Nature is vital for human health and well-being, supplying the natural resources, goods and services that our society needs. At no time has this been more evident to us than during the Covid-19 pandemic, when our local environment and the wildlife it supports helped so many of us to get through difficult times. However, Wales’ wildlife is declining and the latest findings show that one in six species in Wales are at risk of extinction. As a result, on 30 June 2021 Welsh Government declared a nature emergency and called for statutory targets to be set to halt and reverse the decline in biodiversity. This adds weight to the Nature Emergency already recognised by Natural Resources Wales, the Ecological Emergency declared by Denbighshire County Council, and the biodiversity action in Conwy County Borough Council’s corporate plans.
Conwy and Denbighshire exhibit an exceptionally rich variety of habitats ranging from coastal cliffs and beaches to sheltered valleys and open moorland. The nature conservation interest of the area is considerable and contains many important features such as rivers, peatland, woodlands, grassland, hedgerows, meadows, pasture, reedbed, heathland, ponds and estuarine habitats. Key highlights in Denbighshire include little terns, black grouse, dormice, natterjack toads and sand lizards, and the Denbighshire county flower – limestone woundwort – is found nowhere else in Wales. Conwy also supports rare and vulnerable species including some that are found nowhere else in Wales, such as the Belted Beauty moth, and others that are found nowhere else in the UK, such as Wild Cotoneaster, which exists only on the Great Orme. In addition, parts of the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the Snowdonia National Park fall within the Denbighshire and Conwy area.
The natural environment of the area provides important goods and services, such as food, water and timber. Farming is an important part of the economy in Conwy and Denbighshire. The two areas combined have 1421 sheep farms, 2070 farms with poultry and 934 farms with cattle. Welsh Government estimates suggest agriculture generates £457 million per year for the Welsh economy Key sources of drinking water include Llyn Conwy, Ffynnon Llugwy, Llyn Cowlyd; Plas Uchaf reservoir which stores water abstracted from the Afon Aled and groundwater abstracted from the sandstone aquifer in the Vale of Clwyd. The total Woodland cover in Conwy and Denbighshire is 14.5% which is equivalent to the Wales average. Of the 28,975 hectares, 13,650 hectares (nearly half) is part of the Welsh Government Woodland Estate (WGWE) managed by NRW. This is a slightly higher proportion of the total woodland cover than in other parts of Wales. The two major forests of the WGWE in the area are Gwydyr and Clocaenog/Alwens. Both of these forest areas have a high proportion of Low Impact Silvicutural Systems as part of the management plan.
The most important places for nature in Conwy and Denbighshire are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Areas (SPA), National Nature Reserves (NNRs), Local Nature Reserves (LNRs) or Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs). They are protected to safeguard the range, quality and variety of habitats, species and geological features. These protected sites, their features and their management are integral the nature emergency. Denbighshire has 17,224.2ha of land designated for nature conservation and Conwy has 28,309.8ha which represents 20.34% and 24.59% of the total land within the two counties respectively. However, a recent assessment by Natural Resources Wales suggests that there is currently insufficient evidence to determine the condition of around half of the special features on SSSIs, SACs and SPAS. For the features where we have an assessment, an estimated 20% are in favourable condition; but around 30% are in unfavourable condition and worryingly national trends in decline are mirrored in Conwy and Denbighshire.
The dual effects of the nature and climate emergencies are interlinked, as climate change affects entire ecosystems. The Environment (Wales) Act 2016, states that public bodies must “maintain and enhance the resilience of ecosystems”. Ecosystem resilience is “the capacity of ecosystems to deal with disturbances, either by resisting them, recovering from them, or adapting to them, whilst retaining their ability to deliver services and benefits now and in the future”. The general characteristics of ecosystems that are known to contribute to resilience are:
Diversity: of genes, species, habitats and landscapes.
Extent: bigger ecosystems are more likely to survive and recover.
Condition: how well managed a system is, an ecosystem in poor condition would have poor capacity to resist, recover or adapt to new disturbances.
Connectivity: how well connected our natural habitats are e.g. for species to move within and between ecosystems, or for natural processes such as nutrient cycling to operate.
Adaptability: one of the most important features of resilience, how dynamic an ecosystem is to adapt to change.
Wales cannot work towards healthy places for people without resilient ecosystems and cannot make our ecosystems resilient without safeguarding stocks of natural resources. The regenerative economy safeguards and restores those stocks and is the route to the transformational change needed to achieve Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (SMNR).There is a broad spectrum of actions which can help to build ecosystem resilience. This includes preventing and reversing biodiversity declines, habitat restoration and expansion, diversification of agriculture and forestry and improvements to the condition of soil, air and water quality. The State of Natural Resources Report (SoNaRR) assesses Wales’s progress towards SMNR, the four aims of which are inextricably linked and should not be seen in isolation (Figure 1).
Since rigorous scientific monitoring began in the 1970s, there’s been a 13% decline in average abundance across wildlife studied across the UK. Of the 3,902 species assessed by the State of Nature report in Wales, 73 have been lost from Wales already, with birds like turtle doves and corn buntings now gone from Wales’ skies. A further 666 species are threatened with extinction in Wales. The number of monitored sites where species are present has fallen by 10% in Wales since 1970. This reduction in species distribution is twice the rate of the equivalent UK-wide indicator.
The global food system has a significant impact on the environment. Land use is identified by the UN IPBES report (2019) as one of the big drivers of the nature emergency. Emissions of pollutants, depletion of resources, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are consequences of the current system in Wales and beyond. The UK National Ecosystems Assessment identified changing land management practices, through agriculture and urbanisation, pollution and invasive non-native species as key pressures leading to habitat and species loss and fragmentation. This, together with acidification and eutrophication, has changed the quantity and quality of habitats and the species they can support. Land use and management intensity are key factors influencing biodiversity, as this reduces food and habitat availability for wildlife. In grasslands, management approaches such as fertiliser usage, grazing intensity and mowing frequency, have been shown to result in biodiversity loss through a process called biotic homogenisation. This is where landscapes become increasingly simplified and uniform as a result of modification by the management or land use, resulting in the loss of species both above and below ground, due to reductions in habitat variety.
The first and second world wars led to large changes in land management, including intensification of Agriculture and Forestry. Following the two wars a number of plantation forests were established, some of which replaced natural habitat, such as ancient woodland. Today, Conwy and Denbighshire have a relatively high proportion of their woodland (30%) designated as Ancient Woodland. Welsh Government and NRW policy is to restore Ancient Woodland with native trees or natural regeneration. Approximately a third of these areas could be restored.
The addition of nutrients associated with intensive agriculture, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, can affect the species richness of plant communities by increasing the competitive potential of a few productive species, resulting in fewer species overall. This can also influence various soil processes, including rates of soil organic matter loss, as nutrient availability also governs microbial activity rates. This can cause problems for water quality, access to clean rivers for recreation, relaxation, drinking water, and for fisheries. Low nutrient input farming approaches, can reduce biodiversity loss and these farms are typically richer in wildlife than conventionally managed farms. However, recent research has demonstrated that the critical factor governing farmland biodiversity is the presence and abundance of semi-natural habitats. Coastal environments are also susceptible to a range of pressures. For example, losses in extent and connectivity as a result of agricultural intensification. Shoreline management plans (SMPs) identify risks from coastal flooding and erosion, opportunities to maintain and improve the environment by managing these risks, and relevant policy changes and interventions. The relevant data for the SMPs can be downloaded from the Lle portal.
Effective management of water is key for freshwater and marine biodiversity, which also provides ecosystem services and benefits for people. This includes access to drinking water, clean rivers and seas for recreation and relaxation, income generation from business and industry, tourism, green energy production and angling. Threats to water quality include intensive land management, Sewage discharges from wastewater treatment works, physical modification of watercourses, and pollution from abandoned metal mines. In the marine environment, key pressures include unsustainable human activity, climate change leading to the warming and acidification of the world’s seas and oceans, and the introduction of invasive non-native species.
Diverse partners and stakeholders are coming together across Conwy, Denbighshire and North Wales to work together to tackle the nature emergency. Bionet is the Local Nature Partnership for Conwy and North East Wales, covering Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham. They are a partnership of organisations and individuals who work to conserve, protect and enhance the biodiversity of North Conwy and East Wales for current and future generations. Through Area Statements, partners and stakeholders recognise the need for bigger, better and more joined up approaches.
Climate change threatens our natural environment and biodiversity. From changes in seasonal timings through to the impact of more frequent extreme events, the impacts of climate change on wildlife are already occurring. Climate change will affect the amount and timing of rainfall that supports river flows and replenishes groundwater. It will also influence the demand for water and its quality, as well as the way land is used – all of which will put pressure on water resources. Climate modelling indicates that wales is likely to see drier and warmer summers and wetter and warmer winters with the rain we do see in summer more likely to be in the form of short-lived high intensity showers. The nature and climate emergencies will get worse unless we take action now. Nature recovery is key to rebuilding ecological resilience and sustaining the benefits that it provides us. The rebuilding needs to be done at a faster pace and larger scale if we are to reduce the potential impacts of these two emergencies.
Habitats and species are more resilient to damaging changes if they are diverse, have enough space, are in good condition and have multiple connections across the landscape. Thinking at a landscape scale about managing integrated habitat networks to improve resilience and maintain or enhance biodiversity is a relatively new outlook. It’s one that shapes not only the way landscape features are managed but also how different stakeholders could co-operate to achieve multiple environmental and socio-economic benefits. In Wales, we’ve coined the term Resilient Ecological Networks to describe this approach. We need to build Resilient Ecological networks to link up designated sites and other biodiversity hotspots across Conwy, Denbighshire and more widely across Wales.
NRW’s State of Natural Resources Report 2020 (SoNaRR 2020) includes the traditional focus on management of natural resources within eight broad ecosystems. It also proposes a transformational approach using the ecosystem, economic and social spheres as levers to redesign our society and economy. It identifies three areas for transformative change: the food, energy and transport systems.
As a society, we all need to work together in ways that we’ve never done before, adopting a more joined-up approach in order to find solutions to a range of complex challenges that we, and our natural environment, now face. Stakeholders across North East Wales and North West Wales have been at the heart of developing a series of innovative Area Statements. Each Area Statement outlines the key challenges facing that particular locality, what we can all do to meet those challenges, and how we can better manage our natural resources for the benefit of future generations. They will be updated regularly and improved as we engage with more people, gather new evidence, put forward ideas and work across boundaries to create opportunities. Viewed together, Area Statements can be seen as a collaborative response to what is known as the Natural Resources Policy, published by the Welsh Government in 2017, which sets out the key challenges and opportunities for the sustainable management of Wales’ natural resources into the future.
Local residents in Conwy and Denbighshire have told us:
Access to the natural environment is important, including green and blue spaces which are safe and clean.
Increase action for biodiversity and nature protection and maintain the AONB.
Help the community become involved in protecting and respecting the environment.
Take a cautious approach to building on green spaces if there are other alternatives.
Improve education on the climate and nature emergencies at schools.
Litter problems have increased throughout the county – more reminders and education to communities are needed. Increase the number of bins in the rural environment including dog poo bins and split into general waste and recycling.
The results of NRW’s protected sites baseline assessment show that there is currently insufficient evidence to determine the condition of around half of the features on SSSIs, SACs and SPAs (condition classed as unknown). NRW is seeking to work in partnership with the environmental sector, landowners and communities in Wales to help shape and deliver an innovative action plan designed to improve current approaches to monitoring the health of protected sites in the future. The knowledge and expertise provided through this partnership will inform the development of a more comprehensive monitoring strategy for the future.
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