Cinderella wildlife refuges at risk

Posted on 6th January 2015

New report shows the vulnerable status of England’s Local Wildlife Sites

Hidden havens which support rare and threatened wildlife are being lost and damaged to development and neglect every year. New survey results provide insight into the secret places where nature thrives – known as Local Wildlife Sites – and highlight some worrying trends.

Local Wildlife Sites are often little known, sometimes hidden yet vitally important wild havens – identified and selected locally for their high nature conservation value. They range from ancient woodlands to vibrant meadows abundant with butterflies, quiet churchyards home to bees and birds, bustling flower-rich roadsides and field-bordering hedgerows. They act as refuges for a wealth of wildlife such as the green winged orchid, marsh gentian, the pearl-bordered fritillary, noble chafer beetle, harvest mouse and water vole.

The Wildlife Trusts’ new report, Secret Spaces: The status of England’s Local Wildlife Sites, draws on new evidence gathered this year which suggests that more than 10% of the 6,590 Local Wildlife Sites monitored have been lost or damaged in the last five years. As if these losses were not bad enough, this evidence does not highlight the enormous and depressingly extensive history of loss over recent decades. With predicted growth in housing, new roads and other infrastructure all set to increase, changes to farm environment schemes reducing incentives for owners to gain support for Local Wildlife Site management and austerity measures, which threaten the management of publically-owned Local Wildlife Sites, these last important refuges for wildlife remain vulnerable.

According to The Wildlife Trusts’ Director, England, Stephen Trotter, if this trend is allowed to continue, more of our most valuable and treasured wildlife and wild places will be lost forever. He said: “There is a real and pressing need for Local Wildlife Sites – one of England’s largest natural assets – to receive the recognition of their true value to society. In some counties they are the best places for wildlife but they continue to slip through our fingers like sand.

“Local Wildlife Sites are the Cinderella of the natural environment. Many are quiet, unnoticed wild places in which nature thrives. All act as links and corridors between other important habitats and are crucial to securing nature’s recovery. They are vitally important for people as well as wildlife; bringing tangible benefits to local communities and contributing significantly to our quality of life, health, well-being and education. We need to secure greater recognition and protection for them in the planning and decision-making process. We need action now to prevent further and ongoing loss of these wildlife-rich treasures by investment in them.

Restoring the Tees Valley’s Lost Meadows

However, there is good news from the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust who have been delivering a “Restoring the Tees Valley’s Lost Meadows” project. Aiming to restore 15 of lowland meadow Local Wildlife Sites in different land ownership in a single initiative. The selected meadows were in a declining condition, but were also ones where the landowner had shown a strong commitment to the long term appropriate grazing of the site. The project was funded by the Landfill Communities Fund from SITA Trust’s Enriching Nature Programme. Lowland meadows in the Tees Valley are a small but important natural habitat in an intensively farmed area. It is vital that we find ways to care for these meadows because it would be very difficult to recreate them, especially in terms of their local character, distinctiveness and genetic diversity. The majority are managed as grazing pasture by small landholders. If grazing stops, then coarse grasses and scrub encroaches, but due to their small size, fencing to allow grazing is often found to be uneconomic. The project set out to tackle all these threats; clearing invasive scrub, installing stock-proof fencing and working with the landholders to reintroduce a sustainable grazing regime that would allow the meadows to flourish well into the future. Steve Ashton, People and Wildlife Manager for the Trust said “There will be further ecological monitoring of the project for another year which will assess recovery of the grassland sward structure and their wildflower components, any re-growth, or seedlings of scrub will also be monitored, the information will then be fed into the management planning process. Short ecological management plans for each site have also been produced.

Every three years The Wildlife Trusts publish an assessment of England’s Local Wildlife Sites.

This report is based on a national survey of Local Wildlife Site partnerships of local authorities, ecologists and local nature experts which identify and select Local Wildlife Sites using robust, scientifically determined criteria and detailed ecological surveys. Together with statutory protected areas, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Local Wildlife Sites support locally, and often nationally, threatened species and habitats. Although recognised within the planning system, Local Wildlife Sites are not protected by law.

Changes in land-use have eroded and fragmented the wildlife-rich expanse of habitats which once covered the country. Some – such as wildflower meadows, mires, fens and wet woodlands – are now so scarce that the majority of remaining habitat automatically qualifies for Local Wildlife Site status. However, deterioration and loss of species can lead to Local Wildlife Sites being ‘deselected’ and losing their protection and status within the planning system.

A comprehensive review of England’s Wildlife Sites led by Professor Sir John Lawton in 2010(24). recommended that ‘greater protection’ should be given to Local Wildlife Sites and their management ‘must be improved’. It concluded that ‘we need to take steps to rebuild nature’ by providing more natural areas, which are bigger, better and more joined up, so that existing fragments of wildlife-rich land are reconnected to create a climate-resilient and self-sustaining whole.

The Wildlife Trusts’ report – Secret Spaces: The status of England’s Local Wildlife Sites 2014 – makes recommendations to help stop this devastating loss:

Greater recognition and protection for Local Wildlife Sites:
Local authorities and developers need to fully recognise the importance of Local Wildlife Sites in the planning and decision-making process. Natural England must strengthen its standing advice to local authorities on Local Wildlife Sites.
Local ecological networks:
Local plans should be required to create a high quality network of more, bigger, better and joined up wildlife-rich places including Local Wildlife Sites. These must be designed and planned from the bottom up, involving local people and close to where they live.
Provide targeted funding:
Defra, Forestry Commission, Environment Agency and Natural England must prioritise funding and specialist advice to landowners and farmers for the enhancement and management of Local Wildlife Sites through Countryside Stewardship and other grants schemes.
Support volunteers, local organisations and local communities:
Local authorities and Government should support volunteering and resource Local Wildlife Site partnerships as a cost effective way of looking after many of these special places and helping local people to get involved in looking after them.
A Nature and Wellbeing Act:
We urgently need new legislation for the 21st century to underpin the recovery of nature and secure improvements in the health and wellbeing of local people and communities. The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB have put forward proposals for a Nature and Wellbeing Act to do just this. Developing a coherent network of high quality Local Wildlife Sites and other natural spaces like parks and river corridors would be a key part of this Act. Local Wildlife Sites hold much of England’s wildlife and as such they are key to realising the benefits which nature can provide society.

The status of England’s Local Wildlife Sites 2014 is the seventh in a series of reports issued every three years by The Wildlife Trusts. From Monday 22 December, you can download this and a summary report Secret Spaces: The status of England’s Local Wildlife Sites 2014 & why these special places need saving at www.wildlifetrusts.org