Hedgehog in the room: Britain needs to face its own biodiversity crisis

Hedgehog in the room: Britain needs to face its own biodiversity crisis

The targets agreed by governments at COP15 are set to drive fundamental change in UK conservation policy, writes Heart of England Forest’s Beth Brook

Great Britain is one of the poorest countries in nature on Earth. When it comes to biodiversity loss, we are in the bottom 10 percent in the world. We have one of the lowest tree cover percentages in Europe at just 13 percent. One in four native mammals – including water voles, hedgehogs and dormice – are threatened with extinction.

These statistics are hard to accept, but we still have an opportunity to turn things around. In December, the COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal reached a historic global agreement to protect 30 percent of the planet for nature by 2030. The 30 x 30 agreement has been hailed by many as humanity’s last chance to save the ecosystems on which we all depend.

This is a very positive step forward in the fight to solve the global biodiversity crisis, but it is vital that we here in the UK do not fall into the trap of thinking of the crisis as something happening ‘over there’. While the degradation of tropical forests and the disappearance of exotic birds and insects are likely to attract more headlines and are of course extremely important to understand, the facts already outlined show that the depletion of nature and the loss of biodiversity is something that is also happening now on our land. own threshold.

If we are to position ourselves as world leaders on environmental issues, the UK must lead by example and develop a proper plan to take real, meaningful action to end the disaster. We need to demonstrate how we can achieve our common goal of ‘living in harmony with nature’.

Above all, we desperately need those in power to recognize the critical importance and value of nature. It’s not just something pretty that you visit on the weekend. Nature is the basis of all our lives. Our food and weather systems depend on the complex web of life that makes up the natural world. It is currently collapsing at a rate unprecedented in human history. Conservation is how we save ourselves from an uncertain and dangerous future.

For this we urgently need policy and investment. The government’s strategy until now has been mainly based on a short-term perspective. Now we need to think about how to restore and preserve the precious landscapes and wildlife of these islands for the long term.

Trees are a fundamental part of the solution. As well as providing vital wildlife habitats, they are key to achieving net zero and helping to reduce the impact of climate change on our natural world. When it comes to capturing and storing carbon emissions, no human technology can come close. And yet, proportionately, Britain has only about a third of the European average of trees. We clearly need much more.

However, the UK government’s approach to tree planting has been heavily criticized both for failing to meet agreed targets and for confusion over how those targets are to be met. Her commitment to increasing forest cover – saying they will add 30,000 hectares of forest every year by the end of this Parliament – is to be applauded. But it will only be an effective tool in addressing the twin challenges of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss if it is done in the right way, which means focusing on creating sustainable, resilient and diverse forest habitats that persist for many centuries.

In terms of maintaining biodiversity, all trees are not created equal. Of the trees we have, only half are native species. The rest are in industrial conifer plantations. The distinction is important. Old-growth forests with a mixture of native trees are home to much more wildlife and plants.

With this in mind, we must put biodiversity at the heart of all tree-related policies. First, it means proper protection of our ancient forests. Their importance cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately, only seven percent of Britain’s native forests are in a healthy state. With poor management, damage from deer grazing and invasive species from overseas, most are doing poorly. Everything must be done to restore and preserve them.

Second, when it comes to planting new trees, monoculture plantations are not the answer. They are not the way nature works. They do not allow him to flourish. But it’s not just about planting different local trees. Forest cover alone is not enough, and planting trees is not always the best solution. We need to create a mosaic of habitats: woodland pastures that include pastures, grasslands, bogs, shrubs, old trees and decaying wood. Here’s how to create homes for a rich mix of wildlife, fungi, lichens and insects, which in turn form part of the web of life.

Restoring associated habitats is also key to food security as the climate emergency intensifies. Britain has lost 60 per cent of its flying insects – including vital pollinators such as bees – in just 20 years. If this trend is not drastically reversed, the consequences will be catastrophic in terms of our ability to feed ourselves, as one in three mouthfuls of food we eat depends on pollinators. Creating a mosaic of natural habitats with so-called “natural corridors” connecting them together is our best hope for insect recovery.

Thriving natural landscapes bring many other benefits – not least the creation of jobs for the green economy. We need to train more people to take on responsibilities in nature conservation, agroforestry, regenerative forest management and ecology. This requires real, long-term funding commitments, as well as supporting new types of sustainable businesses that model the natural world around them.

All around us are examples of organizations making huge strides in tackling the biodiversity crisis, from wildlife restoration projects to take land out of production and encourage nature to reclaim it, to farmers focusing on soil health for the benefit of wildlife , or projects aimed at planting trees in cities so that nature can flourish in our cities. At The Heart of England Forest, we work in collaboration with partners and the local community to develop and protect our network of biodiverse habitats, develop agroforestry practices that benefit nature, and educate the next generation about the importance of conserving and connecting with nature.

Projects like ours can breathe life into communities and the natural world alike, but like the new forests we plant, they can take years to reach maturity and demonstrate their real impact. Undoing the damage we have done to our world cannot be done overnight. It will take time.

Currently, the government’s much-delayed and debated long-term land management scheme is not based on such a long-term approach. By not focusing on sustainable forest management or connecting different habitats, it also does not address the complexity and interconnectedness of nature. But it’s not just government that has a role to play in halting the decline of nature in the UK, businesses and individuals can and should also do more to tackle biodiversity loss through the decisions we make and the way we perceive the value of nature.

It remains to be seen whether the landmark UN 30 x 30 agreement will be a turning point in the fight to protect our natural world, but it is clear that here in the UK, time is running out to prevent our own landscapes and relationship with nature from being irreversibly damaged. We must all do more to prevent this from happening.

Beth Brook is Chief Executive of The Heart of England Forest

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