Thoughts, news and updates from members of the Plantlife team.

Living on the Edge (pt 1)

Why "Life on the Edge" is a good thing.

December 16 2015 - 15:27

Hairy Mallow

Hairy Mallow

It's all a bit static, the countryside, isn't it?

That bit over there is a wood, that bit's a meadow, there's a piece of arable.

Everything parcelled up and demarcated, which, after all, is how we like things - neat, easy to manage. Even as wildlife conservationists, we like to treat different habitats as clearly separate entities: it makes them easier to classify, and it's a lot easier to plan and deliver habitat management when you can divide your nature reserve into lots of individual blocks, each with a separate management prescription.

But that's just not how the natural world operates. In a completely wild system, each type of habitat grades into the next, whether in space (from woodland to dense scrub, to open scrub to grassland) or in time (from woodland, via wind-throw of trees, to bare ground to grassland to scrub), and different species take what they need from those parts of the system that suit them best. Many species thrive on this change, this complex spatial and temporal matrix: Ground-pine (Ajuga chamaepitys - below) is adapted to grassy habitats which are turned over periodically.

Likewise, Fly Orchids (Ophrys insectifera - below, image © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife) live in shady scrub and woodland, but rely on a digger wasp to pollinate them.

That wasp nests and feeds in open, sunny habitats. We can't expect to conserve these species if we continue putting habitats into separate boxes marked 'woodland', 'grassland', 'wetland' or whatever. 

This is why we've put together a project for Ranscombe Farm Reserve where we will be blurring the distinctions between our arable fields and the adjacent - mainly wooded - habitats. Called 'Life on the Edges', this new project has been generously funded by WREN’s FCC Biodiversity Action Fund, and is targeted at boosting the wildlife using Ranscombe's arable farmland by treating arable habitats as part of a wider habitat matrix. It's notable that half of all Section 41 species (those species in England considered most in need of direct conservation action) associated with arable habitats also require the presence of other, non-arable habitats nearby (see Natural England Research Report NERR024); these include birds such as Yellowhammer and Turtle Dove, mammals such as Harvest Mouse.

As I write this, we are already underway with a series of project activities, including targeted management for particular wild plants, bringing hundreds of metres of woodland edges into management, and work on hedgerow creation. We've also started a programme of surveying and monitoring the plants, bumblebees, birds and other species which we expect to benefit from the work, with the help of a new team of volunteer surveyors, and we've already had some exciting results ... but you'll have to wait for a future blog to find out more!

Related pages:

A long, hard game

December 03 2015 - 15:32

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to chair a formidable bunch of conservation scientists, species specialists and naturalists tasked by the Government with identifying what was needed to meet the conservation targets that it had set itself.  

We took up the challenge with gusto and, after what I admit felt like an age of pontificating and ruminating in our respective taxonomic corners, we managed to create a route map of how to shift our precious species away from the edge of extinction and reported it back to the Government we were trying to support.  

That was back then... Since when the headlines have reminded us with depressing regularity of the Government funding cuts made to the natural environment that literally drain the life and colour out of our natural world.  

It was against this backdrop that, last year,  a partnership of seven conservation charities with a focus on species, Plantlife included, came together to see if we could create a coalition that would focus on how to re-balance the playing field so that our wildlife has a fighting chance of recovery.   

Above: Can Pheasant's Eye (Adonis annua) be brought "Back from the Brink"?

The Species First partnership (Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and The RSPB), with our unique focus on vulnerable plants and animals, met with a palpable sense of ambition and commitment to start dreaming of what could be.  Indebted to the scientific advice provided by the expert group I'd chaired all those years earlier, we worked to splice this together.  It was an exciting and at times fervent period. 

Seven key themes emerged with a focus on rejuvenating the natural processes that would  allow the targeted species to thrive in bigger and better sites. From initial ideas came more detailed plans of how to bring our most threatened species back from the brink - and a project was born! 

Working with Natural England, we've pooled our collective expertise and have built on each others' efforts to establish a truly formidable partnership project focused on 100 of our most threatened plants, fungi and animals. 

Vigorous debate and a common ambition brought us through the darker hours of sweat and toil that is the reality of pulling together a truly collaborative partnership.  Looking back, you can see how the hard work and long days built into a crescendo of activity that translated all that effort and expertise into the inevitable paperwork - a huge funding application submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a modest £5 million to bring over 100 species "Back from the Brink"... 

And then the torturous wait for a decision.  But finally, we have the news we were all hoping for: a thumbs up from the HLF to spend a year developing all the project elements before submitting a final application in 2016. The Back from the Brink project will I hope set a benchmark: seven landscape-scale projects rooted in conservation science that, together, will help transform some of our most important wildlife sites for all their wildlife. 

When in years to come you marvel at a Wormwood Moonshiner in the Brecks, or the beauty of Pheasant's Eye  in Yorkshire, or indeed the sweet smell of Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) in Dorset remember, ours is a sustained long game and we need your support every step of the way.