Biodiversity is the variety of life. It encompasses the whole of the natural world, from the commonplace to the critically endangered. It includes all species of animals, plants and fungi, the genetic differences that exist within different populations of the same species, and the habitats and ecosystems in which these species live. Biodiversity is often more generally referred to as wildlife, and nature conservation is the protection, enhancement and management of wild animal and plant species and the habitats they inhabit.
Why does biodiversity matter?
Biodiversity is our global life support system. It provides us with vital commodities such as food, shelter, clothing, medicine and industrial materials. It also provides us with a suite of ‘ecosystem services’, without which our own existence would not be possible, including atmospheric, climatic and hydrological regulation, nutrient cycling, soil formation, pest control and pollination.
The biodiversity crisis
Extinction is the permanent loss of a species. Many scientists believe that the Earth is facing a mass extinction on the scale of that which wiped out the dinosaurs, when large numbers of species will become extinct over a relatively short period of time. Species extinction is expected to accelerate to between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate by 2020.
Why is biodiversity threatened?
As human populations continue to grow, greater pressures are placed on the natural environment, which individually and in combination are causing the biodiversity crisis. These pressures include:
Habitat loss and degradation
The introduction of exotic and invasive species
Over exploitation and unsustainable harvesting of natural resource
The BirdLife International website www.birdlife.org provides further information about the types of global threats to biodiversity.
Biodiversity in Nottinghamshire
Changes in biodiversity
Humans have been having a significant impact on the landscapes and biodiversity of Britain for thousands of years, and Nottinghamshire is no different in this respect. Major woodland clearances occurred in prehistory, with agriculture becoming the predominant land use. Changes in agricultural practices and the expansion of industry and urban areas continued to alter the landscape and biodiversity, and many species were lost, and habitats were modified and destroyed.
During the 20th century, however, the impacts of agriculture and development were most dramatic and occurred rapidly. As a result, there have been rapid, widespread and sustained losses of species and habitats over the last fifty to one hundred years, even amongst those that were formerly common and widely distributed. The reasons for these losses include:
agricultural intensification – changes in agricultural practices such as the widespread use of pesticides and increased mechanisation, coupled with a decline in traditional management practices, resulted in the drainage of wetlands, ploughing of species-rich grasslands, and removal of hedgerows
forestry – in the period after the Second World War, a drive for self-sufficiency in timber production resulted in many ancient woodlands being converted to conifer plantations, and large areas of heathland were planted up with trees
population growth and development – natural habitats have been lost to housing developments, transport infrastructure and industrial development (including collieries and sand quarries).
As a result, Nottinghamshire’s biodiversity resource is significantly reduced from what it was in the recent past. The percentage area of the county designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) is significantly lower then both the national and regional averages, demonstrating that in a region where biodiversity has declined more than in any other, Nottinghamshire’s biodiversity has suffered particularly badly. In addition:
97 percent of the county’s flower-rich meadows have been lost since the 1930s
90 percent of our heathland has been lost since 1920s
species such as grass of Parnassus, pearl-bordered fritillary and Nottingham catchfly (a plant which obtained its name from the fact that it grew on the walls on Nottingham Castle) have all become extinct in the county
national figures indicate that in every county in Britain, one species of plant becomes extinct every two years.
Conserving our biodiversity
A number of organisations work very hard to safeguard Nottinghamshire’s remaining biodiversity. As a result, the county still has some fantastic places for biodiversity. A number of these are legally protected, whilst others are offered some protection from development through the planning system. However, these designated sites are only part of the picture – beyond these special places, there are other areas of habitat that are important for our local biodiversity, which need to be safeguarded and enhanced. Such places:
allow species to continue to exist in the wider countryside
provide linkages between areas of higher value, allowing species to disperse and migrate
allow people to experience nature.
Unfortunately, many sites that are of recognised value for biodiversity continue to be damaged or destroyed through development, agricultural intensification, inappropriate management, or neglect. Even those sites that are properly looked after are difficult to manage due to their fragmented distribution and often small size.
Biodiversity and our quality of life
Safeguarding biodiversity is a key aspect of sustainability, and biodiversity and a healthy natural environment are a crucial component of the quality of life for local communities.
Biodiversity, well-being and health
People value wildlife for its own sake, but contact with nature is also good for us – it has a positive effect on physical and mental health and well-being, encourages exercise, and improves people’s ability to cope with, and recover from, stress, illness and injury.
Biodiversity and the economy
A biodiverse natural environment contributes significantly to a healthy economy, providing direct economic benefits in farming, fisheries, forestry, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. It also encourages inward investment and forms the basis of tourism in many places.
Biodiversity and our environment
Biodiversity is integral to a healthy local environment, providing us with essential services, such as nutrient cycling, soil formation, pollination. Features such as hedgerows form windbreaks and prevent soil erosion, floodplains and washlands act as release valves for rivers in flood, and trees soak up carbon dioxide.