Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The elephant in the room – climate change

David North, Head of People & Wildlife

Few would dispute that the two biggest threats to our wildlife are habitat loss and climate change. In nature conservation we have been addressing the former for many decades through nature reserve acquisitions, and legal protection of habitats through the various designations, SSSI, SAC, SPA, etc that, at least for those working in conservation, have become familiar terms. Conservation as they say should be ‘habitat forming’ and more recently we have seen recognition of the importance of habitat creation and restoration.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust has been actively protecting special habitats in Norfolk ever since its formation in 1926. We purchased Cley Marshes and today manage big areas of rare habitats from Broadland fens to Breckland heaths, ancient woods to magical meadows. We also today are busy restoring habitats, from tracts heathland damaged and nearly lost through conifer planting at Grimston Warren to arable land in the Bure Valley restored to wet grazing marsh and increasingly through our Living Landscapes approach we are attempting this on a landscape scale. So when wildlife is threatened by habitat loss we know what to do – we have tools ranging from planning controls, site designations or as a last resort land purchase that can save threatened habitats. We even increasingly know how to restore or even create new habitats of wildlife value and conservation all over the country is busy doing this.

Hickling Broad Cadbury's Hide, by Maurice Funnell
But. And it’s a big but. The elephant in the room is climate change. Climate change can undo all our conservation efforts, make our reserves and designated sites, if not irrelevant, then at least impotent to protect many species. With even a 2 degree warming then species may need to shift their global ranges by hundreds of kilometres to stay within the ‘climate window’ that they have evolved to survive and thrive in.

So what can an organisation like NWT do about a global problem like climate change? If we are serious about ‘saving Norfolk’s wildlife for the future’ then surely this should be a key question. And of course it is; though it is one that we like other conservation organisations are struggling with. For starters our vision for Living Landscapes is both long term and predicated on the realisation that if wildlife needs to move, if populations need to shift their ranges as climate changes, then bigger better joined up habitat areas are going to be crucial. So, along with other Norfolk conservation organisations, we are mapping ecological corridors and considering how best to link our reserves together or expand them to make better ecological corridors and bigger, more resilient areas of habitat that will give wildlife the best chance to adapt to a changing climate.

We are also looking at how in the ways we manage our nature reserves we can build in resilience to future climate change: making plans to ensure our wetlands stay wet, and on our coastal reserves that our management plans fully consider the impacts of rising sea levels and the likelihood of more frequent flooding. We don’t of course have all the answers, but then again I’m not sure any of those world leaders in Paris do either! But for both our future and the future of our wildlife we need to be taking action now to ensure that whatever climate change may bring there are areas of linked habitats that give our wildlife the very best chance of survival and that the vision of our Living Landscapes becomes a future reality.

But what can we do as individuals? Well I guess most of us who care about the environment will be hoping that the world leaders who have come together in Paris this week will achieve agreements that really do move us towards the a carbon neutral future. The only sustainable long-term solution for both us and the wildlife we share the planet with is to give up our global addiction to fossil fuels and move to energy sources which don’t bring about global warming. And as we know there is progress: green sources of energy wind, solar, tidal, biomass and others are becoming more widely used and more competitively priced. There is hope, and I for one will be both hoping and, when necessary, demanding that our politicians turn the fine words we are hearing in Paris into actions that actually bring about real change. As Sir David Attenborough has indicated climate change is difficult issue today but if we don’t tackle it now it will become much harder to tackle tomorrow and then if no action is taken will become a problem that no longer can be tackled.

However I’m still left with that nagging question – perhaps my conscience speaking – the question of what actions I can take myself? Am I playing my part in any solution? Climate change is not just for the politicians and world leaders to tackle, it’s also an issue with which organisations like NWT need to grapple. It’s one for all business leaders and local decision makers here in Norfolk and beyond to be taking seriously and its one for you and me too! As both David Cameron and the Pope have said yesterday, along with many other politicians and world leaders, the decisions we make today will have huge consequences not just for present generations but also for generations as yet unborn and will determine the sort of world they inherit.

Short eared owl at Upton, photo by Tabs Taberham

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