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The creation of a “super nature reserve” in Somerset is a gamechanger for wildlife conservation. But the real question is: what happens next?
“Build it, and they will come”, to paraphrase the 1980s feelgood movie Field of Dreams. And they have. Since former peat diggings were transformed into the Avalon Marshes 30 years ago, a host of new species have colonised these watery flatlands. Cranes, bitterns, spoonbills, glossy ibises and three kinds of elegant, snow-white egrets – little, cattle and great white – are now a regular sight here.
Fifty years ago, when I began birding, I would have seen just one long-legged waterbird here – the grey heron. Today I can find all these species just a short cycle ride from my home. And, on winter evenings, the nightly murmuration of hundreds of thousands of starlings, watched by crowds of awed spectators from all over the country.
Now this wildlife-watcher’s paradise, created from a post-industrial landscape, has become a “super national nature reserve”. Good news for the birds, of course. Good news for local people: the wetlands act as reservoirs to hold back flood waters, thus safeguarding thousands of homes. Good news for Somerset’s economy, with tourists flocking here throughout the year, bringing much-needed revenue. And good news for us all, because managing this land for nature helps capture and store carbon, mitigating the global climate emergency.
If we are to truly transform the way we manage our countryside, this is just the start
But amid the celebrations, I must sound a note of caution. If we are to truly transform the way we manage our countryside, to create a resilient and sustainable landscape for the future, this is just the start. Conservation organisations need to replicate this project throughout the UK. We must look at the rural landscape in a more holistic way, so we can continue to produce food – even more essential during the current cost of living crisis – without marginalising wildlife.
The government would claim this is exactly what it is doing, by pledging to protect 30% of Britain for nature by 2030. But not only is it likely to miss that target, it is also focusing on quantity, not quality. Our existing national parks are included in that 30% target; yet many are “natural” in name only.
This reserve can inspire communities to demand the same where they live, genuinely increasing biodiversity, with the many economic benefits that brings. As is happening in Somerset, conservationists need to work with farmers and landowners to develop new ways to create sustainable schemes that work for everyone. Though the news that hard-right Tories are opposing plans to manage farmland in an environmentally sensitive way does not bode well for the future.
For too long, decisions about how our land is used and managed have been in the hands of people who claim to be “custodians of the countryside”, yet remain mired in the old and discredited ways, championing intensive farming, game shooting and blanket forestry. It’s time to call their bluff, by showing how a new and inclusive way of working for places, people and wildlife can provide a wealth of opportunities.
As one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, Britain has a long way to go. Somerset’s super nature reserve is a great start; but it must also be an opportunity to change the way we regard and manage the countryside for the 21st century.
• Stephen Moss is an author, naturalist and president of the Somerset Wildlife Trust