by Garry Jones
May 24 2012
One of the last acts of the Brown Labour government (Environment Minister Hilary Benn actually) was to initiate a review of nature conservation in England. Thankfully when the coalition government finally worked its way out of the 2010 general election, the new Minister (Caroline Spellman) decided to see the review through to its conclusion. The basic question was: ‘Do England’s wildlife sites comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network?’, or ‘is that 12% I mentioned last time really enough?’
The review was undertaken by a panel of eminent figures drawn from the world of conservation and headed up by Professor Sir John Lawton (who also happens to be Chair of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust). This was the first thorough look at the subject in over 60 years and to some extent it placed the entire nature conservation sector on trial. It is a very comprehensive report and well worth a read – ‘Making Space for Nature’, more commonly being referred to as the Lawton review. It breaks things down to 4 simple questions:
- Have we maintained England’s’ diversity of species?
- Are they of sufficient size to be sustainable going forwards?
- Are they protected from harm and being supported to flourish?
- Are they joined up and connected?
The answers are stark and pull no punches:
- Yes… just about, but with significant losses
- No, they are too small
- No, they continue to be damaged and mismanaged
- No, they are disconnected and connections are being lost
The report effectively says that 60 years of nature conservation have failed to do anything more than slow a sure and steady decline in biodiversity.
The good news… bear with me some more. The report called for a step change in nature conservation. It demands that we protect more sites; that these sites are bigger; that they are managed and looked after better; and that they be connected up- both geographically and through greater integration into sustainable social and economic usage. The report called upon government to establish ‘Ecological Restoration Zones’ across the country where this could and would be made to happen. In truth this sort of thinking has been around for about a decade or so. The Wildlife Trusts call it ‘Living Landscapes’, the RSPB call it ‘Futurescapes’, and others call it other things such as rewilding, landscape scale conservation or whatever. It all adds up to the same thing- we have to turn around from looking inwardly at small, isolated, nature reserves and look outward across the wider countryside; that is the only thing that will work.
The good news: government listened.
In 2011 it published a white paper called ‘The Natural Choice’ and amongst a lot of other guff, it set into action the creation of 12 (now rebranded) ‘Nature Improvement Areas’, each to be governed by a partnership of organisations. Perhaps predictably the cheque fell short at only £7.5 million (Lawton forecast the cost of restoring nature would be around £1 billion per year). Since then a national competition has established the first 12 sites (from over 70 applications) and they have already begun their work. The 12 sites can be found on the Natural England website here. It is hoped that many of the others will get funding from elsewhere and also get started soon; some had already got underway without government help.
Ok, so where does farming fit in? Firstly, importantly, these areas are not nature reserves; they include substantial areas of farmland, forestry and some urban areas too. I repeat, these are not nature reserves, Lawton did not say we should or could simply have more, bigger and better nature reserves: the government would simply have said no. So, what sort of land are we actually talking about? Well, in short, a lot of farms.
They will not be protected with fences or reserve wardens or even laws (there has been no new legislation to create Nature Improvement Areas). This is a sea change because it places the emphasis upon everyone involved to recognize the value of nature and work together to make more space for it, to manage land for it, to join it up across land ownership boundaries and to integrate it, sustainably, into whatever social or economic purpose the land is used for… and the land is mostly used for farming.
Now I think about it, I am not entirely sure we conservationists have really, fully appreciated the consequences of our lobbying for landscape scale conservation. I feel sure it is right, the only thing to do against the backdrop of our all too clear failure; but is this really what we intended- we have just placed the responsibility for restoring nature into the hands of farmers!
We’ve just said, ‘hell, we’ve failed, we can’t do this on our own, we need you.’ Ok, not so dramatic perhaps, we have in our own way ensured there is at least a reservoir, a deposit if you will, of nature from which to re-inoculate the rest of the countryside. And we have skills, knowledge and some means to help along the way. 12% of the land is still a lot of acres and we do have something to offer. But still, we are saying that the future of nature is no longer solely in our hands ( we may not be branding it like that; that would never do of course; we have to show our paid up members something for their direct debits).
And so, this begs the question; just who or what have we gotten into bed with? Can farmers be trusted to restore nature? After all, wasn’t it farmers that poisoned the land with pesticides, that polluted it with fertilisers and then destroyed it with monocultures, ripped out hedgerows and drained wetlands within an inch of their life?
Well, yes, and then again, no. You can read elsewhere on this campaign site how the individual farmer was gradually beaten into metaphorical submission by the corporation, so I’ll not labour the point here. But the importance should not be lost; the individual farmer who works and lives from the land, who cares about his soil, who knows his landscape and tends to his craft as much as his livestock – actually when it comes down to it, I can’t think of a better pair of hands in which to place the future of nature – because it was only when nature was wrested from the individual farmers control in the first place that it all started to go wrong.
Let’s hand it back, willingly and see what we conservationists can do to help along the way… the subject to which I will turn next time.
Part-time farmer update: I am moving, out of the city and into the countryside! With a front garden and a back garden, a veggie patch, a herb garden and I hope farmers for neighbours… wish me luck.