Gareth Huw Davies

Environment Blog

Council empties the bins, and saves the barn owl

[/caption] “Think global, act local” has been out of fashion as a slogan for some years. Too parochial, perhaps. After all, how is a parish council to solve climate change?   But sorting the world’s environmental woes through a myriad of local initiatives may not seem such a bad idea after all, as world leaders struggle to make trans-national targets stick, and species and habitats continue to decline around the planet.   Councils are now required by law to promote biodiversity, although doing so need not strain their budgets even in an age of cuts. If adjoining authorities can be inspired (or shamed) into matching the vision of the better performers, we have the makings of species-saving action on a national scale.   There is growing evidence that little schemes can and do work, particularly if they are given time to develop and are not subject to the sort of short-termism that often afflicts public projects. I found a heartening example of environmental tide-turning almost literally on my doorstep. It’s something my local council has been running, without too much fanfare, since 1989.   Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC), like many non unitary councils (it doesn’t handle the more “exciting” services such as education, social services and transport) is best known to its council tax payers for mundane functions such as emptying the bins. Few, I suspect, know that it also works to turn the fortunes of the barn owl, the otter, the black poplar and the true sedge across the 348 square miles of mainly flat agricultural land in North Buckinghamshire .   AVDC’s concern for the wild began well before councils were required by law to knit biodiversity (defined as ‘the variety of life on earth, [including] all species of plants and animals and the natural systems that support them’. into its policies. Section 40  of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 requires that “every public body must in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity”.   This year (2011), to mark 21 years of the biodiversity programme, which the council runs with a big input from volunteers, and surprisingly, inmates from a local prison. AVDC has permitted itself some deserved self-congratulation in its “Big Biodiversity Birthday” celebrations.   It is showing that councils need not spend much to make positive things happen. Consider the otter, discovered on a stretch of the river Great Ouse around Buckingham, the first evidence of the shy and severely depleted creature in the county for many years. The council’s biodiversity team helped set up the Otter Spotters Project in 2007, to survey the river where it passed through North Bucks. 60 volunteers combed the banks and found the creature was present along the whole stretch of the river.   Otters returned to the Ouse because, like many British rivers, it had become cleaner, making it more attractive as a habitat. Nothing to do with the council. But now it’s been found, farmers are being encouraged, and helped, to install artificial holts to help the otter breed and spread.   The team has also enlisted prisoners at Springhill Prison to make traps to catch mink, an aggressive non native species which has been crowding out the water vole, a shy and declining animal also discovered on the river. This is the only surviving population in the District.  The traps should allow the water vole population to recover and expand down the river.   The otter is one of five “flagship species” which the biodiversity team Is trying to help. Another is the Barn Owl.  The long running Aylesbury Vale Barn Owl Project has boosted the bird’s  fortunes in the area. 10 long term volunteers monitor 209 nesting boxes, once again made by Springhill Prison inmates, and fit identification rings to adult and young birds, to monitor breeding success and their dispersal.   Nighttime drivers can see for themselves  how the barn owl is faring. I have been lucky enough to spot this magnificent, and unmistakable night hunter,  most recently on a fence post  alongside a road near where I live.  And by promoting good habitats for  the owl’s prey species, such as grass margins in arable fields, the project benefits a wide range of endangered species  tree sparrow, linnet and yellowhammer.   If Buckinghamshire s has a crown jewel, it’s the black popular, a tree once prized for its timber, used to make the frames of barns. But this large slightly lopsided tree was being casually lost 20 years ago even in the county which is its national stronghold. In the village where I live a black poplar, one of the rarest trees in Britain, was cut down in the late 1980s to make way for some very nondescript new houses because nobody in the position to stop it happening noticed it was there.  This probably wouldn’t happen today. Within Aylesbury Vale the biodiversity team provide conservation  advice.   The planners should now pick up threats to the tree from any proposed development.   What about the wildlife  we’ve never even heard of?  Ecologists remind us it’s all part of the tremendous swirl of biodiversity . So when a small population of the nationally rare true fox sedge was found during a survey to create a local wildlife sites, it triggered a rescue mission.  (Previously only  six plants were known to exist in the whole of Aylesbury Vale.)   The team has made a  big contribution to the sedge’s national conservation. Working with the  local  wildlife trust and a nursery, seed was successfully germinated and plants grown, the first time this has been done. Volunteers planted out 600 plants, which have shown a 95% establishment rate. (Volunteers  are an important part of the strategy, giving 3000 days in 2009, the highest figure since the council started working for wildlife in 1989. This is worth over £350,000 and equates to 13 full time posts. They take part in practical conservation, biological surveys, scientific studies and environmental education.)   500 of the sedges will be planted  annually in the next 5 years at suitable sites in Aylesbury Vale. This work alone almost fulfils the National Species Action Plan targets for true fox sedge, and has cost AVDC nothing other than officer time.   Some conservation work actually save council tax payers money. The  biodiversity team has sown  the  seed of a very interesting plant, the yellow rattle at Bedgrove Park in Aylesbury and on the Aylesbury Riverside Walk. Yellow rattle is parasitic on certain grasses and reduces their vigour, enabling wildflowers to flourish. Not only does this result in more native flowers, it brings a saving because less grass has to be cut and removed.   Good things happen, too, when hedgerows are left uncut. Improving the hedge as a habitat  is a very  cheap option . The  policy of letting hedges fill out and grow up, as a habitat for nesting birds, was  promoted in the 1980s, but few farmers took it up. The biodiversity team recently developed a new technique with a local farmer. It is more sensitive to wildlife and creates a much denser hedge which regenerates quicker.  In 2008 an MSc student showed that wildlife hedgelaying supported six times more breeding birds than traditionally layered hedgerows. Now the technique has been endorsed by the government department DEFRA and is influencing national conservation practices.   The AVDC biodiversity programme has been recognised by others. In 2009, Bristol University introduced Aylesbury Vale’s “Protected Species Procedure” as national best practice for their MSc course in Ecology. And the Barn Owl Project featured on BBC1’s Countryfile. Other ecological advances have happened in our area as a result of separate, and very low cost initiatives taken nearby. The return of the red kite, the product of a programme initiated by English Nature in the 1990s, is one of the most conspicuous successes, easily noticed and identified by people who might earlier have had no interest in wildlife. And latterly the buzzard has returned, apparently drawn back by a generally improved environment.   A grassed-over old quarry near where I live has become one of the main UK strongholds for the small blue butterfly, simply by being left to its own devices, at hardly any cost to anyone, unless it’s income foregone from what must be not very productive agriculture.   The picture here is not one of unimpeded environmental progress. Like everybody else, people in Vale carry on much as everybody else, buying cars and not using rural buses very much.  Road traffic rises inexorably.   And while  railway  use is rising, opponents of the proposed high-speed rail route, which will cut through the entire county of Bucks, argue it will damage precious wildlife habitat.   Which makes any quantifiable improvement to the environment all the more welcome. Aylesbury Vale council has a head start over many authorities but there is no reason why others shouldn’t follow.There is nothing so advanced about its initiatives that they cannot be replicated, imitated or even improved upon by any other council with the right sense of commitment, and, crucially, a willingness to sustain it over a reasonable time.]]