NIAs – are we Improving Nature?

Friday 28th November 2014

Nature Improvement Areas were introduced by the Government to fix wildlife in 12 areas of England.  Two years into a three year project how are they shaping up.  Are they improving the conditions for wildlife, or is it just a re-branding exercise?

How did we come to be ‘Improving Nature’?

The 2011 Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) was the coalition Government’s response to continued declines in the quality and abundance of wildlife.  The significant new initiative in the NEWP was the statement that “we will create new Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) to enhance and reconnect nature on a significant scale”.  The concept being that a number of areas would be selected where a local partnership had a shared vision for their natural environment. The NIA programme was also intended to take forward the Lawton review, Making space for nature (Lawton et al., 2010) recommendations that called for a ‘step-change in nature conservation’, the establishment of ‘planned ecological networks’, and the formal recognition of large areas as ‘Ecological Restoration Zones’.

The 12 initial NIA partnerships were selected after a competitive process, were each awarded their share of the £7.5 million of government funding and started work in April 2012.

Last week the Government released the second annual NIA report.

According to the report the aims of the NIA partnerships are to:

1)      become much better places for wildlife – creating more and better-connected habitats over large areas which provide the space for wildlife to thrive and adapt to climate change;

2)      deliver for people as well as wildlife – through enhancing a wide range of benefits that nature provides us, such as recreation opportunities, flood protection, cleaner water and carbon storage; and

3)      unite local communities, land managers and businesses through a shared vision for a better future for people and wildlife. The hope is that they will become places of inspiration, that are loved by current and future generations.


Is Nature Improving?

Here are some of the headlines from the report:-

·         11,342ha of priority habitat has been managed to maintain or improve its condition.

·         7,451ha has been managed to restore or create priority habitats, actions were underway on 85% (6,346ha) and completed on 15% (1,105ha).

·         There are planned actions to maintain and improve a further 2,889ha of priority habitat, and restore and create 2,518ha.

·         Approximately 10% of the total area of priority habitat across all NIAs has been subject to NIA partnership activity under the NIA programme.

·         NIA partnerships have made ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’ progress against their funding agreement milestones.

·         All NIA partnerships are working well and have been effective mechanisms for coordinating activities, sharing data and knowledge and helping to reach-out to and involve local communities.

However the report includes some significant caveats to its monitoring and evaluation power.

“It is generally not yet possible to evaluate impacts due to time lags between action and impact. There are also some challenges to aggregating data across NIAs; and in determining the extent to which NIA partnership activity itself has contributed to improvements or changes.”

“In Year 3 the evaluation team will be undertaking additional work to help determine whether some or all of the outcomes might have taken place in the absence of the NIA partnerships and the added value that the NIA partnerships have provided. This will use three agreed approaches: a counterfactual scenario based approach, will focus on gathering a range of insights from practitioners and stakeholders into what would have happened without the NIAs; an approach based on NIA data to determine trajectories both before and after the NIAs were established, and an approach based on a comparison of the NIAs with similar non-NIA areas or landscapes.”

“Generally the monitoring and evaluation process has been seen as beneficial by the NIA partnerships and has been more efficient in Year 2 than in Year 1.”


Now, the aims and objectives of the NIAs are laudable, and indeed the report highlights a lot of very good work that is being done by a wide range of bodies to conserve wildlife in those areas.  But, the key question is whether the scheme represents significant added value to the bottom line of sustaining populations of wildlife and preventing extinctions.

Because there was no period at the start of the scheme where the nature conservation bottom line – the status of the threatened and key species – was assessed, and control areas (non-NIAs) were not selected and monitored – it is as yet impossible to determine if there are benefits to endangered plants or animals as a result of the establishment of NIAs.

For instance, the only figures presented that compare NIA action with the background state of affairs relate to woodland management and Environmental Stewardship.

In relation to woodland management “Across the seven NIA partnerships that reported it, the proportion of woodlands in active management increased by 3% between baseline (2012) and the end of Year 2 (compared to a 2% increase nationally over the same period).” This is a pretty tiny difference –  it could be due to random variation, or it could be because NIAs were put forward and successfully promoted as a candidate sites because there was already commitment, action and momentum in that area to address nature improvement.  Hence it is impossible to determine if that 1% change is a result of pre-existing efforts wrapped-up into the NIA’s ‘activities’ or is due to new action.

The report states that “land under Environmental Stewardship has increased by 10.3% across all the NIAs, compared to 7.8% across the whole of England over the period 2012 to 2014” – As the ES pot is a fixed amount all this indicates is that more work has been initiated within the NIAs and correspondingly less has been initiated outside NIAs.  This shows that the NIAs may have been successful at focussing a bit more agrienvironment activity into the NIAs, although again it is impossible to know if the figures would have been different without the NIA and whether this will result in more wildlife is also unknown.

It is possible that additional income has been attracted to the NIAs from other sources.  The report shows the breakdown in the illustrated pie chart.

Half of the money, £7.8 million, invested into the NIAs has come from wildlife charities and other NGOs. It takes time for these organisations to generate new income, so again it seems probable that most of this spend was from existing budgets and is either a focussing of activity or pre-planned expenditure. 4% of the money, £0.7 million, invested in NIAs has come from the private sector, although this seems fairly paltry, perhaps it indicates some progress?

Improving Bees and Pollinators?

Clearly with public concern about bees and pollinators and the recently published National Pollinator Strategy it is important to assess if the NIAs will help arrest and reverse the decline in pollinators.

Despite the national priority of addressing pollinator declines, only two of the NIAs have selected pollinator indicators to report against.  This reveals that there was  a 2.92ha of wildflower corridor created in the Marlborough Downs and that the Birmingham and Black Country recorded an increase of 156ha in the area of habitat identified by the partnership as being particularly important for pollinators (an increase in the area of this habitat of approximately 4%).

In addition to the work undertaken under predetermined objectives, the following pollination action has been undertaken; the Dark Peak has sought to enhance pollen and nectar availability through the introduction of a “bumble bee” mix of red clover, birds- foot trefoil, musk mallow and black knapweed on selected plots; a University of Northampton PhD student in the Nene Valley has been collecting data that will be used to model habitat predictors for pollinators; scrub and invasive tree removal to support Adonis Blue and Duke of Burgundy butterflies was undertaken on seven sites covering 1,397ha in the South Downs; and in the Greater Thames Marshes Buglife has been creating stepping stones for pollinators, restoring flower rich areas on brownfield sites.

Even taken in total this is a pretty minor contribution to saving pollinators, and in the case of the Greater Thames Marshes at least, would have occurred regardless of the existence of the NIA.

For pollinators the proximity and linkage of wild flower grassland habitats in the countryside has shown to be key to the connectivity of the ecosystem.  Meadow management, restoration and creation targeted into lines across the countryside is five time as cost effective at enabling dispersal as a scatter gun approach.  The NIA report states that “habitat connectivity indicator remains a challenge and open to debate. It is therefore difficult to judge the effect of NIA partnership actions on connectivity at this stage.”

Ultimately NIAs are just big sites, to get true national habitat connectivity for pollinators Local Authorities will need to work to complete a fully connected national B-Lines map.

Improving Other Invertebrates?

According to the first year NIA report some invertebrate species have been selected for focus in eight of the NIAs, but this is not explained and is not highlighted in the second year report.  Most notable is the inclusion of a project conserving Freshwater pearl mussel in North Devon.

“NIA action plan to help protect the Freshwater Pearl Mussel with restoration of channels and control of nutrients and sediments through Catchment Sensitive Farming programme and landowner advisory visits (Northern Devon).”

Improving Species Status Generally?

Six NIA partnerships* reported on the status of focal species and four NIA partnerships** reported on widespread species, with 117 focal species and 81 or 82 (both figures appear in the report) widespread species recorded.

* Birmingham and Black Country; Dearne Valley; Meres and Mosses; Nene Valley; Northern Devon; and Wild Purbeck.

** Humberhead Levels; Marlborough Downs; Meres and Mosses; Dark Peak.

Focal Species at baseline:

Across the six reporting partnerships 66 of the 117 species (56%) had a known status at baseline, 51 species (44%) had unknown status.

17 species (15%) with increasing status (referred to as 57% in the report);

30 species (26%) with decreasing status;

19 species (16%) with stable status.

Focal Species at end of year 2:

The percentage reported as ‘unknown’ status reduced from 44% at baseline to 26%.

46 species (39%) with increasing status;

21 species (18%) with decreasing status;

20 species (17%) with stable status.

Widespread Species at baseline:

Across the four reporting partnerships 73% of the species had a known status at baseline, 27% of species had unknown status.

17% with increasing status;

23% with decreasing status;

33% with stable status.

Widespread Species at end of year 2:

The percentage reported as ‘unknown’ status increased from 27% at baseline to 78%.

9% with increasing status;

12% with decreasing status;

1% with stable status.

The report does not present any breakdowns of this detail down to the level of species or sites so it is very difficult to assess or analyse these statistics further.  Are the changes real or the result of NIA branded activity?  It’s impossible to say.

The report reflects that some of the changes could simply reflect the introduction of surveying for species previously not surveyed in the NIAs, i.e. the baseline reflects national or historic status records but local status may have been unknown.


Improving SSSIs?

It is concerning that there has been little clear progress on achieving real outcomes on SSSIs in the NIAs.

“The main differences the data shows are: a slight fall in SSSIs reported to be in a favourable condition; and a slight increase in those reported to be in unfavourable recovering condition. This result is likely to primarily reflect the share of SSSIs that are re-assessed annually on a rolling programme that will vary from SSSI to SSSI (and from NIA to NIA) as a site specific risk based approach is used. The observed change may be a consequence of survey effort rather than necessarily reporting real change in status.”

In Conclusion

When I asked Richard Benyon, then responsible minister, before the launch of the NIAs how he would judge success if the schemes were not setting and monitoring baselines for the status of their key species, he said that he would judge success on whether the NIA partners and others felt they had been a success.  This may seem shallow, but of course providing a forum and vehicle for people to progress forward in is important and people do need to feel that they are on a good journey, in this regard NIAs may well be playing an important role.

However, while the report is upbeat about the success of the NIAs in terms of bringing together positive and functional partnerships, my personal experience is less effusive.  I live and work in the Nene Valley NIA.  Yet at home and in my village community the NIA has no profile, while in Peterborough the Nene Park Trust which sits along the Nene and in the NIA has had no contact with the NIA partnership, and Peterborough City Council is also not involved.

We would like to have seen, and to see in the future, a greater focus on the bottom line – the status of species in NIAs.  In particular the final report should present the detailed monitoring data for each of the species on each of the NIAs.

We should be realistic about what can be achieved with £7.5 million over 12 large areas and three years – this is just an average spend of £208K per year per NIA – enough for a couple of project officers and a couple of modest on the ground habitat management projects.

While at face value the species status information is hopeful, changes in the distribution of spend on wildlife seem modest and it is very worrying that on key policy issues there is little progress – SSSI condition is in decline and there are only small steps in terms of pollinator conservation, and on only a handful of the NIAs.

In terms of the aims of the NIAs and their role in the delivery of the Lawton Review it is not yet possible to determine if they are reaching their biological objectives in terms of species and habitats, but it certainly does not feel like in three years they will accomplish a ‘step-change in nature conservation’.

The one area where NIAs appear to be struggling to make significant progress is in the establishment of ‘planned ecological networks’.  NIAs are ultimately just big sites and a locally driven national framework will be needed to achieve a robust set of future ecological networks.  The ‘Nature and Wellbeing Act’ white paper sets out how this could be achieved.