Dave Bishop, a regular writer for Manchester Climate Monthly, explores the damage being done to Manchester’s biodiversity – and what we can do about it. Dave will be launching his report on the state of Manchester’s biodiversity on Tuesday 16th July, at 12.45pm at the Friends Meeting House, as part of our “Beyond the Carbon Budget” event. Book your ticket here…
The Convention on Biological Diversity was established in 1992. Following a first meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1994, the UK produced its first national biodiversity action plan. In 2002 world leaders agreed in Johannesburg on the urgent need to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010, and in 2007 they recognised the need to take action to mitigate the impacts of climate change following the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Globally, the 2010 target was missed, but it prompted at least some conservation action, including here in the UK.
In Nagoya, Japan, in Autumn 2010, the 192 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity renewed their commitment to take action to halt the alarming global declines of biodiversity and to ensure that by 2020 our natural environment will be resilient and can continue to provide the ecosystem services that are essential for life. Soon after, the coalition government produced an interesting White Paper entitled, ‘The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature’ (2011). This was a fairly bold and imaginative document, although, sadly, it now appears to have “fallen-off-the-radar” (recent statements from the Government suggests that some ministers now tend to see nature conservation as an impediment to economic growth).
But it would appear that, on the ground, in the ‘real world’, the UK is failing dismally to meet its obligations. Recently, a wide-ranging alliance of wildlife conservation groups published a report entitled ‘The State of Nature’ – a comprehensive audit of what has happened to the natural world in Britain over the last half century. The report was co-ordinated and produced by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) but 24 other bodies took part, ranging from the Bat Conservation Trust to the British Lichen Society.
The report is, essentially, a catalogue of loss. It examines the fates of 3,148 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and plants in the British countryside since 1962. It concludes that 60% of these species have declined in numbers, 30% have declined by more than half and 10% are threatened with extinction. Populations of many species – like the House Sparrow or the Garden Tiger Moth – which were common only a couple of decades ago are now in steep decline.
Those of us who take an interest in natural history are not at all surprised by the findings of the report; most of us have had to look on with horror, for the last few decades, at the depressing spectacle of the natural world being brutally dismantled around us. When I arrived in South Manchester 40 years ago, it was surprisingly rich in wildlife, but here biodiversity is as much threatened as it is everywhere else. The reasons for this local decline are blindingly obvious; they are mainly:
In the last two decades or so countless green spaces have been built on or concreted over. This includes many suburban gardens which have either been turned into hard standing for cars or ‘decked’. Few recent housing developments seem to include gardens at all.
Few, if any, of our remaining green spaces are managed with nature conservation in mind. They are either ‘manicured to death’ or completely neglected.
Expanding on that last point, I’m convinced that the sympathetic management of grasslands is a major key to saving Britain’s wildlife. Recently, for example, the charity ‘Plantlife’ looked at the management of roadside verges. They found that:
Councils in the UK are destroying wildlife habitats by cutting grass verges too often. The verges supported hundreds of species of flowering plants and should be cut twice a year.
It said that three-quarters of councils it surveyed cut them multiple times. Plantlife received many calls from people “distraught” about the issue.
It is calling on councils to better manage the almost 600,000 acres (240,000 hectares) of roadside verges across the country. The verges support up to 1,000 plant species – including the rare bastard balm and long-leaved helleborine which are among 33 wayside flowers faced with extinction.
Wildflowers are also a vital food source for bees and butterflies, which have seen a significant decline in numbers in recent years.
Wildflowers that are left to seed also feed birds and small mammals.
Plantlife said verges should be cut – and the cuttings removed – once early in the year and again in the late summer. Its survey found they were often cut multiple times over the summer.
None of the councils surveyed collected the cuttings, which rotted down and added nutrients to the soil – making it too rich for most wildflowers
Plantlife’s Trevor Dines said the way road verges were managed encouraged “coarse and thuggish plants” such as nettles, docks and coarse grasses.
“Most verges, smothered in cuttings, might as well be just strips of concrete,” he said.
Returning to South Manchester, one day at the end of May, I walked across Chorlton Park. The park was full of long (ish) grass and profusely flowering dandelions, daisies and other common wild flowers (or “weeds” as our Council probably traditionally thinks of them). The park was also full of bees and other insects seeking out the pollen and nectar from these plants. The next day I had occasion to walk across the park again and all of this richness was in the process of being destroyed by a man on a mower.
Last year, Manchester City Council informed me, in answer to a question that I put to them, that it spent £1.96m per year on mowing grass. Scale that figure up to the whole country and the UK must be spending, at a time of economic crisis, hundreds of millions of pounds per year on a purely cosmetic exercise which is making a major contribution to the destruction of our wildlife. I hear a lot about cutting people’s benefits but I don’t hear anything about cutting the grass less!
And the loss of bees and other pollinating insects is also likely to cost our country dear. A recent report from the University of Reading (‘The Decline of England’s Bees’ by Breeze, T.D., Roberts, S.P.M. & Potts, S.G., 29.04.2012) puts the value of insect-pollinated production for the UK as a whole at £510.2m and North West England alone at £9.5m. But they also acknowledge that:
“Beyond crops, bees also pollinate clovers and other nitrogen fixing plants that are important to improving the productivity of pasture systems for livestock grazing which are themselves major agricultural enterprises in Wales, the Highlands and northern and western parts of England. The economic benefits of this are presently unknown but likely to be high.”
But the costs arising from the loss of bees and other pollinators, and the ecosystem services they provide, are likely to be much higher than the cost of conserving them. The Reading report states that:
“To replace pollination services with hand pollination could cost farmers around £1.8bn per year in labour or pollen alone.” This would, of course, render many fruit and vegetables unaffordable and it is highly likely that that it would be uneconomic for growers to produce them in the first place.”
Leaving aside considerations connected with pesticides (e.g. neonicotinoids) and agricultural intensification the report also recommends changes in planning laws to protect and enhance bee habitats:
“Despite the importance of bees to the economy and human well-being, new planning guidelines do not provide detailed information for local authorities to develop green infrastructure that can significantly benefit bees, such as allotments and flower-rich road verges. The report recommends that new guidelines are made available to local authorities that better integrate these beneficial options and that environmental damage regulations are strengthened to reduce the negative impacts of development on bee habitats.”
As well as visiting Chorlton Park on that day at the end of May, I also took an opportunity to walk along the new cycle path that parallels the new Metrolink line from the East Didsbury station at Parrs Wood to Didsbury village. After noting that the former Parrs Wood allotment site had been tarmacked over to produce a massive car park (more loss of habitat and biodiversity – soon to be followed by a similar car park at Sale Water Park) I set off. Mainly as a result of the recent ground disturbance, many different species of wild plants grew on both sides of the path – many of them in full flower. These flowers were being visited by bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. Nevertheless, I reflected that, in the summer of 2011, a similar display of biodiversity at the St. Werburgh’s Road stop in Chorlton had been destroyed by being sprayed with herbicide. I hope that the Parrs Wood path-sides will not suffer a similar fate – but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did!
In my opinion Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) have completely failed to keep the promises made in their ‘Wildlife Habitat and Tree Replacement Policy’ (http://www.tfgm.com/Corporate/environment/Pages/environment_policy_documents.aspx). In that document they maintain that:
“The development of transport infrastructure must ensure the protection and enhancement of protected landscapes, habitats and sites; and take opportunities to protect and enhance biodiversity, for example, through the sympathetic design and location of infrastructure.”
“In carrying out its development programmes TfGM recognises an obligation to conserve, protect, and where possible, enhance the natural environment and to mitigate the impact on biodiversity and therefore to protect important wildlife habitats and to take full account of new developments on wildlife itself. In addition management and after-care arrangements should be put in place for new habitats to ensure they remain safe, attractive and good for wildlife in the longer term, balanced with the need to provide sustainable public transport.”
All that I have seen so far, as a result of the new Metrolink developments, is massive destruction of local biodiversity and I can think of no credible examples of protection, enhancement or mitigation.
One of (TfGM’s) ‘Best Practice Principles’ described in the document cited above is the following:
“improve nature conservation habitat by enhancing habitat connectivity and, where appropriate, by replacing lower nature conservation value (such as mown grassland) by higher value habitat (such as wildflower meadows), for example, the development of wildlife corridors should be considered and the possibilities of linking habitats examined, to enable species to move from one habitat to another (the highest biodiversity benefit is obtained where new habitat is connected to existing habitat);”
I assume that this principle means that Metrolink lines represent wildlife corridors and have the potential to enhance Great Manchester’s biodiversity by linking key sites together (an important principle of modern thinking on biodiversity enhancement). Nevertheless, I use the network frequently and I can see no signs that it is being actively managed as a series of connected wildlife corridors. Indeed, as far as I can ascertain, there appears to be no overall Biodiversity Management Plan for Metrolink embankments. Surely, if TfGM were serious about protecting and enhancing local biodiversity, such a plan should have been in place before any development commenced (?)
Before leaving Metrolink, it’s worth pointing out that the striking disconnect between the promises made in TfGM’s ‘Wildlife Habitat and Tree Replacement Policy’ and what is actually happening ‘on-the-ground’ is not unusual. Most biodiversity action plans and policies, on global, national and local levels appear to be mainly aspirational. Meanwhile, in the ‘real world’, the relentless destruction goes on.
In his Autumn statement for 2011, George Osborne stridently attacked environmental regulation describing green policies as a “burden” and a “ridiculous cost” to British businesses.
In a clear attempt to redirect the coalition’s green policies, the chancellor told parliament: “I am worried about the combined impact of the green policies adopted not just in Britain, but also by the European Union … if we burden [British businesses] with endless social and environmental goals – however worthy in their own right – then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer.”
Mr. Osborne gave £250m worth of assistance and rebates to the most energy-intensive companies, scrapped a planned rise in fuel duty, announced a massive road-building scheme and hinted at a watering down of regulations to protect British wildlife.
This view that achieving a healthy environment is optional and that in times of economic trouble we should abandon such goals is monumentally wrong on so many levels. Nevertheless, I suspect that what Mr. Osborne said in that statement is what many politicians, of all of the mainstream parties, privately think – that wildlife and the environment are trivial and of no consequence. Mr. Osborne, and his fellow politicians, should heed the words of the American environmental philosopher, David Suzuki:
“Now there are some things in the world we can’t change – gravity, entropy, the speed of light, the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics, and our biological nature that requires clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity for our health and well-being. Protecting the biosphere should be our highest priority or else we sicken and die. Other things, like capitalism, free enterprise, the economy, currency, the market, are not forces of nature, we invented them. They are not immutable and we can change them. It makes no sense to elevate economics above the biosphere, for example.”
We must protect the environment – we have no choice.
Dave Bishop, June 2013