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Conserving biodiversity?

In this article, Martin Bailey (Wildlife & Countryside Services) looks at the current state of ‘biodiversity’ in the UK and some of the solutions towards halting its decline… 

I hear people all the time talking about ‘conserving biodiversity’ and I wonder where these people get the idea we actually have any biodiversity left to conserve?

Yes, obviously, we should conserve the wildlife and habitats we have left, but describing any area of the UK, except perhaps the Caledonian pine forest, as ‘biodiverse’ seems a bit daft when we should all be able to see that there’s virtually no wildlife left.

One of the many other problems is that where there are relatively biodiverse habitats left, they’re invariably surrounded by severely degraded landscapes and are ‘islands’ among the devastation.

Our little ‘nature reserve’ here at the Cottage is a prime example of this. We have a diverse range of habitats in our acre of land, with rough grassland, bramble patches, woodland edge, hedgerow, mature trees and a couple of seasonal ponds, but around us is poor quality woodland used for rearing pheasants, and intensively-managed farmland.

This means that it’s difficult for wildlife that’s not already here to find us and it means that any wildlife that’s ‘trapped’ here will suffer the ‘island effect’ and gradual population decline.

I can remember when we had much more wildlife than we have now, but I need to think back to my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s and even then we had nowhere near the biodiversity that we had 50+ years before that.

I regularly take people on trips to my ‘secret corner’ of Poland and they’re often stunned when they actually see biodiversity for themselves. The great thing about Poland is that many of the landscapes and species are much the same as would have been found in the UK 100+ years ago, so it’s easy to relate what we see there to our countryside at home.

Flower-rich meadows are common in our ‘secret corner’ of Poland (Credit: Martin Bailey)

By seeing what they still have there (though unfortunately not in the whole country), we can see what’s missing from the UK and, more importantly, what we need to do to get it back.

It’s actually very simple: we need large areas of flower-rich hay meadows, plenty of ‘woodland edge’ habitat and extensive native forest with beavers along the rivers – unless you’ve seen what beavers do to the landscape first-hand, you probably don’t ‘get it’; I didn’t.

Initially, we need to re-establish or enhance the ‘edge’ habitats between woodlands and fields, which are largely missing. Most fields have no edge habitat; they just end at a fence with no margin. The same is true for woodlands and I propose a simple solution: where it’s not feasible to set aside a field margin of rough grassland or flower-rich meadow, which we should do wherever possible, we should consider felling some trees.

Where woodlands are larger than an acre or two, we should consider felling all the trees along the edge, leaving a coppiced margin on the edge of the woodland of at least 5m. Cut timber should be stacked and left for the deadwood-loving species and the edge left to revegetate naturally.

The broadleaf trees will regrow from their stumps, fed by nutrients from the cut wood and producing rich young growth, and around them will appear wildflowers and then bramble scrub, which is incredibly valuable for a wide range of species. This management could be carried out periodically each time the canopy closes again.

As well as this ‘edge creation’ we should re-create the flower-rich meadows of old wherever we can, whether that’s in fields, on roadside verges or roundabouts, or in our gardens.

We’ve just created a flower-rich meadow in our little orchard, by covering the close-cut grass lawn with wildflower meadow turf. I’ve been supplying this for years to landscaping projects and show gardens but I’d never gotten around to using it myself, for which I’m more than a little ashamed.

It’s so easy and the result is already so fantastic that I wish I’d done it years ago. We now have yarrow, wild carrot, toadflax, knapweed and other species in flower and they’re attracting species I’d never seen here before, such as white-letter hairstreak butterflies whose larvae must feed on the elms behind the Cottage.

White-letter hairstreak butterfly in our new wildflower meadow (Credit: Martin Bailey)

I’m trying to change things in our village, where the complaints of a couple of people result in the cutting of anything slightly ‘scruffy’ such as wildflowers and grasses alongside the roads. We need to get out there and start changing people’s attitudes so that they realise how important these areas can be for their favourite butterflies and bees.

We need to try to replace the rows of boring rose bushes growing on bare soil with something much more interesting to look at and better for wildlife. We need to stop local councils mowing the verges when they’re covered in flowering daisies and get them to leave the rough verges to flower and set seed before they cut them, which will also reduce maintenance costs and save
them money.

Re-creating and extending woodlands may be a little more difficult, but I believe that if we can increase the ‘edge habitats’ and establish more flower-rich meadows we’ll see an immediate increase in the biodiversity around us.

It won’t be as biodiverse as our secret corner of Poland, but it will be a good start. If we do this across the whole country, we’ll probably get the red-backed shrikes and corncrakes back, species that are commonly encountered on our summer Poland trips.

Birds that are still hanging on, like the nightingales and turtle doves, will probably increase their numbers and range and insects such as the purple emperor butterfly (common on our Poland trips) should increase as well, along with more familiar butterflies, moths, beetles and other small critters – the food that attracts the birds we love, and miss so much.

Purple emperor butterflies could be common again (Credit: Martin Bailey)

Please get out there and start changing attitudes and at the same time make your garden as attractive for wildlife as possible. Remember that just having wild flowers is not enough, as you need the native grasses as well to provide food-plants for some of our butterflies and moths.

Whatever you do to help our declining wildlife, thank you.

Header Image Credit: Martin Bailey.

About the Author: Martin Bailey runs Wildlife & Countryside Services, providing wildlife-related products and services throughout the UK and beyond. He lives in and works from Covert Cottage with his partner Cheryl and their two dogs, Meg and Ruby, and keeps chickens and Muscovy ducks. He’s the mammal recorder for Denbighshire, a member of Clwyd Bat Group, North Wales Mammal Group, North Wales Wildlife Trust and the Bat Conservation Trust and a co-ordinator and Responder with 4×4 Response North Wales. He loves to chat, so call him on 0333 9000 927, email him at martin.bailey@wildlifeservices.co.uk or check out his websites at www.wildlifeservices.co.uk and www.batdetectors.uk. You can read about his most recent trip with his guests to the secret corner of Poland mentioned above at http://secure.wildlifeservices.co.uk/poland-wildlife-trip-june-2018.

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