Local wildlife refuges at risk

Yellow Wagtail is one of the declining bird species which England's Local Wildlife Sites help support. Photo: Amy Lewis (The Wildlife Trusts).
Yellow Wagtail is one of the declining bird species which England's Local Wildlife Sites help support. Photo: Amy Lewis (The Wildlife Trusts).
A new report from The Wildlife Trusts shows just how vulnerable England’s Local Wildlife Sites are now to development and destruction.

Hidden havens which support rare and threatened wildlife are being lost and damaged to development and neglect every year. New survey results published today provide insight into the secret places where nature thrives – known as Local Wildlife Sites – and highlight some worrying trends. 

Local Wildlife Sites are often little known, sometimes hidden yet vitally important wild havens – identified and selected locally for their high nature conservation value. They range from ancient woodlands to vibrant meadows abundant with butterflies, quiet churchyard full of bees and birds, bustling flower-rich roadsides and field-bordering hedgerows. They act as refuges for a wealth of wildlife such as Green-winged Orchid, Marsh Gentian, Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Noble Chafer Beetle, Spotted Flycatcher and Harvest Mouse. 

The Wildlife Trusts’ new report – entitled Secret Spaces: The status of England’s Local Wildlife Sites 2014 – draws on new evidence which suggests that more than 10 per cent of the 6,590 Local Wildlife Sites monitored have been lost or damaged in the last five years. Every three years The Wildlife Trusts publish an assessment of England’s Local Wildlife Sites, based on a national survey of Local Wildlife Site partnerships, including local authorities, ecologists and local nature experts. Together with statutory protected areas, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Local Wildlife Sites support locally and nationally threatened species and habitats. Although recognised within the planning system, Local Wildlife Sites are not protected by law.  

As if these losses were not bad enough, this evidence does not even highlight the enormous and extensive history of destruction over recent decades. With predicted growth in housing, roads and other infrastructure, changes to farm environment schemes reducing incentives for owners to gain support for Local Wildlife Site management, and austerity measures which threaten the management of publicly-owned Local Wildlife Sites, these last important refuges for wildlife remain vulnerable.

According to The Wildlife Trusts' Director in England, Stephen Trotter, if this trend continues more of our most valuable and treasured wildlife and wild places will be lost forever. He said: “There is a real and pressing need for Local Wildlife Sites – one of England’s largest natural assets – to receive the recognition of their true value to society.  In some counties they are the best places for wildlife but they continue to slip through our fingers like sand.

“Local Wildlife Sites [can be] quiet, unnoticed wild places in which nature thrives. All act as links and corridors between other important habitats and are crucial to securing nature’s recovery. They are vitally important for people as well as wildlife, bringing tangible benefits to local communities and contributing significantly to our quality of life, health, well-being and education. We need to secure greater recognition and protection for them in the planning and decision-making process. We need action now to prevent further loss of these wildlife-rich treasures by investing in them.

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape at The Wildlife Trusts, added: “Those Local Wildlife Sites which are thriving are frequently a legacy of the good will and care of their landowners and managers, and of decades of hard graft. We’re making recommendations for the provision and prioritisation of funding, resources, landowner advice and volunteer support – all of which are so desperately needed – underpinned by a Nature and Wellbeing Act."

Changes in land-use have eroded and fragmented the wildlife-rich expanse of habitats which once covered the country. Some, such as wildflower meadows, mires, fens and wet woodlands, are now so scarce that the majority of the remaining habitat automatically qualifies for Local Wildlife Site status. However, deterioration and loss of species can lead to Local Wildlife Sites being ‘deselected’ and losing their protection and status within the planning system.

A comprehensive review of England’s Wildlife Sites led by Professor Sir John Lawton in 2010. recommended that "greater protection" should be given to Local Wildlife Sites and their management "must be improved". It concluded that "we need to take steps to rebuild nature" by providing more natural areas, which are bigger, better and more joined up, so that existing fragments of wildlife-rich land are reconnected to create a climate-resilient and self-sustaining whole.