How Wildlife Trusts secure and sustain the future of our country’s wildlife
PUBLISHED: 09:06 04 September 2018 | UPDATED: 09:06 04 September 2018
Local Wildlife Sites cover about six per cent of the county and are vital to many declining species and habitats. Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Rachel Giles explains the threats they face
For more than 35 years Wildlife Trusts across the UK have worked with local authorities, landowners and local partners to identify and support the management and monitoring of Local Wildlife Sites, but what are they and why are they so important?
Local Wildlife Sites, and a smaller number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, are the building blocks and stepping stones of our Living Landscapes. From wildflower meadows and woodlands, through to wetlands and heathlands – Local Wildlife Sites provide habitat for shelter, food and breeding for many of our most threatened species. They also provide some of the natural services we all rely on to maintain a healthy and sustainable environment such as clean air and water, pollinators and flood resilience.
Changes in land-use have eroded and fragmented the wildlife-rich expanse of habitats that once covered the country. These places are now some of our most valuable wildlife areas providing refuges for many species. They are key to securing and sustaining the future of our country’s wildlife and underpin local, national and international nature conservation objectives. Although not protected by law, Local Wildlife Sites are currently recognised in national planning policies, which set out requirements for their protection through local policy and plans.
The scope of our work on Local Wildlife Sites is varied and may involve surveying and mapping new and existing sites or providing advice and support to landowners – helping them to manage the land in a way that is beneficial for wildlife. As most Local Wildlife Sites are in private ownership this is a crucial area of work for the trust and we recognise the commitment of the many landowners and land managers who work hard to protect and enhance wildlife on their land.
As well as offering advice and undertaking surveys, our work can involve delivering restoration schemes at some sites including the recent Saltscape project where 30 hectares of grassland was restored in the Weaver Valley.
A critical part of the Wildlife Trust’s role is to ensure Local Wildlife Sites are fully protected from damaging activities. This could be related to their agricultural use. For example, we are asked to comment on applications which affect the land use patterns on these sites, such as timber production or where semi-natural land is brought into cultivation. More commonly we are invited to comment on planning proposals which could affect these precious sites.
There are a large number of these special sites sitting close to areas allocated for development. This makes them vulnerable to future pressures such as disturbance, light and noise pollution as well as fragmentation caused by the loss of connecting habitat. We play a leading role in the Local Wildlife Site Partnership for Cheshire and in this capacity our views are always taken into consideration and very often schemes are amended or revised to take account of our concerns.
Earlier this year we were dismayed to learn that the draft wording of the government’s new National Planning Policy Framework had considerably weakened protection for Local Wildlife Sites. The Wildlife Trusts led a national campaign asking for their protection to be reinstated. The ‘Act Swiftly’ campaign had a high media profile and attracted the attention of one of our region’s MPs, Andrew Gwynne. He wrote to the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, urging him to ‘stop wildlife areas losing vital protections’. There have also been high level discussions between wildlife trust staff and government ministers to try and get the decision reversed.
At the time of writing we are awaiting the outcome of the campaign but in the meantime we are continuing to work hard to identify and select new sites across the county, particularly in areas where future development could destroy important wildlife habitats.
One such area will be along the route of the High Speed Two line (HS2). We have been fighting hard for HS2 Ltd to give a clear commitment to wildlife during the development and operation of the new rail line for a number of years. We were pleased to secure a significant fund for landscape and ecology work in the Cheshire area affected by Phase 2a of the scheme earlier this summer. Although we will still be involved in the final plans for Phase 2a, our current battle is for the protection of wildlife during Phase 2b of the scheme, which will see the track taken from Crewe to Manchester and Warrington.
Although we can’t prevent the railway going ahead, we do need to make sure that its impact on wildlife is reduced as much as possible. Assessing wildlife-rich potential Local Wildlife Sites, along the next part of the route is our current focus. This way we can make HS2 Ltd. aware of the true extent of the impacts to wildlife, and help ensure that these are adequately mitigated.
With a potential weakening of planning policies looming we hope our work won’t be made more difficult in the future. Whatever the final National Planning Policy Framework looks like, the Wildlife Trusts will continue to fight for Local Wildlife Sites as they are the building blocks of our precious natural heritage.