“I think everyone will agree that the current situation in England is bad – new development is leading to wildlife losses. No doubt about it.
A sobering example is that a recent Buglife report demonstrated that in the Thames Gateway around 50% of wildlife-rich brownfield sites have been lost or damaged since 2006. Whilst not always the first thought for nature conservation brownfield land can be home to as many rare invertebrates as ancient woodland, so this loss is not good news for our wildlife.
Something needs to be done. In principle offsetting could be one way to help address this problem but as with everything the devil is in the detail and there are still so many questions that need answering before we know if it will work or not.
Crucially for Buglife, the biggest question is how will it deliver for species?
And in particular will it deliver for invertebrates? That is all those species without backbones, many of which are facing extinction. Invertebrates are vitally important to a healthy planet – humans and other life forms could not survive without them. The food we eat, the fish we catch, the birds we see, the flowers we smell and the hum of life we hear, simply would not exist without bugs.
Despite their crucial role invertebrates often have a bit of a raw deal in planning. They tend to be of lowest priority when a development is planned, and mitigation to reduce the impact of a development generally doesn’t cater for their specific needs. Buglife’s concern is whether these issues and more will be translated into any offsetting system developed.
A suggested methodology has been put forward to calculate the amount of replacement habitat needed when an area is lost to development. How do we know the special features in a habitat that bugs rely on will be translated to the new habitat? Or in some cases do we even know what those special features are? How will the species get to the new habitat? Do we even know what bugs are on the development site?
Thinking about it practically, an area of lowland meadow is to be lost to development and the quantity of habitat recreation required is calculated. A purely habitat-focussed scheme may not pick up on specific habitat features that are enabling some insects to be there – this could be the bare and open ground, varied topography, damp areas within this habitat or even a patch of thistles or hogweed that are crucial for flower-visiting insects during certain weeks of the year .
Another consideration which is difficult to address is location of an offset. Brownfield sites in the Thames Gateway are specific to their geographical location, climate and aspect. As a result these sites have a completely different species assemblage to brownfield sites in areas such as Teeside. Replacing Thames Gateway brownfield land with a different sort of gain elsewhere is not a meaningful equivalent.
From a biology perspective there are species we simply just don’t know that much about. For example priority species like the Four banded weevil wasp (Cerceris quadricincta) and Five banded weevil wasp (Cerceris quinquefasciata) are often absent from places where areas of suitable habitat exist, for unknown reasons. The Streaked bombardier beetle (Brachinus sclopeta) has such a complex lifecycle, involving the needs of hosts, that it is very difficult to recreate a habitat for them with any certainty of success.
These are just a few of the practicalities Defra need to think about. As you can see species are complicated, especially invertebrates! However we can’t just ignore them because it is too difficult to come up with a simple answer. To even start addressing impacts on wildlife we need to answer these questions, after all, invertebrates may only be small but they do enable life on earth!”
Alice Farr leads Buglife’s work to protect invertebrates through advocacy on planning policy and engaging with the planning system at a local level. Before that she was part of the Public Affairs team at the Woodland Trust campaigning to protect ancient woodland and working with communities to help them get involved in local planning issues.
We all have until November 7th to get our responses in to this consultation! Please add to the debate below - but do make sure you tell Defra what you think too!
In the meantime you can find further information about the consultation, and the Trust’s concerns here.