A stark and urgent call to action

Blog post by David North on 13 May, 2019
The ground-breaking United Nations IPBES report published 7 May doesn't pull any punches. It states very clearly that human activity is 'eroding nature's ability to sustain life on Earth.' 

This stark and urgent call to action, adopted by 132 governments including ours, is backed up by a huge amount of scientific evidence. The facts in this 1,600 page report are very clear.  Globally a million species are at risk of extinction and the report makes clear if we do nothing then it is not just wildlife that will suffer, it is people too and our ability to feed and provide clean water to a growing human population and have a liveable climate will be destroyed.

If we do nothing we face increasing habitat fragmentation, soil loss and degradation, ocean and freshwater pollution and water scarcity with resultant impacts on human health and wellbeing. These alarming trends endanger not just our wildlife but also our economy, livelihood, food security and quality of life.  

It’s not too late to make a difference but only if we act now both as individuals and as nations across the world.

How is Norfolk’s wildlife faring?

Norfolk's wildlife is faring well on its nature reserves and protected sites in part at least because of long-standing work in the county by nature conservation organisations including Norfolk Wildlife Trust (since 1926), RSPB, National Trust and others.

The combination of well-managed nature reserves in the Broads and along the North Norfolk coast has created habitat conditions which have enabled the return of species in some cases lost for centuries - the avocet returned to breed in Norfolk at Cley Marshes (photo above, by Barry Madden) in 1977 after an absence of 150 years and since then has expanded its range and increased its population to become a familiar site at many coastal sites. Common cranes returned to breed in the Norfolk Broads in 1981 after an absence of more than 300 years. Today they have increased in numbers in Norfolk and colonised neighbouring counties.  Otters have returned to most Norfolk rivers, buzzards, and now red kites are increasing, and little egrets are now common. Along our North Norfolk coast spoonbills and great white egrets have recently started breeding. Much good news to celebrate.

However, of course Norfolk is not immune from massive and tragic losses of wildlife globally and in England. Numerous reports including the recent UN biodiversity report and previous UK State of Nature reports highlight just how serious and widespread these declines are. In Norfolk our farmland birds, including turtle dove, yellowhammer, corn bunting, tree sparrow and skylark have been sadly lost from large areas Norfolk. Populations today are a fraction of what they used to be. Birds like turtle dove and nightingale could well be heading towards extinction as Norfolk breeding species.

Other farmland species such as grey partridges, despite efforts by some of the larger Norfolk Estates to protect them, remain very low and only a fraction of former numbers - though Norfolk unlike many English counties still retains small populations in many areas.

For plants the almost total loss of hay meadows and unimproved grasslands means a huge loss of species: once common meadow plants such as ragged robin, cowslip and orchids are now uncommon. Toads, frogs and newts have declined with the loss of their breeding ponds and heathland species such as adders and natterjack toad have disappeared in many areas of the county as their habitat has declined.  Today their strongholds are on nature reserves.  

Norfolk has also lost wildlife through the curse of non-native invasive species.  Ash die back from an imported disease, the threat to our native globally endangered white clawed crayfish from the plague spread by introduced American signal crayfish, water voles decimated from predation by introduced mink and the loss of all our wild red squirrels as the introduced North American grey squirrel had taken over are just some examples.

Our wider countryside in Norfolk is much less rich in bird song, in wild flowers, in bees and pollinators, moths and butterflies and across huge areas of Norfolk these declines have happened and not yet been reversed.  

Which species have suffered the most in Norfolk and why?

The species which have declined the most are those dependent on specialised habitats such as unimproved grasslands, heaths and wet mires.

Other species have suffered as our coast has become more popular with tourists so beach nesting birds such as ringed plover and little tern (photo right, by Ian Simonds) only survive where beaches are very remote or breeding sites are protected by temporary fences and wardened.  

One especially threatened group are the flowers of arable farm land, arable weeds as they are sometimes known.  The increased use of herbicide sprays, fertilizers and changes in tillage systems has largely eradicated many once common flowers such as corn flower and corncockle from our countryside and many other species, even poppies, a much less common sight.  


What can we do locally to enact recommendations of the latest UN report and improve biodiversity?

We need to carry on doing what we have been doing but in a more joined up way. Our concept of Living Landscapes is to make our protected nature reserves bigger and better managed but also to work with other landowners across Norfolk to link them together so that wildlife can more easily move between sites.  

The problem for wildlife is that is has become confined to small 'islands' of  habitat separated by developments, intensive farmland and roads - species as the UN report highlights cannot thrive on small islands when the climate changes and so extinction rates in small patches of good habitat will always be high.  

We are working with Norfolk County Council to use satellite imagery and new mapping techniques to identify the most important corridors for wildlife. We will then concentrate on bringing back ecological connectivity by restoring and creating habitats, working with partners.

We need bigger areas for wildlife, these areas to be better connected together and for habitats including farmland and the wider countryside to be managed in a much more wildlife friendly manner.  

We also need to work with people as every decision we make, the type of food we eat, the things we buy, all has an impact on our environment and the wildlife it supports. We need to move urgently to living more sustainably, and everyone can make a small difference in this respect.


What does NWT do with landowners and farmers to enhance biodiversity?


Many farmers want to help wildlife have been forced by economics to become more and more intensive. The Agriculture Bill going through parliament at present, with its emphasis on public money for public goods and the changes to farm payments proposed, means there will be new opportunities for farmers.  

The concept of 'Rewilding' is something several larger estates here in Norfolk are considering.  I'm optimistic that there is more understanding of how working with nature not against it is the future of farming.  We only have to think about the value of our pollinating insects to farmers or the worms and other invertebrates which keep our soils healthy.  

NWT already works with many landowners who are neighbours to our nature reserves but we know we need to expand this area of work. Our role can be to provide advice on how to help wildlife or to bring groups of farmers together to help wildlife on a landscape scale.  

We already provide advice to the owners of more than 1,300 County Wildlife Sites: the best sites for nature in Norfolk outside of nature reserves and protected sites and usually in private ownership. Many are owned by farmers who do a wonderful job looking after them. We are keen to support this.


What we are learning from the recent UN biodiversity report and equally from the various recent Climate Change reports is that we need transformative change if we are to reverse present trends and find solutions to these issues. Business as usual is no longer an option, whether for conservation organisations, businesses, individuals or Governments.  

The solution will only be found if we begin to work together both as individuals in communities and nations in the international community. We can all be part of the solution and begin the transition to more sustainable lifestyles, which is the long-term solution not just to saving nature but to saving ourselves from a future where wildlife has vanished and our climate is out of control.  

The decision, for all of us, is what sort of world do we want to create by our actions and how much do we care about protecting the planet and its biodiversity, which together create our life-support systems. If we want a better world then the first step is to imagine one and then to take action together to achieve it.


The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)

Header photo, turtle dove by David Tipling
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