It will soon be Landscapes for Life Week – when Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) partnerships across the nation come together to celebrate the UK’s protected landscapes and the nature, heritage and culture that make them so special.
This year’s runs from 21 to 29 September and is an extra special one for us. We will be celebrating the pioneering and far-sighted vision enshrined in 1949’s National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act that paved the way for the designation of AONBs and National Parks.
Designated landscapes were seen then as a sister to the National Health Service and both were part of the post-World War II settlement, with AONBs and National Parks giving people access to the mental and physical health benefits of the countryside and the NHS helping people if they became ill.
2019 looks like a watershed moment for the natural world in general and for designated landscapes in particular.
The Government published its 25 Year Environment Plan in January 2018 with the ambitious aim to be “the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, followed by the Welsh Government’s publication of the Valued and Resilient Paper in July 2018, after the Future Landscapes: Delivering for Wales Review reported in 2017.
One of the earliest actions of the 25 Year Environment Plan was the setting up of the Review of Designated Landscapes, chaired by the journalist Julian Glover. We expect the final report to be released in the coming weeks and anticipate a robust challenge to us to make a significant step change, to reshape our aims and deliver in a world that would be almost unrecognisable to those post-war pioneers.
Climate breakdown and the wildlife crisis that we are seeing across the UK are two sides of the same coin and we must take urgent steps to address them.
Our native species and habitats are in decline like never before. The 2016 State of Nature Report showed that 15 percent of our native species are under threat of extinction and 53 percent are in decline. Over 1000 species are threatened with annihilation in the UK and the measure assessing how intact a country's wildlife is suggests that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
The depreciation of natural environments affects not only our native species but also our national finances, amplifying the effects of climate change as evidenced by the many recent extreme weather events, from flooding to grassland fires. The effects of climate change are now undeniable.
Landscape-scale intervention to restore habitats, species and ecosystems is now widely recognised as the most effective way we can restore ecological functions and help wildlife and human communities adapt to the changes that are unfolding.
Indeed, there has never been a more important time to address landscape cohesion and resilience and designations such as AONBs have a vital part to play in co-ordinating the necessary work and helping everyone to lift their eyes to the landscape level.
In recognition of their unique responsibilities and strengths, AONB Partnerships and Conservation Boards made a formal commitment at the Landscapes for Life Conference earlier this summer to increase the scale and pace of their delivery for nature in the form of the Colchester Declaration.
The declaration is a joint pledge to collectively protect what remains and recover what has been lost in our natural environment. This will build on the significant and often unpublicised work that AONB teams have been carrying out to restore nature.
Considering that AONBs make up some 15 percent of the land area in England, these commitments are not insignificant.
The Colchester Declaration sets out specific ambitious stretching targets that join up the dots of climate breakdown and nature loss.
AONB Partnerships and Conservation Boards have committed to Achieving net zero by 2050 by incorporating meaningful actions in AONB Management Plans in their next cycle (2024); embedding an ecosystems services approach – maximising the benefits that nature can provide through carbon sequestration and flood alleviation; and actively working to restore habitats and re-establish species on a landscape scale through strong connections with their local landowners.
AONB Partnerships have a very strong proven track record of delivering on species recovery and habitat restoration: from Anglesey, where the Source to Sea project restored polluted waters to create habitats for fish and other wildlife, to Suffolk Coast and Heaths, where the precious saltmarsh habitat for fish fry and birds has been restored.
Valuable carbon capturing peatland restoration work has taken place across the country – in Cornwall, North Pennines and Forest of Bowland AONBs. There are many more examplesshowcased in our 70@70 project.
Knowledge and capability
It is important to note that while we have the proven knowledge and capability to deliver what is needed, AONBs are important landscapes that are, on the whole, in private ownership.
Much of the richness these places have to offer is the product of the stewardship of generations of farmers and landowners. While accessible to many, they are the working ‘factory floor’ of the UK’s food and timber production and support a growing and important domestic tourism industry. Having the tools and resources to support nature friendly farming is therefore key.
Over the past year or so, representatives of AONB Partnerships and Conservation Boards have worked alongside Defra to develop the new Environmental Land Management Schemes (NELMS) which will incentivise more environmentally-friendly farming practices and simplify the current system of farm payments.
AONB teams are ideally placed to both develop the new schemes and support their delivery. They have the skills, knowledge and experience of delivering for nature. Embedded as they are in their local communities, they have detailed knowledge about the species and habitats in their localities and have the power to convene.
AONB teams work in established partnerships with their local landowners: farmers, large estates, charities, local authorities and other conservation organisations such as Natural England, the National Trust and the RSPB to effect positive landscape change.
The NELMS tests and trials will begin in the coming months and we look forward to working with Defra and our local partners to deliver for nature.
Howard Davies has been chief executive of the National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty since 2010 and was previously director of Wildlife Trusts Wales.