Acknowledging that we are in a climate emergency is a vital first step in identifying solutions. Creating the plans and putting them into action present problems, but small plans can grow into bigger ones with the right ideas, approach and support. Here is the story of our project so far.
As I write that title, I realise that it’d probably be more accurate to title this triumphs and trials, in that order, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way.
How the project evolved
I’m writing this article in two parts, as there are equal amounts to relate on both. Fortunately for me and others, our biodiversity projects enjoyed a decent run in the first year or so – enough to build some momentum. So, I’ll deal with that in part 1, and then in part 2, I’ll reflect on some of the challenges of trying to improve biodiversity as a key part of addressing the grave emergency that besets us all.
When I came on board as a local Wivenhoe town councillor, no other council (at least, none I knew of) had yet declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, and to be honest, I hadn’t joined the council with that in mind. After a career in financial services for 30 years or so, I had developed some people skills. My role in the council was to persuade and cajole, and to network with others, to see what could be achieved.
As a lifelong birder, it is perhaps understandable that I should lead the way in optimising environmental policy, particularly with regard to biodiversity.
Getting the declaration over the line was a trial. Some senior councillors seemed quite affronted by a newbie wanting to shake things up in this way. Some challenging and contrarian views were placed before me, initially appearing to be quite genuine, but then, quite obviously, just plain obstructive. So, once the declaration was made, I was challenged to put a plan into action.
To my eternal gratitude and relief, I had many friends and allies who wanted to help, and who had a great range of skills and knowledge to add. What was needed was a project which didn’t cost too much, but which could provide quick results as proof of concept.
Let it grow, let it grow, let it grow!
Some while before the declaration, we had an idea to restore an area on the main public park, where previously, it was expertly deduced there had been prime grass meadow. We just let it grow to see what came up, with the idea of cutting at the end of the season, and taking away the cuttings, thus reducing the fertility of the soil, and, over time, the coarse grasses that would otherwise prevail on the playing fields.
A sign was designed and erected to explain what we were doing and why. Luckily, the first season was hugely successful in the one way that was easy to measure – the quantity and diversity of wildlife that ensued! Situated next to a woodland on its western edge, the added advantage of the shelter on one side of the meadow created tranquil sun traps for insects and their predators to bask and forage and hunt. An impressive catalogue of photographs was compiled in a report to the council, but just as importantly, on the local media channels, to inform otherwise less aware members of the community, of the riches this little patch yielded.
Bringing the borough onboard
Building on this success, two years ago, we launched the green verges project. Same principle, only this time, we needed the borough council onboard, together with their contractors who would otherwise cut the roadside verges up to 14 times a year. In year one, we allocated verges that would probably yield most in terms of biodiversity, but also in places where we felt the locals would be more receptive. Not only did we put up signs, but we also put notices through each neighbouring door with my contact details in case people had any queries or concerns.
I think people appreciated the respect in this kind of communication. I had also made a name for myself locally as a regular poster of wildlife images, which many people seemed to enjoy. Approval of our posts in the form of correspondence and ‘likes’ on social media, were emphatic, with less than 5% of comments being negative. This emboldened us to be a little more ambitious in year two, encroaching into territories with typically more manicured frontages.
Meanwhile, other local councils had expressed interest in our project – presumably because there were a few social media shares or reports to them from other parishioners visiting friends. The challenge for any council in doing anything new, is always going to be public perception and cost. Our project was ticking both boxes quite favourably.
The team of volunteers who survey and monitor the project have produced a comprehensive set of results, so that those interested in the numbers can evaluate quite simply. But also, the enthusiasm of those involved has produced a most delightful reference booklet of plants for young children to observe in the field, right on their doorstep. An impressive body of school work followed from the youngsters, keen to exhibit what they had found!
Sponsorship for the project was generously provided by the very supportive Beth Chatto Gardens Ltd, who gave materials and expertise, and then also prizes for another offshoot project – Gardening for Nature – which encouraged people to participate in the project by providing space in their own gardens for biodiversity.
Having such a great team of volunteers to run the project has allowed me to poke my nose into a lot of other environmental issues locally, which has resulted in some key relationships being built with some influential and well-resourced allies for the future. I have also been able to negotiate some deals with local land owners to adopt more enlightened land management policies, and even begun dialogue with the local Ministry of Defence representatives, with a view to launching projects on their living and training territory.
This notoriety also strengthens any representations I make at higher political levels, with a degree of credibility and support behind me, so there is much to achieve.
But there are also challenges, quite a few of which have been in the last few weeks. More on that in part 2 in a few weeks’ time.
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