A small patch of Bourne North Fen in Lincolnshire provides an intriguing contrast to the vast stretches of wheat and rapeseed that surround it. Untended for years, this little piece of land is now covered with grass and reeds surrounding a wood of willow and alder.
Last week, between downpours, this tiny six-hectare plot bristled with wildlife: a cuckoo called insistently; the occasional booming sound of the bittern – one of Britain’s rarest birds – could be heard; a hare ambled around.
It is a tiny paradise, set in some of England’s most intensely farmed landscapes. And if Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust has its way, there is likely soon to be a tenfold increase in this activity at Bourne North Fen.
The trust is now negotiating to take over 60 hectares of surrounding farmland, currently planted with field beans, and return it to natural fen. Reed beds would be restored, river water would be cleaned and increasing amounts of carbon would be captured by flourishing plant life.
For good measure, more rare species are likely to return – following the example of nearby Willow Tree Fen reserve, where cranes have begun breeding for the first time in 400 years in Lincolnshire.
It is an encouraging picture, although the Bourne North Fen rewilding can have only a modest impact on its own. Sixty hectares is a minuscule area compared with a local landscape that has been transformed by farming over the years and has allowed Lincolnshire to produce more than 20% of all foodstuffs grown in the UK. On the other hand, the project provides a key illustration of the action now desperately needed to preserve nature in the UK, says Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts.
“Over the last year, we have been reminded – quite rightly – that we need to protect the health service,” Bennett said during his visit last week to Bourne North Fen. “But consider the strain put on the health service by putting nature into decline. First there is the impact on the nation’s mental health and then there is the harm done to our physical wellbeing.”
An example of the latter problem is provided by air pollution, added Bennett. “With insufficient trees in cities, poisoned air has built up alarmingly, and that has cost the health service huge amounts of money dealing with the resulting cases of respiratory disease. We are part of nature, not separate from it, and we need to start behaving like that is the case.”
The Observer’s interview with Bennett was arranged to mark his first anniversary in charge of the Wildlife Trusts, having left Friends of the Earth – where he was also chief executive – last year.
For the past 12 months, he has led the activities of 46 local wildlife trusts that make up his organisation and who run more than 2,400 reserves covering almost 100,000 hectares in the UK. “Collectively, we’ve got more nature reserves than McDonald’s has got restaurants in this country,” Bennett boasts.
It is still a fairly modest amount of land. However, by slowly buying up land and connecting reserves it is hoped, one day, to help create enough refuges and so help halt the devastation of UK wildlife that has been caused by a quadruple whammy of urbanisation, agriculture, pollution and the climate crisis over the past century.
As a result, hundreds of species are now at risk of disappearing from our shores. For example, numbers of hedgehogs have declined by 95% since the 1950s, turtle doves have crashed by 98% and even numbers of the common toad have fallen by 68%. Bennett’s aim, through the Wildlife Trusts, is to halt these alarming declines so that the graphs showing dwindling species numbers and diminishing habitats start to point upwards for the first time in centuries.
These are laudable aspirations, though they have lacked specific targets, Bennett admits. “Consider climate change. There you have a very specific goal – to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees.”
Something similar was needed for the conservation movement, which has recently come up with a new targeted approach to tackling our wildlife crisis through the 30 by 30 campaign. “Quite simply, we are now calling for at least 30% of our land and sea to be connected and protected for nature’s recovery by 2030. That is a very specific aspiration.”
At present, only around 10% of UK land would be considered as protected for natural recovery, says Bennett although he adds that half of those sites are in pretty poor condition.
A vast amount still needs to be done, yet this view is not shared by the UK government. It recently argued – in response to urging from the 30 by 30 movement – that around 26% of British land was “in a natural state”.
The claim is dismissed out of hand by Bennett. “Most of the land they are talking about is in national parks and much of it is managed as areas of outstanding beauty or as landscaped grounds. They are not natural at all. So we need to be clear: we are very far from being only a few percentage points short of our 30 by 30 goal.”
Nor is habitat loss the only issue involved in saving British wildlife, Bennett adds. “The massive, widespread and routine use of pesticides, which are being used more and more frequently and in doses of increased toxicity, has had a devastating effect.
“If you drove at night in summer you used to have to clear your headlights of dead insects. Now there are so few that you don’t need to bother.”
An example of the danger is provided by neonicotinoid pesticides now linked to bee population declines. “In fact, one teaspoon of neonicotinoid can kill a quarter of a billion bees. It is to bees what novichok is to humans. How did we ever get to a stage where we thought it was a good idea to be using such chemicals? It is unbelievable. We need a real change in mindset.”
Then there is the issue of water. Its domestic use has increased by 70% since the 1980s to satisfy rising numbers of dishwashers and washing machines, to supply greenhouses where out-of-season food is now grown, and to meet the needs of the leisure industry and golf courses.
The massive demand for water has caused our wetlands and rivers to dry up. “Very few of our rivers actually have the quantity of water they need to be properly functioning ecosystems. We badly need to reduce the amounts of water we are taking from rivers and streams and let our wetlands get wet again.”
Tackling these issues is a massive, ambitious undertaking but, unless something happens, we face an uncomfortable future.
Since the 1500s, around 130 species have become extinct in the UK – from the lynx and wolf to the apple bumblebee, Mitten’s beardless moss and the common tree frog. This figure will be dwarfed by the thousands of extinctions we now face unless we start restoring nature to the UK.
Bennett remains optimistic. “Places like Bourne North Fen may play only a small part in that recovery but if it succeeds, as I believe it will, it will signal that there is some chance that we can get out of the mess in which we find ourselves.”