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Local Nature Recovery Strategies: We will reap what we sow

Plantlife's Meg Griffiths highlights what needs to be done to ensure that the upcoming Local Nature Recovery Strategies are a success.

September 2022

If you haven’t yet heard of Local Nature Recovery Strategies, it’s very likely that you will in the coming months. This is the first time that planning for nature’s recovery has been made a legal requirement for councils in England, and it’s up to us all to make sure that they deliver for our irreplaceable wildlife. With 40% of wild plant species at risk of extinction, this is an opportunity that we can’t afford to miss.

Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRSs) have emerged from the Environment Act as a flagship initiative to target the recovery of England’s most valued biodiversity. The intention is that each of the 48 LNRS regions (which broadly follow county lines) will produce a locally owned and informed action plan to a) spotlight and map high priority areas for biodiversity where nature can be conserved, restored, and connected and b) establish a sense of local ownership and responsibility for wildlife, serving to better connect people with the nature of their county.

A lot is hinging on the proper implementation of these strategies, as they will inform funding streams, target new agri-environment schemes, and influence wider decisions about land use. They are going to be integral in aligning environmental policy objectives across all sectors, and their implementation will contribute to the 2030 targets to protect 30% of land, and to halt the loss of wildlife (an ambition we expect the government to commit to at the upcoming UN COP15 biodiversity summit if they hope to pace-match the EU’s efforts to tackle the nature crisis).

We’ve heard all this before

It’s hardly surprising that new nature recovery initiatives are sometimes met with a degree of cynicism, following a succession of similar conservation efforts rise and fall over the past two decades. Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPS), the Biodiversity 2020 strategy, Nature Improvement Areas and Local Nature Partnerships have all set out ambitions to protect nature in light of dramatic declines across all taxa. Some have been carried out, while others have been consigned to history, but none have succeeded in delivering for biodiversity at the scale and pace required.

So, what makes LNRSs different?

- Unlike other efforts to coordinate nature’s recovery, [NH7] [MG8] LNRSs have a statutory footing under the Environment Act, meaning it will be a legal requirement for all local councils to curate one. This extensive coverage will see conservation work carried out at an unprecedented scale, serving to enhance the connectedness of our natural environment, boosting resilience, and allowing species to move and adapt across our landscape.

– the efficacy of previous conservation initiatives was constrained by limited resources. However, LNRSs will have access to public finance through future farming schemes (ELM), woodland creation schemes, Nature for Climate Fund grants, and Biodiversity Net Gain credits. These streams shouldn’t be thought of as sufficient in and of themselves, and the additional financial burdens of developing an LNRS should be met by DEFRA to ensure the strategies are best equipped to deliver recovery work.

­­- Instead of a rigid, one-off implementation schedule, the LRNSs will be an iterative process - evolving over time in line with emerging data and technologies. In turn, the scheme will contribute towards the generation of new data, providing higher resolution insight into the health of the natural world, from which we will be able to produce better-targeted conservation action in the future.

Inclusive and locally led
- Central to the success of the LNRSs will be the inclusion of a broad range of audiences; people who don’t usually have a say when it comes to the natural world. It’s widely recognized that a large proportion of the public suffer from a disconnection from the ecosystems around them. LNRSs can play a crucial role in repairing this divide, rebuilding the reciprocal relationship between people and nature, and empowering people and communities to feel they are making a genuine difference to their local environment.

Mechanisms for success
To succeed where previous attempts have fallen short, these programmes need to function cohesively with new and existing legislation to uphold the Lawton principles. They need to draw on the archive of existing conservation knowledge to ensure that this huge body of work does not go to waste.

1.   Improving the condition of existing habitats for species recovery
– without species, a habitat is just a landscape; species abundance is what defines a habitat’s health. LRNS habitats need to be proactively brought up to favourable condition for nature, driving effective species recovery by:

A.  Including species in conservation and land management planning from the offset. Habitat restoration and other nature recovery initiatives must be designed to maximise species richness, especially for the groups that support all other biodiversity - wild plants and fungi. Species-specific conservation plans should be developed for our rarest and most threatened groups.
B.  Alleviating pressures on the wider landscape by reducing chemical inputs in agricultural systems and controlling populations of Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS).

2.   Ensuring that planning authorities pay due regard to high-priority wildlife
areas identified by the LNRSs. The ecological value of intact ecosystems cannot be meaningfully recreated elsewhere, and these sites must be protected in the planning framework.

3.   More farmland allocated to high-value, wildlife-rich habitat 
– With 70% of land in England designated for agriculture, the farmed environment has a huge potential for creating high quality habitats in a depleted landscape (including species-rich grassland and productive arable land). The LNRSs need to be an effective conduit for targeting ELMS (Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes) towards where they will have the greatest potential. ELMS need to be flexible, accessible, and profitable to ensure significant landowner opt-in and maximum impact.

4.   More joined up
- Connectivity and cohesion between LNRS borders will lay the foundations of a functional Nature Recovery Network. A route for connecting up habitats across our landscape already exists in the form of our linear networks, including our road verges, hedgerows, canals, and rivers. The cumulative area of these extensive, nation-wide networks amounts to a significant portion of our green infrastructure which, if managed correctly, could result in a cost-effective, biodiverse, and environmentally resilient natural resource.

This will be what we make of it

With statutory and financial footing and new opportunities for local ownership, the success of LNRS is now in our hands. Despite previous conservation attempts falling short, we can’t succumb to apathy or powerlessness – we need to seize hold of the hope that exists. The more expertise, creativity and effort is poured into these strategies, the more power they will have to restore balance to our ecosystems. Hope galvanizes action, and the opportunity that the LNRSs present here could help to secure a thriving natural environment for future generations of all species. Now is the time to step up.

Meg Griffiths, Policy Intern (Species Recovery), Plantlife

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.