Natural Outlook

2017 – Tigers up, Beetles down

On a crisp and frosty January morning the South Downs are stunning.  Each blade of grass becomes a glistening jewel.  This sparkling landscape stuns us throughout the year, its gentle inclines and steep scarp slopes contrasting so perfectly to the towns below on the coast, Weald and flood-plains.

So what does 2017 have in store for the natural wonders of our Biosphere, you may ask?

I read an article yesterday informing me that 2016 had been a great year for Pandas and Tigers.  Whilst I love a good news conservation story, I would rather be telling people about what has been happening closer to home!

Although 2016 was an unexceptional year for our downland butterflies, trends in British invertebrates have shown a staggering reduction in the last 45 years.  59% of British invertebrate species have declined since 1970 according to the recently published State of Nature.  If this statistic doesn’t shock or disturb you, you are possibly, like many others, suffering from an ‘environmental emotional detachment’.

Why should we care so much about these invertebrates?  Pollination aside, they are what our larger and more ‘charismatic’ species eat, where Chinese Pandas rely on bamboo, our Skylark chicks need flies and beetles to survive and thrive – when we no longer have skylarks filling the air with their song over our Biosphere we will all be wishing we had done a bit more to look after the insects on which they depended. A simplified version of a brutal truth.
Is 2017 going to reverse this trend?
Will we see more insects in the Biosphere, securing the destiny of future skylarks?

Skylark (c) BARRY YATES/Sussex Wildlife Trust

Skylark (c) BARRY YATES/Sussex Wildlife Trust

Much of the internationally rare chalk grassland of the South Downs National Park, including the part in the Biosphere, is in poor condition.  As managers of chalk grassland ourselves, we are only too aware of how difficult it is; the challenges of balancing grazing pressure, stock availability, public access, removal of invasive species or the reversing of natural succession is tough and resource-heavy.  Long term under- or over-management has a long term impact on insects (and the rest of our wildlife) as we lose the fine flora of species-rich chalk grassland, and its rich nectar, for the depleted poor-quality grassland.

The marine environment is another key part of our Biosphere.  2017 has an altogether more solid outlook out to sea than the risks being faced by the terrestrial Biosphere.  2017 should see more progression in the establishment of Marine Conservation Zones.  The Biosphere’s coastal chalk reef habitats, east of Brighton Marina, have already been designated.  This exciting designation process is fresh and new but takes time.  A Conservation Management Plan has not yet been agreed for our Biosphere’s site, but 2017 will no doubt see continued balanced discussions to progressing the positive future of this area.  Our chalk reefs are home to important populations of seahorses.  These beautiful creatures, with whom we share our Biosphere, mate for life and perform courtship rituals to each other daily, often for several hours.  Whilst you have read this blog, a seahorse is dancing, not far away, and 2017 will hopefully be a good year for them.

Short-snouted seahorses (c) John Newman – The Seahorse Trust

Short-snouted seahorses (c) John Newman – The Seahorse Trust

As we head closer to triggering Article 50 and our exit from the European Union, there is still huge uncertainty around not just the environmental legislation that will protect our biosphere, but also the funding mechanisms that will maintain its conservation value.  Indeed, the Government’s own Environmental Audit Committee recent report has just warned of their concerns of a lowering of standards and the need for a new Environmental Protection Act to be introduced.

We need our exit from the European Union to recognise these issues, and for our legislation and funding mechanisms – currently championed by Europe – to be not just equivalent to current levels, but even better!  2017 is definitely the year to be exerting influence and passion on this topic, lobbying MPs (take action here) and other decision-makers.  Watch this space as the Sussex Wildlife Trust and others start their campaigns to secure a vibrant future for the Biosphere.  We will all be asking for your support, in caring about the issues and letting other people (especially politicians) know that you care.

Looking forward with hope,

Henri Brocklebank
Head of Living Landscapes and Living Seas
Sussex Wildlife Trust

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