Climate Change and the Environment Act

Photo credit, Kevin New

With the peculiar weather we've been experiencing this spring, Harry Barton reflects on the effects of climate change on wildlife. How will it cope? And how could a strong Environment Act give wildlife a chance to adapt?

Welcome to Meeth nature reserve, 450 acres of disused quarry that has been spectacularly reclaimed by nature.  I’m showing the former owners around to see how wildlife has flourished since we took over the site a few years ago.  And hasn’t it just! Woods, heath, ponds, bogs, slumping cliffs, seas of wildflowers and rushy pasture, it’s all here.  Apart from the odd helping hand, all we’ve needed to do is step back and let nature move in. 

What makes Meeth so magical is the constant change.  Not just moving from one type of habitat to another as we wander through this extraordinary oasis, but over time.  Bare slopes become covered in miniature forests of stonecrop.  This gives way to dwarf vegetation, then trees start to establish. Until the hungry Exmoor ponies come by, or the unstable bank collapses, and the process begins again.  This is more than just a nature reserves – it gives a hint to how nature might run things if we weren’t there.

Yet stunning as it is, something is not quite right.  It’s February, and the sun is beating down.  The azure blue shimmer of Stockleigh Lake stretching out beneath our vantage point is transfixing, but there is no sign of the over wintering wildfowl that normally crowd the chilly waters. There are no leaves to be seen on any tree, but bird song is everywhere and I see my first Brimstone butterfly scudding across the bare bushes.  This is winter, but not as we know it.  Just as well we weren’t here a year ago – we’d have been straining against arctic gales and falling in snowdrifts.

Stockleigh Lake is 150 feet deep.  When DWT took on the site we were told to expect this huge bowl to fill to the brim in five years.  In fact it did so in two, thanks to consecutive years of constant deluge. It’s hard to visualise that now as we tramp through the parched clay.

Our weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable. Warm spells in February are wonderful if you can spend the days outdoors and retreat inside again as winter inevitably returns. But that doesn’t work for most wildlife.
Harry Barton
CEO, Devon Wildlife Trust
Common Darter

Our weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable.  Warm spells in February are wonderful if you can spend the days outdoors and retreat inside again as winter inevitably returns.   But that doesn’t work for most wildlife. The song birds that painstakingly build their nests early, only to find that there are no insects to feed their hatchlings.  The trees and shrubs that put on a beautiful show of early spring colour, only to find them hammered by a late frost.  Our native species are tough, and most can cope with a few unpleasant surprises, but everything has its limits.

How will wildlife cope on a bigger scale?  Across the globe species are having to face the harsh reality of climate change.  The Arctic is on average 5 degrees warmer than a century ago.  And as Mediterranean landscapes heat up and dry out, the species that lived there are moving north, or at least trying to. Two degrees of warming could wipe out all the World’s coral reefs. Up to nine million species are thought to live here.  To put that eye watering figure in some meaningful context, 70,000 species (less than 1% of this figure) are found in the whole of the UK.

It’s easy to get depressed and feel powerless in the face of these grim statistics.  But what can we do differently here in Devon and the UK to counter this?  Faced with change, species will adapt, move or disappear. Adaption usually takes too long for rapid climate change, so moving is the best bet.  Places like Meeth are well placed to accommodate a degree of change.  They’re large enough to host a variety of species and good numbers of individuals.  The complex topography creates lots of different niches so species can move from wet to dry, from shade to sunlight, without having to travel long distances.  If I was a rare species, I’d probably consider myself very lucky if I found myself here.

Barn owl

The problem is, Meeth is the exception.  It’s surrounded by intensively farmed fields that are largely hostile to wildlife.  We have created a landscape where only tiny fragments are suitable for most species, and the spaces between fragments are so great that it is near impossible for most wildlife to move from one to another. Culm grassland, which covered huge swathes of north west Devon in the 1950s, now covers about 1% of it.

It’s hard to imagine what this isolation means in our world of motorways and higher speed information transfer, but we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the humble insect.  I recently ran home from Plymouth.  I had foolishly assumed that I would quickly get up onto Dartmoor and enjoy a panoramic, if rather boggy, journey home.  The trouble was I just couldn’t get there.  Impassable dual carriageways, trunk roads with no pavement, miles of fenced, intensively farmed fields with no footpath across them.  20 miles and four exhausting hours later I staggered into my home, having got nowhere near the moor and inhaled so much exhaust I might as well have taken up smoking.  Of course I was fine as I returned to shelter, a hot bath and warm supper with my family.  No such relief is on offer to our travelling insects though.

There is a way around this.  We need to reimagine the Devon countryside with more than just neat little fields and cropped hedges.  Let’s allow them to grow out and scatter some larger trees along their sinuous paths.  Let’s be brave and pull back the fences from our rivers and allow wet woodland, back channels and stands of reeds to develop.  Let’s paint wildflowers back into the fields and margins around their edges.  And let’s bring wildlife back into our cities, along the water channels, the road verges, in and among the public parks.  Let’s do less mowing, flailing, spaying and felling, and spend that valuable time watching and listening.  This is the essence of a nature recovery network.  

None of this will cost the Earth or ruin businesses. Quite the opposite in fact. A study by Newcastle University found that upland farms lose £10,000 per year even with the subsidies that might well disappear once we leave the EU.  Managing farmland less intensively, and enhancing our natural capital rather than depleting it, would bring huge savings to society.  It’ll improve our health too.  But it won’t happen by chance.  It’ll happen if organisations and individuals everywhere want it enough and have a legal duty to make it happen.  So we are calling for the Nature Recovery Network to be recognised in law and for statutory bodies to have a duty to make it happen.  The right place for this is a new Environment Act, with clear duties and targets.

Neither a Nature Recovery Network nor and Environment Act will stop global forces like climate change.  But they will give wildlife a chance to adapt and it might just be enough to reverse the losses we’ve seen here in the UK in recent decades.  What’s more, they’ll save money and improve all our lives.  And if we get it right, we might even inspire other countries to do the same. Surely that’s worth fighting for.