This week the Government produced their long awaited National Pollinator Strategy.
It’s surprisingly good; collaborative and informative – although if you really want just a quick guide to what you can do for pollinators can I recommend the Bees’ Needs webpage, which is much more fun!
Unfortunately the press coverage was nowhere like as good and mainly seemed to consist of suggesting that you should mow your lawn less. There are two problems with this; firstly, if you subscribe to the “green carpet” attitude to lawn maintenance with copious amounts of fertiliser and weedkiller, no amount of relaxation in mowing regime is going to compensate for the fact that you have already obliterated any biodiversity interest in the lawn. Secondly, while the majority of the population live in urban areas and thus can have greatest impact on gardens, 70% of the country is actually covered by farmed land and it is the management of the wider countryside which has caused most of the concern.
My other major problem with the strategy has always been that it is trying to deal with the symptoms while ignoring the underlying disease. There is a lack of recognition that the decrease in numbers of bees and other nectar and pollen feeders is an indicator of a much greater, underlying problem with loss of habitat, loss of connectivity and the eventual loss of the ability to resist threats.
We only notice things are going wrong when the services we care about – in this case pollination – are threatened, and, while we think we understand pollination as an ecosystem service, one of the good bits about the pollination strategy is the acknowledgement that we only have data on a very limited number of species and still don’t fully understand what is driving population fluctuations.
The latest wild bird indicator, published last month, shows ongoing declines in species that have been studied for years, and for which large amounts of money have been spent trying to reverse the problems. If this can happen for species that are easy to see and understand, what about the less visible species or the more complex and hidden ecosystems? Our understanding about the structure and function of soil ecosystems is still woeful! And really, in a mature, prosperous and settled society, should we not take action for all species and habitats, not just care about what they are doing for us?
We need to redevelop a resilient landscape, where resilience is the ability of habitats and species to respond to disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. The last fifty years has seen a drift towards uniformity of structure and function of habitats across the country, with the loss of the unique and different. A diverse landscape system with mixed species and structure and connections between habitats for all species is far better at resisting threats.
Maintaining and developing resilient landscapes requires consideration of all semi-natural habitats and associated species, protecting what we have, creating new versions of what we have lost and connecting it all to allow species to flourish and provide the much needed services that we are losing – such as pollination.
At this point many people will start shouting at me to climb out of my Utopian bubble and rejoin the 21st Century, where land has to provide food not just be a pretty landscape. But long term restoration of a resilient landscape is not in conflict with a thriving rural economy. We are working with farmers and producers across the country to try and solve problems using natural solutions.
Carefully sighted shelter belts will protect valuable top soils from water and wind erosion, improve yields by improving crop water efficiency and improve water infiltration rates by 60 times within just three years of planting. In the process, all these trees provide the habitats and connectivity that restore networks and allow biodiversity to thrive.
It’s not impossible, we just need to be realistic about what it will take to make a difference – and it is more than just mowing your lawn slightly less often!
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Lead