The creation of a ‘super nature reserve’ in Somerset is a game changer for wildlife conservation. But the real question is: what happens next?
“Build it and they will come,” to paraphrase the feel-good film of the 1980s field of dreams. And they have. Since what was once peat pits were converted into the Avalon Marshes 30 years ago, a multitude of new species have colonized these watery flatlands. Cranes, bitterns, spoonbills, resplendent ibises and three species of elegant snow-white herons – lesser, oxen and white – are regular sights here.
When I started birdwatching 50 years ago, I would have only seen one long-legged waterbird here – the gray heron. Today I can find all of these species just a short bike ride from my home. And on winter evenings, the nightly murmur of hundreds of thousands of starlings watched by crowds of awed onlookers from across the country.
What was once a post-industrial wildlife spotter’s paradise has now become a Super National Nature Reserve. Good news for the birds, of course. Good news for local people: The wetlands act as reservoirs to hold back flood waters, protecting thousands of homes. Good news for Somerset’s economy, with tourists flocking all year round bringing much-needed income. And good news for all of us, because cultivating this land for nature is helping to sequester and store carbon, thereby mitigating the global climate emergency.
But amid the celebrations, I must urge caution. If we really want to change the way we manage our landscape to create a resilient and sustainable landscape for the future, this is just the beginning. Conservation organizations need to replicate this project across the UK. We need to take a more holistic view of the rural landscape so that we can continue to produce food – which is even more important during the current cost of living crisis – without marginalizing wildlife.
The Government would claim it is doing just that, pledging to protect 30% of Britain’s land for nature by 2030. But not only is she likely to miss that target, she also focuses on quantity, not quality. Our existing national parks are included in this 30% target; yet many are “natural” in name only.
This reserve can inspire communities to demand the same where they live and truly increase biodiversity with the many economic benefits that this brings. As in Somerset, conservationists need to work with farmers and landowners to devise new ways to create sustainable systems that work for all. Although news that the far-right Tories are opposed to plans to cultivate farmland in an environmentally responsible manner does not bode well for the future.
For too long, decisions about how our land is used and managed have rested in the hands of people who claim to be “sentinels of the landscape” but remain mired in the old and discredited methods, opting for intensive farming, hunting and widespread forestry insert . It’s time to break their bluff by showing how a new and inclusive way of working can offer a wealth of opportunity for places, people and wildlife.
As one of the most impoverished countries in the world, Great Britain still has a long way to go. The Somerset Super Conservation Area is a great place to start; but it must also be an opportunity to change the way we view and manage the landscape for the 21st century.