The decline in ecological quality, habitat restoration, and engaging people in nature protection

The beginning of October is an auspicious time in the ‘world days’ calendar.  At a time when the natural systems of the northern hemisphere are winding down for the long winter ahead, different organisations are trying to draw our attention to animal welfare and urban habitat issues.  4th October is designated as World Animal Day, and 7th October is World Habitat Day sponsored by the United Nations.  These are not recent developments – the first World Animal Day occurred in 1925, with the intention of aligning it with the Feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, and the focus has always been on animal welfare and protection.  Since 2003 it has been managed under the sponsorship of the UK’s Naturewatch Foundation.

The aim of World Habitat Day, which started in 1986, is to enable people to “…reflect on the state of our towns and cities, and on the basic right of all to adequate shelter”.  More importantly perhaps its aim is also “…to remind the world that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns.”  The UN views ‘international days’ as a ‘powerful advocacy tool’ enabling attention to be focused on specific issues of importance.  The theme for Habitat Day 2019 is ‘Frontier Technologies as an innovative tool to transform waste to wealth’.  The aim is to encourage people to explore new technologies that can contribute to sustainable management of all forms of waste generated by human activity.

This year, the celebration of these world days has increased significance due to wider outcomes stemming from human activity.  Firstly, a 2018 UN report noted that within 30 years over two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban areas.  It is estimated that the urban population exceeded the rural population around 2007. However, the picture across the globe will vary and some places already have large urban populations, in Europe the figure is 74% and in North America it is 82%.

Secondly, the publication on 3rd October of the UK State of Nature 2019 Report by the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC) provides a wake-up call for the widespread decline in ecological quality.  The report analyses input from more than 70 conservation NGOs, research institutes and government departments, including data collected by thousands of volunteers across the country.   Environmental change has been occurring for a long time in the UK as a result of high population densities and industrialisation over the last 300 years.  The report states that “…the abundance and distribution of species has…, on average, declined over recent decades, and many measures suggest this decline continues…”.  More specifically the headline conclusions include the following:

  • 15% of the 8,431 species that have been assessed are threatened with extinction
  • Wildlife is undergoing rapid changes in abundance. A total of 53% of all species have shown strong changes in abundance over the past 10 years.
  • Average species distribution has declined by 5% since 1970, as a result of increased human activity
  • 41% of species have decreased in abundance since 1970

The main factors driving change include agricultural management, urbanisation, pollution, Hydrological changes, woodland management, invasive species, and climate change.

Urbanisation is identified as one factor causing change, as a result of increasingly urbanised population, housing, road building and other infrastructure projects to meet resource needs, increases in the area of impermeable surface, and diffuse pollution.  Urbanisation (and associated transport links) fragment habitats, isolate species, and cause disturbance to wildlife.


Bream Heritage walk – Forest of Dean

Finding a solution

The solutions are not simple, or easy to put into effect but they do require a change in behaviour of people at all levels from the local to the global.  Society will have to alter the way that it interacts with nature, which means reducing impacts from all kinds of activities from the use of street lighting and motor vehicles, to consumption of material goods and recreational activities.  One aspect that the Report does identify is the importance of connecting people to nature, especially the young.  Without an understanding of the natural environment in which they live, people are unlikely to form any emotional attachment, making behavioural change almost impossible.

As stated above, one aim of the UN World Habitat Day is to remind people that, “we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns.”  How we do that will not be easy, but there are plenty of examples where activities are occurring in urban areas of all sizes to help re-connect people with nature and raise awareness not just about their local ecology but also where food comes from, in particular the relationship between people and livestock, along with the ethical and animal welfare issues created through the intensive production methods on which we increasingly rely for provision of stable food supply chains.

One approach showing promise is the Foresters’ Forest programme currently operating in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.  A long history of coal and iron production left the area devasted from the impacts of mining and smelting metal, with large areas of forest destroyed.  Coal mining had largely ceased by the end of the second world war and the last mine closed in 1965.  More recently the area has suffered from its relative isolation through limited employment opportunities, decline in public services as a result of funding cut-backs, and associated social and economic problems.  The majority of the population live in the towns and villages, and the Forest district has some of the most deprived wards in the county.

The Foresters’ Forest is a National Lottery Heritage Fund Landscape Partnership programme that runs over six years.  It consists of 38 community-based projects delivered through an association of partner organisations and local community groups within the Forest of Dean.   The aim of the programme is not just to conserve the natural, built, and cultural heritage of the area, but also to raise awareness of the local environment, its importance, and get people to participate through active engagement with the projects.  Projects vary from creating guided walks through the forest, conservation grazing, restoration of meadows, provision of habitat (e.g. butterflies, retiles), to archaeological digs, providing access to the physically impaired, engaging young people, creating oral histories, and creating a future for freemining (coal and ochre).  The overall aim is to increase the understanding, awareness, and knowledge of the local community (and visitors) in their lo0cal environment.  As such there is a strong emphasis on getting people engaged in projects on a voluntary basis, and running events that appeal to all sectors of the local community, young and old, physically fit and disabled.

Hopewell Colliery – Forest of Dean

The CCRI role is one of evaluating the impact of the Forester’s Forest programme over a multi-year period.  There is a major focus not just on current impact but also on the future legacy of what, in social and environmental terms, is a relatively short-term intervention.  What we are learning, working with the programme implementation team and the Community Stakeholder Group, is that raising awareness of the community about their local environment is crucial in order to change attitudes and behaviour.  We are also learning that it is a slow process, requiring multiple approaches to reach and engage different sectors of society.  We are also learning about how to assess the impacts of community engagement where the full range of outcomes may not be revealed for years to come.  We are not sure yet how successful an approach like the Foresters’ forest will be, we are only part-way through the programme period.  But the signs are positive, more people are volunteering and getting engaged in projects, and more people are learning about their local environment.

If we are going to reverse the trends identified in the 2019 State of Nature report we will have to engage with communities across the country, not just in the high value landscape areas such as national parks and AONBs, but also in the towns and cities of every size, in the peri-urban areas, and in those damaged by industry and transportation links.  Above all we will have to increase the engagement of young people with their natural environment, the farmed environment as well as other forms of managed landscape.

People only value the aspects of their environment that they understand and have experienced.  Over the last few decades a missing element in the education of society has been development of knowledge and understanding about our food systems, ecological understanding, how local landscapes are managed, and the negative impacts of human activity.  On the surface the forest might look no different, but we need to train people to look deeper into the greenery, to examine and understand the state of the underlying integrated systems: how the natural environment is affected by our social and economic activities; and how the quality of our environment affects our own wellbeing.  Only then will we begin to reverse the decades of decline in our social, economic, and ecological in the communities in which we live.  Habitat is not something that is only found in the rural areas, it occurs everywhere.