Experts call for ‘wild belts’ to become part of the UK’s planning strategy. What is this protection mechanism and how could it help boost biodiversity and address the climate crisis?
From the Scottish Highlands and the west coast of Wales to the fells of Devon and Cornwall, national parks across the UK help protect our most biodiverse landscapes. But what about places that aren’t wildlife refuges?
Experts in Wildlife trusts I hope a new proposal helps safeguard them too. The charity has suggested a new land designation, ‘wild belts’, which would offer protection for parcels that have ‘low biodiversity value’ and would invest in them to help wildlife populations recover.
“What we want to do is achieve 30 percent of the land restored to nature by 2030,” explains Elliot Chapman-Jones, manager of public affairs for The Wildlife Trusts. “Only about 8 per cent of the land in England is designated as a protected area for conservation, and this is not enough. The wildbelt concept tries to create a new designation that goes beyond the sites we already have and protects the nature that we need for the future.
The bell calls on members of the public to respond to the government’s consultation on proposed planning reforms by calling for a wild belt designation for the land to be introduced. So far, nearly 6,000 people have responded.
“The response has been really fantastic,” says Chapman-Jones. “Particularly after the lockdown, when people were confined to their homes for so long, they found comfort in nature, they saw birds in their windows that they had never seen before, or they identified new walks that they could go out and do right at their doorstep. . So, I think we are more aware of the nature around us in our local area. “
One of the goals of the wild belt concept is to increase access to nature, which is “deeply uneven across the country right now, and that’s really increasing health inequalities, ”says Chapman-Jones.
“What wildbelt can do is allow local authorities or communities to identify chunks of land near them, be it abandoned land, poor agricultural land, and transform it into a nature reserve,” he adds.
Experts call for ‘wild belts’ to become part of the UK’s planning strategy. Image: Razvan Mirel
In September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to protect an additional 400,000 hectares of England’s countryside, equal to the combined size of the Lake District and South Downs national parks, by 2030. This would mean that 30% of the UK’s land be protected.
The prime minister was among the group of more than 60 world leaders who signed the “Leaders for Nature Pledge”, and made the announcement at the pledge launch last month. “We cannot afford to hesitate and delay because biodiversity loss is happening today and it is happening at an alarming rate,” Johnson said.
However, Chapman-Jones notes that while the main commitment is a “good start,” the figures used in the ad are misleading.
What wildbelt can do is allow local authorities or communities to identify patches of land near them and turn them into a nature reserve.
“The government is including national parks and areas of exceptional natural beauty in this figure; it’s about landscapes, not wildlife designations, ”he says. “Many of these places are severely depleted of wildlife due to overgrazing, mismanagement or intensive agricultural practices and will not achieve the recovery of nature. In fact, on average, the status of sites of special scientific interest [a biodiversity designation] inside the national parks and AONB is worse than outside. “
Ultimately, the goal is for seat belts to become a key feature of new development planning. Chapman-Jones points to an example of what incorporating wilderness areas into new projects might look like in practice. In the Cambourne housing development in Cambridgeshire, the developer left 60 percent of the site, which was previously farmland, to nature.
Making these practices part of planning policy would show that the government is serious about enhancing UK biodiversity and “making sure that its national agenda matches the words it is saying on the international stage,” he says.
Three ways ‘wild belt’ land could allow nature to rebound
One way to help nature recover, suggests Chapman-Jones, is the natural regeneration of forests. “We could create new areas of forest, which would help absorb carbon and contribute to climate change,” he says. Newly cultivated trees provide additional habitats for birds and mammals, and the natural regeneration method means that young trees tend to adapt better to local conditions and have a better chance of survival and longevity.
Image: Annie Spratt
Another solution is to rewet areas of land, “for example, peatlands, which are currently quite dry,” says Chapman-Jones. Peat bogs not only store carbon, but also provide natural defenses against flooding and are home to countless species of plants, insects, and birds, including harriers (pictured).
Image: Rob Zweers / Creative Commons
“We have lost 97 percent of our wildflower meadows since 1970, so we were able to create areas that would be wonderful not only for mammals like hedgehogs, but also for insects, bees and butterflies,” says Chapman-Jones.
Image: Roxxie Blackham
Lead Image: Simon Wilkes