Blog post by Prof. Richard Gregory, Head of Species Monitoring and Research, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.

Biodiversity is in trouble.

The State of Nature report showed us that 56% of species were declining, 40% showing strong to moderate declines, and a relatively high proportion of UK species were threatened with extinction.

Yet we know that well-planned conservation interventions work and our protected areas have played a massive role in helping to restore iconic species, like the large blue butterfly, bittern, lady’s slipper orchid, pool frog and sand lizard, and they could do much more in the future.

Making space for nature

The publication in 2010 of the highly influential Making Space for Nature report led by Professor Sir John Lawton threw down the gauntlet for nature conservation in England but made for depressing reading.

Bittern in reeds. Image by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Lawton’s panel was asked to review the state of our wildlife sites and whether they were capable of responding and adapting to the growing challenges of climate change and other demands on our land. The answer was a resounding no.

Our sites were judged too small and too isolated, leading to declines in many of our characteristic species, and with climate change, things were only going to get worse.

This is bad news for wildlife, and bad news for us, because damage to nature means the environment is less able to provide the many ecosystem services upon which we depend. Lawton concluded that we needed more space for nature.

He suggested that rebuild needed to: (1) improve the quality of current sites by better habitat management, (2) increase the size of current wildlife sites, (3) create new sites, (4) enhance connections between, or join up, sites, and (5) reduce the pressures on wildlife by improving the wider environment, including through buffering wildlife sites (Figure 1). Figure 1.  An idealised ecological network. Plausible actions to increase network resilience include improving the condition (A) or size (B) of existing sites, creating new sites (C), creating features that facilitate dispersal (D) and softening the matrix (E).

Figure 1.  An idealised ecological network. Plausible actions to increase network resilience include improving the condition (A) or size (B) of existing sites, creating new sites (C), creating features that facilitate dispersal (D) and softening the matrix (E).

Lawton’s mantra of Better, Bigger, More and Joined (BBMJ) is a genuine game-changer in nature conservation and its influence can be seen across the sector, and significantly, within the government’s ambitious new 25-year environment plan for England, and yet there has been little progress towards delivering this vision.

What is a resilient ecological network?

In a new paper just published, a group of academics and conservationists, including myself, looked at why this might be the case and how to move forwards practically. We think that a part of the answer, at least, reflects a lack of clarity about what a ‘resilient ecological network’ would look like and how you know if you had one, or not.

We go on to suggest five immediate actions, mirroring Lawton’s recommendations (BBMJ), that would contribute to delivering a resilient ecological network with a low risk of unintended consequences and high probability of positive benefits for wildlife and people (See appendix).

Sand lizard. Image by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Our recommended actions are similar to those in the 25-year environment plan for England, but go further and are more ambitious.

Planning for nature conservation has increasingly emphasised the concepts of resilience and spatial networks, and although the importance of habitat networks for individual species is clear, their significance for long-term ecological resilience and multi-species conservation strategies is less well established.

Referencing spatial network theory, we describe a way of defining and assessing a network of wildlife areas that supports species’ resilience to multiple forms of perturbations and pressures. Building existing theory into useable and scalable approaches applicable to large numbers of species is challenging, but tractable.

We suggest a simple framework for designing and delivering a resilient network (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Adaptive Management Cycle for implementing a resilient ecological network. Features of the existing network would be evaluated regularly to determine the likelihood that the vision will be achieved (1). Plausible conservation actions focussed on sites or species would be identified (2) and evaluated for their potential to improve network resilience (3). Actual conservation actions are directed at sites or species (4), and their effectiveness monitored (5).

Figure 2. Adaptive Management Cycle for implementing a resilient ecological network. Features of the existing network would be evaluated regularly to determine the likelihood that the vision will be achieved (1). Plausible conservation actions focussed on sites or species would be identified (2) and evaluated for their potential to improve network resilience (3). Actual conservation actions are directed at sites or species (4), and their effectiveness monitored (5). 

What are the paper's implications?

While the concept of resilient ecological networks has attracted scientific and political support, to date there is no consensus on what a resilient network would look like, or how it would be assessed.

Pool frog. Image by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Importantly, it is also unclear whether existing bold targets for action, such as those in the 25-year environment plan for England, would be sufficient to achieve network resilience. We just don’t know.

We show in our paper however that the scientific principles to place resilience and network theory at the heart of large-scale environmental planning are established and ready to implement.

We argue that delivering a resilient network to support nature recovery in England is achievable and can be integrated with ongoing conservation actions and targets by assessing their effectiveness on properties of the entire network as a whole.

England’s 25 Year Environment Plan promises to deliver a natural environment that is protected and enhanced for the future and so provides the ideal testbed to deliver and test the theory. We argue for a more ambitious ecological network that benefits wildlife and people. 

See the full paper in the Journal for Applied Ecology

Reference: Isaac NJB, Brotherton PNM, Bullock JM, Gregory RD, Boehning-Gaese K, Connor B, Crick HQP, Freckleton R, Gill J, Hails RS, Hartikainen M, Hester AJ, Millner-Gulland EJ, Oliver T, Pearson RG, Sutherland WJ, Thomas CD, Travis JMJ, Turnbull LA, Willis K, Woodward G & Mace GM. (2018) Defining and delivering resilient ecological networks: nature conservation in England. J. Appl Ecol. 

Appendix:

Potential targets for delivering Better, Bigger, More and Joined wildlife sites in England.

  1. Improve the condition of protected areas. Approximately 8% of England is protected for nature conservation, underpinned by Sites of Special Scientific Interest (1), for which the government has a target that 50% should be in “favourable condition” (2) by 2020 (currently 38%). We suggest an elevated target of 80% by ~2040 and that condition might be reviewed, retaining a focus on key species and habitats, but adding multispecies ecosystem properties. (=Better)
  2. Improve the condition of landscapes that are not currently protected for nature conservation but have broader roles (e.g. recreation and preserving natural beauty). National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty cover ~24% of England. Expanding the area of high quality semi-natural habitat to cover 40% of these landscapes (an increase of 33%) to enable these large areas to be foci for the development of resilient ecological networks. (=Better & Bigger)
  3. Increase the area of habitats under long-term protection for nature. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has a target of 17% of terrestrial and freshwater habitats to be conserved by 2020. An appropriate target for England would be to at least double the area being protected (currently 8%) by designation and other effective long-term measures by ~2040. (= Bigger & More)
  4. Establish large habitat areas by creation and/or restoration. This entails extending current high-quality sites and linking them with new habitat. Taking account of past losses, creating 500,000 ha of well-positioned semi-natural habitat would make a significant contribution to establishing a resilient network, and take the total area of this habitat in England to ~2.25 million ha - just over 17% land area (cf. CBD target). Focussing this activity in large areas would maximise wildlife benefits, enable the incorporation of innovative management (e.g. rewilding) and be more cost effective. A suitable target for England would be to establish 25 new landscape-scale habitat creation areas (each totalling >10k ha) by ~2040. (= Bigger & More)

(1) Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), National Nature Reserves, Special Protected Areas, Special Areas of Conservation, and Ramsar sites. Although the levels of protection vary across categories, with the highest afforded to the international designations, all categories are also designated as SSSIs, and it is this designation that provides the reporting framework for all protected areas.

(2) ‘Favourable condition’ indicates that the designated feature(s) within a site are being adequately conserved, appropriately managed, and are meeting site-specific monitoring targets, which are subject to regular review

 

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