Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Living Landscapes: just a buzzword, or a radical new approach to wildlife conservation?

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

How does a Living Landscape approach differ from traditional nature conservation approaches?

I, like many of the staff and volunteers at Norfolk Wildlife Trust, am struggling to develop a deeper understanding of A Living Landscape approach to wildlife conservation. Is this really an important new paradigm for conservation, or is it just a buzzword, a new bit of conservation jargon that has little real long-term significance? This post, and my previous ones on Living Landscapes, are sharing with you the development of my personal thinking about the implications of this new approach to protecting wildlife. 

So is there really much difference between a traditional nature conservation approach and a Living Landscape approach? This may perhaps seem like stating the obvious but one difference is that a traditional nature conservation approach has focused on the acquisition of nature reserves, and the protection of rare species, whereas a Living Landscape approach focuses on the possibility for enhancing and creating large multi-functional landscapes which benefit both people and wildlife.

In the past nature conservation in Norfolk and the UK has focused primarily on the protection of areas of land as nature reserves either by purchase or management. Often the focus for the acquisition of these reserves has been the presence of rare species. Usually the management of these reserves and the species they support is only sustained by large inputs of resources, such as staff time on habitat management, which can only be delivered by inputs of money and resources generated off site. In this narrow sense few reserves are sustainable without external resources to support them. 

A Living Landscape approach is not simply about making nature reserves bigger and better, undoubtedly a worthwhile aim in itself.  In Norfolk, and indeed lowland England, even bigger and better reserves will still be too few, too small and too isolated to protect biodiversity as climate changes. Wildlife populations will need to move across landscape scale areas to adapt to changing conditions.  The resources to apply a nature reserve approach on a landscape scale given current and future land prices and management costs simply are too great.  There are not sufficient resources, even if this was desirable, to turn whole landscapes into nature reserves whose primary function is the protection of rare and threatened species. Nor, in highly populated England where most land areas are farmed, settled or developed for any number of human uses, is there space for this to be possible Any truly landscape scale approach will need to be multi-functional.

The challenge of creating Living Landscapes is to create sustainable, multi-functional landscapes that as well as providing for human needs are better able than existing landscapes to deliver biodiversity benefits. This is where the ecosystem services approach becomes relevant, as the challenge is to enable landscapes to develop which deliver better water quality, less soil erosion, more carbon storage and are better for wildlife.

So what is the role for nature reserves in a Living Landscape? Nature reserves will remain crucial to the protection of rare habitats and species but the there is subtle shift in the role they play in the future. At present the focus on reserve management is primarily on the area within the perimeter fence  whereas a Living Landscape approach focuses more attention on enabling species to expand and move from nature reserves into the wider landscape. So there is a need for a greater emphasis on working with surrounding landowners and communities around the reserves and to develop community projects that make the wider landscape more permeable to the movements of wildlife – to work with communities to create ecological corridors which link nature reserves to the surrounding wider landscape.

Nature reserve management has often been designed to restore areas of land back to dubious ecological pasts by mimicking  traditional land management systems which were once viable parts of traditional rural economies. These traditional ways of managing land gradually ceased as they became uneconomic and no longer part of the way  people made a living. The problem for modern nature conservation is that today these ways of managing habitats are often labour intensive and very expensive to maintain. This means these ways of managing land are unlikely to be sustainable over long periods, or at best will be a constant drain on conservation organisations’ scarce resources of cash and staff time. It is also simple impossible to truly turn back the clock and restore past environments. Today’s climate is different and the balance of species making up ecosystems has changed with many now widespread and familiar species from grey squirrels to muntjac deer being comparatively new arrivals.

In contrast a Living Landscape approach focuses attention on creating future landscapes which are rich in wildlife, valued by people, and sustainable. It puts the emphasis not so much on recreating the past as on creating better futures. For Living Landscapes to work they must be valued parts of viable, modern, local economies. This Living Landscape approach is challenging: more challenging than simply maintaining habitats on nature reserves using traditional but expensive management techniques. However the goal is one truly worth aspiring to; a truly sustainable nature conservation where future landscapes provide not only for our needs but also for nature’s needs, and a recognition that this division is  ultimately false as we are all part of a living planet in which mutual dependence includes us along with the rest of life.

The challenge for the future is to work with planners, businesses, farmers, landowners, local communities and individuals to create these new landscapes. Living Landscapes which are better for people: more beautiful and with more accessible greenspace. Landscapes which help mitigate climate change and deliver the ecosystem services we all depend on – from pollination services to waste disposal, from flood control to carbon capture. Whole landscapes which are also much richer in wildlife. Our nature reserves will remain key to this, but are just one small part of this wider vision of a Living Landscape.

For decades, despite the crucial but expensive conservation work which has protected some rare species on nature reserves, we have continued to lose wildlife from the wider countryside. The gradual loss of so many species, so much beauty and diversity, from our wider countryside is the greatest tragedy that nature conservation has failed to address.  This has been a piecemeal loss; field by field, pond by pond, a wet boggy patch full of orchids here, a copse or hedgerow there. But the net result has been the loss of so much meaning and beauty: 98% of our wildflower rich meadows gone, a vanishing of farmland birds like skylarks, corn buntings and yellowhammers across too much of our countryside. Those with long memories will know the scale of this loss: gone from the wider countryside  meadows with clouds of butterflies, hedgerows full of twittering sparrows, a bluebell wood here and a field of poppies there. The vision of A Living Landscape is to rebuild landscapes richer in wildlife. Landscapes in which our children can grow up experiencing wildlife near where they live and play, in local communities as well as on nature reserves.  Just as the impoverishment of our countryside has happened over decades, so achieving this vision of a more wildlife rich wider countryside will take decades to achieve. And it will  happen field by field, garden by garden, hedgerow by hedgerow, verge by verge, village pond by village pond, and community by community. In the end the success of the Living Landscapes vision depends on local people in local places taking local action for wildlife.

Maybe this vision seems an impossible dream but it is one which can only be attempted with the involvement and active support of people, businesses and communities. Each small step is worthwhile in itself and the first step is to care enough to do something positive for wildlife where you live, where you work and wherever you have opportunity. And of course to support your local Wildlife Trust in any way you feel able!

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