There is a lot to get one’s teeth into in the ten-point climate plan announced by the Prime Minister on 18th November. Campaigners will debate the choice of technologies, the speed of change, the scale of investment. But few will doubt that it represents a coming of age for climate policy – a shift from rhetorical commitments to tangible choices affecting the transport and energy systems, and a recognition that green policies can and should be at the heart of the economy.
Most people will also recognise that this is very much a climate plan (with fringe benefits for air quality and wildlife); not a plan for the whole environment. There is a long way to go before governments and businesses around the world give biodiversity loss – the dwindling of the very variety and abundance of life on earth – the same level of attention that is given to the climate. But let’s imagine for a minute, that all this is about to change – that (for example) the governments of the UK commit to an audacious goal – to reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2030. What would a ten-point plan need to look like, to bring this goal to life?
Wild, wilder, wildest?
For some, the concept of rewilding may be a guide for such efforts; and indeed the Prime Minister signalled his support for rewilding projects in today’s speech. So before making a plan, maybe we should dig into this idea and see where it takes us. At its best, rewilding offers a vision of a more varied, less manicured land, in which natural processes and our imaginations roam free. It has been the driving force behind fantastic projects like Knepp; it has enabled the return of lost species; and has inspired many young people who long for a deeper connection with nature.
Using weather, water and native species to help rebuild the complexity of large landscapes also underpins many other fabulous restoration projects, from the massive Cairngorms Connect to coastal wetland recreation at Wallasea on the England’s east coast.
But rewilding is not an uncontested term; and if in future, it is not how some conservationists choose to describe their work, that is because for some of the communities they work in, it creates fear rather hope. This is especially true for some farmers, who worry that it presupposes removing them from the landscapes they love.
For my part, I am excited by the potential to restore large areas of nature-rich habitat, using techniques like river restoration to bring them to life. I can see the potential in re-introductions, and the opportunities to let nature heal things at scale. I like the elements of surprise and experimentation, and the idea that sometimes the best thing we can do for nature is to leave well alone – not clear up that pile of wood, not lop that bush or weed that path, but let the cycles of decay and rebirth play out in the their own time, according to their own rhythms. But I also believe that local people, their histories, cultures and skills should be at the centre of such projects. In the pocket-sized, complicated countries that we inhabit, many if not most landscapes will continue to be mosaics, where we grow food, keep livestock, go to work and go to school. And I should say – I love this patchwork; I cherish these lived-in spaces, where each river valley has been criss-crossed by the feet of thousands of people now gone, whose quiet legacy is the shape of the land.
So for me, the exciting developments are not happening in and around the ‘culture war’ between traditionalists and rewilders. They are happening at the fruitful margins; in the meeting places between rewilding and nature-friendly farming, for example; or the intersections between nature conservation and urban planning. This is the space where brilliant people such as James Rebanks are exploring how regenerative farming can blend with ecological restoration to create landscapes alive with nature. Or where Ben MacDonald is charting a path to economic regeneration through the recovery of nature. It is where local councils are choosing to stop using pesticides and letting road verges grow and seed; developers are designing houses that welcome in wildlife; schools are holding classes outside; and a new generation of wild swimmers are campaigning for clean rivers, because they want to be right there in nature, feeling a part of it, at the centre of the frame.
I have used this as the inspiration for my ten-point plan for nature. Please take it as read, that to make any of this possible will require some big structural changes – new laws, refreshed governance, a new approach to investment; and that this plan is not a substitute for these things. Please also forgive me if I have used a lot of English examples because these are most familiar to me – there is so much more to be said about the opportunities in each country and each region – which I hope others will add.
This list is not definitive, it’s not THE list, and before anyone asks, it’s NOT RSPB policy! It’s just a list. A doodle if you like. I would love to hear yours.
A ten-point plan for nature…
Bogs, trees, grass and mud. The climate needs us to care more about nature. Our peatbogs are the biggest carbon stores we have; let’s stop burning and draining them. Allowing woods to regenerate, and replanting native forests are the most effective ways to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Our grasslands, mudflats and salt-marshes store flood waters and buffer us from storms. We need a rolling multi-year government investment programme, of a scale comparable to those directed towards decarbonising the energy and transport systems, to restore these precious habitats. This should combine a major capital programme – there are over £300 million pounds worth of ready-to-go projects already identified in England alone – with long-term revenues from (for example) repurposing agricultural payments.
Jobs jobs and jobs – a National Nature Service. As part of our investment in nature, we have the chance to create tens of thousands of jobs in the nature economy. These jobs will be vital as we emerge from the pandemic and face the challenge of rebuilding, and they are also brilliant opportunities for people to get new skills and improve the places where they live. This idea has huge resonance and cross-party support – let’s get on with it.
Let farmers go faster. We need to start moving money into the kinds of projects that nature-friendly farmers want to make work. Repurposing subsidies makes this possible. Why not run large-scale pilots next year, for farmers who are ready to act – and use the learning to refine the future of farm payments? New schemes don’t have to be super-complicated. They should include options for habitat restoration, alongside measures to revive farm wildlife. We know that leaving 10% of a farm free for nature has great benefits for wildlife, for example, and is good for the bottom line if the land set aside is marginal. This is the kind of measure we could easily slot into future payment systems, but we need to get going – putting nature-friendly farmers in the driving seat.
Let our rivers live. Wild swimming has caught our imaginations. But hardly any of our rivers and their banks are accessible – and far too many are unfit to swim in. We should strengthen protections for rivers and lakes, building on proposals from Blue Print for Water and WCL. We should create a new network of river-bank footpaths. And we should get behind river re-wiggling as the best tool for ecosystem recovery. How about a water company levy to bring our rivers back to life?
Coastal capers. Coasts have a unique role in the imaginative life of the country. Let’s create a mile-deep nature regeneration zone inland from the coastal path, with grants to restore habitats and introduce nature-friendly farming. Take this example around the White Cliffs of Dover as a starting point. The food grown could be badged and sold through local shops, restaurants and hotels to boost tourism.
Splendid seas. Let’s create some ocean recovery zones where we allow the sea to heal. If we plan this carefully, we can do it whilst protecting the rights of our inshore fleet and reforming fishing quotas to benefit those who fish sustainably. The model of community-led marine reserves, with areas under high levels of protection, and preferential access rights for local, sustainable fishing enterprises, is one that we know works around the world. As oceans recover, so do the fortunes of those who rely on them.
Bees and birds need hedges and verges. Over the years we have shaved, cut and sprayed our road verges and hedges so that they no longer support the life they once did. Yet when Councils let their verges grow unimpeded, the result is a revelation – glorious strips of colour, alive with buzzing and tweeting. How about introducing some simple rules so that hedges and verges are managed for nature, unless safety dictates otherwise? This Plantlife campaign aimed at councils has caught the public imagination. More of this!
Put the spray away. We know that the chemicals we use to kill weeds and pests do their job very well. They are designed to kill plants and animals and that’s what they do. There are times when this might be entirely unavoidable. But an awful lot of the chemical use in our gardens and streets and around our buildings is cosmetic, as well as expensive, creating a sterile environment in which there are no surprises and where nothing lives without our permission. This is a cultural disaster and a low-key, slow-burning tragedy for nature. A review of how we use chemicals in our lives is long over-due.
Neighbourhood nature. It’s the messy bits in any neighbourhood that bring wildlife to our doorsteps. But planning rarely values them. How about using modern technology to map these little pieces of green, and then encouraging homeowners, businesses, churches, councils to protect them and connect them up. We could link every street and neighbourhood in the country in a wildlife conga.
Concrete jungles. There is immense potential to ‘design in’ nature to the way we build homes and businesses, towns and cities. Reviving garden cities as nature cities for the twenty-first century would be good for people and businesses, with a new focus on the quality and beauty of the built environment in its setting. Every new home should come with access to an allotment-sized space for growing food, and a good-sized local park. Options for vertical farming, green walls, roof gardens and urban forests are all possible with some imagination. This is what planning reform should be about!
Ten is just a start…
As people are kind enough to suggest new ideas and different approaches to the plan, I am going to annotate this post with some their thoughts. Do message me if you want something included in the list!
Ben MacDonald has kindly suggested that we need a new point on letting go… allowing our cities, towns and countryside to become scruffier, and in doing so embracing a different philosophy and aesthetic that allows space for things to come and go unbidden. This can be true at a grand scale – allowing natural woodland regeneration for example – but it is also true around our houses and in our gardens. My starting point is the garden, where self-seeded wildflowers now gallop amongst the vegetables.