Declines in our Local Wildlife – TDEG’s position

TDEG members who joined our last whole group meeting in December will recall the excellent presentation from Dave Savage, of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, who focused on how best to help nature to recover in our local area. This statement explains TDEG’s response to some of the issues he raised at that meeting, and our hopes for the future.

The introduction to Dave’s talk was challenging. He explained how national studies show that biodiversity in the UK is in a terrible state. An important series of reports produced by a group of 50 conservation organisations (the UK State of Nature reports ) highlight the alarming facts.

We have lost 97% of our wild flower meadows since the Second World War, with the consequent detrimental impact on bees and butterflies. Some of our most beloved animals and birds, such as hedgehogs, puffins and curlews, are threatened with extinction. Of 218 countries assessed for “biodiversity intactness” by the United Nations, the UK is ranked at number 189. We are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

Wild flower meadow near Sheldon

But what are the reasons for this? The State of Nature reports have also gathered evidence about the main issues facing wildlife, and it is all about their homes – their habitat. Habitats have been lost due to agricultural intensification, urban development, extensive pollution, and, increasingly, climate change. The loss of woodland, hedgerows and small ponds; increasingly polluted rivers and streams; intensively managed grassland – all of these things have led us to this point.

This is not to point the finger of blame at any particular industry or community. Modern society has required land management systems which have destroyed our wildlife. Our governments, at our behest, have created policies which support these developments. So it is up to all of us to be the change we want to see.

Drivers of Change (State of Nature in England, 2019)

Contrary to some beliefs, there is very little evidence that predators have had a significant impact on our  wildlife. In some very marginal situations, where numbers are already highly threatened through human actions, some species might be adversely affected by predation. One example is little tern colonies. If we want to prevent their further decline, these ground nesting birds have to be protected from predation by foxes and dogs (often with fencing and careful wardening). However, this is not the case with our garden songbirds or farmland birds. 

Following a recent discussion in the pages of Village Voice, one of the TDEG Wildlife Group members contacted the RSPB to get their views on this. Their very comprehensive reply can be read here.

The RSPB have undertaken a lot of research in this field and reviewed many scientific studies in order to inform their own land management practices. There is little evidence that killing more animals or birds might help to redress nature’s balance – it is more likely to make it worse. The RSPB do manage some predator populations, but in very limited and specific circumstances where the evidence suggests it is necessary and effective. Nature has always been `red in tooth and claw`. We need to create wilder, richer and more diverse habitats, where species can live their normal lives. We need to get back to a position where the abundance of species means both predators and prey can live together sustainably.

Green fields in Derbyshire

In our local area, perhaps the most important issue is land use and agricultural change. One problem is that we live in a society where it is cheaper to buy a pint of milk than a pint of mineral water, forcing farmers into an ever increasing cycle of intensification to make a living. The ‘lovely’ green fields that surround us are often a monoculture of perennial rye grass. This huge change has really come about since the Second World War. These fields are highly productive, mown repeatedly for silage or grazed so they never flower.  As few flowers are present, there is no pollen for insects or seed for birds. Farmers are increasingly dependent on fertilisers and pesticides. These fields are also dangerous places for ground nesting birds (and hares) where they can get squashed or chopped up during cultivation. 

If we want to change the situation, we have to pay more for our food, and choose what we eat carefully. In order for our food system to be both  economically viable and sustainable, we need to ensure farmers are rewarded fairly for supporting and encouraging local wildlife. The government’s new proposals to pay farmers grants to protect and enhance their local wildlife and nature generally (called the Environmental Land Management Scheme) could be a game-changer – although much will depend on the level of funding for farmers. Many farmers are already embracing the changes needed, particularly as they recognise the importance of a healthy, diverse ecosystem to support sustainable agriculture (the Nature Friendly Farming Network has more information). 

We can also do our bit. Allowing wildlife to thrive in our gardens, through the planting of suitable trees and shrubs, creating small ponds and other refuges for wildlife, are all important steps. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust has many further suggestions for wildlife gardening. We can also encourage other landowners, such as our local councils and large private landowners, to set aside more land for wildlife.

Our wildlife is in a precarious position, but let us look to the future and set about creating positive change. We need the legislation, and national targets and funding to support these changes. But we also need to play our part to enable nature to recover.

TDEG Wildlife Group, January 2021

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