10 THINGS COUNCILS CAN DO TO PROMOTE BIODIVERSITY
I wrote here about local councils’ use of weedkiller and the risks it poses and harm it generates. I also explained the context - that we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, suffering spiralling biodiversity loss to the detriment of us all.
In light of the desperate times we are in, it’s more important than ever that local authorities use their budget to promote biodiversity and work towards the recovery of our natural world.
The benefits of spending time around greenery are numerous and well-proven. Those with access to more beautiful, wild natural spaces benefit from better health, stronger learning, and a calmer environment.
Public perception is changing. People no longer want councils to spend our money sterilising the local environment and systematically ridding our local areas of the wildlife that so many of us enjoy seeing.
HERE ARE 10 THINGS LOCAL COUNCILS CAN DO TO PROMOTE BIODIVERSITY IN YOUR AREA.
You’ll notice that 8 of the 10 suggestions are FREE, and the first 7 steps actually save taxpayer money, which can then be spent on other pressing concerns (or on further proactive measures to promote biodiversity) - it’s a win-win!
It costs a lot of money, it poses risks to health, and it destroys vital aspects of the ecosystem. It is also indiscriminate in the wildlife that it kills, pollutes waterways and sticks around in the soil far longer than it should.
2. CUT HEDGES OUTSIDE OF BIRD NESTING SEASON.
Birds nesting season is from the start of March to the end of August inclusive and although it’s not a criminal offence to cut hedges during this time, it is a criminal offence to disturb nest-building or nesting birds.
Despite this, you will still see public bodies carrying out hedge cutting and tree works between March and August - it’s unnecessary, and it poses a serious risk to nesting birds.
3. MOW LESS.
Longer grass is of great importance to our insect life, and our insect life supports our birds, bats, and hedgehogs as well as offering a host of ‘ecosystem services’ like pollination and nutrient recycling.
Very short monoculture grass is not an ideal habitat for most insects, so leaving some areas of grass to grow longer is a free (actually, cost-saving) way of promoting biodiversity. It allows the growth of wildflowers like clover which benefit bees, and allows areas for foraging hedgehogs and hunting barn owls.
There’s no need to worry that an area might get overgrown quickly - the amount we tend to mow suggests grass is an unruly triffid that grows feet every month but actually grass can be left for several months without getting much higher than ankle height. Sports pitches and picnic areas can be kept short whilst less ‘useful’ areas can be left to grow longer to provide a biodiversity boost.
4. REDUCE OR CEASE THE USE OF CHEMICAL FERTILISER.
High-nitrogen fertilisers create species-poor monoculture grassland - that’s why they’re so favoured by golf courses.
Artificial fertiliser is harmful to soil health, suppressing populations of beneficial bacteria and fungi and even earthworms.
Chemical fertiliser creates poor soil, which begins a dependency cycle and contributes to soil erosion and run-off because soil poor in microorganisms isn’t very good at retaining water and nutrients. Most of our native wildflower species don’t do well in artificially fertilised soil, and it’s an unnecessary cost.
5. LEAVE ROADSIDE VERGES.
Roadside verges are critical for our plant life. Not only do flowery verges bring us joy, they also play host to all 700 species of our wild plants, 87 of which are facing extinction.
They support rare plant species and provide great habitat for all kinds of invertebrates and small mammals - which is why if you’re lucky you’ll see barn owls hunting along roadside verges that have been allowed to grow.
Regularly cutting or mowing roadside verges is awkward and costly - and unnecessary. Wildflower verges only need to be cut once or twice a year and they look beautiful.
Plantlife, a charity campaigning for the return of wildflowers in Britain and the maintenance (or, as the case may be, non-maintenance) of wild verges, praises councils like Hampshire, Surrey and Wrexham for joining their programme and committing to offering their residents the joys of the colour and life associated with wilder areas.
Councils who have implemented this approach are already seeing increased numbers of majestic birds of prey such as kestrels (a strong sign that the rest of the food chain is recovering), and residents are benefitting from the improved appearance of their shared spaces, as can be seen from all the elated posts on Plantlife’s social media pages praising the wonderful flowery areas residents are enjoying.
6. KEEP DEADWOOD.
I’ve written about the wonders and biodiversity benefits of deadwood here.
Deadwood is an extremely important habitat that is in huge decline, and the distance between deadwood is causing a huge problem in terms of habitat fragmentation. Leave branches that fall below trees where they are, leave standing deadwood in situ and (where they don’t block paths or rivers) leave fallen trees where they lie. Removing deadwood is costly and unnecessary - it’s beautiful and interesting, and it punches way above its weight when it comes to supporting biodiversity.
7. REDUCE REMOVAL OF DEAD LEAVES AND STOP USING LEAF BLOWERS.
Trees don’t always extract all the good stuff from their leaves before they drop them and dead leaves are an important source of nutrients for the tree that shed them.
As well as fertilising the tree and surrounding plant life, dead leaves provide habitat for invertebrates and small mammals.
Where the removal of fallen leaves is necessary (such as where they pose a real risk to pedestrians or restrict access), the movement or removal should be done manually.
Leaf blowers are polluting, and studies have shown that they seriously harm insect populations as they damage insects when they blow them away - in fact, leaf blowers have been banned in many US cities and the German government has said that leaf blowers must not be used unless absolutely necessary.
Leaves on pavements can be raked or swept up easily, and any slight increase in time required will be more than made up for in saved costs in acquiring and servicing leaf blowers, purchasing petrol or fuel for the leaf blowers, and the personal protective equipment required to be acquired and maintained for leaf blower use (due to the unholy level of noise they create).
8. SOW A WILDFLOWER MEADOW.
Wildflower meadows provide much-needed sources of food for our pollinators, and they look lovely too! They’re also fabulously low maintenance because once sown, they don’t need to be managed - just cut once a year. Native wildflower seed balls can be bought for relatively low cost and can be sown into bare earth - some can even be sown over grass. The important thing is not to fertilise the area - not only because of the problems with chemical fertilisers, but because wildflowers like poor soil, so fertilising does them no good.
9. PUT UP BIRD AND BAT BOXES.
I wrote here about the types of nest boxes you can hang and how and where to hang them. Putting up nest boxes is a great community engagement activity - councils could run workshops teaching people to make them, or get volunteers involved in putting them up and monitoring their residents.
They’re also relatively cheap and once up they stay in place and continue to benefit wildlife for years to come.
10. ENGAGE WITH RESIDENTS.
This one is really important. It’s all well and good making changes that benefit the environment, but if you don’t tell people why what you’re doing is a good thing, they won’t support it.
I recently saw a Tweet from an employee of a conservation charity that works with a local council complaining of the ignorance of a member of the public that had vandalised a sign noting the collaboration by writing that the council wasted taxpayer money cutting down trees.
Now, what had actually happened in this area was that the council had worked with the charity to carry out coppicing - a woodland management practice that aims to replicate the work of our lost landscape architects by cutting some trees near their base to create open space and encourage new growth - for the benefit of biodiversity. So yes, the graffito was wrong in that respect - but how can we expect people to know otherwise, if we don’t tell them?
Not everyone has the time or the inclination to read widely on the topic and, even if they do, the field of conservation is huge - it’s entirely possible even for seasoned conservationists to misinterpret things they see.
If we’re doing something in a landscape for the benefit of biodiversity, we should tell people - this not only helps to prevent misunderstandings like this one, but it raises awareness and improves engagement and support. It also allows the actor to take credit for their work!
If you’re a local authority or a charity or any other organisation taking action to improve biodiversity, you should be telling people how and why - to showcase your work and to contribute towards natural history education.
Signage doesn’t have to be big and unsightly - you could install a small sign with a brief description of the work and its benefit, and include a website, QR or social media handle that members of the public can visit for more information. You can also spread information in the local area on social media, by email, and on the council’s main website to raise general as well as location-specific awareness of measures or changes that the public might see that are in the name of biodiversity.
A change in the approach of local councils to the management of our shared spaces is well overdue.
What do you think of this list? Are there any more changes you’d add that you’d like to see local councils making?
Have you been successful in asking your local council to take a more sympathetic approach? Is your council doing anything particularly well that other councils could learn from? Are you a local representative supporting green iniatives?
I’d love to hear from you! You can find me on socials using the links at the bottom of the page. Let's talk about how we can improve our shared spaces.
Plantlife’s roadside verges campaign: https://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/roadvergecampaign
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