Wildlife Conservation

The Living Landscape Approach

The nature reserves we've saved are vital refuges for wildlife, but they alone are not enough if nature is to thrive everywhere. So we work to create Living Landscapes, where wildlife habitats are bigger, better managed and more joined-up.

Read more about Living Landscapes

Imagine a wildflower meadow cut-off from the nearest meadow by 10 miles , or a woodland cut-off from other woodlands by roads and development. What happens when the species within them need to move to find new habitat or mates?

The science behind Living Landscapes

The UK’s overall track record of looking after wildlife and the natural environment is poor although some species are faring well (State of Nature Partners , 2016; Maclean, 2010; Defra, 2017; Morecroft, 2009; Lawton, 2010).

Nature conservation in the UK has traditionally focused on protecting specific sites (Lawton, 2010), but outside these wildlife habitats have been lost on an unprecedented scale. Although there are some conservation success stories, the majority of our species are in long-term decline (State of Nature Partners , 2016; Maclean, 2010; Natural England, 2010; Fuller, 1987; The Wildlife Trusts, 2015; Lawton, 2010). 

As the demands made on land from agriculture, forestry, housing and development have increased, so the space available for UK wildlife has decreased (Lawton, 2010). 

The founders of Wildlife Trusts and their successors have fought to save wildlife-rich places for decades - woods, marshes, meadows, and moorland – protecting many as nature reserves. But these were emergency measures, taken against a tide of widespread destruction to our natural habitats.  It was always hoped that nature would be able to re-colonise the wider landscape from these refuges when conditions were right (Sands, 2012).

Without the efforts of those who saved these remnants of our natural heritage, the position for wildlife in the UK would be much worse. The result today is that nature reserves have become small oases of wildlife-rich land in an inhospitable and often hostile landscape for many plants and animals. 

The task of making that wider landscape better for wildlife is an urgent priority if the UK is to reverse the recorded declines in wildlife and wild places.

For the past 15 years or so Wildlife Trusts have been working on this with ever increasing focus. We call this approach Living Landscapes – and it stands for working over bigger areas of land (not just the bits we own) , usually in partnership with others, to find and make space for nature. There is often a focus on restoring habitats – for example working with landowners to restore peat bogs in the uplands, or re-naturalising riverbank habitats by adding features to make them more natural and better for wildlife. 

Now almost every Wildlife Trust is working like this across a defined geographical area or Living Landscape Area. Many Wildlife Trusts run multiple projects in this way. This approach is based on the principles of landscape-scale conservation (Lawton, 2010; Benedict, 2006; Hilty, 2006; Southern, 2015) which considers the landscape and environment as a complete whole – as a dynamic, complex and linked system. 

We believe that bring wildlife back is the right thing to do – for wildlife’s own sake. But we also believe that it makes common sense. Natural solutions can solve or play an important role in preventing and/or resolving difficult problems; whether it’s climate change and how wildlife adapts to it (BRANCH partnership, 2007; Davies, 2006; Hannah, 2007; Smithers, 2008), flooding (Purseglove, 2015), the economy (Natural Capital Committee, 2015) or the increase in non-communicable diseases such as Type-2 diabetes (van den Bosch, 2017), mental health and cardio-vascular disease. 

Landscape-scale conservation

Landscape-scale conservation has emerged from the recognition that conservation needs to move beyond nature reserves and consider the full range of factors in the landscape that influence wildlife and people (Ahern, 2012).

The scale at which we think and act is critical.  If our action is to be effective, we need to work at a scale that is relevant to species, habitats and processes in the living landscape (Drechsler M. and Wissel, 1998).  Nature reserves have been vital in safeguarding wildlife but, as isolated fragments of wild places, they are not enough on their own (Lawton, 2010; Hilty, 2006). It is also important to recognise that whilst people draw lines on maps and define boundaries across the landscape, other species use the landscape differently and don’t recognise human boundaries (Warwick, 2017). 

Each Living Landscape Area tends to follow a number of key principles that have emerged from the experience gained through many successful programmes (Southern, 2015; Benedict, 2006; The Wildlife Trusts, 1996; The Wildlife Trusts, 2013). 

These are some of the main ones:

  1. Engage people in developing a vision and strategy for their living landscape
  2. Good planning and a spatial approach
  3. A focus on people and local communities
  4. Sustainable local economies
  5. Achieving practical delivery in partnership and collaboration with others
  6. Monitoring and evaluating progress
  7. Sustaining the effort over time to achieve long-term results

What type of conservation work is required?

At the heart of Living Landscapes and landscape-scale conservation (Lawton, 2010; Benedict, 2006; Hilty, 2006) is the idea of a joined-up core network of wildlife-friendly places (Hodgson JA M. A., (2011a) ; Hodgson JA T. C., 2011b; Johst K, 2011; Riordan, 2015), and the need to give wildlife more space and room to manoeuvre (Lawton, 2010)- and to enable natural processes to function (The Wildlife Trusts, 2013)

Wild plants, animals and fungi need to be able to move and disperse (Clobert, 2012) across the landscape for many reasons (Freckleton, 2002; Husband, 1996; Brudvig LA, 2009) – but fragmentation reduces the capability for species to move (Bruckmann SV, 2010; L, 2003; Rybicki J, 2013; CD, 2000).  For example, isolated species groups may interact with each other to maintain their genetic health.  Some plants and animals live in patches which can only support a certain size of population and depend on the movement and interchange of individuals for their survival – some patches are ‘sources’ of new recruits, others are population ‘sinks’ and need topping up by the arrival of new recruits. Dispersal is an inherent survival strategy for many species to find new habitats to increase their distribution and abundance (Hanski, 1999).  Many species appear to be poor at moving around the landscape – often because their dispersal mechanism is missing from the modern landscape (e.g. they may ‘hitch’ a ride on particular animals that are no longer present) and connectivity is an important factor (Bright, 1998). 

The needs of different species vary, but increasing the degree to which habitats are joined up can increase wildlife populations (Smith, 2015; Feber, 2015; Merckx, 2015; Buesching, 2015; Riordan, 2015)

Changing weather patterns and climate change may also have a direct influence, amongst other factors, on the relationships and competition between species; some may be displaced or will need to move to find suitable conditions.  Studies have observed how species are moving in response to warming (Gian-Reto Walther, 2002; Hickling R. R., 2005; Hickling R. R., (2006) ; Walther, 2002).

The ways in which plants, fungi, bacteria and animals disperse are many and varied.  We know remarkably little about many species but a living landscape approach aims to provide a range of features and processes which allow as many species as possible to sustain their populations and disperse (Clobert, 2012).

In helping wildlife to thrive at a landscape- scale, we need to (Lawton, 2010; Bennett G. &., 2006 ; Bennett G. &., 2001; Catchpole, 2006; Hodgson, 2009; Donaldson, 2017; Diamond, 1975; Lawson CR, 2013; Mortelliti A, 2010; Watts K, 2010):

  • Protect and maximise the wildlife value of existing rich sites – or core sites (Lawton, 2010; Possingham HP, 2015; Thomas CD, 2012; Ye X, 2013).
  • Expand and buffer these core areas by restoring or creating new habitats in strategic locations; and create connections, corridors (Burel, 1990; Falcy, 2007; Gilbert-Norton, 2010; Sullivan, 2017; Bennett A. , 2003; Damschen EI, 2006) and stepping stones between them (Hilty, 2006; Jongman, 2004; Sutcliffe, 1996; Prevedello JA, 2018; Rosenberg DK, 1997; Simberloff D, 1987; Pearce-Higgins, 2014). These may include continuous features like river valleys and diverse hedgerows which can act as ‘wildlife highways’.  Stepping stones are smaller, unconnected natural areas; close networks of patches that act as stop-off points for wildlife on the move – for example a series of copses or ponds in open grassland.
  • Restore damaged or degraded landscapes across large areas and create new habitats in appropriate locations (Lawton, 2010; Possingham HP, 2015; Gilbert, 1998; Blakesley, 2016).
  • Restore natural processes as far as possible to their full function. Natural systems provide a range of services such as pollination, the cleansing of polluted water and carbon capture by healthy soils (Bardgett, 2016; Wall, 2012).  They can also reduce risks and hazards such as flood alleviation and the effects of drought by rewilding the way water moves through the landscape – and allowing it to flow and move in as natural a way as possible.  In many areas, for example, rivers have been constrained and cut off from their flood plains – reducing their ability to absorb flood events (Purseglove, 2015). 
  • Re-establish populations of missing keystone species. Our aim is to make the environment wilder - and as wild as possible whilst recognising that potential conflicts may need to be addressed.  Many keystone species that once did useful jobs across landscapes have disappeared – and their return could bring benefits.  For example, the beaver can bring useful benefits to communities and wildlife at low cost (Campbell-Palmer, 2016).  In many areas, the natural processes of soil formation have been disrupted and our soils have lost fertility and their capacity to soak up and retain water.  Encouraging natural processes to rebuild soil organic matter (Wall, 2012; Bardgett, 2016)– and working with earthworms and dung beetles (Jones R. , 2016), could provide significant benefits to reduce flooding and improve resilience to drought. The Wildlife Trusts support the re-establishment of missing keystone species using IUCN Guidelines (IUCN / SSC, 2013).
  • Make the wider landscape of farmland, urban areas and forestry friendlier (and more ‘permeable’) to wildlife between the core sites (Prevedello JA, 2018; Riordan, 2015; Macdonald D. a., 2015; Moorhouse, 2015; Macdonald D. R., 2015).  These areas need to be accessible and useful to wildlife. If the wider countryside is managed more sustainably, society and farmers will continue to benefit from the essential services provided by the natural environment (such as clean air and water, pollination (Ricketts, 2008), healthy soils (Wall, 2012), food and flood management).


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