Why we need a new 'Wildbelt'

Marbled white and common spotted orchid in wild flower meadow by Tom Marshall

A new 'Wildbelt' designation for land that is recovering could be the key to bringing our struggling wildlife back from the brink- but MPs must make sure Government gets the details right.

On 1 December, after opening the first window on their Advent calendars, MPs will gather to debate a new ‘Wildbelt’ land designation. We have called for this new designation as a way to transform land of low biodiversity value into places where wildlife can thrive.

With the recent flurry of new policies to tackle climate change, you would be forgiven for thinking the climate crisis was the only environmental emergency facing us. But the nature crisis and our plummeting biodiversity is not only just as urgent - it is also inextricably intertwined with the climate crisis. Without resilient ecosystems, we cannot meet the challenge of climate change. It is therefore appropriate and urgent that MPs sit down next week to debate a new land designation that can bring nature back from the brink.

Kestrel in urban area

Kestrel in urban area by Roy Macdonald/Lakes4Life

However, any optimism must be cautious – as they stand, the Government’s proposed planning reforms actually risk increasing threats to nature. The Wildbelt must not just be a titbit thrown down to try and quieten those who know that the Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future, will harm nature, people and communities if followed through. The Wildbelt cannot be a greenwash whilst developers are given the green light to concrete over our countryside. It must be a designation of substance. It must be in addition to existing designations. It must take land in poor condition, and make it great for wildlife once more.

The fact that numbers of many species are in freefall shows that existing land designations are not enough to restore nature. Currently, around 8% of the land area of England is designated as a national or international protected area for conservation. This is not enough.

In September the Prime Minister committed to protect 30% of the UK’s land by 2030. However, it is the nature of the protection, and not simply the fact that land has a designation, that is important. For example, Greenbelt, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are all focused on protecting landscape and amenity value, but they are not always great for wildlife. The Wildbelt must complement such existing designations, but focus on wildlife.

Fields of oilseed rape

Green and pleasant land? Just because land is protected does not mean it is valuable wildlife habitat. A new Wildbelt designation must focus on wildlife.

Yet a further hurdle to effective change exists. In addition to the nature of protection afforded to land as a result of a designation, policies and funds must be in place to deliver real change on the ground. Many sites with existing designations in place for wildlife are in poor condition. For example, 60% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in England, which must be managed for the benefit of nature, are in unfavorable condition.

This demonstrates an important truth: that simply designating an area of land is not enough. The Environment Bill, the new Environmental Land Management scheme and other Defra family funds must channel resources into the new Wildbelt, so people have the opportunity to participate and create lasting change on the ground.

Short eared owl perched on post

When land is looked after, funded and protected, it can recover and become a haven for wildlife. Photo by Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Unlike existing designations, the Wildbelt cannot be about simply protecting what we have, because what we have is not enough. It must be about taking poor land and making it great for wildlife. We need a change of approach to help species recover, restore our countryside and connect people with nature. Wildbelt could be the answer if the Government gives it proper force, resources and focus.

Hopefully by the time MPs open the second window on their Advent calendar, they will all be asking for a Wildbelt for Christmas.