Mothering Nature

A government-sponsored review shows an alarming decline of England's wildlife sites but also offers useful guidance to planners on repairing the damage.

Habitats: review tests designated areas according to wildlife and landscape conservation purposes
Habitats: review tests designated areas according to wildlife and landscape conservation purposes

Professor Sir John Lawton likes to compare the status of England's wildlife sites with that of ancient cathedrals. There are 27 of the latter, the leading ecologist and Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution chairman points out.

So imagine the outrage that would have been provoked if over the past 100 years, 12 had been partly demolished, nine substantially demolished and three completely obliterated. Only three would remain in good condition.

Yet this is precisely what has happened to England's finest wildlife sites. Lawton alludes to the naturalist Charles Rothschild, who in 1916 listed 182 sites with a view to setting up a nationwide network of nature reserves.

They were supposed to be the cathedrals of nature conservation, but their fate is sobering. By 1997, 89.6 per cent had experienced loss and 21 had disappeared entirely.

Before the election, Labour environment secretary Hilary Benn asked Lawton to spearhead a review of England's wildlife and ecological network.

A year later, his panel has delivered findings which will feed into next spring's natural environment white paper, the first such document in the UK for 20 years. The results throw down the gauntlet for Benn's successor Caroline Spelman, who acknowledges that they are a challenge that cannot be met by government alone.

Lawton describes the panel's recommendations as a "repair manual to help rebuild nature". The problems are formidable (see panel). Demographic change, economic growth, new technologies, societal preferences and changes in policy and regulation all have profound consequences for conservation.

The biggest of all is climate change, which is already causing shifts in species ranges, changes in the timing of seasonal events and impacts on species' preferences for particular habitats. Lawton stresses that not all these changes will be harmful, Many southern species, for example, may increase their range by expanding northward.

Yet as sea levels rise, extreme weather events become more frequent and droughts hit ecosystems, many species struggle to survive.

England has a wide range of statutory and non-statutory designations that support wildlife. The review identifies three general categories. The first, comprising sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), has the primary purpose of conserving nature and offers a high level of protection.

The second category, which includes local wildlife sites, is designated for its high biodiversity value but does not receive full protection. The third comprises landscape designations which have wildlife conservation as part of their statutory purpose, such as national parks and areas of natural beauty.

The review tested each of the categories to see whether they provide "a coherent and resilient ecological network". Five benchmarks were identified:

- The network will support the full range of England's biodiversity and incorporate ecologically important areas.

- The network and its component sites will be of adequate size, taking account of the needs of our natural environment to adapt to climate change.

- The sites will receive long-term protection and management.

- Sufficient ecological connections will exist between sites to enable species movement.

- Sites will be valued by and accessible to people.

Lawton's team found that important SSSIs do not comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network, while acknowledging that they were not designated with this aim in mind.

Across all three categories, the review reveals that the only benchmark that is consistently met is sites' ability to support England's wildlife and habitats. Serious shortcomings were found across the other four criteria.

The review's conclusions are particularly damning. Many species need large areas to survive and then thrive. Yet many wildlife sites are simply too small. More than three-quarters of SSSIs and nearly all local wildlife sites are less than 100ha in extent. The decline in certain habitats is so great that the remaining area can no longer halt additional biodiversity losses without concerted efforts.

This country has thousands of protected wildlife sites, amounting to seven per cent of its land. The UN has recommended that countries give over ten per cent of their land to species protection, but in England just 6.1 per cent is designated as SSSIs.

With the exception of Natura 2000 sites and SSSIs, most of England's semi-natural habitats are generally insufficiently protected and under-managed. Many of the natural connections in our countryside have been degraded or lost, leading to isolation of sites. Too few people have easy access to wildlife.

Lawton stresses that the review is not proposing a "heavy, top-down set of solutions" but a long-term vision stretching to 2050 which "defines a direction of travel, not an end point". It offers four watchwords for turning around this sorry state of affairs - more, bigger, better and joined. He calls for "a step change in our approach to wildlife conservation, from trying to hang on to what we have to one of large-scale habitat restoration and recreation".

Under this prescription, large areas should be formally recognised as ecological restoration zones. The surviving patches of important wildlife habitat scattered across England outside of SSSIs should have improved protection and management. Such protection will usually be best achieved through "incentive-based mechanisms", but at times may require formal designation. But the review accepts that this will not be achieved without society accepting it as necessary, desirable and achievable.

This will require strong leadership from the government and significantly better co-operation between local authorities, communities, statutory agencies, the voluntary and private sectors, farmers, landowners, land managers and individuals.

The review's key message is that the more we do to improve the quality of existing sites or to reduce the pressures on them by enhancing the wider environment, the less we will need to do to create new wildlife sites.

The total annual costs of establishing the network will be in the range of £600 million to £1.1 billion. Lawton acknowledges that the next few years will be financially tough and that it will not be possible to take all necessary action immediately, or even soon.

He does, however, stress the need to plan for the medium and longer term to make space for nature. The sooner action is taken, the lower the eventual cost and the greater the benefits for everyone.

Making Space for Nature is available at


7% - Percentage of England where nature conservation is primary purpose

3,174 - Number of sites of special scientific interest in England

6.1% - Proportion of the land surface covered by sites of special scientific interest

100ha - Size that more than three-quarters of SSSIs and 98 per cent of local wildlife sites fall below

18% - Percentage of the world's heathland sited in England, which also has more chalk rivers than any other country in Europe

55,000 - Number of animal and plant species in the country


- Demographic change

England's population rose from 46.4 million in 1971 to 51.5 million in 2008. This increase, combined with more people choosing to live alone, has had a profound effect on demand for housing and infrastructure. Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that the population could increase to 60.7 million by 2033.

- Economic growth and changing economic conditions

Despite periods of recession, the UK economy grew by an average rate of six per cent between 1949 and 1999. Continued economic growth into the future implies an increase in consumption which may lead to ever greater demands on land. Rising global demand for food will affect the amount of land brought into production and the intensity with which it is farmed.

- Climate change

This is already affecting species and habitats directly. The move to a low-carbon economy and society's adaptation to the impacts of climate change will increasingly impact on land-use decisions, patterns and management.

- New technologies

Farmers have increased yields of food dramatically since the Second World War, but not without negative impacts on the environment. New technologies may enable society to further increase the productivity of available land while reducing pressure on the environment.

- Societal preferences

For decades after 1945, food production was the overwhelming societal priority from land but this had an impact on other ecosystem services and biodiversity.

- Policy and regulation

Policy drove the intensification of land use for much of the 20th century, while the EU common agricultural policy influenced how farmland is used and managed. The directions set by future EU policy and England's multi-layered system of governance will have a profound influence on how land is used in the future.


- Improve the quality of current wildlife sites by better habitat management.

- Increase the size of current sites.

- Enhance connections between or join up sites, either through physical corridors or through "stepping stones".

- Create new sites and habitats.

- Reduce the pressures on wildlife by improving the wider environment, including through buffering wildlife sites.

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