Tag Archives: Politics

Nature Improvement Area Annual Forum 2014 – influencing the future of conservation in England

NIA Forum - Sept 2014

The Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Annual Forum took place in London yesterday and the Nene Valley NIA was well represented, with five of us from the University of Northampton attending, plus representatives from our partners in the Wildlife Trust, the River Nene Regional Park, the RSPB, and the River Restoration Centre.  It was an opportunity to see and hear what the twelve NIAs have achieved in the two and a half years since their inception, to compare notes, and (importantly) to think about the future of the NIAs.

The NIAs, as I’ve mentioned before, were meant to be pilot, flagship schemes to show how the future of conservation in England could become bigger, better and more connected across large swathes of landscape.  Their origin lies in the Lawton Report and Professor Sir John Lawton kicked off the day with a general introduction that, from the very beginning, brought up the one thing on everybody’s mind that day: the financial sustainability of the NIAs. The money runs out in March 2015, so where do we go from there?  All of the NIAs (ourselves included) have been applying for funding to continue the good work being done, but, as John Lawton, pointed out, if the Government is serous about the NIAs and wishes them to continue, there needs to be an investment of public money.  I deliberately use the term “investment” because we know that the natural environment of our islands plays a significant role in public health and the national economy more broadly.

John Lawton’s introduction was followed by a short speech by Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science (who, incidentally, gave a nod in his speech to the National Pollinator Strategy). The Minister said a lot of the right things, how impressed he was with the NIA programme, that the government was committed to it in practice (but not necessarily financially), etc., etc.  There followed another speech by Andrew Sells, Chair of Natural England, who listed some of the achievements of the NIAs (see below), including the fact that for every £1 of Government funding, £3.50 was leveraged from other sources to support the activities of NIAs across the country.

There was an opportunity to ask questions of the first two speakers, plus representatives from the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, the first of which came from our own Oliver Burke who asked about the government’s vision of the future of the NIAs.  All of the panel agree that there was a future, they just were not sure what it was, though there was commitment from Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) that their staff would continue to advise and support NIA activities as part of their core activities.  That’s promising though perhaps not surprising given the nature of most of the partnerships, involving organisations that the NE and the EA would normally work with anyway.

The question I wanted to ask, had I found the right form of words, would have been about the current Government’s poor record on the environment.  But by the time I worked out a way of saying it that didn’t make it sound like a simple attack on the coalition, the opportunity was over.  A whistle-stop tour by the Minister and his coterie of the displays set out by the NIAs followed, which John Lawton later said had visibly impressed Lord de Mauley.  Amongst the achievements of the twelve NIAs, after only two years of activity, are:

  • Tens of thousand of hectares of priority and other habitats created, restored and/or improved in condition
  • Hundreds of kilometres of boundary and linear habitat (e.g. hedgerows) restored/created/improved
  • Tens of thousands of days of volunteer time devoted to the NIAs
  • Thousands of  people participating in educational visits.
  • Thousands of hectares of habitat managed specifically for ecosystem services such as improving water quality.

After lunch there were further talks including one from Simon Smith about the Cotswolds Ecological Networks project which had been one of the 70 applicants for NIA funding, was unsuccessful, and (impressively) went ahead with the project anyway as an “unofficial” NIA.  The Nene Valley NIA’s interactive website and photography competition was also highlighted in a talk by Helen Ashley from Dialogue by Design, and Dr Andy Stott from Defra discussed the monitoring and evaluation report for year 2 of the NIA programme.

Later in the afternoon we had a workshop at which, in small groups, we brainstormed some pressing questions, including (not surprisingly) innovative funding streams, and using the evidence base to demonstrate the effectiveness of the NIAs.  With regard to the latter it would seem sensible to use independent, long-term monitoring data such as the repeated species counts done by Butterfly Conservation (e.g. Big Butterfly Count) and the British Trust for Ornithology (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey) to verify whether or not the NIAs are being effective, though this of course requires that surveys have historically taken place within the NIAs (something that is certainly true for the Nene Valley NIA).  This would require quite a bit of coordination with the NGOs concerned, but should be doable.  I’d happily develop such a project if there’s someone out there with funding!

And then, with some final, supportive words from John Lawton, the day was over and we started to disperse out into an unseasonably warm mid-September London.  Several of us from the Nene Valley and the RSPB decamped to a great local pub (The Lord John Russell) to discuss the day.  One of the topics that everyone was talking about was, of course, the Scottish Referendum.  As I write this the country is absorbing the news that Scotland is to remain part of the UK.  As far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing because (amongst other reasons) I think that a vote for independence would have negatively affected conservation in the British Isles.  Political focus of all government departments would move from environmental issues and on to trying to manage the split, which would take up a huge amount of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.  And NGOs such as the RSPB would have to devote time and resources to considering how they manage and fund their organisations, given their cross-border roles. That could have been to the detriment of Scottish conservation given that most of the funding is flowing south to north (which is purely a function of population size – there are many times more members in England and Wales than in Scotland).

Thank you Scotland, you’ve done the right thing.  And thank you to all 12 NIAs, you’ve shown the Government how successful large-scale nature conservation can be: let us hope they take notice.




Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Hedgerows, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton

Is the current UK government the “greenest” ever?

Mainz 2009 013



Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem services

Bad news for British biodiversity and a comment on ecosystem services

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Two related things have caught my eye this morning that I think deserve a quick blog entry.  The first is that Julia Leventon has posted an interesting piece on her frustrations with the ecosystem services concept over on the Ideas for Sustainability blog.  Go and read it – Julia raises some important points about the mismatch between our ever-more sophisticated concepts of ecosystem services and what it means to actually manage/support them within our society.  One of the things she said really struck me as it chimes with what I feel is a weakness of the current ecosystem services research agenda.  Julia says that:

I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits.”

This I completely agree with. The underlying science (ecology/biodiversity/natural history/call it what you will) of ecosystem services is hugely complex, even for a reasonably well defined service such as crop pollination. As someone who has studied pollination ecology for 25 years I know how little we truly understand – yet this is supposed to be one of the more “straightforward” ecosystem services!

But to implement the ecosystem services concept within society we don’t need to know the finer details and dynamics of the species/communities/ecosystems involved (as interesting as they are). What we require is as much natural and semi-natural habitat within a landscape as is possible, appropriately managed (or left alone), and with as few anthropogenic stressors on it as possible (e.g. pesticides and other pollutants).  And we’ve known that for many years, long before ecosystem services was coined as a term in the 1980s.

Yet governments and agri-business consistently fail to deliver this basic requirement and our natural environment is becoming ever-less diverse and hospitable to the biodiversity that sustains ecosystem services.  See for example the latest bit of bad news regarding species-rich meadows in the UK, which are still declining long after it was pointed out that over 90% had disappeared: legislation designed to protect these grasslands seems to have had the opposite effect.  These are exactly the same kinds of habitats that are considered most important for the pollinators that agriculture relies upon!

The concept of ecosystem services, in my opinion, is a valuable one for focusing attention on the importance of the natural world, though there are others who disagree.  But the concept does not have to become mired down in the “ever more complex physical constructs” that Julia describes in her post. Let’s keep it simple and focus on what’s important rather than disappearing into a conceptual black hole that excludes practitioners, government, business and the public*.


*The photograph above was taken a couple of weeks ago at Northampton’s Umbrella Fair, where I presented an over view of the importance of pollinators, and the idea of ecosystem services, to a small, [ahem] “mixed” audience, which included restless kids and incomprehensible drunks, in a marquee which was too light for the laptop projector to work.  But if even one of those who attended “got” the idea of ecosystem services I consider my job well done!


Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Pollination

Who protects our biodiversity? The public does!

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In a post back in February I asked the question “Who protects our biodiversity?” and highlighted the disgraceful behaviour of Derby Council in wanting to build a cycle track that would destroy a large proportion of The Sanctuary Local Nature Reserve.  Despite petitions and strong public protest, the Council voted to go ahead with the development and site clearance work quickly began.  However a High Court injunction was taken out, forcing them to pause the work until the legal ramifications of using Lottery funding for such a project were investigated.

Well, despite the odds and a seemingly bloody minded council determined to push ahead with the project, all of these efforts have worked:  Derby Council has abandoned its plans for the site – it’s been saved!  I learned the good news this morning in an email from Nick Moyes from the Save Our Sanctuary coalition. Nick writes:

“I am delighted to tell you that very late yesterday afternoon we were stunned and delighted to learn that Derby City Council had announced it was abandoning plans to build a cycle race track on top of The Sanctuary Bird Reserve and LNR at Pride Park in Derby.

This vindicates all the reasoned arguments and effort that everyone in our coalition of wildlife groups has put in over the last few months, and shows we can all work together to make a difference, and affect decisions that harm the environment. It’s just such a shame that a lot of damage has already been done to the LNR, though this should recover in time, if managed correctly.

I think we all believed this was a flawed project from the start. Well, everyone that is, except for one deputy chief executive and one councillor responsible for Leisure who made it their objective to push through this ill-conceived scheme at almost any cost (plus a Labour leader who publicly gave his support, too).  In statements in the press, Derby Council now appears to be trying to blame its sudden decision to pull out on the delays and additional costs caused by the successful granting of a Judicial Review following brave action in the High Court by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Perhaps this is to be expected – it’s easier than admitting it was a flawed project with dubious funding sources which could so easily have been built elsewhere in the city. But they only have themselves to blame for creating this mess by choosing to ignore all the advice and objections offered to them right from 2011 – with inevitable consequences.

It would be a shame if Derby Council cannot admit it simply ‘got it wrong’. It certainly needs to quickly put right the damage it has already done to the LNR. There are so many people to thank, as everyone played their part in one way or another. Over 1000 people wrote letters and lodged online objections, lobbied councillors, flew aerial drones, published blog posts, wrote to the papers, emailed people, wrote press releases, sent tweets, attended consultation events, made placards, organised demonstrations, lobbied people in the streets, joined a coalition, wrote to the papers and so very much more.

No doubt there is still much more of this story to play out. But for now we can all celebrate the fact that a coalition of wildlife groups came together for the first time in this way, mobilised its arguments and its supporters, and collectively managed to defeat a Labour-controlled local authority which was determined to go back on its public commitment to protect a Local Nature Reserve that it once declared as of great importance to biodiversity. Not only that – but there are no doubt many other LNR support groups around the country that will now breathe a collective sigh of relief that this terrible precedent of a council so easily choosing to vote itself powers to destroy and develop a large part of its own LNR has been lifted.”

This is such good news to receive on a beautiful early spring morning!  I’d like to think that Tony Benn, who died this week, would have approved of this example of people power in action.


Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Urban biodiversity

Who protects our biodiversity?

2012-10-29 15.37.10

Our elected politicians and councillors regularly pay lip service to the environment, to the need to be “sustainable”, and to the importance of conserving biodiversity. How many of them really believe this?

Fewer than half, if Derby Council is a representative sample.  Last night they decided (by one vote) to destroy almost fifty percent of The Sanctuary Local Nature Reserve, to build a cycle track.  Whilst not the most critical area for nature conservation in the country, The Sanctuary is nonetheless an important local urban site for a wide range of nesting birds, some of them rare and declining in the UK.  There’s a great video from a drone flight over the Reserve that gives a sense of the place, which I’ve never visited but nonetheless feel aggrieved at losing.  It diminishes us all when decisions such as this are made.

The fact that this was designated as a Local Nature Reserve by Derby Council in 2006, following a much-trumpeted opening ceremony, presided over by the then-Home Secretary Margaret Beckett MP in 2004, shows what a shower of hypocrites some of our local politicians really are.  I was first made aware of the campaign to save The Sanctuary by a guest post over on Mark Avery’s blog.  As requested, I wrote to Derby Council as follows:

To whom it may concern,

Following recent national publicity about the proposed development of The Sanctuary Local Nature Reserve (LNR) at Pride Park in Derby, I wish to object in the strongest possible terms about this initiative.

The Sanctuary LNR is a site of county-level importance for nature conservation and its disturbance would be a sad indictment of the council’s attitude towards the environment. It would also set a disturbing precedent for other councils to ignore nature conservation designations purely for economic development.

I look forward to hearing in the national media that this development will not go ahead.

I also posted links on all of the Facebook groups of which I’m a member, sent it to students, and so on. And despite strong objections to the Council from local and national sources, councillors decided that it was better to follow the money rather than listen to the people.

So much for democracy.  But as I said above, it also sets a precedent for the loss of Local Nature Reserves nationally: apparently they are dispensable.  In a recent post I gave an indication of how I feel about biodiversity offsetting and the mind set of politicians who support it.  The events of Derby don’t give me any more confidence that our elected representatives really care about nature, beyond sound bites and posturing.  Protection of sites for nature conservation seems to be as much a throw of the dice as any rational strategy in the UK.   


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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Urban biodiversity

Ordinary by Choice

August 2009 - including Gardeners World shoot 029

Until the system changed a few years ago it was a requirement of all course leaders at the University of Northampton to attend Award Boards at which the students graduating that year were named and their degree classification confirmed.  It was not popular with academics, as you can imagine, as we spent half a day waiting for the turn of “our” course.  Typically we would take manuscripts to revise or crosswords to complete, or a good book to read, until such time as it came to our own students.  As each student’s name was read aloud, their degree classification was confirmed:  “First Class Honours”, “Two-One” (Upper Second Class Honours), “Third” (Third Class Honours), and so forth.

One category was rarely used:  “Ordinary by Choice”, meaning that the student had not completed a final year dissertation and had opted to take an Ordinary, as opposed to Honours, degree.  It is a phrase that I was always struck by: except for a (perfectly respectable) Higher Education qualification, would anyone elect to be “Ordinary by Choice”?  Do we want that for our lives, our country, our society,  or even our environment: Ordinary by Choice?

The phrase came to mind last week when I heard about an interview with Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the current British Government.  Paterson, who coincidently studied at the precursor to the British School of Leather Technology here at Northampton, said that in the future it might be perfectly acceptable to build on ancient woodland if the destruction of that site was offset by planting trees elsewhere.  A spokesperson for his department later said that it was “highly unlikely” that such development would ever occur on ancient woodland, but that’s not the same as “never”.

In fact such destruction of ancient woodlands is currently being proposed by the development of the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) line from London to points north.  An analysis by the Wildlife Trusts of the currently proposed HS2 route shows that it will pass through “10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), more than 50 ancient woodlands and numerous local wildlife sites”.  Important wildlife sites are perhaps not as safe as government would have us believe.

From the outset let me say that in my opinion this notion of “biodiversity offsetting“, in which one can apparently trade like-for-like in the destruction and recreation of natural habitats, putting back or even enhancing the biodiversity of a region, is pure fantasy dreamt up by government.  It can’t be done.  It’s not possible.  The reason?  There are no complete inventories of the biodiversity of any patch of planet earth.  None.  Not even of a few square metres of arable grassland in rural England, a simple habitat in comparison to the fantastically complex biodiversity of an ancient woodland.  Such All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventories (ATBIs) have been proposed in the past, but never completed.

Now I am using a strict definition of biodiversity to include all of the diversity of life within an area, including not only plants, birds, mammals, and large insects, but also the many smaller insects and other invertebrates, algae, protists, fungi, and bacteria.  But that’s not what the proponents of “biodiversity offsetting” such as Owen Paterson have in mind when they champion the system.  What they really mean is “species offsetting”: for example cutting down an oak forest and replacing it with young oak trees planted some distance way; or destroying a wetland used by over-wintering birds and creating an artificial wetland at another locality.  In both cases the species in question will persist: oaks will grow and birds will over-winter.  The assumption is that the other elements of biodiversity, the neglected micr0-invertebrates, bacteria, lichens, fungi, and so on, will also return.  It may take some time, perhaps hundreds of years, but (goes the logic) they will eventually come back and the habitat will contain the richness of species that there was previously.

This may happen, but not for all species, particularly naturally rare organisms with small populations and low dispersal abilities.  The fact that (as I’ve noted) we have no complete inventories of biodiversity for anywhere on the planet means that we currently cannot be certain about how “biodiversity”, as opposed to “some of the larger and obvious elements of biodiversity”, can spread and re-establish.  In contrast, all of the available evidence suggests that the historical continuity of a site is vital to its current biodiversity.  Let me give you an example, in fact from a data set that I’ve never published.

About the time I arrived in Northampton (in 1995) I started to develop a more serious interest in fungi – moulds, mushrooms, and toadstools.  Together with colleagues in the department and some of my students I began to systematically identify the fungi in a long, narrow patch of woodland (the “Shelter Belt”) on Park Campus.  Early on I set out a series of 1m x 1m quadrats and every week for two months I recorded which fungi appeared.  It was a short survey but very revealing because it was clear that there were differences in the diversity of fungi in different parts of the Shelter Belt, and that some areas had much richer diversity than others, even over a distance of a few tens of metres.

In fact the western side of the Shelter Belt contained almost twice as many species of fungi as the eastern side.  In addition there were few species on the eastern side that were unique to that area: most species were also found in the western portion.  This is despite the fact that the woodland appeared very homogenous: a linear strip dominated mainly by the non-native Black Pine (Pinus nigra) with an under-storey of common small trees such as Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Elder (Sambucus nigra) and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

A likely reason for this difference was revealed when we studied some old maps of the area; a sixteenth century map showed that there was a hedgerow on the site of the western part of the Shelter Belt from at least Tudor times, and probably much earlier.  This hedgerow may have been planted as a boundary for livestock, or may have been a remnant of an even older patch of woodland that was felled and managed to partition agricultural fields.  The presence of plants which are known ancient woodland indicator species, such as Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa), Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) was further evidence.

So an ancient hedgerow, now erased and replaced by later planting that was at least 50 years old (it appears on Google Earth historical imagery for 1945), was continuing to influence the biodiversity of a site long after it was gone.  But that influence was subtle and involved a neglected element of wildlife that is nonetheless vital to the natural world: fungi, which act as decomposers, consumers and recyclers, and without which a woodland could not function.

The definition of “ancient woodland” in England and Wales is an area of woodland that existed prior to 1600 and the Shelter Belt example shows why this definition is important: the history of a site has a huge impact on its biodiversity.  Simply planting a new woodland of young trees will not replace what is lost by the destruction of a site with historical continuity of habitat which is supporting slow-spreading species.

Government and the public have a choice: we can sanction the destruction of truly biodiverse sites such as ancient woodland and replace them with ordinary ones, such as new planting of trees on farmland.  Is that what we want, an environment in Britain that is Ordinary by Choice?



Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Hedgerows, University of Northampton