The road to nature’s recovery: Dispatches from the frontlines
December 16, 2022/Climate & Sustainability, Featured, Insights
The UK has lost half of its biodiversity since its industrial revolution. However, a series of partnerships and initiatives are helping to protect and restore Britain’s natural ecosystems. The National Trust and Natural England shared a compelling vision for nature’s recovery.
Ecosystems are intricate tapestries of diversity and complex interdependencies. Recovery at scale therefore requires both broad ambition at a national level and sensitivity to local nuances. Adding difficulty to this is the finite amount of time we have to avoid ecosystem collapse. This demands what Harry Bowell, from the National Trust, described as a ‘total war’ of collaborative and broad problem-solving.
This is a radical departure from traditional policymaking methods which tend to compartmentalise issues, for instance seeing environmental and economic objectives as mutually exclusive. In order to create space for nature to recover we must learn from the concinnity of ecosystems and attempt to re-model our fragmented socio-ecological system according to these principles, explained Tony Juniper from Natural England.
An example of this is the Nature Recovery Network (NRN), a government initiative, led by Natural England, intended to encourage holistic land management methods and restore the natural environment. The NRN’s ambition is to create a resilient ecological network throughout England, guided by top-down government objectives and bottom-up local strategies. With over 600 organisations, the network engages a diverse array of stakeholders to deliver nature recovery at scale.
For the National Trust, Europe’s largest conservation charity, the NRN helps align their expertise with government ambition. The Trust’s ten-year ‘Playing Our Part’ strategy, which commenced in 2015, has developed novel economic models for ecologically-sensitive land use. In addition, they lead the International National Trusts Organisation and the Fit for Future environmental sustainability network. As the UK’s largest private land and farm owner, the Trust is responsible for 250,000 hectares of land and 780 miles of coastland. This puts the Trust in the unique position where they can provide impact at scale and set the benchmark for NRN ambition. Recent UK-first work by the Trust has included creating a grassland ‘savannah’ in North Devon and plans are underway to reconnect the 267-mile Exmoor Coast to establish the largest temperate rainforest in England.
However, Bowell noted that the National Trust’s landholding amounts to roughly 1% of UK land and explained how the NRN has helped forge unusual alliances, extending the scope for nature recovery. Organisations as varied as National Highways, the Church of England, and KPMG are all part of the network. This shift reflects the trend that climate activist Daze Aghaji has witnessed of ‘corporations wanting to take ownership of their responsibility and do better for their customers and the environment’.
‘Reimagining’ our connection to nature
This swelling tide of environmental consciousness demands that, as individuals, we reconsider our relationship to the natural environment. During the discussion, Juniper remarked that western culture is ‘utterly divorced’ from nature, and that a deep philosophical reckoning is necessary to cultivate the awareness that we are deeply embedded within, and indivisible from, nature. Aghaji aptly summarised this mission: ‘climate and environment are the root for people to know who they need to be in the world and how they need to show up’.
The way in which this process manifests can take a multitude of forms, however the panellists were in agreement that this deep learning comes from experience. For instance, being one of the 20 million annual visitors to a National Trust site or engaging in the political act of trespassing (a favourite pastime of Aghaji). Physically stepping into nature helps us to reclaim our sense of belonging to the land, ‘to love it and be in communion with it’, Aghaji explained, hereafter our actions ‘come from an intent of deep love for the natural world’.
The National Trust has embodied this philosophy in their dynamic project restoring the River Aller in Somerset using a concept which Bowell described as letting the river ‘reimagine itself’. This holistic approach is about allowing the river to speak and listening to the rhythms of its ecosystem. By removing human drainage systems, the river can reconnect to its natural floodplain, reducing the risk of downstream flooding and storing carbon more effectively. With careful oversight and the enrichment of surrounding habitats by the Trust, the damage done to the UK’s rivers and surrounding habitats can be reversed at scale.
A roadmap for nature’s recovery
At its core, the premise of the work being pursued by the National Trust and the NRN is about creating the space for nature to regenerate itself. In the wake of Brexit, the UK’s environmental laws are also undergoing a similar process, as EU legislation is gradually being re-written. Juniper pointed to the critical role public sentiment played when campaigning for the 2008 Climate Change Act, and the potential for it now to inspire world-leading UK legislation to encourage nature’s recovery. Supporting this effort, the National Trust, WWF UK, and RSPB have created the People’s Assembly for Nature, a representative group who will develop a set of recommendations based on public opinion and present these to the government in the spring of 2023.
Grappling with the existential implications of our poor stewardship of nature is harrowing; to the extent that 42% of participants in a UK study said they felt powerless to take action to help restore nature. However, the discussion highlighted the synergies that can emerge from unusual alliances and the potential these have to cultivate an ecocentric culture. At the frontlines of this process is the pioneering work of the National Trust and Natural England. Together they are forging a pathway towards a world where developed civilisation can exist in reciprocity with, and deeply embedded within, nature.
In Partnership with the National Trust, the discussion was joined by Tony Juniper CBE, Chair of Natural England; Harry Bowell, Director of Land & Nature at the National Trust; Youth Climate Justice Activist, Daze Aghaji; and chaired by Gabriella Walker, Founder and Director of Valence Solutions.
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