‘We have a long way to go’: Can the UK hit its ambitious 30% rewilding targets? | Rewilding | Daily News Byte

‘We have a long way to go’: Can the UK hit its ambitious 30% rewilding targets?  |  Rewilding

 | Daily News Byte

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like thisIn the 1980s more than 5 million tonnes of coal ore was mined from the ground at West Chevington in Northumberland. Lorries, cranes and bulldozers criss-crossed the vast opencast mines built there, sending clouds of coal dust into the air and brutalizing the landscape to fuel the country’s power stations and factories.

Today, the 327-hectare (808-acre) site is undergoing significant transformation. It is to be the focus of a major rewilding program that will return the land to a mix of bush and timber and in the process provide homes for animals that can range from water voles to marsh harriers and from curlews to cut mice.

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

West Chevington Rewilding – to which £2m has been donated by the Rees Foundation – is one of the largest land restorations in the UK in recent years and is designed to make a major contribution to restoring the country’s wild places to their former glory and helping to protect our endangered wildlife. doing.

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

Around the world, rewilding is now considered an important weapon in the battle to strengthen the planet’s resilience to climate change and prevent the loss of biodiversity, which now threatens thousands of species with extinction in the near future. Scientists have warned that at least 30% of our lands, rivers, lakes and wetlands need to be restored and protected by 2030 if we are to halt the alarming loss of wildlife.

This goal is enshrined in the 30×30 programme, an international aspiration put forward by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and which is one of the focal points of the COP 15 biodiversity talks now taking place in Montreal. Britton is an ardent 30×30 supporter and points to projects such as West Chevington as examples of his desire to recreate the landscape.

But how good is the UK’s track 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 use – as exemplified by the old opencast coal mine in the countryside around West Chevington – and continues to pay the price in terms of lost habitats. and wildlife.

Between 1970 and 2013, 56% of wildlife species declined in the UK, due to continued intensification of agriculture, river pollution, increased use of pesticides and climate change. Hazel dormice, great crested newts, eiders, wildcats and hedgehogs have declined as a result. So how effective has the UK been in increasing areas of protected wildland over the past few years – to restore wildlife populations?

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

Harvest Mouse
Harvest Mouse: A species that conservationists hope to see in the West Chevington Rewilding Area. Photograph: PB Images/Alamy

The rate of growth in areas of well-protected, well-managed woodland comes to just 0.22% a year and suggests Britain will fall well short of its 30% target in eight years’ time. “It’s bleak,” admitted Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, a group of 67 UK organizations with conservation interests.

One problem is the status of many of the country’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), areas that include ancient woodland, grassland, peat bogs, grasslands, moorland, wetlands, floodplains, chalk streams, estuaries and coastal areas. There are over 4,000 such sites in the UK and they form the core of our currently protected wild places. However, in England only 38% of them are in a healthy state.

“Majorities need reform and a key step by the government will be to tackle these SSSIs and restore them to a healthy state,” Benwell said. “If we did that we would be able to bring our fraction of well-maintained, well-protected wilderness areas to over 10%, which is a significant improvement on our current figure.”

However, this prospect was ruled out by the government last week, when it refused to address the issue with the publication of habitat conservation targets for its Environment Bill. There will be no target to improve the status of protected nature areas. “It was a great disappointment,” Benwell said. “The government has not listened to the consultation and recognized that habitat targets are important.”

This point was supported by Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trust. “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 picture is not so bleak. A total of 4% of marine areas in the UK were well protected and managed in 2021. This year it has doubled to 8%, a promising move that may impose severe limits on bottom trawling for cod, plaice and other fish. A practice that erodes 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 landowner whereas, obviously, the problem you have with British land is mostly private ownership. However, we still have a long way to go with marine protection,” says Bennett.

Many farmers are also pessimistic. “We think the government will miss out on halting nature’s decline by 2030,” said Cambridgeshire farmer Martin Lines of the Nature Friendly Farming Network. “They are constantly kicking the can down the road and delaying the action needed to address the critical issue of biodiversity loss that underpins our entire existence and the way we produce food and other goods.”

Projects such as West Chevington will therefore take on added significance as a demonstration of what needs to be done to restore wild places in the UK. An area that was once a major contributor to the release of fossil fuel emissions will focus on capturing carbon 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 animal species – for example rodent harvesters – but generally we aim to keep our intervention to a minimum and just wait for the creatures to move on. We are going to learn a lot from the land here.”

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