Do England’s wildlife sites comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network? If not, what needs to be done? These were the questions addressed by the Lawton Review, which was set up by former Secretary of State at DEFRA, Hilary Benn, and subsequently encouraged by the new Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman. The broad thrust of the final report resonates with our own approach, suggesting that the overall aim for an ecological network should be underpinned by three objectives:
- To restore appropriate species and habitats to levels that are sustainable in a changing climate
- To restore and secure the long-term sustainability of ecological processes thereby enhancing provision of ecosystem processes
- To provide access for people to enjoy wildlife-rich environments.
Lawton presents compelling evidence that England’s wildlife sites are generally too small and too isolated, and that climate change will lead to further loss of biodiversity. It sets out prioritised ecological solutions, and recommendations for practical action, which are united by five themes:
- Continuing to improve the management of SSSIs.
- Properly planning ecological networks. Restoration needing to take place throughout England but requiring formal recognition of Ecological Restoration Zones where the scale of delivery and benefits for wildlife and people will be very high.
- Improving protection and management of wildlife habitats outside SSSIs, including ancient woodland, mostly through incentives rather than designation.
- Deriving multiple benefits from our environment helped by better valuing of ecosystem services.
- Gaining society’s acceptance that a step-change in nature conservation is necessary, desirable, and achievable through strong leadership from government and collaboration at all levels within society.
The Woodland Trust believes that irrespective of climate change, it’s clear our highly fragmented landscapes can’t sustain our wildlife. Society can’t afford to continue divorcing itself from the situation and to leave it to conservation organisations to make amends. Creating areas set aside for nature conservation can’t come close to delivering the scale or type of action required. We all rely on the same landscapes that are failing our wildlife to help sustain our own existence.
Planting native trees is a good example of a genuinely cost-effective way to help bridge the gap. Native trees are not only great for wildlife, they store carbon, clean our air and rivers, help prevent flooding and soil erosion, harbour insects that pollinate our crops, and provide shade in towns and cities, shelter for crops and livestock – as well as provide sustainable fuel. We can’t possibly invent ways of performing all these functions ourselves, yet we’ve marginalised nature in our countryside as much as our cities, and now – shamefully – the UK has one of the lowest levels of tree cover in Europe.
The Lawton Review offers an important stimulus to put the coalition government’s Big Society into action. Let’s all plant native trees in our gardens, down our streets, in hedges, on farms, in school grounds and public spaces; everyone can play their part.
Richard Smithers, Senior Conservation Adviser