Did we ever have a 'good state of nature'?
This blog post was inspired by a PeCAN supporter who wrote to ask “when did we ever have a good state of nature”?
It is quite likely that the bucolic countryside of local poet Edward Thomas showed nature in a good state. Thomas was born around 150 years ago at a time when gentler, pre-industrial agricultural methods and a smaller population allowed us to farm in close harmony with the natural environment. Or perhaps we could look back to Gilbert White's Selborne of the 18th Century. Of course, we were not measuring ecosystem health in those times (ecology was not an academic discipline until the 1970’s), but it is known that human impacts on the land were on the whole positive, such as the establishment of chalk downland as a direct result of grazing animals.
The need for nature conservation
Modern farming with its use of pesticides, inorganic fertilisers, mono-culture crops and high stocking densities, came of age after WWII and has since destroyed much of the balance with nature that Thomas and White enjoyed back in their day. We know this because with the advent of the discipline of ecology, there are now established methods to assess populations of species, a recognition of “indicator” species, and knowledge about the size of habitat required by very many species - at least those that are most studied, often when their status has become perilous.
Governmental organisations, like Natural England (NE) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) as well as non-governmental groups such as The Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust, have been studying our wildlife and the health of our ecosystems since the end of WWII. Since the 1950’s sites were being designated as nature reserves, and areas were declared National Parks alongside the post-war farming boom, which, even then, was seen as a threat to wildlife with its increasing use of artificial nitrate fertiliser, intensification of livestock rearing, application of pesticides and herbicides, hedgerow and woodland removal, stream canalisation and drainage.
You might have read various science writers from way back alerting us to the dangers of intensive farming methods, of rapid development for housing and roads, and from over-use of natural resources such as water, and how this will impact ecosystems. Authors like Marion Shoard and Derek Ratcliffe come to mind. Plantlife, The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB have also sounded warnings, have foretold the extinction of species and have brought species “back from the brink”. Wildlife presenters from David Bellamy to Chris Packham have amplified this message.
How bad is it?
Two reports - State of Nature 2019 from the National Biodiversity Network and a 2017 report called Insect Armageddon from Germany, point to the real likelihood of ecosystem collapse due to the invertebrate elements of the food chain being absent. It has also recently been established that if one species in a food web fails, the whole ecosystem of which it was a part, will also fail, resulting in ecosystem collapse. In a comprehensive study of our most protected nature areas, NE found that only 38% of our sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) were in good ecosystem health compared to when they were designated (1950 - 1981). The rest were in decline or ‘recovering’. The UK scored the tenth worst country in the World for its parlous state of nature, as reported in the State of Nature report.
You might wonder why this matters. You might think the alarm bells are exaggerated. Then it is time to think again because we actually need functioning ecosystems to help us navigate climate change. Healthy ecosystems absorb carbon, floodwater, excess heat and pollution. They literally provide Ecosystem Services, also called Natural Capital, or you might hear Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG), when greenspace is factored into planning offsetting.
Campaigning really works – enter “30 by 30”
Fortunately, the government has listened to the combined voices of our wildlife charities, whose nature recovery campaign called for 30% of land and 30% of sea to be protected for nature by 2030. "30 by 30" is now a target of the UKs Environment Act 2021 and the UN's Biodiversity COP15 which took place last December. Our previous, previous, Prime Minister had claimed that 26% of England is already protected for nature and has pledged to protect another 4% by 2030. Unfortunately, he is completely wrong (presumably he totalled up all National Parks and other public open space, perhaps even sports pitches, much of which is not managed primarily for nature).
The State of Nature report actually found that as little as 5% of the UK’s land area may be protected and effectively managed for nature. In England this figure drops to around 3%. Please note that Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) designations cover only around 8% of England and well over half of them are in poor ecosystem health.
We begin to see there is a very long way to go to 30% protected for nature in the next seven years. It is now widely accepted that what is required is “nature recovery”, a term proposed by The Wildlife Trusts, and this is now embedded into a range of Government schemes created since Brexit. These include schemes run by Defra, the Forestry Commission, National Parks and by Natural England.
Natural England has been given new powers to roll out a programme of nature recovery, including working with local authorities on urban green infrastructure, to try and increase biodiversity across a range of land-uses, including public open spaces, verges, roundabouts, sports-grounds, school-grounds and churchyards.
In the wider countryside, largely to the credit of Michael Gove post-Brexit, nature-friendly farming is to be rewarded. Defra has announced a second round of Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) that are seeing farms cluster together to restore lost habitat and recover farmland species such as lapwing and skylark. We are fortunate to have three such clusters very near to Petersfield, overseen by the SDNP. We will be introducing you to them soon.
30% of oceans?
The world's oceans are essential for supporting life on Earth. These ecosystems cover about 71% of the Earth's surface and produce half the oxygen we breathe. However, almost two-thirds of this area lies outside national boundaries.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was established in 1982, allowing countries to fish, ship and conduct research in international waters. Only 1.2% of these areas are protected. A new Oceans Treaty was signed in March committing the World to protect 30% of the “high seas”. This was a major success for Greenpeace, who can claim the credit here. It is important to point out that this only applies to international waters and not national coastal areas. Around our coast only 4% is in a “no-take” zone; 95% of our UK waters are unprotected.
What we can do locally
The sad truth is that we have left nature conservation behind (the field I worked in for many years), because now we need to recover what we have lost since the 1950's in order to ensure functioning ecosystems that will help us adapt to climate change effects.
The take-home message from all of this? Campaigning works and every single piece of greenspace now matters more than ever before. Working with my fellow Trustee Liz Bisset, we hope PeCAN, working with gardeners, local councils and the National Park, can engage people in this important initiative. We will be giving talks, walks and running workshops on how we can all contribute to nature recovery.
Melanie Oxley, PeCAN trustee
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From Adlestrop by Edward Thomas