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More, bigger, better, joined up – John Lawton comes to Exeter

Professor Sir John Lawton is a cult hero in conservation circles on account of his report ‘Making Space for Nature’ which is often simply referred to as the Lawton Report. In essence the report states that we need more wildlife sites, existing sites need to be bigger, they need to be better managed and we need to join sites together via habitat creation initiatives. This simple formula is summarised as more, bigger, better and joined up. You can download the full Lawton Report here.

Dartmoor and Devon owe a great deal to John Lawton – the acquisition of Fingle Woods by the National Trust and the Woodland Trust back in 2013 may well not have happened without his report. At the time I was the General Manager for the NT on Dartmoor and negotiated the WT partnership and the acquisition – one part of this involved getting approval from the NT’s Executive Team.  Fortunately they had read the Lawton report, had had a meeting with John and were very enthusiastic about what it meant for the National Trust. When I arrived at Heelis for the Projects and Acquisitions meeting it could not have been easier – they had, I think approved it before I even began to speak!

Last Wednesday I went to a lecture at the University in Exeter given by John Lawton on his vision for nature and the tactics needed to achieve it. It was well attended and very entertaining.

John Lawton

Lawton is a distinguished academic ecologist and is politically very savvy.

In addition to his report he is responsible for England’s 12 Nature Improvement Areas and the network of Local Nature Partnerships. His vision however goes way beyond what Government has permitted and funded to date and that was the subject of his talk.

He talked about his version and vision for a ‘re-wilded’ Britain. He compared and contrasted his ideas with those of George Monbiot. In essence he suggested Monbiot wanted to remove the people and let nature do its thing assisted by re-introduced herbivores and carnivores. His brand of re-wilding involved a ‘coalition of the willing’ who worked together skilfully using agricultural subsidies and economic benefits to achieve change at scale.

He quoted two English examples – Wild Ennerdale in the Lake District and the Knepp Estate in Sussex and he went on to compare and contrast these with the truly wild landscapes of the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Yellowstone National Park in the US, the semi wild reserve at Polessie in Belorus (created following the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster and evacuation) and Oostervardersplassen the created reserve in the Netherlands.

Wild Ennerdale is a partnership between the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and United Utilities (a water company). By reducing intensity of management by lower stocking levels peaty water no longer rushes from the fells into Ennerdale reservoir and therefore there is no need for a water purification plant. United Utilities spend 60x less funding the re-wilding project than they would have spent running a water purification plant. Nature, the economy and people all benefit.

Knepp (which I visited and written about before – see here and here) is a project set up on a 3500 acre lowland Estate in Sussex by Charlie Burrell. Formerly an uneconomic arable farm it has been allowed to re-wild over the past 15 years and is extensively grazed  by herds of long horn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and deer. The resulting ‘savannah’ of grassland, scrub and woodland has become a rare lowland haven for declining species such as the turtle dove, cuckoo, nightingale and purple emperor butterfly.

John Lawton UK nature

In this slide Lawton demonstrated how management intensity (by people) decreases with scale, it also shows where UK nature reserves sit and why ‘more, bigger, better, joined up’ is needed.

John Lawton presentation

The direction of travel that is needed in Britain along with politics of achieving that change

Lynx in Devon?

Lawton also made the case for re-introducing the lynx in the Lake District and challenged the audience by saying ‘why not Devon too?’ He suggested that lynx would be able to control the burgeoning population of deer.

He also re-emphasised the role of conservationists in winning hearts, minds and politics.

Special places for wildlife

Finally he concluded that special places needed permeable boundaries so wildlife could come and go.

An inspiring evening by a great champion of wildlife. Thanks to the Devon Local Nature Partnership, Devon County Council, Devon Wildlife Trust and the University of Exeter for organising it.

It is now up to the Devon Local Nature Partnership, local NGOs, conservationists, land managers, farmers and the residents of Devon to come up with some ideas and projects to create more spaces for nature, which are bigger, better managed and more joined up in Devon for the benefit of wildlife, people and the economy.

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