Let’s make the 2020s the decade of nature’s recovery by Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts
In spring, I was delighted to start in the role of Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, even if it was in rather odd circumstances given the Covid-19 lockdown.
The Wildlife Trusts is made up of 46 individual Wildlife Trusts, ranging from those covering urban areas (such as London, Avon and Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trusts), to county Wildlife Trusts (like Cornwall, Essex and Northumberland), groups of counties (like The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, and Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust), the devolved nations (such as Scotland and Ulster Wildlife Trust, and the five Welsh Wildlife Trusts) and finally island trusts (Alderney, Isle of Man, and Isles of Scilly) – we are embedded into the heart of our communities.
Together, we care for more nature reserves than McDonalds has restaurants in the UK; in fact, one thousand more. Our 2,300 reserves range from Camley Street Natural Park right by London’s Kings Cross station, to the spectacular Skomer and Skokholm islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire. In total, we directly manage or provide management advice on 332,697 hectares (822,112 acres) of land for nature.
But what matters to me most is that our federated structure means that the majority of this is close to where people live; over 60 per cent of the UK population live within three miles of a Wildlife Trust nature reserve. And it’s clear that, during the Covid-19 lockdown, millions of people have come to a new realisation of just how important local nature is to them with many people visiting local reserves for the first time. Visits to Wildlife Trusts webcams also soared by over 2000% during lockdown as people tried to get their daily dose of nature online if not in person.
All this points to the need to make nature more accessible to people who might not consider themselves ‘twitchers’ or nature fanatics, but who care passionately about the importance of a healthy flourishing environment.
I sometimes wonder if, over the last 100 years or so, the nature conservation movement in the UK has focussed a little too much on the identification, categorisation and conservation of rare species and habitats, and not enough on the abundance of nature everywhere, and the preservation and restoration of ecosystem processes.
Don’t get me wrong; we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the conservation pioneers that identified the first nature reserves and protected these sites for future generations. But we all know that nature conservation is no longer enough; we now need to put nature into recovery.
Much as we like to imagine we live in a green and pleasant land, the truth is that the UK is currently one of the most nature depleted countries in the world.
I’m 48 years old and the science is clear; in my lifetime 41 per cent of wildlife species in UK have suffered strong or moderate decreases in abundance. Species that were once common have become rare and with that the role or function they are performing in our ecosystems has also declined.
We’ve all experienced it. As a five year old, if I left my bedroom light on at night with the window open it would be swarming with moths 30 minutes later. Now, I’d be lucky to see one. Similarly, when we went on family holidays and drove up the A1 for five hours, the windscreen would be covered in squashed insects by the time we arrived at our holiday destination. Now, there might be one or two.
And no surprise then that long lists of bird species have also declined with, for example, a fall of 54% in the Farmland Bird Indicator since 1970.
At The Wildlife Trusts, we want to see 30 percent of our land and sea being managed for nature’s recovery by 2030. That’s the bare minimum needed to restore nature in abundance to the UK and to start getting our ecosystems working properly again; capturing carbon, pollinating crops, storing water, rejuvenating soils and cleaning our rivers.
We want to work with farmers and other land managers to create a nature recovery network, using field margins, river valleys, hedgerows, roadside verges, railway cuttings and back gardens to protect, connect and restore nature across our countryside, and into our towns and cities.
We want a comprehensive package of policy measures put in place to help this happen. That includes improvements needed to the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill and the Environment Bill but also better use of planning policy to make sure new developments help nature’s recovery, rather than speed its decline. And we need a legally binding pesticide reduction target, with the aim of cutting overall pesticide use in half by 2020.
Our vision is one where nature is in full, healthy abundance all around us; skies filled with birds, snowstorms of butterflies and moths, armies of invertebrates, vast expanses of wetland and wild landscapes, and seas teeming with life.
And our vision is also one where there’s a positive relationship between humanity and nature, rather than constantly behaving as if we are almost enemies.
This won’t happen overnight, but it could happen over the next decade if all of us, people, politicians and business leaders put our minds to it. And raise our sights to the level of ambition needed to move from nature decline to nature recovery.
Follow Craig on Twitter:@craigbennett3
Craig Bennett started as Chief Excecutive of The Wildlife Trusts in April 2020, with the ambition of putting a third of the UK’s land and sea into nature recovery by 2030.
He has been described as “one of the country’s top environmental campaigners”, by The Guardian as “the very model of a modern eco-general” and has been listed as one of the UK’s top “social media CEOs”.
Craig was previously CEO of Friends of the Earth where he refocussed the organisation on its unique role of empowering communities to take action to tackle the climate and ecological crisis. This resulted in a step-change in the scale and impact of the movement with over 200 new Friends of the Earth community groups set up during his tenure. Craig led Friends of the Earth to numerous campaign victories including on bees, fracking and against the expansion of Heathrow Airport.
Earlier in his career, Craig was Deputy Director at The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), and Director of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change (from 2007 to 2010). Before that, he campaigned on corporate accountability, trade, and wildlife issues at Friends of the Earth and on international wildlife crime at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Craig has twenty years’ experience of designing and contributing to executive education and leadership programmes at numerous universities and business schools, including the Judge Business School, London Business School, and Duke CE. He is Honorary Professor of Sustainability and Innovation at Alliance Manchester Business School.
He has a BSc (Hons) in Human and Physical Geography from The University of Reading and an MSc in Biodiversity Conservation from University College London, and an Honorary Doctoral degree from University College of Estate Management (UCEM).