting about studying meta-populations of species which can migrate under suitable conditions of changing opportunity. The survival of such species depends on the scope for managing habitats in the pathways of their adaptive migration through suitable manipulation of neighbouring niches nearby. The key here is the overall ecological potential of the whole landscape habitat offering. It is possible to build adaptive species mixes on adjacent areas so long as the ecological conditions and the management arrangements are suitably designed. The aim to maintain and restore habitat networks and connections to ensure the long-term survival of species in landscapes where existing habitats are fragmented and individual species increasingly isolated.
These ideas are picked up in the Environment Plan
We will support nature’s recovery and restore losses suffered over the past 50 years. We will develop a strategy for nature to tackle biodiversity loss, develop a Nature Recovery Network to complement and connect our best wildlife sites, and provide opportunities for species conservation and the reintroduction of native species. We will also explore introducing conservation covenants. These actions will help us create a healthier and richer natural environment (p.57).
The proposals in the plan include scope for creating landscape covenants through which landowners (farmers and wildlife charities) are encouraged and paid to create long lasting and cross boundary habitat for both recovery as well as for public enjoyment, landowner amenity, and the overall health of local people. Readers of Wild Words are acquainted with the wide ranging work of landscape planners and health professionals regarding the improvement of mental and physical health of those who have meaningful contact with nature (see Pretty 2017).
The Environment Plan also suggests the scope for devising pilot schemes combining public, private and charitable funds for advancing nature investment and endowment on a connected landscape basis. The gains here are both economic (such as control of water flows in times of drought or flood) as well as carbon reducing (peat formation, woodland planting), and enterprise driven (wild flower meadows for pollinators and for honey production)
The suggestion here is that Norfolk interests in land ownership, planning, nature endowing agriculture and drainage could work with the water companies, insurance interests, and carbon offset financing to create the kinds of connected landscapes which could allow adaptive resilient nature to flourish.
There is a glorious opportunity here for Wild Words to turn these emerging ideas into innovative piloting action. Already some water companies, encouraged in their price reviews for Ofwat, are embarking on green bond schemes. These are being used to finance the kinds of nature promoting activities which have clear social, ecological and financial returns. They include imaginative schemes for stripping land source pollutants with growing vegetation and enhanced wetlands, health promoting access to new natural areas, cost saving programmes for rehabilitating remand prisoners, and incipient depression amongst mental health patients, and adaptive natural measures to absorb the effects of climate change.
Here is the clarion call in the 25 year Plan
Defra will work with a range of partners on stimulating innovation in designing and implementing projects that can improve the natural environment and generate revenue to pay for project costs. We will convene interested parties to explore the potential for a facility to blend capital from a range of sources (e.g. public, private philanthropic) to provide technical assistance funding and repayable finance to projects with the potential to improve the natural environment and generate revenue. Such a blended facility could issue a mix of grants and loans on a long-term repayment basis at below-market rates to help address some of the market failures that have to date limited the take up of return-generating natural environment projects. This would encourage innovation, help to develop the evidence base and develop a track record that could lead to such projects attracting mainstream investment and the creation of new natural capital markets. (pp. 150-1)
Surely Wild Words can capture this spirit of this exciting new eco-social-entrepreneurial age.
Let us get together to make this happen.
By Professor Tim O’Riordan, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia.
HM Government 2018. A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. Defra, London.
Pretty, J. 2017. Manifesto for the Green Mind. Resurgence and Ecologist, 301, March-April. 18-21.
Thomas, C.D. 2107. Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. Allen Page, London