Biodiversity Action Plans

On Thursday evening, 22nd March, members of the Society found themselves metaphorically exploring the wetlands, woodland and upland heath of Staffordshire when Jon Webb from Staffordshire County Council came to talk to us about Staffordshire's Biodiversity Action Plan. Biodiversity is the variety of life. It includes all living things on earth - animals, plants and micro-organisms from the smallest bug to the most ancient oak. It is also the habitats in which they live and on which they are dependent. If important habitats can be conserved, then thousands of different species will benefit. It is not just a global issue concerning rain forests but it is also a local issue. In Staffordshire alone, many thousands of species of plants and animals are known to occur. Jon explained to us that conserving biodiversity is not just about rare and threatened wildlife and habitats but about the common as well. All those who care about the countryside, whether they know it or not, are appreciating biodiversity. It is important for our quality of life and is intimately bound up with it.

He reminded us that at the 'Earth Summit' at Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 Heads of Governments came together to discuss environmental concerns. One of the most important outcomes of this was the Convention on Biological Diversity which was signed by 167 countries. This is a commitment to sustaining the variety of life on earth. Following this, each country had to produce a National Biodiversity Action Plan to ensure the survival of their endangered species and habitats. The UK is at the forefront in implementing such a National Biodiversity Action Plan, which was published in 1996. Cascading down from the national plan, which sets 20-year targets for saving our wildlife and conserving habitats, are Local Biodiversity Action Plans targeted to the needs of the local environment. Many County Councils have produced Biodiversity Action Plans including Staffordshire.

These plans, which set a strategic framework for tackling the enhancement of biodiversity, are backed by all local authorities in each county. They respond to the challenges set by government by identifying measurable targets and by identifying species and habitats under threat which need to be protected and conserved.

Local authorities are key players in habitat protection. They do this through the planning process, whereby structure and local plans set policies for the protection and enhancement of a variety of habitats and seek to allocate new development to areas where minimum damage to habitat and wildlife is done.

Starting with our woodlands Jon took us through an exploration of a number of habitats in Staffordshire. He pointed out that Staffordshire, like many other counties, still possessed remnant ancient woodland which had regenerated over periods of up to 400 years. Often populated by interesting under-storey plant species such as wild daffodils, ancient woodland was a vitally important habitat for wildlife. Woodland glades as well as dense woodland and open rides all contributed to the complex structure of woodland which provided a variety of habitats for a wide range of species; whether birds, mammals or insects. Similarly, our older parklands were a vitally important habitat. Over 1200 hectares of high quality parkland still remain in Staffordshire although just as much exists in a degraded state. Parklands were particularly important for a wide range of beetles that thrived on the dead wood. The County Council had undertaken a GPS survey of the county to identify veteran trees in parkland with a view to ensuring that they were not only recognised but protected.

Moving on to look at hay meadows, Jon identified through his colour slides a wide range of wild flowers, many seldom seen these days because of agricultural land management methods. Indeed, hay meadows all over the country are increasingly rare.

We looked at heathland, both upland and lowland. Jon explained to us that heathland, with its sandy structure, was a haven of insect wildlife; particularly because of the way in which sand rapidly warms up in sunshine. Staffordshire is therefore well blessed with solitary wasp and bee species which tend to burrow into sandy outcrops. It is also particularly famous for upland heath, although perhaps in the past its management has not been as good as it should be. Upland heath requires a grazing regime in order to stimulate the regeneration of heather and gorse which otherwise becomes far too leggy and prematurely declines.

The evening's presentation concluded by briefly looking at our water habitats. Jon lamented, as we all have for many years, the problems created by over-engineering river courses which has destroyed gently sloping banks and effectively culverted stream courses in a way which has caused problems for water voles, other mammals and fishing birds. Depressingly, the decline of the water vole has been dramatic and Jon feared that within two years it will have all but disappeared from Staffordshire.

Jon could only touch on part of his work relating to biodiversity but his enthusiasm and concern for our wildlife and their habitats was clear to see. Perhaps the growing public awareness of these issues, assisted by people such as Jon, means that all is not lost. After all half of the battle is to be aware that there is a problem - the second half of the battle is to do something about it.

Roger Hockney
March 2001