By Alex Didcock

On the 10th July, Tevi’s Edvard Glücksman interviewed The Wildlife Trust’s Chief Executive Craig Bennett, Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Chief Executive Officer  Carolyn Cadman alongside Rachael Bice, now Chief Executive Officer of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and formerly Head of Environmental Growth and Partnerships at Cornwall Council as part of our ‘in conversation with’ series. This interactive interview is the third within a series themed around environmental growth and conservation.

 

The ‘in conversation with’ series aims to facilitate knowledge transfer between SMEs,  policymakers, experts in Cornwall and expert guests beyond the county. The interviews are designed to address topical issues and stimulate debate to eventually develop effective solutions to combat Cornwall’s challenges in environmental growth and circular economy. This session focussed on the key issues facing the Wildlife Trusts in 2020 and explored a range of topics including the impact of Covid-19, current direction of Governmental policy towards the environment, the importance of collaboration between the Trust and business, and Nature recovery mechanisms.

When addressing the central focus of the interview – a summer like no other for The Wildlife Trusts – all three speakers focused on the impacts of Covid-19 on the Trusts. All witnessed greater engagement of the public with nature both physically, with the reserves seeing increased footfall; and digitally, visits to the website and contributions to citizen science projects – in fact the Great Yorkshire Creature Count had 4,500 sign ups and 13,000 records provided in just 24 hours!

The UK has an extensive network of 2,300 Nature Reserves, meaning that 60% of the population live within 3 miles of a reserve. This proximity allowed many to seek the reserves during lockdown to relax outside and ‘get back to nature’ in a time of extreme uncertainty and anxiety. Although, this influx of new visitors was not without its challenges, Rachael Bice commented that inappropriate behaviours were observed within many reserves, including playing sports and letting dogs off leads, adding that increased communication with the public was required to publicise rules and regulations.

What are the current priorities for the Trusts?

Craig Bennett identified that the main focus of the Trusts, as a collective, is nature recovery, which is targeted by the objective of “30% of UK land and sea being managed for nature recovery by 2030”. At present, around 15% of land is designated as protected, however this does not necessarily mean that nature recovery is being prioritised. In order to achieve the 30% target: field margins, roadside verges, railway corridors, parks and gardens must be managed for nature’s recovery, along with joining land between reserves to create habitat corridors. Carolyn gave the Cornish perspective – currently around 34% of land is managed for nature recovery in some form (land that is designated, managed by conservation charities or part of a conservation project), however there is a need to ensure the management of this land is focused on nature recovery. A recent report by the Centre for ecology and hydrology outlining the loss of grassland to urban expansion and forestry plantations was brought up, highlighting the need for a diversity of multi-functional habitats across the UK that is beneficial to local wildlife.

Another priority is to continue working with businesses and to encourage more collaboration through creative and innovative partnerships to gain funding and to promote the creation of products that benefit wildlife or change production methods to minimise damaging impacts. Over 3,000 SMEs are partners or members of local Wildlife Trusts. Carolyn highlighted the need to embed environment in core of business, planning and decisions and stated that Cornwall has significant opportunities within farming, fishing, and tourism sectors.

One other identified priority for the Wildlife Trusts was the need to withstand the impacts of Covid-19. Although Craig Bennett stated that he believes the trusts possess increased resilience by being divided into 46 trusts, allowing for localised action and knowledge on which decisions are best for region. Carolyn said that the Cornwall Wildlife Trust had struggled after having to cancel fundraising events and being unable to recruit new members face-to-face.

What is the impact of Government policy on the Trusts?

Boris Johnson’s recent ‘Build, build, build’ speech was discussed, which highlighted the need for construction post-Covid-19 and stated that “newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country”, referencing the EU’s habitat directive that protects threatened species from damaging infrastructure. Craig Bennett found this narrative highly problematic, as he believes the environment and development need not be in opposition and that we now have the opportunity to create a circular economy, focused on sustainability and improvement for people and nature. There is a need to avoid past unstainable development and move towards a ‘build better’ focus by investing in green infrastructure that provides the needs of people and allows for the recovery of nature. Carolyn Cadman added that the ‘build, build, build’ narrative has been viewed as not appropriate for Cornwall by MP Cherilyn Mackrory and that Cornwall council’s Environmental growth strategy is demonstrating how development and nature can enhance each other.

Methods of achieving the balance between essential infrastructure projects for carbon-zero transport and conservation were also discussed, using the controversial example of HS2. Whilst the development of HS2 increases public transport options, it has been poorly planned, impacting over 100 ancient woodlands and requiring large amounts of carbon for construction, meaning the system will not be net for many decades. When commenting on this project, Craig Bennett, spoke about the need for large-scale investment projects that are sustainability focused from the outset. Additionally, he questioned if the project has become outdated and should no-longer be the priority with increased remote working. He advocated objective analysis of current evidence and an avoidance of “Hi-vis jacket ideology” in pushing governmental policy.

What are the main challenges/worries?

One key concern is the future of membership income. Although a recent surge in membership has been observed, there are concerns about retaining memberships and funding with increased unemployment in the coming months. Additionally, there is a worry that many businesses will have to pull their financial support for the Trusts.

Also, as new people are engaging with nature in reserves there is a requirement for increased communications about appropriate behaviour, as Rachael said she hopes to see a move from the excessive and hedonistic use of natural spaces seen in lockdown and a move to more responsible but increased use of natural spaces.

What is the future for the Trusts?

Retaining the benefits seen for wildlife during lockdown is a future priority, which requires the need for resetting and rethinking conservation projects to maximise positive impacts and assist nature recovery. Also, capitalising on the shift in public opinion towards nature and continuing to promote the use of natural spaces is essential. One consequence of this shift may involve the creation of nature-based prescriptions to improve well-being and health and projects to ensure accessibility for all to our nature reserves.

The trusts are also facing many economic challenges resulting from Covid-19 including reduced funding,  localised lockdowns and the unknown impacts of Brexit on governmental environmental policy.

In more positive news, the potential for future reintroduction and restoration projects was discussed with reference to the reintroduction project of Bison in to Blean woods, Kent. Rachael talked about the success of the Cornish beaver projects and questioned what could be next on the horizon. Carolyn said that more beaver projects are planned and proposed the potential for pine martin reintroductions in Cornwall to control grey squirrel populations.


Tevi would like to thank our guest speakers for their time and for generating stimulating discussion around the theme of environmental growth and conservation for the Wildlife Trusts.

This interview was the first in a series of three interviews with the Cornish Wildlife Trust in July. Here is our Eventbrite page to sign up to another: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/tevi-18754815108

You can watch the full webinar here:

 

Craig Bennett was featured in the Guardian newspaper discussing re-wilding activity. To read the article click HERE