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Restore nature: rebuild the nation

Posted: Friday 28th October 2016 by Rachel

Autumn leavesAutumn leaves

As I swept leaves from my garden and put them in bag, I was thinking about our dependence on soils and earthworms. Once all the leaves have fallen from the trees, I’ll add a little water, seal up the bag and leave it undisturbed for a year or two.

Opening these bags is one of those magical moments of wonder. Miraculously, earthworms, other small creatures and microorganisms have arrived and been busily feeding and converting the dead leaves into a rich organic matter called leaf mould. Forked into the garden soil, it enriches it with nutrients and improves the soil structure. The soil of my small urban garden has suffered years of misuse, leaving it dry and powdery. The leaf mould and my composted kitchen waste are restoring the soil and creating better growing conditions. I’m sure other gardeners were doing the same but what about the farmland soils that have been producing food for centuries? Can the health of the nation’s soils be restored?

“Soils are one of the most important systems that keep Britain going” said Tony Juniper when he spoke at the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s AGM in late October. “This delicate and complicated system powered by microorganisms is fundamental. Without soil we have no food.”

Tony Juniper is a campaigner, sustainability advisor and environmentalist; he is also the president of The Wildlife Trusts. He has travelled extensively meeting people and finding out how our natural world has been misused but also, and more importantly, what people are doing to re-build the natural systems on which we all depend.

He described how the way we use land has fundamentally altered the way that many of our soils work. How intensive cultivation has led to massive soil losses as sediments wash off the fields and out to sea and how the reliance on inorganic fertilisers has reduced the organic matter and microorganisms within the soils.

We have done some serious damage to the fabric of the land but when we repair the damage, wildlife will come back and bring other benefits” said Tony.

One of the examples he gave was ‘Upstream Thinking’, a programme led by South West Water where restoring the blanket bog on Dartmoor has resulted in an improvement in water quality and reduction in the need for expensive chemical filtration. It’s also improved the water retention of the bog thereby reducing the risk of flooding, encouraged tourism and been beneficial to wildlife.

A holistic approach to land management gives great returns on investment; financially and in a whole host of other ways. Re-naturalising the coastal flood defences with broad swathes of saltmarsh is more effective against the power of the sea than expensive tall walls. Saltmarsh can even self-adjusting: it will grow up with sea level rise. Restoring orchards to benefit bumblebees that pollinate the trees will increase the overall numbers of insects as well as bats and songbirds which will feed on pests in the springtime.

All too often, nature and the environment appear as an afterthought; low on the political agenda. But conserving nature and repairing natural habitats aren’t marginal issues. They are relevant to everyone. Nature conservation increases food security, creates safer water supplies, reduces flood risk and enhances public health. As Tony Juniper said “We need to put nature back at the heart of our country where it should be.”

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