Opinion: Making Space for Nature


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In September 2009, the then Secretary of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, asked me to chair a review of England's wildlife and ecological network. Across England large areas of land are protected under environmental and landscape designations. Both within these designations and outside them the Government, the voluntary conservation sector and others have invested in protecting, enhancing and restoring important wildlife habitats. But how effective have these efforts been? The Terms of Reference for the review were to:

  • examine evidence on the extent to which the collection of sites represents a coherent and resilient ecological network capable of adapting to the challenge of climate change and other pressures;
  • examine the evidence base to assess whether a more interconnected network would be more effective today and in the future and, if so, how this could be delivered; and
  • and, taking account of the ecological, economic and social costs and benefits, make costed and prioritised recommendations on any measures that should be taken, including how Government and other organisations can work together to deliver the recommended model.

The report looked only at terrestrial, freshwater and coastal habitats; it did not consider the marine environment. And although I was only asked to look at England, the scientific principles (but not necessarily the statutory framework) apply throughout the UK. Although it is now routinely called 'the Lawton Review', the report was the work of a dedicated and highly professional panel made up of individuals from the environmental sciences, voluntary and statutory conservation organisations, a local authority, one of England's National Parks, the planning sector, business and private land managers. Natural England provided the secretariat and we look evidence from a large number of individuals and organisations. The General Election and subsequent change of Government in May 2010 could have put paid to the enterprise, but the panel was delighted when the new Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, picked up the baton and urged us to cany on. The report1 was submitted to her in September 2010.

England's wildlife and landscapes have inspired and delighted through generations. There are strong moral arguments for recognising the intrinsic values of other species and for passing on the natural riches we have inherited to future generations. We have also recently begun to better understand (or perhaps remember) that our natural world is not a luxury: it is fundamental to our well-being, health and economy. The natural environment provides us with a range of benefits -ecosystem services, that include food, clean water, materials, flood defences and carbon sequestration - and living organisms (from the conspicuous and familiar to the tiny and obscure) underpin most, if not all, of these services. The pressures on our land and water are likely to continue to increase and we need to learn how to manage these resources in ways which deliver multiple benefits - for example, achieving profitable and productive farming while also adopting practices which enhance pollinators, increase carbon storage, improve flood water management and support wildlife.

To cut to the chase, the main message of the report is that we do not have a resilient and coherent ecological network in England that can deliver a sustainable future for wildlife and ourselves. Despite conservation successes (and there are many), species of plants and animals continue to disappear from our countryside at an alarming rate.2 What is needed is a step-change in nature conservation. We need to embrace a new, restorative approach which rebuilds nature and creates a more resilient natural environment for the benefit of plants, animals and people. This will require strong leadership from government, but is not a job for government alone. It will require effective and positive engagement with the landowners and land managers. And it will need improved collaboration between local authorities, local communities, statutory agencies, the voluntary and private sectors, farmers, other land managers and individual citizens. The report charts the path, the direction of travel, that we must take between now and the middle of the century to make more space for nature.

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