Science & Environment

Nature receives boost in 12 English sites

Duke of Burgundy butterfly
Image caption The Duke of Burgundy butterfly will get a helping hand in the South Downs

The government has selected England's first 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs), where wildlife and ecosystems will be protected and enhanced.

Heath in the Midlands, salt marshes along the Thames and peat beds in Cheshire are among the areas that will share £7.5m of government funding.

Seventy-six groups including community organisations, conservation charities and landowners bid for selection.

The NIAs stem from a 2010 review urging a joined-up approach to conservation.

Making Space for Naturerecommended that existing protected areas needed to be expanded, that new areas should be established, and that sites needed to be linked together.

The 12 sites were selected by a panel led by Sir John Lawton, who was also lead scientist on Making Space for Nature.

"For more than 40 years I have had the privilege of working on nature-conservation issues in the UK, both as a professional scientist, and in the voluntary sector," he said.

"Never in all that time have I seen the sort of creativity, partnership working and sheer enthusiasm that the NIA competition has released in consortia that want to deliver more effective conservation for England's wonderful wildlife in their area.

"Choosing 12 winners from 76 bids was an awfully difficult task, but I believe we have 12 outstanding NIAs, each unique in what it is setting out to achieve, for the benefits of people and wildlife."

Some of the projects are directly aimed at enhancing specific wildlife, such as a mainly farmer-led project in the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire that aims to boostfarmland birdsthrough restoring habitat.

Another in the South Downs hopes to bring back the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, while in Devon, the River Torridge will be managed so it can support critically endangeredfreshwater pearl mussels.

Others aim to restore degraded habitat - the River Don floodplain and itswetlandsin South Yorkshire, the Greater Thames salt marshes and grazing marches, and tributaries of the River Nene in Northamptonshire, badly hit by current drought conditions.

Wider environmental objectives are addressed by the Birmingham and Black Country living landscape project that will convert brownfield sites toheathland, and by Meres and Mosses of the Marches that will conserve Cheshire peatlands, which become a significant source of carbon emissions if they dry out.

Image caption Restoring peat bogs conserves carbon in the ground, as well as benefiting the water supply

The Wildlife Trusts, the network of mainly county-level nature charities across the country, welcomed the announcement but said it should be the start of something much bigger.

"We are delighted this competition has demonstrated a real appetite for putting nature back after decades of decline through the large number of applications," said Paul Wilkinson, the organisation's head of living landscapes.

"But 12 Nature Improvement Areas are not enough. This concept should be driven forward everywhere across England and given formal recognition through the new planning process, expected next month, and agri-environment grants.

"We have an urgent need for the restoration and recovery of the natural environment to take place across a much larger area, and quickly."

The Wildlife Trusts said the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework must provide explicit guidance to authorities on taking a more strategic and integrated approach to the natural environment, so that the needs of nature and ecology are taken into account in all planning decisions.

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