Our Wilder Future – what does it mean and how can we get there?

Sarah Kessell at Parc Slip Nature Reserve

Sarah Kessell at Parc Slip Nature Reserve

A blog by Sarah Kessell, CEO of The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales

Finally, the issue of climate breakdown has reached the mainstream press.

‘Phew, what a scorcher of a summer!’ headlines finally being replaced with alarm about melting ice caps, and disastrous fires in the Amazon rainforest.  Stories about species collapse (other than relating to bees) don’t grab as many headlines (or show up as many internet search results), but these two issues are absolutely interwoven, and have a dramatic impact on our planet and us:

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

A prime example is the current Amazon rainforest fires.  More fires are being lit by farmers and developers wanting to clear swathes of the rainforest , especially in Brazil, and those fires spread more easily in this hotter, drier climate.   In the last 50 years about a fifth of Brazil’s rainforest has been destroyed by humans.   The rate of destruction is speeding up, releasing more carbon, and if the same area is lost again, it could trigger the feedback loop knows as dieback, where the forest dries out and the ecosystem starts to collapse.   The Amazon rainforest plays a crucial role not only in the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, but also in global water cycles and weather patterns.  It is also home to 1 in 10 species on Earth and many indigenous communities.  The destruction of the rainforest impacts the climate, our Planet’s wildlife and our lives.

Solutions to combat climate breakdown generally complement solutions for species and habitat loss.  Tackling  both issues simultaneously should be achievable.  However, the reductionist approach often used in the media to simplify messages, combined with attention-grabbing headlines don’t help, especially in a world where people have limited free time and short attention spans.  Groups and individuals with very specific and focussed agendas or who simply have very confident opinions are also proposing seemingly simple solutions based on incomplete knowledge of all the facts.  In reality, the situation is extremely complex and requires deeper consideration and thought from those of us who care enough to want to change the status quo.

An example is the recent call for billions of trees to be planted.  There is no doubt about the importance of trees in sequestering carbon and the call to action is simple and therefore popular, but unmanaged tree planting could cause as many problems as it solves.  Natural tree regeneration is more effective than planting new trees, which usually have to be protected (often by plastic tubes), watered and cared for until well established.  The imports of tree seeds and whips needs better control – we are losing much of our Ash in Wales now because of an imported disease.  Where we plant trees is critical – I have known trees to be planted on chalk grassland which is a rare and precious habitat in its own right.  Also important is the type of tree – in general, conifer woodland has limited benefit for wildlife when planted outside its natural range, whereas native, broadleaved woodland is beneficial to a wide range of species.

Equally complex is the consideration of diet.  Not everyone will be willing to embrace a vegan diet but a reduction in meat consumption amongst omnivores will still have a beneficial impact on the planet and our health, since most meat eaters consume far more protein than they need.  Cattle have been the focus of recent attention because of methane emissions, but they are very useful management tools for wildflower-rich grasslands and meadows.  Instead of cropping the grass close to the ground as in the case of sheep and particularly horses, cattle wrap their tongues around the plants and rip them up, creating a more varied sward.  Their heavy hooves create patches of bare soil and at the right density, cattle grazing can achieve a diverse mix of micro-habitats to benefit a huge range of species.  Research suggests that cattle brought up on herb-rich swards also produce healthier meat:

“The available evidence suggests that beneficial long-chain fatty acids are present in higher quantities in meat and milk from animals grazed on species-rich grasslands.”

The issue of fish is particularly complex because climate breakdown and overfishing have caused populations of so many fish to fall to unsustainable levels, affecting seabirds, marine mammals and other wildlife in the marine food web.   When combined with growing concerns about the presence of micro-plastics in the marine environment, those who eat fish should really only do so for special occasions and not as a regular component of their diet.

All consumers need to think about the sustainability and sources of our food.  For example, almond milk is a popular alternative to dairy milk, but almonds need a lot of water, fertilisers and pesticides to grow.   The demand for avocados has grown exponentially in the last few years, but these are imported and so the associated food miles and therefore carbon footprint is high.  We could all make a positive impact by trying to eat seasonal produce and sourcing more of our food locally.  In England, a few farmers have started to respond to growing  consumer demand for pulses and grains as meat consumption declines, and hopefully more farmers will follow the example of these pioneers.  Of course, there are other ways to reduce the impact of your diet on the environment, including reducing food waste, avoiding unnecessary packaging, favouring natural rather than processed food and avoiding palm oil and harmful chemicals.

It is hard for us as consumers to find and balance all the necessary information in order to make sustainable life choices.   In some cases simple messages have produced perverse results.  For example, a growing  interest in gardening (good for wildlife)  has driven up consumption of peat-based composts and gardening experts and advisors are often more interested in the beneficial properties of the peat for garden plants than they are in the devastating impacts of peat extraction.  Peatlands are particularly precious in the UK for carbon storage.

There is growing despair and anxiety about the state of our Planet now. 

Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I see promising signs of change and hope that we are close to a tipping point.  For example;

  • It is getting easier to avoid plastic and packaging because businesses are responding to a growth in demand.
  • The Welsh Government rejected the M4 bypass, citing environmental concerns.
  • The UK Government is investing heavily in low carbon vehicle technologies
  • The surge in youth-led initiatives and action
  • Many Councils are declaring climate emergencies.
  • Many wealthy and powerful organisations are divesting from fossil fuels.
  • Key funders such as the Heritage Lottery Fund are demanding green infrastructure on new buildings as standard, not as an add-on
  • Some businesses such as Iceland Foods are leading by example in the avoidance of palm oil and the reduction in plastics and packaging.
  • YouGov recent polls show that environmental concerns are rising up the agenda, particularly for the younger generations, and politicians listen to voters

As individuals, we all have power.  Businesses respond to customers because they want us to buy their goods, which is why there is a growth in sustainable products.  Politicians listen to voters, because they need your vote in order to stay in power.   We need to hold those in power to account and as individuals we need to speak out.  There are others who want to maintain the status quo because of the potential impact on their own wealth or lifestyle and we must not let those voices drown out ours.  We also need to be discerning because there are those in power, or in business who merely want to green-wash their current activities in order to drive up demand while keeping costs low and avoiding the difficulties of change management.  Terms such as ‘biodiversity offsetting’, ‘carbon offsetting’ or ‘biodiversity net gain’ ring alarm bells with me because it suggests that nature is being used as a bargaining chip.

Not everyone will act.  Some don’t feel connected to these problems, perhaps some are too tied to the trappings of material consumption and wealth and many simply don’t feel empowered to act.  Nevertheless, societal change can be triggered by those who do care, and can act.   It doesn’t need action by everyone in order to reach a tipping point, but thereafter, choices open up and the ‘new’ and ‘different’ become the norm.  Single-use plastic bags are a good example – campaigns from a relatively small section of society bringing about positive change for the environment.  Many in society are disenfranchised, with limited choices created by very low incomes.  So the onus is on those of us who do have the ability to make a difference and to drive that change so that the benefits spread throughout all levels of society.

What can each of us do?

Exercise our personal choice as consumers:

  • Diet choices – minimising food waste,  eating less meat, fish and  dairy produce, thinking about how our food is produced and where it comes from and sourcing more local, seasonal, organic or home-grown food.
  • General shopping  –shop less by making do, mending and sharing.  Avoid  unnecessary packaging, avoid plastics, take 10 minutes out to drink a coffee in an independent café instead of drinking on the move.
  • Gardening – avoid all peat-based compost.  Use local, native flowers to benefit our insects, make space for wildlife in your garden and share plant cuttings with neighbours and friends.
  • Make your views known to businesses and politicians who need your support to stay in business/ stay in power.
  • Read widely and research the issues that matter to you.  Don’t be enticed by pithy headlines.

Support your local Wildlife Trust

We rely on voluntary and earned income to fund our core work, so by becoming a member, donating, leaving a gift in your will or eating in our cafes (Parc Slip or Welsh Wildlife Centre), you help us to:

Take positive, practical action:

  • Fight the ecological crisis by restoring habitats and species on our own land and in partnership with others – habitat restoration is also a key way to sequester and lock up carbon.
  • Work to reintroduce lost, keystone species such as Beaver, which restore habitats that are essential in managing floodwater, improving ecological diversity and improving water quality.
  • Work with volunteers, students and academic institutions to build our own body of evidence through research and monitoring.
  • Advise on Codes of Conduct eg for watching wildlife – and set examples.
  • Raise awareness of problems and solutions via our own communication channels, in the press and with those in authority and with the general public through events and activities.
  • Help people of all ages to connect with nature and foster the desire to care for and protect wildlife.

Work with government and decision-makers:

  • Support the progressive legislation we have in Wales; the Environment Act and the Wellbeing and Future Generations Act, to work with the Welsh Government to ensure the ethos of these Acts are delivered and to hold those in power to account when they fail to take adequate action.
  • Advise on changes in farming subsidies to incentivise wildlife-friendly farming .
  • Advise ministers, ministerial advisors and senior civil servants on action needed to restore wildlife.
  • Respond to government consultations to ensure the needs of wildlife are taken into account, eg  push for the recognition of the needs of seabirds and cetaceans when setting fishing quotas.
  • Take part in advisory panels, round-table discussions, provide oral and written evidence for enquiries and publish our own research.
  • Talk about new economic models that are more sustainable and not based on continuous growth.

Stand up for wildlife:

  • Fight developments that damage wildlife, and break through the ‘greenwash’ that some developers have used to try to generate support for damaging developments.
  • Highlight the harm to wildlife caused by popular but thoughtless activities such as the release of helium balloons.
    Lobby for green infrastructure as standard.

To advocate and campaign for:

  • A ban on peat-based compost (and provide examples of wildlife gardening that is also sustainable).
  • Tougher control on pollution, such as slurry spills.
  • More controlled, regulated use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides and a ban on neonicotinoids.
  • Better protection for species and important habitats, especially post-Brexit.
  • Badger vaccination instead of culls (and taking part in vaccination programmes)
  • More government funding for restoring wildlife and tackling climate breakdown

… and we wish we could do more.



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