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Doubling Nature action plan launched for Cambridgeshire




Cambridgeshire has one of the smallest areas in the country, relative to its size, of land managed for nature.

Now a partnership has unveiled its vision to change that, with a ‘Doubling Nature action plan’ for the county that wants to raise this amount from eight per cent to 16 per cent. Natural Cambridgeshire, which brings together leaders from conservation organisations, local businesses, authorities, the health sector and farming, launched a series of initiatives designed to protect, restore and enhance key wildlife habitats.

A short-eared owl in flight. Picture: Paul Brackley (42430732)
A short-eared owl in flight. Picture: Paul Brackley (42430732)

Dame Fiona Reynolds, master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, gave a keynote speech to launch the plan last Friday.

“The urgent need to reverse nature’s decline is well known, but we are making desperately slow progress,” she warned. “The Covid-19 crisis has also shown us just how much we all need access to nature. The ambition to ‘double nature’ in Cambridgeshire could not be more timely or important.”

Natural Cambridgeshire aims to work with local authorities to influence planning decisions, and has support from the Combined Authority, which has pledged to put nature-friendly development at its economic growth agenda.

It aims to work with farmers on climate change mitigation and the creation of wildlife environments.

Its plan says: “By working together closely with communities, landowners and farmers, there is potential to create large areas of new natural habitat.”

And it adds: “There is also the potential to achieve a UNESCO Biosphere designation to give international recognition to this special area.”

Dame Fiona Reynolds, Master of Emmanuel College, photo by Mr David Levinson. (36236476)
Dame Fiona Reynolds, Master of Emmanuel College, photo by Mr David Levinson. (36236476)

Also speaking at last Friday’s event was Lord Chris Smith, master of Pembroke and a former Environment Agency chairman, who said: “Over the past six months we’ve relearned and rediscovered how vitally important our relationship with nature is, for all of us, and how it helps us to grow stronger, wiser and happier. That’s true on a global scale as we face the challenges of climate change; but it’s even more true on our doorstep, and there’s no better place to start than here in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.”

Four main initiatives were announced by Natural Cambridgeshire:

  • 1. A landscape-led approach designed to put the region firmly on the map of nature recovery. Natural Cambridgeshire has identified five key landscapes – see right – with the potential to deliver significant benefits for nature and enhanced access to green open space for residents.
  • 2. A community approach – a toolkit of small steps that each community can make to double nature close to home. It points out that if every parish in the county planted 10 trees a year for 10 years that would be nearly 40,000 trees.
  • 3. A doubling nature pledge through which individuals, businesses and other organisations can play their part in the ambition, whether it is planting more pollinating plants in gardens or greening up workplace car parks.
  • 4. A Doubling Nature Investment Fund – this will be launched to provide funding from multiple sources to make all this happen.

Richard Astle, chairperson of Natural Cambridgeshire, said: “Nature matters to us all – and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have an opportunity to lead the way in helping nature to recover from its catastrophic local declines.

Last year we set out the ambition of doubling nature . This year we are setting out detailed ideas for how we can all play our part in making that happen. And if we do, we can make our county an even better place to live, work, and visit. Doubling nature means more wildlife, it also means cleaner air and water and more places for people to walk, ride and cycle and enjoy green, open spaces.”

The initial launch in 2019 of Natural Cambridgeshire’s Doubling Nature document at Waterbeach Barracks. From left, mayor James Palmer with Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, and Nigel Hugill, founder and chief executive of Urban and Civic. Picture: Keith Heppell
The initial launch in 2019 of Natural Cambridgeshire’s Doubling Nature document at Waterbeach Barracks. From left, mayor James Palmer with Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, and Nigel Hugill, founder and chief executive of Urban and Civic. Picture: Keith Heppell

Recent surveys have backed the need for access to natural space.

One by Natural Cambridgeshire showed 77 per cent of participants said that visiting parks and countryside had been very important to them during lockdown.

And the RSPB’s ‘Recovering Together’ report found 89 per cent of those surveyed believe that increasing the amount of accessible nature-rich green space will help to improve people’s health, wellbeing and happiness. The RSPB’s 2019 State of Nature report highlighted that 15 per cent of our species are threatened with extinction. There has been a 68 per cent decline in butterfly numbers since 1976, and the number of birds on the red list of conservation concern has risen from 36 to 67.

Five landscape-scale conservation projects backed by Natural Cambridgeshire

1. John Clare Countryside

Running along the edge of Northamptonshire and Peterborough, this area is known for its ancient woodlands and limestone grasslands. A community-led nature recovery project was launched in September 2019, covering 11,500 hectares, and is supported by Peterborough City Council and local parish councils. They are working on 10-year plans to increase key wildlife habitats, particularly on limestone grassland, wetland and around arable farmland.

2. The Nene Valley

Cranes coming into land at RSPB Nene Washes. Picture: Paul Brackley (42351280)
Cranes coming into land at RSPB Nene Washes. Picture: Paul Brackley (42351280)

With the River Nene running through it, this 41,000-hectare area includes tributaries, gravel pits, reservoirs, wetlands and farmland. But the area is under pressure from growing towns. The Upper Nene Valley Gravel Pits Special Protection Area (SPA) isinternationally designated for its overwintering bird population.But the area is under pressure from growing towns. By working with conservation organisations, land advisers and landowners, Natural Cambridgeshire hopes to oversee an increase in wetland habitat, such as floodplain grazing marsh, fen and wet meadows, in positive management, deliver restoration projects and develop accessible green space.

3. Cambridgeshire’s Connected Fens

A male hen harrier flies at sunset at Wicken Fen. Picture: Paul Brackley (42351278)
A male hen harrier flies at sunset at Wicken Fen. Picture: Paul Brackley (42351278)

Less than 0.2 per cent of the original fens now remain, as the majority has drained for agriculture. But the Nene Washes, the Ouse Washes, the Great Fen and Wicken Fen are a haven for wildlife with iconic species such as the black-tailed godwit, crane, bittern, water beetles and dragonflies. Much work is already under way to strengthen and connect them.

At Wicken Fen, the National Trust launched a 100-year plan in 1999 to create a 53 square kilometre landscape for wildlife and people. The site has doubled in size already, and is the most biodiverse in Cambridgeshire.

At the Wildlife Trust-managed Great Fen, some 3,700 hectares of fenland is being restored, while the Hanson-RSPB Wetland project will create the UK’s biggest reedbed at RSPB Ouse Fen by 2030 - the size of 644 football pitches, or 4.6 square kilometres - following the extraction of 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel at Needingworth Quarry. The project is the largest planned nature conservation restoration scheme following sand and gravel extraction in Europe.

4. The Great Ouse Valley

The river at RSPB Ouse Washes. Picture: Paul Brackley (42351276)
The river at RSPB Ouse Washes. Picture: Paul Brackley (42351276)

The Ouse Washes are a Ramsar site and one of the UK’s largest washlands

Internationally important for a range of wintering and breeding birds, it utilises traditional land management techniques with cattle grazing. But the pressure of development looms large.

Natural Cambridgeshire’s partners intend to acquire land, develop habitat development and carry out capital works to support current and proposed conservation projects to protect the ecological network in the Ouse Valley, including increasing the amount and quality of floodplain meadow.

5. The Gog Magog Hills

These low-lying hills feature a cluster of remnant chalk grasslands, chalk fens and ancient monuments survive, together with copses planted 150 to 200 years ago on hill tops, providing a natural backdrop to Cambridge.

The vision is to create a ‘natural park’ through land acquisition and habitat creation, which would link and extend the fragments of chalk grassland, as well as create a new ‘Beacon Forest’ - a mixture of woodland and calcareous grassland - as a green space for the rapidly growing populations of Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire

“This project provides an opportunity to safeguard the future of the wildlife of the area by linking and enhancing existing habitats to create a resilient ecological network across the area, and by providing additional natural green space close to the urban fringe of Cambridge,” says Natural Cambridgeshire.

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