Our Chief Executive, James Cross, reflects on attending the MP Species Champions Awards and celebrates the HLF-funded Back from the Brink project.
Last year Natural England launched our new conservation strategy, Conservation 21, to bring about a fundamental shift in nature conservation, one that is fit for the 21st century.
We will continue to conserve very rare species, but think in a new way about our more widespread species. Knowledge of these more common species can give us a better understanding of the overall health of our environment. Conservation 21 takes a new approach focusing on understanding what healthy, resilient landscapes look like, for the benefit of our special species, places and people. To help our rarer species we will need to cut out any duplication by working better with our partners across the sector to enhance our collective efforts.
This week I was invited to speak at the MP Species Champions Project awards event at Portcullis House in Westminster. The Project is a joint initiative run by a partnership of nine wildlife groups that invites Westminster MPs with English constituencies to champion the protection of threatened species. The event recognises and celebrates the great work MPs have been doing on behalf of their chosen species.
I have to agree with Plantlife’s CEO Marion Spain that species keep us honest by acting as a touchstone for environmental decline, help us celebrate the joy and pleasure of wildlife and are part of our culture and heritage. This was echoed by Steve Backshall, renowned naturalist broadcaster and author, who talked about how people connect to a conservation story local to them.
I couldn't agree with Marian and Steve more. We heard about a number of conservation stories ranging from Matt Wharman MP – recollecting how he has helped to monitor redshank whilst deep in mud in wellies with a clipboard – to my own account as a schoolboy of a lesson with a difference based solely around a lone tadpole in a jar of pond water! What struck me was how these stories brought us together in the room – they connected us as a group of different people.
In my own speech I reflected that all too often species stories can be negative and concerning, but as species champions the MPs in the room are responsible for signalling and celebrating the value Parliament places on biodiversity, across geography and taxa. The species stories which we heard about grab peoples' attention, providing excitement and wonder – they raise the spirit! It’s a brilliant way to engage people with our much-loved and unique species, and with the environment.
The best MP species champion award went to Rachael Maskell MP for her work supporting the tansy beetle, a species close to my own heart! Her visits to the tansy beetle's heartland on the River Ouse in York, raising awareness of its plight on social media, and her involvement in a global biodiversity debate were all given as reasons she was the winner. The judges cited her warmth and enthusiasm for her species - which was evident when she collected her award as she used the opportunity to continue to champion the tansy beetle!
I also I celebrated the multi million pound Back from the Brink project which Natural England are leading with our partners. Back from the Brink is an exciting, ambitious partnership programme led by Natural England to conserve our highest priority threatened species. It has garnered huge support from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help us deliver Government’s Biodiversity 2020 targets for species recovery. It will inspire a movement of people to discover, value and take action for England’s threatened species. For me, this is a very special part of the Back from the Brink project. It represents firstly how we want to work with the sector to conserve our rare species.
With this project, Natural England has applied our scientific expertise and our unique ability to convene partnerships with other organisations, many of whom were in Portcullis House on Monday evening. It is about Natural England helping the sector work better together and achieve more for our rare species.
As well as protecting the very rare, I mentioned our more common species. Through Conservation 21, we are changing our approach to working with these more widespread species for the benefit of the environment. We are working to understand what Favourable Conservation Status looks like for them, how we can take a species perspective and conserve healthy populations to enable us to understand better what ‘good’ looks like, from ‘little’ nature at the species level to ‘big’ nature at the habitat and landscape scale. We are already doing this for one of our iconic but more widespread species – the great crested newt.
Through Conservation 21, we can adopt both strategies, catering for the very rare, special species that we have as well as for the more widespread species, such as the humble newt. And conserving the more widespread will help us protect the wider environment – with all the societal benefits that brings.