Wild Frontier: To boldly go where no Northerner has gone before!

I’ve been a seasonal assistant ecologist at Wild Frontier Ecology for 9 months and I’d like to think that I’ve come a long way and learnt a lot. From my first day when I arrived fresh faced and excited, through the newt season (when we all became decidedly less fresh faced but no less excited), past fields of phase 1s to finally ending up sat at a desk wearing a bobble hat and inputting bird data it’s been a wonderful adventure of ups, downs and occasional horizontals (most notably when I slipped on a sugar beet and ended up lying on my side looking up at a rather amused colleague).
I started in April, the lone seasonal (for a whole week), and was soon up to my armpits (literally) in bright pink disinfectant. I loved the great crested newt season, even with the late nights. It’s incredibly exciting pointing a torch bigger than your own head at a pond and not only spotting a GCN but suddenly realising you’ve managed to learn to tell whether it’s a male or female. However, the down is just around the corner and comes in the form of over 200 used bottle traps that need be disinfected before they can go near another pond… and that’s what seasonal assistants are for. By the end of the newt season not only was I good at newt surveys I had become incredibly efficient at bottle washing, cane wiping and boot cleaning. At least we had playing tennis at lunchtime on the courts outside the office and laughing at each other falling in ponds to keep us sane.
After newts came the reptiles and phase 1 surveys, hours of walking around fields looking at your own feet, because let’s face it, most of the plants are on the floor and you don’t find many grass snakes up trees. It’s a steep learning curve of plant names, tree species, habitat types and reptile spotting but it beats the gym for getting you in to shape and you get a lovely tan (even if it is just on the back of your neck and that awkward spot where your t-shirt rides up). The rest of the team all know their stuff and are so willing to share their knowledge that by the end of the surveys I’d learnt to handle adders, catch slow worms (they’re only slow in name, believe me) and name most common trees (somehow I didn’t learn this skill on my marine biology degree).
By July we were well and truly into the bat surveys, which is different again (not least because you get to look up for a change) and presents a whole new set of adventures. Such as walking around fields in the dark, strapped to a bat detector and wishing you’d worn wellies. Or finding yourself sat in a ditch under a hedge hoping the herd of bullocks will get bored of you. A week later (and after some encouraging words from colleagues) I bravely walked back across the same field, gave the bullocks a stern talking to (along the lines of “I’m not scared of you, so there!”) and conquered my fear of cows! I also learnt to analyse bat data and recognise a variety of calls.
With October came rain and we had to change from outdoor tennis to ping-pong in the meeting room and I found myself sat over a microscope identifying aquatic invertebrates, a job which I thoroughly enjoyed as I have a particular interest in this group and love any excuse to learn more about them. Although, by the end of the samples I did see aquatic inverts every time I closed my eyes, but that may have just been the fumes from the preservative.
November arrived, the other seasonal assistants were long gone and the weather turned cold. I knitted a new hat and we all began the slow descent into the winter ecologist. All the data input and analysis, report writing, equipment cleaning and ping-pong playing that got neglected during the hectic field season needed doing. It was very different to the field work but analysing the data collected through the year and writing the reports was interesting in its own way and led to a deeper understanding of what we’d all achieved through the year by standing in fields and falling in ponds.
But now December is here and with it the end of my contract, with only the Christmas party to look forward to before I leave. So, how would I sum up the last 9 months? I think the best way would be to say that it’s a rollercoaster of late nights, cute critters, wet feet and tired eyes… but bring on March because I can’t wait to do it all again!

– Claire

1000 for 1ksq Challenge

I have always been keen on a challenge, and the naturalist’s gene is in my bones. The urge to identify, to name and classify the things around me is strong. And, I’m a competitive type. So, when I noticed that there was a new challenge (being organised by the BTO’s Andy Musgrove) to see if it was possible to record 1000 species of any and all kinds in a single square kilometre in a single year, it appealed.

Of course, if you are going to do these things properly, it needed some careful planning. Which square kilometre? How was I going to reach 1000 species? Well, as I am keen on moths I thought really the square would have to include my garden so I could add the 200 or so likely species of moth to my tally, plus the home advantage of being there a lot would help. And I would get the privilege of identifying all the various bugs that inhabit my house.

Reaching 1000 species was going to be tricky. A quick back-of-the-envelope indicated to me that I would have to get to grips with maybe 400 or so species which I have never tried to identify before. Yikes!! Had I got all the necessary skills, dedication, materials, and above all, time necessary to put towards the challenge? The answers were no, maybe, no, and no, but I thought I would give it a try anyway.

So, I started to explore. Being a handy botanist and ornithologist has served me well so far, and I have tallied around 110 plant species and 45 birds, as well as small numbers from other taxonomic groups. This has taken me to around 195 species, with a few species (for example, some tree lichens) on the “pending identification” list. A bit of extra kit is required, and I have bought a good hand lens, quite a few books, a macro lens for my iphone and a batch of useful pots for putting things in.

Common frog in the garden – only 999 more to go!

Common frog in the garden – only 999 more to go!

The most interesting thing about the 1000 for 1ksq challenge to me is that it gets you to see your immediate environment in a completely different way. You have to consider what features of the landscape are going to support the most biodiversity. A compost heap suddenly becomes a treasure trove, a pond is a soup of life, a stream is thus far an exciting untapped resource. Even that outbuilding becomes suddenly interesting, full of old spider webs and insect remains.

I hope to provide an update every now and then, no doubt a few more species will come when the weather warms up a bit.

 

Case Study: Sea Defence Works, Burnham Overy

Overview of Works

The works to repair and enhance the flood defences at Burnham Overy, and to repair the footpath through to Burnham Overy Staithe, were successfully completed in July 2011. The works were subject to delays as a result of the presence of natterjack toads and common lizards. A total of 338 lizards, 10 natterjack toads, 129 common toads, 10 common frogs and 6 smooth newts were translocated during the course of the project.

The natterjack toads and common lizard were moved into the dunes while the other amphibians were all released approximately 1km south of the start of the works area in the grazing marsh.

Before Works

View prior to work

View prior to work

The works at Burnham Overy were initially due to start in 2009, but were delayed as a result of a desk study that revealed the presence of natterjack toads on the site. It was too late in the 2009 season to survey for natterjack toads, and Natural England had also advised restrictions on the acceptable timing of the works in order to avoid disturbance to the wintering birds on the grazing marshes.  The project was necessarily delayed until the 2010, when it was anticipated that surveys would establish the level of presence by natterjack toads and mitigation to translocate reptiles and natterjack toads would commence.

In readiness for the start of works in 2010, reptile translocation from the bank was started (221 lizards were caught and translocated to the dunes) and a vegetation survey was conducted. The vegetation of the banks was cut short to reduce the habitat value for lizards and displace the majority of the population. The shrubby sea-blite and other potential refugia were removed from the bank and used to create an artificial reptile hibernacula at the back of the dunes.

The works to the bank were delayed, and did not start in 2010 Fortunately an agreement with Natural England was reached to remove the bird-related timing restrictions placed on the works so that these could be started in the spring of 2011. As the site is regularly disturbed by large numbers of walkers, dogs and cyclists, it was agreed that the increase in activity due to the works was unlikely to have a significant additional detrimental effect on nearby breeding birds.

Creating a reptile hibernacula

Creating a reptile hibernacula

Dry weather reduces the activity of natterjack toads significantly, and owing to the extraordinarily dry spring in 2011, the natterjack toad surveys and mitigation was again delayed. However, work continued to translocate lizards and to maintain the vegetation cutting to deter them from the bank. A further 72 common lizards were translocated in 2011 prior to the works.

Once the weather was suitable, torchlight searches for natterjacks began, and animals located on or near the bank were removed to suitable foraging habitat in the dunes.

61 natterjack toads were seen during the searches, which covered the bank and dunes. Of these 9 were on or near the bank and needed to be translocated.

During Works

The plan was to divide the bank into four sections. As each section was cleared of natterjacks and lizards, it could be signed off and the topsoil stripping could begin.

Works started in April 2011 on the end of the bank farthest from the dunes. The top soil stripping was overseen at all times by a minimum of two ecologists. 45 lizards were caught and translocated during the top soil stripping of the bank. 1 natterjack toad was unearthed in the last 50m of bank, right at the base of the bank in a patch of sand that was checked before being tracked over.

As the works coincided with the breeding bird season a survey was completed by a qualified ornithologist along the haulage and works corridor. The survey covered the works corridor plus a 50m buffer either side. There were strong indicators that birds were holding territories along the haulage route and in the salt and grazing marshes adjacent to the works corridor.

Seth checks for water vole

Seth checks for water vole

Bearded tit juveniles were seen in the reeds next to the haulage route confirming successful nesting during the works, and lapwing alarm calls from the grazing marsh indicated that they likely had chicks. Redshank, meadow pipit and little grebe were also heard calling from the marshes indicating that they were likely to be holding territories. Sedge warbler, blackbird, goldfinch, skylark, wren and reed warbler were heard singing this is also a sign that they were holding territories. Oystercatchers, spoonbill, black-tail godwits, little egret, tufted duck and shelduck were all observed foraging within 50m of the works corridor.

Access for this and future works to the bank was improved where the haulage route crossed over a dyke separating the grazing marsh from the foot of the bank. Improvements to the dyke crossing were mitigated for potential water vole impacts by cutting short the vegetation along the dyke edges to displace any activity. The digging works commenced with an ecologist on-site to monitor the turf stripping and to check any potential water vole burrows revealed by the gradual removal of soil.  No occupied water vole burrows were found during the works to prepare the dyke crossing.

Re-profiled clay bank before dressing

Re-profiled clay bank before dressing

The topsoil stripped from the floodbank was used to re-cover the front face of the repaired bank, while new topsoil was imported to dress the rear face. The rear face was seeded with a seed mix drawn up by the Environment Agency. The front face was not reseeded as the topsoil used to cover it originated from the bank and was presumed to have a viable seed bank. Some of the topsoil from the bank was also used to cover the artificial reptile hibernacula.

Post Works

In 2012, we have been back to the site to for natterjacks use along the works corridor and the surrounding area. Adult natterjacks were found within the dunes to the north of the works corridor. In the ponds closest to the works natterjack spawn was present along with 45 adult natterjacks. Males were heard calling from the ponds and grazing marshes. Adult toads were seen at the northern end, on the rear face, of the worked bank and around the hibernaculum.

New year, new ecologist!!?

It’s that time again, time to put the old you away and pull a shiny new you out of the wrapper. So, for ecologists I thought I would put together some new year resolutions to guide us through the brave new world of 2013 – well, January at least.

  1. Make your writing clearer. Those field notes are of no use whatsoever if you can’t read them only two days afterwards. One housing development can be fiendishly like another in these situations.
  2. Get those records off to the Biological Records Centre. Then hassle them to make sure they get put on to the database.
  3. Wipe down your desk to get rid of the hobnob crumbs, beard hairs and other detritus from the past year. Research has shown that ecologists desks are a focus for the MRSA bacteria.
  4. Polish your equipment. Need I say more?
  5. There are no bad guys, just different opinions. Be a good consultant.
  6. Keep your reference library up to date, and don’t ever disregard evidence where it’s available.
  7. Never leave your clipboard on top of the car. And never forget any equipment anywhere ever.
  8. Be more communicative, chat is a friend winner and people influencer.
  9. Improve your ID skills in an area that you know nothing about currently. One day fungus gnats will be flavour of the month.
  10. Make the most of the winter evenings, you know it’s going to be busy in the summer!

Finally, take a breather every now and then to enjoy nature. Remember, this is the reason you came to ecology, isn’t it?

Rob

IEEM Conferences

I have recently been to two excellent and thought-provoking conferences organised by the IEEM.

The first of these was a two day conference in Cardiff entitled Renewable Energy and Biodiversity Impacts. There was a wide range of speakers from diverse professional backgrounds, giving an interesting overview of various aspects of the interactions between renewables and wildlife. Aside from the (by now well known) bat and bird issues associated with onshore wind farms, there was consideration of other forms of renewable energy including solar parks, a potential Severn barrier and, of course, offshore wind.

I attended an IEEM conference on a similar theme in London a few years ago (I think 2006), and it was interesting to reflect on the changes in the zeitgeist between the two conferences. Of course, there has been a whole raft of new guidance for ecologists on surveys and EcIA for renewable energy developments in the intervening time, and this conference reflected that quite well. For example, whereas a few years ago a lot of the angst expressed seemed to be around bird/ turbine impacts, surveys for birds at proposed wind turbine sites are now steered by some generally good guidance, and the impression was given that general bird impacts are at least a better understood issue now, and as a result more quantifiable and ultimately can be better avoided.

However, not a single presentation gave evidence of bird carcass monitoring at operating wind farms, and it seems that there is still a lack of monitoring data and real-world collision rates for many bird species. This is a concern, long known about but still yet to be properly addressed through published materials. It is ironic that bat collisions are being well studied by Defra funded research from Exeter University, even though their potential collision risk has been of concern for less time than that for birds.

The second conference was a very well attended conference for the East of England section of the IEEM in Essex. There was some very interesting discussion around reptile issues, particularly from Dr David Sewell, Jim Foster, Nigel Hand and Paul Edgar. David’s talk gave an insight into the latest research on survey effort required for reptile and amphibian surveys, which led nicely into Jim’s discussion of the issues surrounding the new reptile survey guidance, its withdrawal and forthcoming re-issue. Nigel’s talk was very much more hands-on, describing the tracked movements of adders in the West Midlands. It seems that, in the early season at least, female adders are very sedentary, while males go a bit further afield to forage, but still not all that far. Paul’s talk gave us an interesting update on recent changes at Natural England, and perhaps an indication of future directions for that organisation.

All in all definitely worth the few days out of the office, and great to meet a few interesting fellow professionals as well.

Rob

Planning for Ecology Surveys

Christmas is well and truly gone, and many people are looking forward to a busy year ahead. If you are involved in submitting a planning application, or working on a new development proposal, our advice is to think ahead, and don’t get caught out by ecological surveys with a restricted season.

Below is our survey calendar, which will allow you to plan for commission of survey in a timely manner. WFE are usually positioned to provide a rapid response to client requests, but inevitably there are very busy periods when this is more of a challenge.

The narrowest survey season is for great crested newts, where at least 4 survey visits are normally spread between March and June. If your development has ponds nearby, these surveys may be required. As with many of the surveys, it can be problematic to remedy a missed survey window later in the season. In the event great crested newts are observed by surveys and considered to be affected by the proposal, it may take a further month or more to receive a development licence from Natural England.

Bat roost assessments for development can take place at any time of year. However, if signs of bats are found, further investigations in the form of evening emergence and/or dawn surveys will be required to support a development licence application. These surveys are seasonal, and would only be meaningful if undertaken in the time of year that bats are active, April to September.

Ecological appraisal and Phase 1 habitat survey, the look-see and scoping surveys for sites, can be undertaken at any time of year – however in areas rich in flora, a return visit may need to be made in the spring/ summer when some plant species are more visible. BREEAM and C4SH surveys are possible at any time of year although spring/ summer is preferable in terms of survey reliability.

Getting all surveys completed at the correct time of year greatly improves the prospect of a smooth and efficient passage towards planning permission, and will provide a sound basis for reaching solutions to any ecological issues. Our team are always ready to discuss particular proposals, so if in doubt, give us a call.

Rob

2011 – The story so far

This year has been pretty full on so far, with Wild Frontier Ecology being involved in a really interesting variety of projects all over the country. We have also been busy improving our work space, making the second office into a pleasant and convivial meeting place.

Workwise, much of the early season was devoted to reptile and amphibian works, with a lot of staff time devoted to the Broadland Flood Alleviation Project, and two mitigation schemes, one in West Norfolk and the other along a popular stretch of the Norfolk Coast at Burnham Overy.

Taking lizards to the Dunes at Burnham Overy

Taking lizards to the Dunes at Burnham Overy

The latter was a rare chance to work with natterjack toads, a European protected species of restricted range. This slow, warty creeper of the dunes loves to burrow into soft sand, so we had to make sure that areas disturbed by essential sea wall maintenance were natterjack free. An interesting by-catch was a large number of common lizards, removed to the safety of the dunes to prevent killing and injury.

Breeding bird surveys also run in the April to June period, and we were assigned a number of wind farm proposal sites to survey. These proposals are often in intensive farmland, so the yield of interesting bird species can be quite low, although sometimes we are lucky enough to encounter a few goodies. Over the years this kind of survey has picked up stone curlew, crane, woodlark, quail and red-backed shrike, as well as good fistfuls of red and amber-listed farmland birds. This kind of survey is highly skilled, with the surveyor needing to know songs and calls of a large number of species.

Typical BREEAM site

Typical BREEAM site

This year has seen a definite upturn in the number of BREEAM and Code for Sustainable Homes assessments we have been involved with. These are often brownfield sites, and as the BREEAM credit system is based on the number of plant species present, it is usually to the developer’s benefit that the existing site is not very diverse. However, we do find that most of our clients are very keen to create a positive biodiversity benefit, even on the most urban of sites.

Pipistrelle Roost, Norfolk Barn

Pipistrelle Roost, Norfolk Barn

Our Norfolk bat surveys, as well as those in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, have been turning up a good number and variety of bat species this year. Typically barn conversions or demolition/ rebuilds, the most frequent species are the two pipistrelle species and long-eared bat. The enigmatic barbastelle appears from time to time, although often as a single specimen. Bat surveys on wind farm sites are also rolling on, and we now have an impressive silent army of static detectors for this purpose. Transect surveys with handheld Duet bat detectors are also a regular feature of the wind farm investigations.

Finally, we have also been busy attending the small wind conference in March, giving presentations on small wind developments and ecological risk, contributing to research into Norfolk barbastelles, showing reptiles to members of the public and conducting bat walks.

Looking forward, the autumn is likely to bring a lot more bat surveys, and often a rush of small development projects as they look to get planning permission before the winter sets in. There is often another peak of reptile work in August/ September, while bird vantage point surveys continue, and reports and assessments become more of a priority.

Rob

Commuting Gulls

I’ve always been fascinated by the daily movements of gulls across the part of north Norfolk that I know so well. Ever since I can remember, looking up to the skies on a winter’s afternoon, I would see numbers of gulls in straggling V formations heading northwards towards the coast. In my razor sharp teens I would set up my telescope out of my bedroom window to watch and count the considerable formations of black-headed, common, herring, greater and lesser black-backed gulls steadily moving coastwards.

Gulls in flight

Gulls in flight

Of course, I wanted to know where these birds were heading, where they had been and what they were doing during the day. I still haven’t really got all the answers, but gradually a few observations have helped me to have some understanding of this daily commute as predictable as the sunrise and sunset.

The general pattern seems to be that of a night-time gull roost at the coast, probably Wells Harbour, but maybe other places too. Then, as I have now seen many times, a dawn or pre-dawn southward movement and dispersal. This is very noticeable at my house in Foulsham, where each morning flocks of common and black-headed gulls come in low across the fields from the north-west, often settling for a short time before moving on.

During the daytime, the gulls often display a more random movement, presumably roaming in search of good food sources. Then, early or mid-afternoon, the familiar V shaped formations start appearing with a steady northward bearing, back to the coast. There is at least one regular en-route stop-off, the lake at Holkham Park where gulls will pause for a brief wash before flying down the length of the serpentine lake towards the tidal sands of Wells.

Although the five species mentioned above are the most usual, other gulls will inevitably get caught up in these daily movements. Viewed from my stupendous back garden one early morning a few years ago in March were two perfect summer plumaged adult Mediterranean gulls, mixed in with the commons and black-heads. I am sure that keen gull-watchers would find yellow-legged, Caspian and maybe glaucous and Iceland gulls every now and then.

Some mysteries remain. Presumably in other areas, the gulls perform the same commuting movements to and from other roosts. It would be interesting to map the hinterland from each roost; how far is a gull prepared to fly for its scavenged lunch?; what observations have been made at the north Norfolk roost (numbers? What happens when it’s high tide?; And are there well-used flight lines overland, or is it just a random spread of flocks across a broad front (I think there are flight lines).

For me, a wintry Norfolk sunset is not complete without a gull or two.

Rob

Robert Yaxley

Robert Yaxley

Rob Yaxley is Wild Frontier’s director and chief gull lover. His hobbies include obsessive pursuits such as counting the freckles on his children’s faces, adding up the numbers on number plates and collecting wooden rhinoceri under 10cm in length.

What is Phase 1?

The Phase 1 habitat survey. To those in the industry this is a well known term; to those outside our little world this can be another piece of mysterious jargon. So here is my guide to a ‘Phase 1 habitat survey’.

A Phase 1 habitat survey is designed to map an area under consideration based on the habitats present. As ecological consultants we use it as tool to inform on the need for further survey; as a baseline to record an area’s current state; or to help in the impact assessment of a development.

In a Phase 1 habitat survey, habitats are assigned a type in accordance with guidance set down by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC); primarily this refers to the landscape structure and vegetation present. With standardised habitat definitions and map colour schemes, areas can be compared at a national level. As well as large habitat areas, boundary features are also assessed and classified. Hedges and ditches can also be important habitats. The output from a Phase 1 habitat survey is often a colourful map, with additional “target notes” to provide further information on any points of interest and habitats too small to map.

Whilst a Phase 1 habitat survey is exceedingly useful, an extended Phase 1 habitat survey is often preferred. This provides further information on a site, above that specified by JNCC, and allows the survey results to be of use in the context required, for example the assessment of a proposed development. An extended survey might include more detailed information on hedgerows, a botanical species list, and a further appraisal of the areas as habitat for legally protected species. As the major component of any Phase 1 habitat survey is the time taken walking the site the extended survey information can generally be obtained with minimal additional effort on the part of a competent surveyor.

A Phase 1 habitat survey is generally the first survey undertaken at a site and is often akin to a site assessment. By determining what habitats are present on a site the ecologist can say what, if any, protected species might be supported there. They can then assess the need for any further targeted surveys. Common protected species surveys in lowland habitats are for badgers, bats, breeding birds, great crested newts, otter, reptiles and water vole. However, it is exceptional that all these surveys would be required on a small site. Although protected species surveys are generally the second phase of ecological assessment of a site, in the jargon a Phase 2 survey specifically would refer to further botanical work on a site. This is generally in the form of a more detailed vegetation survey called ‘National Vegetation Classification’ (NVC). For the majority of lowland development work this level of vegetation survey is not necessary.

Ideally a Phase 1 habitat survey would be the first survey undertaken, this is inevitably not always the case. A Phase 1 habitat survey is best conducted between April and October when deciduous and annual plant species are identifiable. Dependent on a site we can often undertake an initial assessment to get a project underway. For many small development sites a Phase 1 habitat survey may not be appropriate as it takes a landscape approach. However, the same skills can be applied to assess the habitat quality of a site on a small scale.

As an ecologist the Phase 1 habitat survey is one of my favourites. By its very nature the most interesting habitats on a site must be inspected, and as these surveys often take us off roads and footpaths it provides the opportunity to be inquisitive and see the flora and fauna in areas that would normally be off limits. This off-piste kind of activity does also come with its disadvantages. As the newest addition to a field the local livestock normally find you fascinating. Then of course there may not be the handy gates and styles a footpath has to offer. Deep ditches, dense hedges and barbed-wire fences all provide their own challenges and impenetrable barriers normally show up just when it’s least convenient. Finally with thousands of plant species in the UK aspects of this survey are by no means easy. Plants may stay still, but they can hugely variable in size and form depending on the surrounding conditions. Still give me an interesting site any day, I like a challenge.

A Phase 1 habitat survey can often be a considerable walk in the countryside, so let’s face it as long as it’s not pouring with rain that is always better than a day in the office!

Susie

Susannah Dickinson

Susannah Dickinson

Susie has always liked plants (although maybe not grasses). She cut her teeth as a Phase 1 habitat surveyor working on surveys for a 45km cable route across Norfolk, and spent the last year attempting to do as many of WFE’s extended Phase 1 habitat surveys as possible. The highlight was a floriferous green lane in Northamptonshire. Susie has a rapidly expanding knowledge of arable weeds, and aspires to have as good a botanical knowledge as Rob!

For more information see:

Joint Nature Conservation Committee (2010) Handbook for Phase 1 habitat survey: A technique for environmental audit.

Ecological Networks

The forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper, expected in Spring this year, is a hot topic of conversation in ecological circles at the moment. Government has been to the people to seek advice in their consultation paper An invitation to shape the nature of England, and the previous administration sought advice from a panel of experts, culminating in Professor Sir John Lawton’s Making Space for Nature: A review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network.

Possibly the main conclusion of Making Space for Nature is that currently, the network of protected sites, including statutory and non-statutory designations, “does not provide a resilient or coherent ecological network” and is not going to sustain the UK’s biodiversity as is without a “step change in nature conservation”. The government itself has promised to “introduce measures to protect wildlife and promote green spaces and wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats and restore biodiversity”. Strong words indeed, but can the White Paper deliver the goods?

The emphasis here is on networks, linkage and barriers to movement. Ecological barriers are not always easy to define, and of course different species disperse using very different methods, so while for one species a new road may form a significant ecological barrier, this may be no problem for a wind-dispersed plant or a migratory bird. Conversely, ecological linkages can be problematic. What best links two semi-natural areas with diverse ranges of species, or two areas with particularly poor dispersers? How do we measure the benefits of ecological connectivity against possible negative impacts (say transmission of invasive species or increased predation)?

The Lawton report specifies four methods of improving ecological connectivity, aside from improving the management of existing wildlife sites – make existing sites bigger, create wildlife corridors, create new sites and buffer existing sites. It also foresees a much more prominent role for the current network of non-statutory wildlife sites, two thirds of which are not currently being managed for their special interest. The Lawton report also specifies 24 recommendations for establishing a coherent and resilient ecological network, including the setting up of 12 Ecological Restoration Zones in the next 3 years. Estimates of the costs of implementing these 24 recommendations, estimated at the end of the report, appear miniscule in comparison with such things as bailing out of banks, trade deficits, NHS budgets etc.

What would our countryside look like in fifty years’ time, if any of the vision progresses and is effectively rolled out? How will such a fundamental demand on our land fit against the background of a rapidly growing UK population, a higher demand for locally produced foods, and the ever-progressing technology applied to agriculture? It will require the strongest leadership, the brightest minds and the greatest goodwill to make this happen, but dare we raise our hopes to think that it might? Those of us who have grown up with the backdrop of disappearing songbirds, ploughing up of grasslands and woods and degradation of habitat quality through neglect and encroachment will need to raise our sights beyond the here and now.

Rob

Robert Yaxley