'Futurescapes': how a Shropshire land manager rewrote the conservation rulebook

Stiperstones scene
The Stiperstones nature reserve in Shropshire has pioneered conservation models that are now attracting widespread attention
With a new coalition government the opportunities for fresh thinking about managing the UK countryside are vast, reports Dan Box. And the Stiperstones nature reserve is providing plenty of inspiration...

It is a long day’s walk along the Stiperstones, a hill-top ridge struck with shattered granite tors that look like broken bones. Tom Wall rests one hand on one of those, Nipstone Rock, and cocks his head.  ‘Hear that?’ he says. A bird’s song against the wind can be heard: ‘Skylark!’ Tom grins.

He has good reason to be happy. The skylark population has fallen by two million, say the RSPB, in recent years; more than any other British bird. This small, brown thing tumbling over a stretch of Shropshire countryside is in freefall elsewhere in Britain, yet we have found it here, among the stones.

Tom has worked here for 20 years, retiring only a few months ago as Natural England’s senior manager of the nature reserve that sits at the centre of these hills. In that time conservationists like him have won small victories – the red kite, the bittern, that skylark – and suffered great defeats:

2010 is the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity (the range of plant and animal species in any given habitat), yet last year the British government abandoned its target to halt the loss of UK biodiversity by this date. Similarly unsuccessful government policies elsewhere meant European and global targets were also badly missed.

A new approach to nature conservation is needed. Something, perhaps, like what is happening on the Stiperstones. For the place Tom leaves behind is now seen internationally as a model for a pioneering, landscape-scale kind of nature conservation. A new style that does not yet even have a name, though Living Landscapes, Futurescapes and re-wilding have all been mooted.

On paper, different parts of the Stiperstones are owned separately by government, council, the local Wildlife Trust, Forestry Commission and the private country estates. Each of these used to be managed separately, but Tom encouraged the owners to think instead in terms of the entire landscape and to work together towards a common vision of returning the hills from biodiversity-poor conifer plantations back to heather. Back to the natural wildness it once had.

Landscape-scale conservation 

Similar schemes are now being set up across the country by the big conservation charities. Political will is also beginning to run the same way. A new government white paper on the environment is due by the year end. It is expected to draw on two reviews launched in 2009; one a UK-wide ‘national ecosystem assessment’, and the second called ‘Making Space for Nature’, exploring ‘if our collection of [wildlife] sites represents a coherent and robust ecological framework for England’.

Launching the first of these, the then-environment secretary, Hilary Benn, signalled that landscape-scale conservation was the next big thing: ‘Re-wilding, and linking together areas to make ecological corridors and a connected network, could have real benefits in allowing nature to thrive,’ he said.

Tom Wall, of course, had been thinking about the Stiperstones like that for years. ‘Geologically, it’s a single landscape. Ecologically, there’s lot’s of commonality between areas along it. In terms of access, it’s a wonderful walk,’ he says. ‘There’s a unity of purpose amongst many of those who manage it…who share our vision for how to manage it in the future. Yes, it makes huge sense for it to be looked at as a single unit in that way.’
Nature conservation has traditionally been about creating islands; fencing off, say, a certain field because it contained bee-orchids. The weaknesses of this approach are now becoming clear – the resulting small, fragmented populations of wild animals and plants can be wiped out by sudden changes such as a harsh winter, pollution or drought.

Discussing the progress made on ‘Making Space for Nature’ earlier this year, the review chair, Sir John Lawton said ‘The evidence that we have collated so far suggests that the current collection of wildlife sites in England does not function as a coherent and resilient network.

‘It is essential that we work at a large landscape-scale that takes account of the context of and connections between sites.’

A big green land grab?

Lawton’s review is expected to champion this new approach, one where the islands are joined together, giving once-isolated populations of wild things a better chance to spread out. With climate change already driving those species that can move freely both northwards and uphill in search of new, cooler, habitats, the need to move in order to survive will be only greater in coming years.

This does not necessarily entail a big green land grab. In financial terms, any nature reserve is a liability - it costs to manage and often generates little money in return. As Tom found, it is cheaper and easier to work with existing landowners, encouraging them to manage their land in a certain way, either through regulation (stick) or through financial incentive such as environmental stewardship schemes (carrot).

How much land will be involved? Nobody knows, yet. Far more, most likely, than the 2.4 million hectares, or 10 per cent of UK land area, that currently receives the highest levels of environmental protection under law. More than land mass, however, what may be crucial is finding smaller ‘wildlife corridors’ or stepping stones of habitat that join these existing protected islands together, allowing species to move between them. These could be as small as individual hedgerows – or back gardens.

Ultimately, the champions of this kind of conservation try to think as big as possible. Already the Wildlife Trusts have over 110 projects in operation trying to improve or conserve habitats outside their own reserves. The RSPB is doing the same thing – their Greater Thames Futurescape covers over 1000km2 from London’s Tower Bridge out into the North Sea. The National Trust, too, is beginning to practise the same approach on a few of its major land holdings.

These advocates increasingly talk of re-wilding the entire countryside, or – in the language of the Wildlife Trusts (which may be significant; Professor Lawton chairs the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and the organisation’s national chief executive, Stephanie Hilborne, is on his review panel) – of a single ‘Living Landscape’, the size of Britain itself.

Except, a familiar doubled-headed monster lurks in the way: politics and money. There has, of course, been a change of government since the two environmental reviews mentioned above were announced. Perhaps surprisingly, many environmental charities are fairly sanguine about the change and see the Conservatives, particularly, as more interested in wildlife conservation than Labour. Benn’s replacement as environment secretary Caroline Spelman recently told MPs her government is ‘absolutely committed to reversing the trend in the reduction of biodiversity.’

Freezing subsidies

The coalition launch document, its ‘Programme for Government’, backs this up, committing to ‘introduce measures to protect wildlife and promote green spaces and wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats.’

On the other hand, Treasury belt-tightening means government stewardship subsidies paid to farmers for managing their land to favour the environment are likely to be frozen, if not cut. The new all-Tory ministerial team at Spelman’s department also want to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers, and are therefore likely to reject using the stick of new rules to replace the carrot of stewardship fees.

Planning is also an issue. For landscape-scale conservation to work, it must work on a big canvas. Yet the government is abolishing regional-level planning in England and wants to give local communities more power over planning decisions. That will likely obstruct the kind of joined-up thinking necessary to created joined-up networks of habitats straddling different regions and, ultimately, nations.

We won’t know much more about where this government is headed until the environmental white paper is released or, at least, the (delayed) publication of the Lawton review. So much, then, for now, for one head. But what about the second?

The current round of government departmental cuts – at least 25 per cent in real terms over four years – will harm its ability to make good policy, and to implement that policy through public sector bodies, such as Natural England.

Outsourcing conservation

This doesn’t necessarily mean a fire-sale of Britain’s nature reserves. The more optimistic among the NGOs see the cuts as an opportunity to take prize assets off the government’s hands, effectively sub-contracting the management of these reserves on the basis that they could do the job cheaper.

A number of environmental charities, including the Wildlife Trusts, have already been asked by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to draw up a list of which national nature reserves they think they could handle.

In Shropshire, where the local Wildlife Trust already has a number of smaller reserves along the same ridge, the Stiperstones could be among them, although no decision has been made. This land could then be managed as part of the larger landscape-scale conservation projects these charitable organisations are piloting.

Even where government land is put up for sale, others are seeing this as an opportunity for nature conservation. At the far end of the Stiperstones ridge from Nipstone Rock, stands Pontesford Hill. The Forestry Commission has just put its 999-year lease on the hill-top up for sale and a local residents have campaigned to raise the money to buy it, raising over £40,000 in little over a month. At the moment, the deal is on a knife-edge – another, unnamed, bidder has come in, offering a six-figure sum for the lease. The residents are now determined, somehow, to match that bid.

Brian Morris, who lives in the village of Pontesbury beneath the hill and chairs the campaign group, says: ‘The hill is part of a bigger wild area, and we want it all to be managed together, for the wildlife, for our children, for our children’s children and for our community as a whole.’

Dan Box is a freelance journalist

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