Is the English plan to revive wildlife in jeopardy due to the abundance of flowers?
In the South Downs national park, rolling green hills touch the horizon. In the nearby valleys, villages made of flint can be seen, while white cliffs resembling beached whales loom over the Channel. This field has been used for growing crops for many years, with wheat being planted in 2022 and barley intended for this year’s harvest.
Instead, the area was planted with wildflowers such as yarrow, vetches, clovers, and oxeye daisies. They are now waiting for spring, when the uniform green will transform into a vibrant sea of colors.
According to Ben Taylor, the manager of Iford Estate farm near Lewes in East Sussex, the farm is participating in habitat banking. The government has chosen this farm, along with four others, as a pilot project for the biodiversity net gain (BNG) scheme. This scheme, currently only in effect in England, requires new construction projects to achieve a 10% increase in biodiversity if natural habitats are harmed on the site. For example, if a forest is cleared to build an apartment complex, the developer must recreate a similar habitat and add an additional 10%. The main focus is on preserving space for nature on the site, but if that is not feasible, habitats must be created elsewhere, ideally in the local area.
The program, set to be officially introduced this month, would serve as England’s primary nature marketplace. This area and its potential blanket of wildflowers could foreshadow future expansions throughout the nation.
Taylor states that the land in the surrounding 32 hectares (79 acres), which equates to over 40 football fields, is almost completely being used for wildlife preservation. The wildflower meadow will remain as it is due to a 30-year agreement, which essentially means it will be in place indefinitely, according to Taylor.
Taylor plans to convert two-thirds of the 3,000-hectare (7,400 acre) farm into BNG, which will result in 3,000 units being generated. This process is expected to take ten years, with the help of 20 developers who are currently working on the planning phase. Currently, there are 221 units available for purchase.
The sale of each unit can range from £25,000 to £30,000, resulting in a total of over £75 million over a span of 30 years. This does not take into account capital costs, monitoring expenses, and potential lost income from farming.
However, there is still a feeling of uncertainty. If BNG is implemented according to the original plan, it has the potential to drastically change thousands of hectares of farmland in England. However, there have been setbacks and delays in the initiative, causing some experts to worry that it may be completely abandoned.
Selling land in an emerging market can be risky, especially when it is tied up for a long period of time. According to Taylor, it is like trying to predict the future.
Some farmers see this program as an opportunity to utilize and restore land that may not have been suitable for farming initially. According to Taylor, the most fertile land in the valley will continue to be used for crop production, while less fertile areas will be transformed into natural habitats for wildflowers, wetlands, and wildlife.
Taylor believes that it is incorrect to use marginal land for farming. Many of the soils in the area are shallow, stony, and susceptible to erosion. In the past, during World War II, there was a movement to convert these grasslands into farmland for the purpose of increasing food production. After the war, this trend continued and every bit of land was utilized for farming, resulting in higher yields achieved by using large amounts of fertilizer, removing hedgerows, and draining wetlands.
Taylor is driven by the fact that the current state of the climate is causing unpredictability in the agriculture industry. During my visit, a significant portion of the valley floor, covering 150 hectares (370 acres), is submerged under water. Taylor is working hard to prevent this from happening by continuously pumping out the water. However, if the land falls under BNG regulations, it could potentially turn into a floodplain for grazing animals.
“After 25 years, I have noticed a remarkable shift in the weather,” he explains. “This has certainly influenced my decision to pursue this path.”
Researchers from the universities of Kent and Oxford have expressed worries about the implementation of the policy. According to their research, over 25% of BNG units may not result in any significant improvements in biodiversity.
The primary focus is on credits that are located within the development site, as opposed to those from the Iford Estate which are located offsite. This is a concern because there is currently no system in place to ensure that these credits are accurately monitored. As a result, the habitats promised by developers may not actually be delivered. Sophus zu Ermgassen, an ecological economist from the University of Oxford and author of the study, explains: “If these promised habitats do not come to fruition, BNG is essentially enabling a significant loss of green space. The success of this system is heavily dependent on developers following through with their promises.”
Experts are urging for stricter monitoring of these entities, through random inspections by government authorities or through satellite tracking. However, these measures are not currently included in the existing policy. “It is premature to determine if BNG will effectively reduce wildlife decline in the UK. As it currently stands, net gain will likely not benefit wildlife,” stated Zu Ermgassen.
Scientists are worried that the law could be completely disregarded due to a recent attempt by the government to eliminate regulations on river pollution for construction companies. The nutrient neutrality program was designed to protect England’s rivers from excessive amounts of nitrates and phosphates by permitting developers to purchase “credits” to enhance nearby wetland areas. The program is currently still in effect, but Zu Ermgassen points out that conflicts surrounding it demonstrate the potential vulnerability of measures for preserving biodiversity.
Although there is still some uncertainty, a lot of developers are purchasing credits in preparation for the new legislation. Dan James, the development director of the Eden Project in Cornwall, is confident that the legislation will come into effect and has even established a new company, the Eden Project Wildflower Bank, to create flower-rich habitats using BNG units. He is determined to move forward with this plan.
Starting in 2017, his team has established 50 hectares (123 acres) of natural areas filled with wildflowers. The goal is to begin planting meadows in either March or April and ultimately create 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of wildflower habitats within the next ten years. Currently, James has already secured 100 hectares for the first year. He notes, “The laws allow us to increase our program’s profitability and grow our current capabilities.”
Taylor is still optimistic that BNG will move forward. Even if the program is cancelled, he is convinced that numerous developers will continue to participate, as many local plans mandate biodiversity improvements regardless of government involvement. Since the 1930s, the UK has seen a 97% decrease in wildflower meadows, and BNG could play a role in reversing this trend and revitalizing nature on agricultural land. Taylor views this as a return to the beginning.
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