Conservation in the UK: Challenges, Solutions and New Ideas

The Oxford Nature Conservation Society chose to focus its latest event on conservation actions and policies in the UK. This was a great opportunity to hear more about the issues we face at home and learn about the approaches conservationists are currently implementing to tackle them effectively. Throughout the evening, the audience was presented with a variety of topics ranging from protected areas to invasive species monitoring, through to climate change mitigation. Talks were both informative and thought-provoking, emphasising the difficulties of predicting the future and questioning the very foundations of our approach to conservation in this country.

First up was Mike Burke from Natural England who detailed his plan for building a bigger and better network of protected areas (PAs) in England. Mike stressed the need to bring basic ecological theory, such as trophic networks and dispersal, into the development of our PAs, as exemplified by Natural England’s Nature Improvement Areas (hyperlink). Not only do these focus on building bigger, better quality, more connected sites, but they also aspire to improve the general landscape, or matrix, surrounding them. This often involves working with private land owners, e.g. farmers, with the aim of making biodiversity conservation worth their while. Through a set of Land Management Schemes, farmers can now receive benefits for environmentally friendly practices, such as preserving field margins or setting land aside. According to Mike, inspiring people to protect and care for the environment, as reflected in the story of the Whimbrel written by school kids, is essential in order to achieve our conservation goals at both the local and landscape levels. You can find Mike’s presentation slides here (hyperlink).

Next was Mike Morecroft, also from Natural England, who brought the infamous subject of climate change (CC) and its impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity back to the UK. Our climate can still surprise us, as shown by our current summer, and so can the response of species, which can be highly variable. Mike used the long-winged conehead Conocephalus discolor as an example of a species that is found further north than it used to in the UK (for a systematic review of the effects of CC on various species see Hickling et al. 20006 (hyperlink)). He highlighted that some habitats were more vulnerable than others, for example montane, wetland and coastal ones, before detailing two mechanisms of adaptation to CC. The first involves hold on to what we have by building resilience in species and habitats. This may involve reducing other types of threat, increasing protection and introducing resistant species. The second mechanism revolved around the idea of accommodating change, i.e. designing suitable places for moving species, increasing land permeability, and reviewing our treatment of invasive species. Mike ended by asking how much importance we should give to both approaches – resilience versus accommodation – and whether one was better than the other. His slides can be found here (hyperlink).

Richard Comont, from the University of Oxford and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, introduced us to the UK Ladybird Survey, a large scale citizen science project established to monitor the country’s 47 species of ladybirds. Volunteers from all over the UK are able to carry out standardised surveys and submit their findings online, resulting in an average of 15,000 records each year. Richard is focusing his PhD on the Harlequin ladybird Harmonia axyridis, a notorious pest that has rapidly colonised the UK over recent years. Its impacts include overwintering inside people’s homes (sometimes in huge colonies), the release of defensive compounds onto grapes thereby ruining them, and strong predatory and competitive behaviour towards native ladybirds, all of which are increasing in spatial extent as the species spreads. The results of models showed that local extinction of native species was explained by niche overlap with the Harlequin and also proximity to urban areas. Richard emphasised the need to monitor and mitigate the spread of this invasive species in order to avoid biotic homogenisation across the UK.

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