How healthy is the natural environment in our beautiful Peak District? How can we care for and enhance it? These were the questions that 75 people including members of environmental organisations and farmers' representatives tried to answer at the Hope for Nature conference organised by High Peak Green Party at Bamford Village Institute on January 19th.
Speakers were Dr Alex Lees from Manchester Metropolitan University, Tim Birch of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and Natalie Bennett of the Green Party. Following the presentations, participants got together for discussions on practical steps to make our vision of a more diverse and abundant nature a reality.
What have we lost?
While we are lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country there is a tendency to forget how much is actually missing from the landscape. There are areas where conservation has already been successful – both on smaller scales where patches of land have been allowed to revert to nature, and larger, landscape scales. However, much of the upland moors have become barren monocultures of either heather or grass; given over to either grouse shooting or sheep. Down in the valleys are large areas of grassland where little else flourishes. Once upon a time these would have been much more mixed areas of vegetation which in turn would have supported more invertebrates, birds and mammals. The greatly diminished wildlife which now exists has become the norm, and as if it declines further then the risk is we will accept that as the norm rather than acting. Already, the UK is actually one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and it is getting worse.
Can we get it back?
We need to rethink how we manage these areas, hence the interest in re-wilding. This does not mean, as some fear, the introduction of wolves and other large mammals, it can mean as little as allowing tracts of land to revert to nature. Some species will return when there is more diversity of plants and insects. However there is no doubt that re-introducing some species and using naturalistic grazing schemes could be even more beneficial.
Nevertheless, there is little point in introducing birds of prey to the area while they are still illegally trapped and killed on behalf of the grouse moor owners. This is a shame as eco-tourism could provide real economic benefits for the Peak District, in the same way Montgomoryshire’s osprey project has in Wales. There is in fact a petition to the UK government to ask DEFRA to carry out a study of the economic benefits of grouse shooting as opposed to eco-tourism. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/226109.
And it is not just economic benefits; many studies have shown the benefit to human health of being near the countryside and nature. At a time when there is growing concern about the rise of mental health problems especially in the young it makes sense that people are encouraged to enjoy the countryside; one of the ways into that is by wildlife and in particular iconic species.
A more diverse natural environment is also the only way forward for sustainable food production. Natalie Bennet spoke of the depletion of soil caused by the narrowing of types of crops grown. Healthy soil not only produces more nutritious food but it also absorbs carbon dioxide, thus helping to protect us from the effects of climate change. Could payments for promoting carbon dioxide absorption in the soil become part of the government policy on climate change?
The moors provide an important carbon store by way of the peat, the destruction of moorland by burning, especially the large fires that raged over Saddleworth and Winter Hill last year release tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a time when the world is already overheating because of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Re-wilding would help the moors to recover, allow more carbon to be stored and contribute to resilient landscapes for the future.
All in all re-wilding has an important role to play.