A call for a buzzing wilder Devon

Where and why have we pushed wildlife to the edges of society, and how can we bring it back?

Recently I had the pleasure of running along the dramatic coastline just to the west of Plymouth.  It’s a stunning stretch, culminating in Rame Head, a conical shaped hill topped with a medieval hermitage, and protruding a mile out into the English Channel.  I was lucky enough to be there on a sparkling autumn day, with sun glinting off the waves.  Much of it a nature reserve, this section of the coast path is packed with woodland, scrub, heath, meadow and cliff.  There were clouds of flies and gnats hovering at head height and I had to shut my mouth at times to avoid swallowing them.  Flocks of small birds were enjoying a bit of rare November sunshine too. 

Standing on the ruined walls of the hermitage 400 feet above the swell, Lizard Point shimmered on the horizon 50 miles to the west, and the dark cliffs of the Bolt loomed 20 miles eastward.  Looking inland I realised the beautiful of wild stretch that I had just emerged from was part of a narrow ribbon along the coastal fringe, extending as far as I could see in each direction.  But behind it the landscape was broken up into closely grazed fields and short cropped hedges. 

Our insect populations are collapsing. Globally 41% are threatened with extinction, and in the UK 23 species of bee and wasp have disappeared since 1850.
elephant hawkmoth nomming

Photo credit, Vaughn Matthews

I ran back along the little lanes that wind their way through the intensively farmed hinterland.  It was pretty, but it felt barren and silent.  Anything remotely wild was in short supply, and the insects and birds weren’t to be seen.  In this corner of the World, as in so many places, we’ve literally pushed wildlife to the edge. 

There are those who would argue that this is unsurprising and merely reflects a conscious choice to put useful land to useful purposes.  They might claim that these last wild refuges are at best a luxury and at worst a waste of productive land.  But this is a total fallacy.  This land is extremely productive.  It’s where carbon is sucked out of the atmosphere.  It’s where soils are replenished and water and air purified.  It’s where we feel better and healthier. And it’s where insects and the countless other living organisms that we rely on can thrive.

But our insect populations are collapsing.  Globally 41% are threatened with extinction, and in the UK 23 species of bee and wasp have disappeared since 1850.  Insectivorous birds have declined massively as a result – 92% for the grey partridge, 93% for the nightingale and complete extinction in the UK for the red-backed shrike.

How could we let this happen?
High brown fritillary butterfly on bracken.

High brown fritillary butterfly. Photo, Chris Root

How could we let this happen?  There are many factors behind the insect decline and not all are well understood. But two stand out.  First is the inexorable spread of “green desert”.  Less than one eighth of the English landscape is natural habitat, and much of that is in a poor state.  In upland areas like most of Dartmoor, barely a sixth of SSSIs (Scientific Sites of Special Interest) – our most protected habitats - are in favourable condition.  We need to start looking after them properly, and we need to more than double this area.  If we’re serious about stopping the insect collapse, we should be aiming for a third of our landscape to be wildlife friendly.

But it’s more than just coverage, it’s about connectedness.  In Devon, where one and a quarter million people live, we have the largest road network of any county, covering over 8,000 miles.  This means that every house and building is connected with every other.  That’s just as well, because we humans have the same basic needs as any other animal.  We need places to shelter, to get to work, find our food, meet our friends and families.  Bugs bees and butterflies aren’t so very different.  They need core wild areas to live in, foraging areas, corridors and stepping-stones to hop around and find a mate. 

This kind of connectivity may sound like designating the entire county as one giant nature reserve.  Not so.  The total area under buildings, roads and tarmac is only about 10%.  We can connect things quite easily if we put our minds to it and leave plenty of space for other land uses.

Sadly though, making space alone isn’t enough.  There’s another reason why insects are in such trouble, and it’s because we’ve been poisoning the land, rivers and homes with toxic chemicals.  The area subject to pesticide use increased by 63% between 1993 and 2016.  According to Defra, every hectare of arable land has an average of over 17 applications of pesticides every year.  And most of us have loads of these chemicals in our houses and offices. 

Without insects, most life on land would be in dire peril.  Recently we have become much more aware of the role they play in pollinating our crops, a role estimated to be worth $577 billion worldwide.  But there is far more to insects than this.  Three quarter of plants couldn’t survive without them.  They are the food source for a multitude of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish.  They recycle nutrients, helping breakdown dead matter and keeping soil healthy.  And they play a host of other roles which we don’t yet understand.  Despite their being crucial to us we have allowed their living spaces have become depleted, cramped, polluted and isolated.  Little wonder their populations are falling off a cliff.

So what can we do?
Insect declines and why they matter

Last week DWT and 18 other Wildlife Trusts launched our Action for Insects, the latest phase of the Wilder Future campaign.  We published a report by the renowned entomologist Professor David Goulson, showing the catastrophic decline in bugs, beetles, butterflies and countless other species.  As well as larger and better-connected areas for wildlife, we’re calling for a huge reduction in the use of pesticides.  Our message struck a chord with the public and despite the general election the report enjoyed more media attention than anything we’ve done for some time.  This kind of publicity is welcome of course, but what we really need is meaningful action.

So what can we do?  Three quarters of the UK’s landscape is agricultural, so we need to work with farmers.  One way we’ve done this in Devon is through our Greater Horseshoe Bat project.  These increasingly rare beasts are amazingly fussy – as well as hanging upside down, they hate lights and really don’t like flying across fields with no hedges or tree lines.  So we’ve been helping landowners put these back, as well as meadows, verges and other wild patches.  Each of these habitats provides a home for moths and beetles, and these are what the bats need to survive.

But we can do more.  On roads like the A38, you can see rocky cliffs, woodland, wildflower meadow habitats.  Because the Highways Agency have changed their management of this extraordinary road verge.  And we can bring wildlife right into cities.  Take Oslo.  Two thirds of the city is in protected areas and over half of it is forest.  Austin Texas has the largest urban bat colony – 1.5 million living in Congress Avenue Bridge.  Those bats are living off insects that have a home thanks to the work of dedicated communities around the city.   And in Milan you can see how wildlife is designed into the very fabric of buildings at the Bosco Verticale, so you can look out of your balcony and see trees, flowering bushes and plants a hundred feet up a skyscraper, with all the insect life they support. 

It's inspiring stuff. But these examples are all abroad and even in their own countries they’re usually exceptions. So how can we turn these great ideas into reality right across Devon and the rest of the UK?

The Wildlife Trusts and it partners have been pushing for a new Environment Act for the last two years.  In this Act we want to see a commitment to Nature Recovery Networks.  These networks would map all our existing wildlife sites and show how to link them together.  They would show where the best places for creating new wildlife sites would be.  They would be locally led but backed up by strong national targets with real teeth to ensure that there can be no backing out by future governments.  Other laws around transport, building, big infrastructure and farming need to take the Nature Recovery Networks into account too.  It’s not difficult and it won’t break the bank, we just need to think differently.

Then we need to free ourselves of the addiction to toxic chemicals.  We’re pushing for government to set tough pesticide reduction targets.  Studies in France have shown that farmers can reduce pesticide applications by 40% with no impact on production.  And we can free our living spaces of these chemical killers too.  From cities the size of Paris to small towns like Lyme Regis, the network of pesticide free places is growing.  Why can’t every village, town and city in Devon join their ranks?

bees sign

And we can all do something as individuals too.  There are over 430,000ha of gardens in the UK.  Just imagine the difference it would make if, in every garden, pesticide free and wildflower rich areas were created for the multitude of bees, wasps, flies, moths and other pollinators that turn a pretty lawn or flower bed into an iridescent haze of air-born life. 

So what sort of future would this lead us towards?  Let’s imagine a Google Earth view of England.  As we zoom in, we can see that the landscape includes some larger green areas where wildlife can thrive in abundance.  Zooming in further, we see smaller green spaces peppering the landscapes in cities and the countryside, with green corridors following the lines of roads, railways, rivers and footpaths.  And when we go in really close, we can see that wildlife is everywhere – on every roof, around every building and public space.  Because it’s been planned into the very fabric of houses, fields and hillsides. 

This is a landscape where bumblebees buzz in gardens, dragonflies dart around ponds and butterflies grace public parks and hedgerows.  It’s a landscape where you can walk out of your house in the middle of the Exeter or Plymouth and reach the woodlands on the edge of Dartmoor without ever having to leave a wildlife rich habitat or be separated from the extraordinary minibeasts that live there.  It’s a world where that narrow coastal ribbon is one of hundreds that criss-cross the county, connecting cities, villages and larger wild areas. 

I believe that would be a future worth fighting for and a country worth living in.

I want to support a wilder Devon!