Helping Landscapes Recover: Be Part of the Decade of Action

We’ve entered the United Nation’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. It’s a global effort to help nature recover, aiming to tackle the combined challenges of biodiversity loss, climate change, water supply and food security. But how can we create landscapes/ecosystems that can help us achieve it all? Nature recovery can be achieved in many different ways, and we think that a diversity of approaches will help us provide for the diversity of people and nature’s needs. So while we are really excited about rewilding, we also support a wide range of ways of helping nature recover from regenerative agriculture to targeted habitat restoration.

Facing new challenges

Over the centuries, much of the land in the UK has been worked really hard for a long time, and Sussex is no exception. Degraded soil has lost nutrients, vitality and its ability to hold onto water. In the UK, soil degradation is estimated to be costing ~£1.2 billion per year, because of the loss of organic content (47% of the total cost), compaction (39%), and erosion (12%) (Graves et al. 2015). Because of this, the land is struggling to sustain not only us but all the plants and animals depending on it, as well as exacerbating flood risk and climate change.

Our landscapes have been created throughout history for a variety of reasons, but today we’re facing new challenges, and we need help from our landscapes to overcome them. They need to provide quality and affordable food for a growing population, help mitigate climate change by capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere, lessen or prevent flooding, support a rich diversity of plants and animals, help us improve our physical and mental health, and much more (Balfour et al. 2020).

If we want them to deliver all these benefits, the management of land in some places will need to change. As you would expect, here at Rewilding Sussex we’re keen on rewilding, but we appreciate it isn’t the only way to help people and nature. Here is a little information about five ways of helping nature recover, each providing different benefits for people and nature, and of course some risks and costs as well. 

The loss of nature from our landscape seriously threatens future food production. Biodiversity within soil is particularly important. Healthy soil is alive with thousands of species, including earthworms, spiders, insects, fungi and, in particular, bacteria; it is widely reported that 1 teaspoon of soil can contain more organisms than there are people living on the planet (Begum 2021)! 

This extremely abundant and diverse community is responsible for many natural processes that ultimately support growth and decomposition within ecosystems. Intensive farming practices disrupt the soil and can have a very negative impact on soil biodiversity and, as a result, natural processes. 

Regenerative agriculture aims to improve soil health using techniques like no-till, growing cover crops to prevent soil erosion and minimise soil disturbance, and integrating livestock into the rotation to help restore nutrients. These actions help recover and support the soil ecosystem with benefits for production and nature. 

The production of food is an essential land use and the less it comes into conflict with nature, particularly in the soil, the more resilient and sustainable the food production will be. At the heart of regenerative agriculture is the production of quality food while supporting a healthy environment. 

If you want to see specific lost and rare native wildlife and habitats back in Sussex, then targeted habitat restoration is a great approach. In Sussex is lowland heath is one such habitat. Heathland provides a home for rare species such as the Sand Lizard and the Smooth Snake – in fact, all the native British reptiles can be found in heathland. Yet estimates suggest 80% of the UK’s lowland heathland has been lost since 1800 due to urbanisation, farming, and forestry (State of Nature 2016). Meanwhile, the average size of heathland patches has decreased significantly, meaning the habitat is fragmented and wildlife isolated. The areas of heathland still surviving have been negatively impacted by disturbance and pollution.

Heathland restoration needs careful management to prevent some vegetation from spreading and taking over. This way the heathland ecosystem will thrive, and the rare wildlife depending on it can survive.

Rewilding is all about letting nature take the lead. It’s a nature-led approach to restoration, as opposed to being driven by species and habitat specific targets. As a hands-off approach, nature decides which species survive and thrive. It is a great opportunity for us to learn from nature and gives nature a chance to support species and habitats that aren’t prioritised by people.

The easiest way to rewild is just to stop managing and using land and let nature run wild. But in degraded and isolated ecosystems seeding the recovery can be a good approach as well. In many rewilding projects, big animals (as key creators of habitat and drivers of processes) are (re)introduced to restore important interactions with the rest of the ecosystem. For example, returning large herbivores such as wild boar, deer and traditional-breeds of cattle that root, munch and trample vegetation can increase the diversity of habitats at a site, making it suitable for a wider variety of plants and animals.

By far the most prominent example of rewilding in Sussex is Knepp Wildlands. Over twenty years of rewilding has seen numerous species returned and flourish in these former farmlands that had been degraded through decades of intensive agricultural use. Famously it has become a hotspot for the critically endangered Turtle Dove (male turtle doves have increased from 3 to 16 between 1999 and 2017), a haven for Nightingales (territories doubled from nine to 18 between 1999 and 2005), and the largest population of Purple Emperor butterflies in the UK which established from nothing (Sandom & Wynne-Jones 2019). 

The return of wildness to Knepp has brought thousands of people to enjoy the spectacle of a scrubby landscape buzzing and humming with life, both accessing the site for free on public footpaths or paying for guided tours, safaris, camping and glamping. But you don’t need hectares and hectares of land to rewild – nature loves to return to small spaces too. Rewilding your garden can create homes for insects, birds, and Hedgehogs – and taken together the urban green spaces and gardens of the UK cover a larger area than National Nature Reserves (The Wildlife Trusts).

Just as we need sustainably produced food we also need sustainably produced materials such as timber, and sustainable forestry practices can help nature thrive as well. Healthy woodland, even when grown for timber, provides a home for a wealth of wildlife. By carefully planting a range of diverse native tree species, in the right places and at the right density, a significant amount of carbon can be captured from the environment, flooding prevented and sustainable timber provided. 

However, the wrong tree in the wrong place can do more harm than good. Well-managed and well-placed trees are excellent carbon-capture machines, but planted too densely and the forest floor will be bare and lifeless. 

Sustainable forestry aims to mimic the natural processes of disturbance and regeneration in a forest.  Selective tree felling opens up gaps in the tree canopy, benefitting wildlife. Dead wood is left in situ, creating valuable habitats for invertebrates. In 1966, Elton estimated that 20% (~1000 species) of British fauna is dependent on dead or dying wood – and that many of these 20% are also very rare (Hodge & Peterken 1998). This means the woodland ecosystem remains healthy, supporting the needs of both people and wildlife over the long term. 

Finally, while we believe there is a need for nature recovery this does not mean everything must change. For example, the conservation of remaining crown jewel nature sites such as the invaluable calcareous grassland in Sussex is an essential lifeline to help those species and habitats survive and then thrive into the future. 

This approach is suitable for areas of land currently containing the best habitats and supporting the rarest species of wildlife. These environments are managed specifically to preserve the habitat and give those endangered species the best chance of surviving. 

One example of a location where this is beneficial is on Sussex’s chalk grasslands, a great habitat for the Adonis Blue Butterfly, the rarest of the blue butterflies in the UK (The Wildlife Trusts). Chalk grassland created due to centuries of sheep grazing is one of the most endangered habitats in the UK. 

The Adonis Blue butterfly doesn’t fly very far, so it’s very vulnerable if its habitat is disturbed. This means traditional conservation using techniques like scrub clearance and careful grazing can be very useful at preserving the places where this butterfly likes to live, as well as supplying plant food for its caterpillars in the form of the horseshoe vetch.

While we’ve focused on highlighting the importance of continuing traditional conservation, we also appreciate all the great work that is already happening in farming, forestry, restoration and other land uses as well. 

Diversity Supports Diversity

All these nature recovery approaches complement one another because they all have different contributions to make, and no single option can provide it all. We think a diversity of land management approaches is best to support the diverse needs of nature and people. Every journey will be unique, where inspiration and innovation will result in many different approaches being mixed together in different places. 

The great thing about all of these approaches is they blend humans and wildlife into the landscape for mutual benefit. If you’d like to create a landscape of diversity and opportunity as well as investing in the future of our planet, we’d love to hear from you!

Written by Cathy Robinson & Chris Sandom, with thanks to Tom Dando and Betsy Gorman for input.

Artwork by Daniel Locke

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