Last night the Prime Minister outlined the headlines of a "conditional plan" for how we might emerge from the lockdown.  We were, of course, listening very carefully and will respond to any detailed guidance that emerges from political leaders across the UK.  Our latest statement can be found here.

While there is intense interest in how government restrictions will be lifted, we are also keen to ensure the right long-term response to the crisis.

That is why on Friday, Green Alliance published a letter to the Prime Minister outlining our plans for a resilient economy, healthy communities, and a thriving natural world to help us recover from the pandemic.  The letter includes signatories of 60 chief executives from business and the environment sector (including RSPB's Beccy Speight).

This constitutes our shared agenda for the coming months and years. 

As I wrote last week, investing in nature and the many people and organisations that care for it is an investment in the UK.  It is investing in our health and wellbeing, which relieves pressure from our NHS.  It is investing in creating employment opportunities across the entire UK.  It is investing in flood protection, carbon storage, clean water and long term food production.  In short, it is investing in life.

Yet, nature is being depleted on a massive scale and climate change is compounding the problem.  In the UK there are 40 million birds fewer birds that there were 50 years ago and globally we risk a million species becoming extinct unless we rapidly transform the world’s economy, energy and food systems.

The shared agenda we issued on Friday includes challenges to maintain and improve vital legal protections for our wildlife, to invest in projects that help nature and the economy recover together and to insist that businesses that receive bail-outs and government support do so in exchange for higher environmental standards.

This is achievable and we should remain optimistic this will be delivered.

The UK Government is rescheduling it post Brexit package of legislation (agriculture, trade, fisheries and environment) and, as I have written previously, each bill can help us create a different and more nature-friendly future.  There are equivalent opportunities for each of the devolved governments in the UK.

In addition, there is money in existing government budgets to invest in restore nature at scale.  Not enough, but it is a start.  We should have confidence that we can turn things around, not least because the nature conservation community has extensive experience of making things better.  Just look at what the RSPB has achieved on one of our upland reserves in the North Pennines – Geltsdale.

Photo credit: Kelly Thomas (rspb-images.com)

This is a 5,350 ha site, which the late 1990s it was fairly typical of upland England or Wales dominated by sheep while the its blanket bog had been damaged by drainage, burning and overgrazing.  Yet, over the past three decades the RSPB has been working to change the management to benefit the wildlife and the carbon-rich soils.* 

The big shifts have been to…

  • reduce the overall density of grazing by 30% by decreasing number of sheep from 4,400 to 300 and increasing number of cattle from 20 to 240 and also increase in pony grazing to reduce bracken cover
  • blocking 150 km of grips/drains by using heather bales
  • reduce, then stop heather burning to prevent damage to the peatland vegetation
  • remove trees in areas of peat while increase planting of native broadleaved trees and shrubs such as downy birch, silver birch, hazel, holly and hawthorn
  • do some low level control of foxes and crows to reduce the pressure of generalist predators on vulnerable ground-nesting birds

The results have been impressive.  We have…

  • increased the area of blanket bog in favourable condition from 9% to 43% which compares favourably with all English SSSI blanket bogs which are stuck at a woeful 10% 
  • dramatically increased the cover and species richness of peat-forming Sphagnum  mosses.  In one area where the non-native lodgepole pine was felled to restore a bog, there has been sufficient growth of Sphagnum to allow it to be harvested and translocated to help restore areas of bare, eroded peat at another RSPB site - Dove Stone in the Peak District
  • increased the black grouse population, restore lapwing the site and helped stablilise the population of species such as curlew whose numbers have been plummeting across the rest of the UK

This is just one example of what we have been able to achieve. 

We recently calculated that across the whole of the upland estate, we have restored 2,400 ha of broadleaved woodland and native pinewood, having felled about 2,700 ha of non-native conifers.  We’ve also re-wetted about 14,000 ha of upland peatland.  This is good news for wildlife, for carbon storage, for water quality and for flood protection.   And, we have many more projects like these in the pipeline.  

The message to the Prime Minister and to political leaders across the UK is simple: rather than pursue environmentally destructive, short-term growth through badly sited and poorly designed infrastructure projects let’s use this moment to drive a recovery that works for nature and for people. 

For, if we look after nature, nature will look after us.

As ever, we are here to help.

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* If you want to read more about what we have achieved at Geltsdale, RSPB colleagues have written an excellent article in the August 2019 issue of British Wildlife.  And, when government restrictions allow, I encourage you to visit – it is a very special place.

Anonymous
  • I was privileged to be shown round Geltsdale by the then warden years ago when restoration was just starting to have an effect. It is a wonderful place and shows the value of bigger, better and more joined up land holdings. More please!