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'Pessimism gets you nowhere': Here is how Norfolk's wildlife can be saved

PUBLISHED: 07:46 11 May 2019 | UPDATED: 12:40 11 May 2019

Pamela Abbott, centre, chief executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust with volunteers at Southrepps Commons nature reserve. Picture: Chris Hill

Pamela Abbott, centre, chief executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust with volunteers at Southrepps Commons nature reserve. Picture: Chris Hill

Archant

It has been a bleak news week for nature lovers. But apocalyptic predictions are not subduing the spirits of Norfolk's conservationists.

Brown hares boxing. Numbers are in decline but Norfolk remains a stronghold. Picture: ROBERT BANNISTERBrown hares boxing. Numbers are in decline but Norfolk remains a stronghold. Picture: ROBERT BANNISTER

On Monday the UN revealed one million species face extinction.

"We are eroding the very foundations of our economies," it warned, casting doubt on how we can enjoy our current lifestyles without massive sacrifices.

But at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) HQ, chief executive Pamela Abbott is in no mood for gloom.

"Pessimism is not going to get you anywhere," she says.

Pamela Abbott, chief executive Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Photo: ArchantPamela Abbott, chief executive Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Photo: Archant

"There is so much still to look after," adds David North, head of people and wildlife at NWT.

The challenges Norfolk's nature faces are vast and repeated across the world - loss of habitats to farming and housing, pollution, pressure on water supplies and changes to the climate.

But the NWT believes the UK is enjoying a green groundswell and this is the time to seize on it.

With school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, protecting species has never been so far up the political to-do list.

But what can be done in Norfolk to have any impact?

"Whatever is discussed at international level needs to enacted on the ground," David says. "The only thing that can make a difference is local work."

- Looking after the ordinary

Conservationists have become good at saving some highly endangered species, such as the Natterjack toad, from extinction.

Turtle dove numbers are in severe decline. Photo: Les Bunyan/RSPBTurtle dove numbers are in severe decline. Photo: Les Bunyan/RSPB

But outside pockets of nature reserves, populations of once common wildlife, such as turtle doves, hedgehogs and water voles, have collapsed.

"We have failed to keep common species common," David says.

The trust's answer is to build something called "living landscapes".

The idea is to restore a connected countryside by, for example, using hedgerows and rivers to create wildlife highways so creatures can travel between nature havens.

Water vole at Carlton Marshes in Suffolk. Their numbers have fallen more than any other mammal in the UK. Picture: Gavin DurrantWater vole at Carlton Marshes in Suffolk. Their numbers have fallen more than any other mammal in the UK. Picture: Gavin Durrant

But for this to be successful the trust will need the help of the county's biggest landowners.

- More land for nature

"We can't buy all of Norfolk," Pamela says. That means the Trust works with farmers to support wildlife.

"You don't have to do much differently to make a huge difference," she added. "Farmers are very adaptable."

The rare natterjack toad. Photo: Mike LinleyThe rare natterjack toad. Photo: Mike Linley

She wants the new farming subsidies, which will come in after Brexit, to encourage wildlife-friendly farming.

That would include more money for farmers who give land back to nature, grow wildflowers and hedgerows.

"The wall-to-wall pesticide use and cropped hedges just needs to change a little bit," she says.

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But in other areas, more dramatic farming changes may be needed.

With drier seasons becoming more frequent, this would mean growing fewer water hungry crops, such as potatoes, around the Broads, Pamela says.

"We have to work with farmers and look at what we can grow where.

"We need crops but we don't owe people a living if they are destroying our environment."

David North, Head of People and Wildlife at Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Photo: NWTDavid North, Head of People and Wildlife at Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Photo: NWT

- Get messy in the city

It is not just down to farmers.

"I would love us to make little wild places everywhere in cities; on roundabouts, window boxes and roof gardens," she said. "People think they can't make a difference but that couldn't be further from the truth."

Neglecting a little bit of your garden or a corner of a school playing field, rather than mowing down the weeds and wildflowers, can help, as can digging a pond, she says.

Hedgehog numbers are in steep decline. Photo: Getty ImagesHedgehog numbers are in steep decline. Photo: Getty Images

"In a really small place you can create something," she said.

For hedgehogs, whose numbers have collapsed, creating a hole in your fence so they can get into neighbours' gardens can make a big difference.

The NWT also wants councils to play a bigger part by, for example, planting more trees and only cutting roadside verges after flowers have set seed.

- What about new homes?

So how do new homes fit in with conservation?

Conservationists have drawn up maps of Norfolk showing "green infrastructure".

They want the maps to be used when land is earmarked for housing to avoid building on wildlife sites.

But the lack of power nature groups and even local councils have to stop developers building on green sites was exposed at Thorpe Woods earlier this year.

The NWT campaigned against 300 new homes in the woodland off Plumstead Road East and Broadland Council rejected the application, but the developer won on appeal.

Even when developed with housing, land can still benefit wildlife, says Mr North. He wants new homes to have bird boxes, wildflower meadows and, of course, more holes in fences for hedgehogs.

-Common species, common no more?

Some once common creatures have seen major declines.

-Brown hare: Their numbers have been falling since the 1960s but Norfolk is still a stronghold. They have suffered from losing grasslands.

-Hedgehogs: Once very common, their numbers in the British countryside have more than halved since 2000, according to a report by the People's Trust for Endangered Species. The decline has been put down to the loss of hedgerows and fewer insects for them to feast on.

-Water vole: No other mammal in Britain has suffered such a steep fall in numbers. The NWT said some estimates put their decline at 90pc since the 1980s. They too have lost habitats but the introduction of the American mink, which competes with them, is thought to be the reason for such a severe decline.

-Swallow: The RSPB says there has been a widespread fall in numbers since the 1970s across Europe. They have blamed this on climate change and farming.

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