Protecting and restoring nature is more essential than ever

The Wildlife Trusts face huge challenges during coronavirus

The Wildlife Trusts – a movement of 46 charities across the UK – are, like others, dealing with unprecedented challenges caused by coronavirus. Restoring nature in the UK – one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world – has become harder than ever during the pandemic. At the same time, people are seeking solace in nature to relieve the hardships caused by lockdown.

Many Trust staff are furloughed and those that remain in post have found valuable time is being lost to a proliferation of illegal activities such as shooting wildlife and fly tipping. Meanwhile, vital conservation work has had to be put on hold – leading to an explosion of invasive non-native species, deterioration of rare wildflower meadows, stalled wildlife reintroductions and potential loss of species such as dormice from some areas.

Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“People are discovering that they want and need to connect to nature more than ever – they’re finding solace in nature, using our inspiration to help wildlife in their gardens and balconies and educating their children about the natural world. Huge numbers of people are enjoying our webcams showing springtime nature, barn owl chicks hatching and puffins emerging from burrows. But it is local nature – in walking distance or short bike ride from home – which is particularly important for peoples’ mental and physical health at this time.

That’s why it’s The Wildlife Trusts, who care for 2,300 reserves – most of them close to where people live – that are at the sharp end of trying deliver this public service. But these are desperate times for our movement as income from visitor centres and fundraisers has crashed yet the demands of caring for thousands of nature reserves are higher than ever. We’re also heartbroken that so much valuable work restoring large areas of land has been put on hold and some species will lose out as monitoring and reintroduction programmes stall.

With the Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries Bills all now delayed, we have profound concerns about whether these critical pieces of legislation will become law – and enforcement bodies will be in place – before the Brexit transition period comes to end on December 31st.  The challenges faced by the natural environment have never been greater and we need both government and public support.”

Current issues that Wildlife Trusts are struggling to deal with include:

  • Management of rare and historic wildflower meadows – non-maintenance leads to deterioration and this will take time to repair
  • Absence of species protection, species monitoring and special wildlife surveys
  • Delay in legislation across governments – in England, for example, to the Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries Bills
  • Lack of habitat restoration so nature recovery stalls
  • Badger vaccination has stopped
  • Land advisory work stopped
  • No site visits to check planning applications – leading to possible swathe of knock-on effects once lockdown is lifted
  • No beach cleans will lead to pollution problems particularly for marine mammals
  • Gaps in marine data collection
  • Necessary cancellation of all public events and education and community sessions, preventing outreach into vulnerable communities and risk of an ever increasing disconnect between young people and the natural world
  • Flytipping, vandalism and theft on nature reserves
  • Illegal shooting of rare birds
  • Lack of management of invasive non-native species will now require a big effort once social distancing rules are relaxed

Craig Bennett explains:

“The work of The Wildlife Trusts is critical. We live in one of the most nature depleted countries in the world at a time when there’s a big public conversation about the importance of nature – and access to it – in our everyday lives. It feeds our souls and nourishes us in good times and in bad. Caring for nature benefits us all in many ways.

“The Wildlife Trusts can be a vital part of our nation’s recovery from the current health crisis. Nature brings health benefits and offers solutions to the other great emergency facing humanity – climate change – so it must be protected and allowed to recover. I’d urge people to support their local Wildlife Trust wherever they are in the UK.”

Over 60% of the population live within a 3 mile walk of a Wildlife Trust nature reserve.

For inspiration, nature ideas during lockdown and wildlife webcams (these have had a 22-fold increase in views on this time last year) scroll here www.wildlifetrusts.org/looking-after-yourself-and-nature.  Please see editor’s notes for examples of how The Wildlife Trusts’ work is being affected by coronavirus.

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The UK's natural world is in steady decline. To tackle the climate and ecological emergency we need at least 30% of our land and seas to be managed for nature. During this difficult time, your support is more important than ever to help make this reality.
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©Jon Hawkins Surrey Hills Photography

Editor’s notes

Examples of how The Wildlife Trusts’ work is affected by coronavirus:

Nature reserve management

If we stop managing our nature reserves, they can become vulnerable to a range of issues from scrub encroachment to an increase in anti-social behaviour, fly tipping, fires and illegal access.

Conservation grazing

Surrey Wildlife Trust will not be able to erect electric fencing on their large heathland sites as this will require lots of volunteers and staff getting together to do it – not possible now because of social distancing. This will mean the precious heathland cannot be grazed correctly. The reason it is grazed is to create a diverse mosaic of vegetation and allow all heathland types to flourish which benefits rarer invertebrates, birds, reptiles and plants, e.g. rare / threatened species such as nightjar, woodlark, smooth snake and sand lizard.

The Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales have been working hard to get many of our grassland natures reserves into a good condition for biodiversity using sustainable methods such as grazing.  If this stops then we will soon see these important sights deteriorate at an alarming rate. This is an area where we can’t take a step back. Once you take grazing off a site then it becomes increasingly difficult to get it back on. Grazing animals such as horses and Water Buffalo (Teifi Marshes) will keep brush and scrub down without the use of machinery.  At the Teifi Marshes nature reserve they are actively creating and maintaining habitats favoured by many resident and migratory birds, also amphibians such as frogs and toads, and the huge population of damsel and dragonflies. The wet areas maintained by the buffalo are vital to so many species.

Cwm Colhuw Nature Reserve Wildflower Meadows.

The two wildflower meadows on this site were once overgrown and covered in scrub and brambles. After five years of intensive work by Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales staff, volunteers and the local authority the meadows were brought back to life and are now regarded as important wildflower sites attracting a variety of flowers and wildlife. If no management is continued on this site then very quickly (within 12 month period) we will see scrub and brambles taking over once again and a decline of wildlife.

Bracken control repercussions for rare species

Alderney Wildlife Trust’s invasive bracken control now stopped which will have effects on species such as the dartford warbler and slow worm (Alderney’s only reptile). Bracken has already started growing, and by this point the Trust would usually have done an initial cut to clear the ground. This week they’d be cutting back new growth, using their tractor, or power scythe and their herd of livestock which they use for conservation grazing.  On the Longis reserve they’d also be usually working with volunteers to hand cut bracken in sensitive areas too.  The Trust can’t currently undertake any maintenance of footpaths or general conservation work on reserves; there’s a two hour limit to exercise time so it’s unfeasible to try and do anything alone by hand. They also can't use the conservation grazing herd  to its full potential because they can't move them far between plots. Bracken swamps out other species including heather and reduces the quality of heathland where dartford warblers breed and slow worms bask. Another major impact is that bracken reduces floral diversity as it out compete flowers like lesser catchfly and pyramid, green winged and bee orchids.  Bracken control has benefitted these floral species on the Longis reserve and bracken cutting and control will benefit slow worms on the Vau du Saou reserve. 

The Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales has issued the following statement in response to the crisis, the closure of their islands and how they’re dealing with the essential or emergency conservation work across 100 nature reserves.

Flytipping, vandalism and theft on nature reserves

13 Trusts reported vandalism on their sites since the lockdown – this figure was only over one weekend so could potentially be higher now. Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust and London Wildlife Trust also reported thefts on their sites. Lancashire, Warwickshire, Suffolk, and Staffordshire Wildlife Trusts have specifically reported increases in flytipping incidents. Cornwall and Dorset Wildlife Trusts reported fires on their reserves, Durham Wildlife Trust has reported littering, and a few Trusts have also reported anti-social behaviour, for example, the use of motorbikes on sites in Warwickshire.

Wildlife monitoring to inform future management

Seabird and mammal counts

Alderney Wildlife Trust is unable to do seabird and marine mammal population counts done by boat cannot happen for now. This means vital recording of populations will be lost. Specialists and students can’t visit for their work. E.g. The Trusts hosts gannet researchers for the TAG project and masters students to carry out in depth studies on our reserves and sites every year. This won’t harm populations per se but does set us back in terms of knowledge gained. 

Butterfly and scarce plant monitoring

The recording work the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales would normally carry out during May and June on many of their nature reserves regarding butterfly and scare plant monitoring will be affected. This work is a vital way of measuring change in the environment as well as the state of habitats for wildlife so that we can respond with appropriate conservation action if required.

Dormice Monitoring

Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales are about to start an exciting new programme of dormouse monitoring on one of our south west Wales reserves. The programme would involve purchasing dormice boxes, conducting regular surveys, monitoring and training. The Intensive scientific monitoring is vital to us understanding how the dormice population works. If we don’t get money this won’t be done. This programme is very capital intensive, therefore if we do not have the funding then we are unable to carry out this vital work. No money, no monitoring and management which could result in us loosing this fragile species from our countryside.

Hedgehog project

Alderney Wildlife Trust had planned to start a hedgehog GPS tagging project this year to find out more about what and where they are feeding. They are concerned hogs might be eating eggs of ground-nesting birds but need to do this research first. If they were, the Trust would be encouraging feeding stations in town and stronger action to protect insects (which they do anyway) to ensure hedgehogs are away from the breeding bird areas.

Marine data collection

This time of year is a key time for collecting data on many species/habitats which will now not be able to go ahead, leaving us with data gaps. (Raised by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.)

Nature recovery projects

Wildflower project stalls

Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust has been working with volunteers at the University of Lincoln to propagate over 9,000 wildflowers (so far) from seed gathered from Trust nature reserves in a bid to conserve local genetics and provide stock for habitat restoration.  The wildflowers were destined for Queen Elizabeth Park situated along the River Witham in the market town of Grantham, Lincolnshire. It provides the local population of over 40,000 residents with a vital green space essential for their health and wellbeing during lockdown. Due to restrictions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, plans for 35 RAF cadets to fill the park with wildflowers have been cancelled.  However, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust is determined to save the propagated wildflowers – as a contingency, a site on a Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve is now being planted with the wildflower stock by local LWT staff, who will also plant on the University of Lincoln agricultural campus if needs be.  

Species reintroduction baseline field surveys for adders and beavers 

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust had a spring and summer of surveys planned for long term potential reintroduction projects for adders and beavers, - before projects like this get the go-ahead there’s always an evidence gathering phase to assess suitability of habitat. 4 MSc students were set to gather crucial baseline data to inform those projects, including vegetation type and structure, habitat quality, other fauna such as insects, amphibians etc. Now those projects are likely to be delayed and we risk losing the students, who are being asked to find alternative desk-based research rather than fieldwork.  The surveys are seasonally constrained, there is only so much that can be delayed.

Miner 2 Major Sherwood Forest, special species surveys and conservation volunteer activity delayed, also preparing for habitat creation and management work on site.

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s Miner to Major celebrates the area’s mining heritage, restore Sherwood Forest’s fragile habitats, protect scarce and iconic species and to provide opportunities for local communities to play a role in the Forest’s future. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, a grant is enabling partner organisations to deliver real habitat gains on the ground and, working with closely with local people, provide better conditions for species such as Leisler’s bats, nightjars and glow worms.  Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust cares for three nature reserves in the Sherwood Forest area – Rainworth Heath, Strawberry Hill Heath and Foxcovert Plantation and advises a number of other landowners on habitat management across the forest area.

Land advisory visits to farmers, friends’ groups, parish councils which support building a national Nature Recovery Network through land management advice.

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s programme has almost entirely stopped due to not being able to visit farmers, Friends Groups for Local Nature Reserves and Parish Councils to provide advice on habitat protection, conservation and habitat creation. This was a critical time in terms of momentum and impact, as the Trust has several projects waiting to be rolled out that will help to protect and enhance some very important  protected wild places including SSSIs, ( Sites of Special Scientific Interest) LWS ( Local Wildlife Sites) and LNRs ( Local Nature Reserves) in the county. The projects would also create new habitats to link to existing good quality spaces for wildlife across the landscape, particularly along watercourses. Without the ability to undertake the visits and provide the advice the Trust is hampered in moving these projects forward.

Site visits to check planning sites/development sites stopped

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust has found that despite the pandemic, there has been no reduction in planning consultations for new development, so the pressure for damage and degradation of parts of the existing NRN remains, without the Trust’s ability to thoroughly scrutinise applications on the ground.

Providing ecological advice to restore nature 

On mineral sites where Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust provides ecological advice for restoration work, virtually all work has had to stop, with the risk of missing an entire seasonal window for earthmoving, land-forming, sward sowing and other spring and summer habitat work. On one site alone, this equates to 35 ha of delayed habitat creation of priority BAP/Sn41 (Biodiversity Action Plan) habitats - heathland and acid grassland.

Saving wildlife

Badger vaccination delayed

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust report delay to vaccination start date for Government-funded Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme.

Frwd Farm Nature Reserve Water Voles

In 2014 and 2015, The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW) worked in partnership with Natural Resources Wales to reintroduce around 400 water voles bred from Carmarthenshire stock to Ffrwd Farm Mire, a WTSWW reed-bed nature reserve in Pembrey.  Following on from several years work by NRW and the Trust to make the site and surrounding landscape as suitable for water voles as possible, this successful partnership continues, and water voles on the reserve and in the surrounding areas are thriving and will only continue to thrive if we are able to manage the reserve and monitor the water vole and mink populations. If we lose the water voles from this reserve it will be disastrous and years of important conservation work would have been for nothing.

Illegal wildfowl shooting

Hertfordshire Wildlife Trust have had major concerns on one of their nature reserves, Hilfield Park Reservoir. This is owned by Affinity Water and managed by the Trust – it has very important waterbird populations, including the only breeding population of black-necked grebe in the south east.  There were reports of illegal wildfowl shooting taken place after people had got through a hole in the fence. We are extremely worried about the risk of killing wild animals and of disturbance to the breeding birds especially those so scarce. In such a heavily populated area of the country, Hilfield is a real wildlife haven.

Rat control on offshore islets to protect seabirds.

Currently Alderney Wildlife Trust cannot access some of the offshore islets, which have important breeding areas for auks like razorbills and guillemots, and their rat control project to protect seabirds has stalled.   Rats can access the offshore islets at low tides, they forage along the shore and can swim shorter distances, they eat mostly seabird eggs, but also sometimes young chicks. The Trust has seen them on seen them on the camera traps eating eggs. The Trust has been controlling rat numbers and has reduced their presence, diminishing the threat has given these seabirds a better chance of successfully raising chicks to fledge and strengthen their populations. Not being able to control rats will be a big step backwards for the project.

Beach cleaning

Beach cleaning is a big activity for many coastal Trusts and this will now not take place potentially endangering wildlife because the pollution cannot be removed.

Responding to marine mammal entanglements/strandings

As people are not out and about, it is unlikely that incidents of entanglement and strandings will be identified and reported and even if they are, no one can respond to them. (Raised by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust)

Management of invasive and non-native species

Stopping the spread of Himalayan balsam

The management of invasive and non-native species is a real area of concern for many Wildlife Trusts. Every year our staff and volunteers would organise and deliver a series of ‘Balsam Bashing’ events to control the spread of this ecologically damaging flower which can grow up to 3 metres/10 feet in only one spring and summer season. It also has the ability to fling as many as 800 seeds up to 4 metres/13 feet from each plant. As opposed to native plants which tend to either grow quickly to a short height, or tall slowly. The seeds also float very well, so spread rapidly down water courses. Therefore, if not controlled and eradicated, balsam quickly spreads to out-compete our native wildflowers by shading and stealing nutrients. (Raised by Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales)