Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust's Chief Executive, Dr Gordon
PUBLISHED: 12:38 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013
Katie Jarvis finds out why our wildlife will need its own moterway to help cope with climate change
If you want to travel from Gloucester to Edinburgh, the chances are you'll jump in the car and head straight for the M5. But it's not just people who are on the move. Because of the earth's rising temperatures, flora and fauna are increasingly heading for the cooler north, too. The problem is, they don't have the same access to convenient highways that we do. In fact, the advent of farming and large urban areas means much of the Cotswolds' native species are trapped in pockets they can't move out of.
Enter the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. This leading conservation charity has come up with an ambitious plan to help wildlife survive the effects of climate change. With the support of other interested organisations, they've drawn up a nature map, identifying the most important wildlife habitats in Gloucestershire. And now they're attempting to link those areas together with a 'wildlife highway' that will allow flora and fauna to follow the climate they need to survive.
Dr Gordon, chief executive of the trust, explains more.
Tell us more about the problems wildlife is facing...
It is estimated that by mid-century for many species their climate space - the conditions to which they are adapted - will have shifted by an average of 400 km north. Simply to survive, many species will have no alternative than to follow their climate space. This is a real long-term issue and the projections are that by 2025, 25 percent of the world's species will be gone - pretty gloomy stuff. What we are seeing at the moment are the first little glimpses of it - we haven't really seen any of the upheavals that will follow.
But we've had climate change in the past?
Yes - but we've had a period of fairly predictable climate since the ice age; the changes have been steady. We've now got a period where it's going to accelerate to an extreme degree: mean winter temperatures for the last few years in Britain have been astonishingly high. This year, I saw red admirals - summer butterflies - in my garden in February.
Added to this is the problem that we have fragmented wildlife habitats. The 20th century saw a dramatic reduction in wildlife habitats in the UK as human activity changed the nature of land to grow food, and occupied more of it to build houses, factories, roads, landfill sites, power stations, golf courses, marinas, shopping centres, and so on. Today, important habitats are a mere remnant of their former extent and exist as isolated havens. So we've got islands of wildlife and a rapidly changing climate - a big problem.
Shouldn't we just let nature take its course and leave other species to proliferate that are more adapted to climate change?
There are several lines of argument here. Firstly, if you love harvest mice or butterflies - or whatever - then of course we have a responsibility to save them. If we know what we can do to help, we should be doing it.
Secondly, these are indicators of what's going on more generally. If we see things disappearing, that's an amber light that the environment is struggling to cope.
Thirdly, the approach of the nature map is not to focus on species conservation but on the habitat - the bigger picture. If we manage the habitat better, then a full richness of wildlife is likely to survive on it.
One of the things we've done is to indentify major landowners within Gloucestershire. We will be visiting them individually to talk about how they might manage their land in a way that's helpful to wildlife.
Many of the landowners you hope to work with have suffered economically in the last few years. Why should they worry about wildlife when they've enough problems simply trying to earn a living?
That's the biggest question of all because land is owned mostly for an economic reason: people need to make a living out of it. There's no compulsion with this scheme. Our project team will be going out helping people to understand why their land is important not just from their own economic perspective, but because of the role it plays in the landscape and in terms of habitats and wildlife; and then they will give advice on how best to work the land in a way that's helpful to flora and fauna - in a way that links habitats. But the key is economics, so we will also put them in touch with agencies that have monies to offer practical assistance. Often, there can be a mutual benefit. Before we took on our nature reserve at Coombe Hill for example, part of the land was in winter wheat, which is not an intelligent thing to grow in a flood plain. It was planted because it benefited from grant supports. That isn't the best use of land for the farmer; nor is it the best use for wildlife.
We're also working with policy-makers and funders to try to influence them, too. It's not just a case of joined-up habitats, but joined-up thinking.
Although you will eventually cover the whole of Gloucestershire, you're starting with a five-year project in the Severn Vale. Why there?
Well, it's one of the UK's most important wetland areas, so already a conservation priority, but also because there's a consistency of habitat alongside the River Severn so we think we can have the biggest effect here. The Nature Map has identified 22 strategic nature areas but we calculate that joining just 12 of these will establish the desired route. This gives us options, which was an important factor in establishing the feasibility of the project.
The River Severn is also a good example of how the bigger picture needs to be examined. If you look at the river as a complete system, the head waters are up on Pumlumon, on classic upland Welsh land. When there's heavy rain in mid-Wales and on the upper reaches of the Severn, the soils at the top of the river should be spongy enough to hold much of the water for longer. The problem is that much of that sponginess has gone because of the intensity of agriculture. What happens up there has an effect elsewhere; and, indeed, the way the Cotswolds are managed in turn affects how the water running off on the Oxford plain behaves. There's a very big living landscape project currently taking place at Pumlumon. So the other vital element of our project is the fact that we are working across boundaries with our neighbouring trusts.
You're trying to reconnect isolated and fragmented habitats to run more seamlessly, but surely some - such as the beech woods or unimproved limestone grassland - take hundreds of years to develop? If they're gone, they can't be recreated.
In those cases, we need to make sure that what is left does not disappear. If you travel up the Fosse Way and look left and right, you can see areas of limestone grassland disappearing under scrub. We need to stop that happening. It's always better to manage what's there than to recreate, which is extraordinarily difficult for reasons we still don't understand. A ploughed site has a different soil structure from an unploughed site. The organisms within the soil change so it's very difficult to put the clock back.
What happens when you reach a complete 'road block' on your nature highway, such as a city like Birmingham?
It's tempting to think of Birmingham as a big concrete block, but it isn't like that. We work with schools which have land; we work with local authorities; even the urban garden can provide a very important link. There might be points where the highway is miles wide; there might be points where it's only metres wide. The M5 runs through the middle of our area - what about all the motorway banks? That's a massive hectorage of land that could be managed in a way that helps wildlife at no extra cost. In Avonmouth, for example, the water vole has been enjoying a great habitat reintroduction programme in Portbury docks, which is a very industrial area.
Have we already seen species suffer as a result of fragmented habitats?
We saw it in the case of harvest mice last year. These tiny creatures make their nests in ditch systems, particularly at our nature reserve at Coombe Hill, in the heart of the River Severn flood plain. Because the floods arrived at a time of year when wildlife wasn't expecting it, we think a lot of these harvest mice drowned. We don't know what they do the rest of the year - it's a mystery - so we'll have to wait for this summer to find out more about their current numbers. But that's an example of a sudden weather event having a severe effect because there are only pockets of this species left. If they had been widely distributed across the Severn Vale - as they were at one time - some would have been in ditches above the flood level, and would have survived. That helps you visualise why these sorts of restrictions make species vulnerable.
But even with this scheme, not all species will survive?
That's right. It's important to realise it's not individual species that are going to have their rucksacks on, trekking north. This is about species range so, if you've got any group of organisms that find that the best climatic conditions for them at the moment are broadly Gloucestershire, those conditions by 2050 will be in Cumbria. Where those species run up against barriers they can't cross, that's where this 25 percent species loss starts to come in. There will also be many that will run out of climate space. The easiest ones to identify are in the Scottish uplands because the only place for them to go is up the mountains. The cruel bottom line is that, when they're run out of height, they've had it. Bird species like the ptarmigan will almost certainly become extinct. We're trying to facilitate species that are able to find climate space elsewhere. There is work being done on species translocation - physically moving it - but you can't move it if there's nowhere to move it to. You still come back to the joined up habitats.
Who can help to make this work?
Everyone can contribute to it becoming a reality. We're not just talking about big landowners and policymakers getting involved - communities can develop local projects to contribute to the bigger picture; individuals can help wildlife in their gardens and also make clear to the MPs who represent them that helping wildlife adapt to climate change matters. Ultimately, anyone who owns or manages a garden can help.
It's not just governments that are making decisions: it's people. If we rein back the amount of carbon we're chucking out, climate change might stabilise at three degrees. That would mean the species that have found climate space by 2050 would be broadly OK. If we don't, and it keeps on, the future is so bleak, you just don't want to think about it.
It's really important that we look after the world we live in. If we can't do it here in Great Britain, where on earth is it going to happen? We are a very rich, very educated country with a deep philosophy and culture. If we can't cope with it, it's curtains, chaps - wildlife will have no chance.
For more about the work of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (01452 383333), log onto wwwgloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk where you'll also find details of how to become a member.