Brian Eversham’s talk on ‘Nature and Climate’, 01 February 2020

Earlier this month, All Saints Church was again packed again for a meeting organised by Leighton-Linslade Low Carbon Town (the partnership between Christian Ecology Leighton Linslade and South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth). This time the talk was presented by Brian Eversham, Chief Executive of the Beds, Northants and Cambs Wildlife Trust, Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants and Visiting Professor, Cranfield University, on the subject ‘Nature and Climate: what’s happening to local wildlife? how can nature help us?

We had intended to post a report of Professor Eversham’s talk, but it was so full of interesting information that we’ve found it impossible to condense; we’ll probably split it into two or three blog posts, so we can include some of the slides he very kindly gave us. There’s a lot to think about in it.

Meanwhile, if you fancy pre-empting us, Professor Eversham gave us a link to a very similar one he gave a few years ago – you can find it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4quVtXyHxGQh .

And below is the press release we sent the Leighton Buzzard Observer, which will give you a flavour of the talk. Watch this space for our more detailed reports!

Churchwarden Nick Clarke welcomed the audience and invited our local MP, Andrew Selous, to chair the meeting. Mr Selous commented that we would all have noticed the decline in sparrows around our houses, and in farmland birds generally.

Professor Eversham said that climate scientists’ predictions are gradually coming true, with more frequent and more violent natural disasters like the apocalyptic wildfires in Australia and California, and the more frequent and more devastating flooding in many countries, including the UK. It’s happening now.

Wildlife living in northern and upland areas will be worse off than species living in southern and lowland areas, as there won’t be so many places it can migrate to. Wildlife has had to do this before, during ice age cycles millions of years ago, when our wildlife managed to migrate from the Mediterranean, back to Leighton Buzzard, and back to the Mediterranean, eight times in the last million years, twenty times in the last three million years.

However, this time around Britain is an island, cut off from mainland Europe. And we’ve built major cities, and a motorway network, and a rail network – we’ve carved the countryside up, so wildlife responding to climate change can no longer move easily from place to place. New developments, new roads and railways not only destroy habitats directly, but they stop wildlife moving around in response to climate change.

Also, for the first time in sixty million years, the climate is warming from an already warm period, which none of our current species has ever experienced. We should take our children to walk in bluebell woods pretty soon, because as the climate warms, trees will come into leaf earlier, and the flowers won’t get the spring sunshine they need to reproduce; we won’t have carpets of bluebells any more.

We need to keep any rise in temperature to one and a half degrees, which will mean sea levels rise by up to half a metre. We’d be able to protect the fenlands of East Anglia, which are the most productive agricultural land in the country. But if the temperature rises more than that, sea levels would rise by a metre or more and we won’t be able to protect that area – we’ll have Peterborough-on-Sea, and we’ll lose the best farming land this country has.

Another huge threat to wildlife is tidiness on agricultural land and in gardens. A couple of generations ago, you would never have seen a clean crop without weeds; now, if a field has poppies in it, people come from miles around to photograph it. Wildlife needs places where we let the grass grow longer and where we don’t cut things back over the winter.

For the last twenty years or so, the Wildlife Trusts have worked on maintaining ‘Living Landscapes’, linking protected areas into bigger nature reserves connected by wildlife corridors and better managed with climate change in mind, and reconnected to their local communities. If people don’t know about or hear about wildlife, they will not protect it.

We also need to see that any development that damages wildlife habitat puts back more habitat than it destroys. We can’t have developers blackmailing local authorities into saying ‘Well, you can either have a road junction, or you can have green space. You can either have a school, or you can have green space.’ If a development is to happen, it needs to provide a full set of resources.

We already know how nature can help us; we just need to let it. You don’t need to plant trees to create woodland, you simply need to stop preventing trees growing and they will create their own habitat of trees and scrub and grassland. And after seventy years, the grassland around them will store nearly as much carbon in its soil as the trees have in their timber.

Peat bogs bury carbon in their peat soil, and sequesters it for literally tens of thousands of years. The sad thing about peat bogs is that most of them have been destroyed, mainly to be bagged up as multipurpose compost for gardeners. And farming on drained peat soils loses nearly an inch of peat a year.

Carbon offsetting isn’t really a solution, thinking we can just carry on emitting carbon and plant a few trees instead.

Future generations will be baffled that we wasted all the oil and coal we have by just burning it. We could have had enough renewable energy for the whole planet instead, and saved the oil and coal as rare and precious commodity to make the plastics we really need and which we don’t have alternative materials for.

Questions from the audience included how we can mitigate the damage that will be caused by the proposed Oxford to Cambridge expressway; how can new developments be built with high-quality green spaces for wildlife and people, as at Cambourne in South Cambridgeshire; and how we must see that when the UK chairs the COP26 meeting this autumn on climate change, we achieve real international leadership on climate change, not just talking about it.

Andrew Selous commented, “We are building brand new houses now that are what I call the houses of yesterday”; he mentioned the installation of gas-fired central heating, and a lack of newer technologies such as built-in photovoltaics and ground-source heat pumps. He then pointed out that fitting gas-fired heating in new homes will be illegal by 2025, so houses built now will need to be retrofitted – why can we not get it right first time?

Afterwards, many people stayed behind to discuss specific issues in small groups. The main message from all the groups was that we need to make sure our local councillors know that the town’s residents care about loss of habitats, and would like more action to prevent climate change – only one councillor attended the meeting!

For further information and practical actions, see the South Beds Friends of the Earth website at http://southbedsfoe.co.uk/, email us at  info@southbedsfoe.co.uk , or follow our Facebook page.

Major plan for tree planting in Central Bedfordshire

At its budget meeting on 20 February 2020, Central Bedfordshire Council agreed to set aside $1.68 million from additional New Homes Bonus funds to a specific reserve, in support of CBC’s upcoming climate change plan, for planting trees, hedges and similar cover across Central Bedfordshire.”

This was a real cross-party initiative, proposed by Caroline Maudlin, Conservative ward councillor for Sandy, Beeston and Blunham, and seconded by Victoria Harvey, Independent ward councillor for Linslade.

What is so encouraging about this particular project is that it has been so well prepared, taking so many aspects into account that are sometimes forgotten in the zeal to get new trees in the ground. For example, the proposers recognise that new planting must not displace existing valuable habitat, like established grasslands and hedges, or ancient woodland; the need for maintenance after planting has been recognised right from the start; and the proposal includes hedging and scrub – two very valuable habitats which are often overlooked.

The council will be consulting widely with all the interested parties and local expert organisations, including town and parish councils, the local Wildlife Trust, Forest of Marston Vale, Greensand Trust and others, and they will take the time to get this right, with the right trees, in the right place, with the right maintenance.

Speaking in support of the motion, Cllr Maudlin said, “The UK has now one of the lowest levels of woodland cover in Europe and also one of the most nature depleted countries in the world.

The government have been trying to improve this with grant schemes and CBC have benefited from … but simply – we are not planting enough trees.

The current level of canopy cover within Central Bedfordshire has been assessed as 14.5% – compared with an average of 17% England, varying from only 8% in Tithe Ward in Houghton Regis to 24% in Ampthill Ward.

The area of actual woodland cover is also variable, from around 17% across the Greensand Ridge, to 5-7% across the arable landscapes.

The Forest of Marston Vale has increased woodland cover within the project area from 3% to 9% – which has led to a noticeable change in the landscape.

Central Bedfordshire has three different types of landscape – the Greensand Ridge, Bedfordshire claylands; and the Chilterns – each with different types of landscape, ecology and soil, so it is essential that the right species of trees and plants are planted in the right area with the right ongoing maintenance to get the maximum return in all these areas, to increase not only carbon capture and storage, but also biodiversity and wildlife, while providing access to green space for people, and increasing wellbeing.

Woodland and tree canopy cover can be increased in a number of ways, including:

• farm woodland schemes, including agroforestry (where planting is widely spaced within arable cropping)

• larger scale mitigation of new development, both residential and employment

• wooded sustainable drainage corridors to increase wet woodland, an ecological priority

• planting for shade in towns, in school grounds

• hedgerow tree planting, particularly to combat losses from Ash Dieback disease

• tree and hedge planting to improve air quality

• and as an integrating major infrastructure []

The project is not as simple as just planting a few trees here and there – careful consideration has to be given as I mentioned to the right site, the right trees, and right reason AND then ensuring there is the ongoing hard work in keeping them watered and maintenance to get them truly established.

In all of this I have not even begun to talk about our wildlife and benefits it would bring to the decreasing numbers …

I don’t have a business plan, quotations, project plan or map showing planting locations and that is why I ask for the money to be put in a specific reserve. Passing this motion will enable our excellent in house Countryside officers, conservation team and ecologists with members, Town and Parish Councils putting this scheme together – we need to make sure we get the maximum return in locking carbon away in to the trees and soil, increasing biodiversity, public access, wellbeing and more.

Addressing the full council, Leader Cllr James Jamieson, underlined the importance of moving towards a zero carbon environment.“At a national and local level, we share a commitment to tackle the climate emergency and I’m keen to explore how we can do more to unlock resources for action in Central Bedfordshire” said Councillor Jamieson.“We are a council which is hugely ambitious to improve our environment and to build, great, sustainable communities. I’m optimistic about our ability to really make a difference, but delivery must be about more than tokenism.We need to work with our partners and our communities to effect practical and cultural change”.

The council’s budget, also approved last night, allocates £0.75m of revenue and up to £4m capital specifically on environmental sustainability projects.

Central Bedfordshire Council taking its response to climate change seriously

Three members of South Beds Friends of the Earth went along to a Central Bedfordshire Council budget-setting meeting last night, to ask them a question. This was prompted by our local MP Andrew Selous, who remarked at our recent public meeting on Nature and Climate, “We are building brand new houses now that are what I call the houses of yesterday”. He said that we are still fitting gas boilers for heating, although this will be banned from 2025; we need to improve insulation levels to reduce energy use, and start incorporating other low-carbon techniques.

We wanted to raise the bar, and ask how CBC could persuade developers to start building the houses of tomorrow. You can hear what we said, and see Cllr Dixon’s response, here.

We had a very good response from Cllr Dixon, the Executive Member for Transformation and External Relations, who agreed that low- or zero-carbon building needed to be considered in his imminent plan for CBC’s response to the climate emergency. He went further, and said that CBC is setting up its own housing company, which will aim for negative carbon – this is great!

What was particularly interesting was to hear so many councillors mentioning climate change when discussing their normal work; it’s good to see that the message has been received and that they’re aiming to be leaders on a response to climate change!