‘We have a long way to go’: can the UK meet its ambitious 30% rebuild targets? | reconstruction

METERMore than 5 million tons of coal was extracted from the earth at West Chevington in Northumberland in the 1980s. Trucks, cranes and bulldozers plowed through the large open-cast mine that had been created there, spewing clouds of coal dust into the air. and tearing up the landscape to provide fuel for the nation’s power plants and factories.

Today, the 808-acre (327-hectare) site is undergoing a remarkable transformation. It will become the focus of a major rebuilding program that will return the land to a mixture of brush and wood and, in the process, provide homes for animals that could range from water voles to marsh harriers, and from curlews to harvest mice.

“We don’t know exactly which animals or birds will end up making their home here in the coming years, but we’re sure it will be a pleasant surprise,” said Duncan Hutt of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, which is running the project.

The rebuilding of West Chevington, with £2m of funding donated by the Reece Foundation, is one of the largest land restorations in the UK in recent years and is designed to make a key contribution to making places bringing the nation’s wild animals back to their former glory and helping to protect our endangered wild animals.

European turtle dove
European turtle dove: Their numbers have decreased by 93% since the 1970s, due to the loss of nesting habitats. Photograph: Joe Blossom/Alamy

across the globe, reconstruction it is now seen as a vital weapon in the battle to bolster the planet’s resilience to climate change and halt the loss of biodiversity, which now threatens to wipe out thousands of species in the near future. Scientists have warned that at least 30% of our lands, rivers, lakes and wetlands must be restored and protected by 2030 if we are to avoid alarming losses of wildlife.

This objective has been encapsulated in the 30×30 program, an international aspiration that has been raised by the UN convention on biological diversity, and which is one of the focuses of the Cop 15 biodiversity negotiations now taking place in Montreal. Britain has been a keen supporter of 30×30 and points to projects like West Chevington as examples of its willingness to rebuild its landscape.

But how good is the UK’s record when it comes to protecting and managing its wild places? Over the past two centuries, the UK has done more than most nations to convert its natural landscape and waterways to industrial uses, as evidenced by the former opencast coal mine in the countryside around West Chevington, and it has continued to pay the price in terms of habitat loss. and wildlife.

Between 1970 and 2013, there was a 56% decline in wildlife species in the UK. thanks to continued agricultural intensification, river pollution, increased pesticide use and the climate crisis. As a consequence, the numbers of hazel dormouse, great crested newts, vipers, bobcats and hedgehogs have plummeted. So how effective has the UK been in increasing areas of protected wilderness, to restore wildlife populations, in recent years?

The answer was simple, said Rob Stoneman, director of landscape restoration for the Wildlife Trusts. “We are doing very, very badly, actually. If you look at the statistics, you will find that only 3.22% of land and a maximum of 8% of marine areas were rated as well protected and managed this year, compared to 3% and 4% respectively in 2021.” .

harvest mouse
Harvest Mouse – One of the species conservationists hope to see in the West Chevington Recreation Area. Photography: PB Images/Alamy

The rate of increase in well-protected and well-managed wilderness areas comes to a mere 0.22% in one year and indicates that Britain will not reach its 30% target within eight years. “It’s bleak,” admitted Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, a group of 67 UK organizations with conservation interests.

One problem lies in the condition of many of the country’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), areas that include old-growth forests, hay meadows, peat bogs, grasslands, moors, marshes, floodplains, chalk creeks, estuaries, and stretches of coast. The UK has over 4,000 such sites and these form the core of our currently protected wilderness places. However, in England only 38% of them are in healthy condition.

“Most need improvement and a key government action would be to address these SSSIs and restore them to a healthy condition,” Benwell said. “If we did that, we could bring our fraction of well-maintained and well-protected wilderness to over 10%, a considerable improvement on our current figure.”

However, this prospect was thwarted by the government last week, when it refused to address the issue by publishing habitat protection targets for its environmental bill. There will be no objective to improve the condition of the natural protected areas. “It was a huge disappointment,” Benwell said. “The government has not listened to the consultations and has recognized that habitat objectives are vital.”

This point was endorsed by Craig Bennett, CEO of the Wildlife Trusts. “Without a target to improve our protected sites, the government has little hope of achieving its international commitment to protect 30% of land for nature by 2030.”

For marine areas, the outlook is not so bleak. A full 4% of marine areas in the UK were well protected and managed in 2021. This doubled to 8% this year, a hopeful step that could see serious limitations placed on bottom trawling for cod , plaice and other fish, a practice that is ravaging the seabed, destroying cold-water corals and plants.

“Marine areas are owned by the crown, so it’s easier to designate and protect the sea, because it’s a single owner whereas obviously the problem you have with British land is that it’s mostly privately owned. However, even with the protection of marine areas, we have a long way to go,” says Bennett.

Many farmers are also pessimistic. “We think the government will miss out on the opportunity to halt the decline of nature by 2030,” said Cambridgeshire farmer Martin Lines of the Nature Friendly Farming Network. “They are continually kicking the can and delaying the action we need to address the critical problem of declining biodiversity that underpins all of our survival and the way we produce food and other goods.”

Therefore, projects like West Chevington will take on additional importance as showcases of what needs to be done to restore wild places in the UK. An area that once contributed heavily to the release of fossil fuel emissions will become a hotbed for carbon sequestration through its trees and plants.

“We’re not going to rush this,” Hutt said. “We will watch carefully and intervene only when necessary. We may introduce some species of animals, for example hunting mice, but in general our goal is to keep our interventions to a minimum and just wait for the creatures to move in. We are going to learn a lot from the land here.”

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