“Conservation is no longer enough.” One view of why the UK needs to double its space for nature

The new head of the Wildlife Trusts thinks the country needs an abundance of nature in its plan to halt climate change and encourage a biodiversity boom. Here's how he sees it happening.

Monday, May 11, 2020,
By Jonathan Manning
A crisis of biodiversity is facing the planet – and its falling numbers start with invertebrates and ...

A crisis of biodiversity is facing the planet – and its falling numbers start with invertebrates and plants, whose co-dependency in decline could plunge the world into crisis. 

Photograph by Alan Mather / Alamy

Skies filled with birds, infinite clouds of insects, armies of invertebrates, vast expanses of wetland and wild landscapes, seas teeming with life: to ecologists, this is an increasingly nostalgic scenario. To recapture it, the UK needs to restore its abundance of nature, revive ecosystem processes, and reverse the UK’s status as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

This is according to the new head of the Wildlife TrustsDr Craig Bennett. In a rallying call to the country as he took up his position in early April, Bennett said the UK must treat the nature and climate emergencies as genuine emergencies, committing to bold action – and engaging the nation in a campaign to become the first industrialised country to reboot and rebuild its natural world.

“We want to double the space for nature on land and sea in the UK, to make sure we go from about 15% of our land being managed for nature to about 30% to support nature’s recovery,” he said.

“If the UK, the country where the Industrial Revolution started and one of the oldest industrial economies, can become somewhere that nature is recovering... how exciting is that as a beacon to the rest of the world?”

Nature conservation is no longer an adequate response if it is simply conserving dwindling species and diminished habitats, says Bennett. Recovery involves a return to a natural world of abundance, the process kickstarted by tackling the climate and nature emergencies as a single conjoined challenge. And, to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, it’s a fight in the air as well as the fields, hills, streets, beaches and oceans.

Bennett's vision aims to return our seas to the vibrant health they enjoyed two centuries ago, a time when the waters boiled with fish, when 3-metre long cod were commonplace, and where pods of dolphins numbered hundreds not tens of animals.

He wants this transformation of the UK’s natural world to be well underway by 2030, and while he accepts that this is an ambitious vision, he counters that the coronavirus lockdown has delivered copious evidence that people want to connect with nature, that they seek solace in the natural world. Viewing figures for the Wildlife Trust’s nature-watching webcams have soared, while the internet is awash with self-isolated citizens watching the bees, birds and butterflies out of their windows and seeking advice on how to create wildlife-friendly gardens.

Bennett took up his position in April.

Photograph by Richard Jinman / The Wildlife Trusts

“We need to make sure sure there’s a positive relationship between humanity and nature, rather than constantly behaving as if we are almost enemies.”

Craig Bennett

“We need to make sure sure there’s a positive relationship between humanity and nature, rather than constantly behaving as if we are almost enemies. Humans and nature have got to be on the same team,” said Bennett. “We’re facing global health, climate and ecological emergencies, and people are turning to, and need, nature more than ever.”

This groundswell of action and support is very much in line with the type of community action that Bennett has championed throughout his career. He arrives at the Wildlife Trusts from Friends of the Earth, where as CEO he led successful campaigns to block the expansion of Heathrow Airport and impose a moratorium on fracking.

Bennett insists the federal nature of the Wildlife Trusts, with its 46 local trusts, gives it the perfect structure to mobilise communities in support of nature.

“The trusts understand how to take a big vision and translate it on the ground at a local level, involving local people. We have tens of thousands of volunteers, hundreds of thousands of supporters, thousands of staff and hundreds of trustees to make that happen. That is the way we are going to solve these crises,” he said.

'Bee Roads,' a conservation scheme by the Wildlife Trusts, aimed to create roadside nature reserves to assist the proliferation of invertebrates and pollinators and increase biodiversity alongside human-dominated environments.  

Photograph by James Bell / Alamy

Local Wildlife Trusts have a long history of rolling up their sleeves to protect and enhance vulnerable habitats. The organisation itself is over a century old, emerging from Charles Rothschild’s Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves. The banker and naturalist redirected the crosshairs of nature conservation from protecting individual species to safeguarding wider habitats, which he considered to be under threat from modernisation. His quest to defend moors, meadows, woods and fens started with the acquisition of 339 acres of wild fenland in Cambridgeshire. Today, the 46 Wildlife Trusts manage 2,300 nature reserves covering 250,000 acres, and advise on how a further half a million acres are managed.

These reserves do vital work, said Bennett, restoring woodland, re-wetting peat bogs and supporting the recovery of salt marshes, as well as defending and nurturing rare species. Trusts have also been at the forefront of projects to reintroduce beavers and other native species to the UK, filling gaping holes in local ecosystems. But, he added, the UK’s potentially rich and diverse ecosystems cannot survive and thrive if they are restricted to these oases. Doubling the area of land managed for the benefit of nature by 2030 will require the creation of a Nature Recovery Network, building new and restoring former wildlife corridors so plants, insects and animals can move around and expand into new areas.

“Nature reserves provide the foundations for nature’s recovery, but we’re talking about and celebrating the need for nature in the wider environment,” said Bennett. “Perhaps for too long in the nature conservation movement in this country we have understandably focused on the rare and precious, both species and habitats, and it was key that we did so. But I’m keen now that we talk about the recovery of our abundance, because it’s an abundance of nature and an abundance of species that leads to fully robust ecosystems and that’s what we’re missing.”

The days when summer evening drives finished with car windscreens splattered with insects have long gone – a situation of abundance Bennett wants to see back. He wants to see hedgerows, roadside verges, riverbanks and land by railway tracks transformed into nature-friendly environments – and the chemical overdosing of farmland come to an end. It is shocking, he said, that bees and many invertebrates are in a better state in the UK’s towns and cities than in its countryside.

The May 2020 issue of National Geographic Magazine features a special investigation into the ‘insect apocalypse’. Find out how to access it here

Bennett is also advocating for an end to the abrupt demarcation of one landscape from another, and personally cherishes natural transitions from wetland to scrub, or forest to rock above the treeline on mountains. All are natural no-man’s-lands where one habitat blurs into another due to ecological conditions rather than manmade intervention.

“The natural transition from one habitat to another is one of the most beautiful things in nature,” said Bennett. “Sadly in the UK what you see is one habitat ends because of human interference or a fence, rather than a natural graduation from one to another. With the Wildlife Trust’s vision I’m hoping more people in the UK get to experience how you move from one habitat to another – not because someone has chosen for that to happen but because that’s what nature wants to do. That, for me, is a key indicator of whether we have actually got robust, fully functioning ecosystems again.”

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