Today I’m joining other grassland conservation people in Oxfordshire to test some new methods for working out when a newly created chalk downland qualifies as “priority habitat”. You might think is somewhat esoteric but it is important that we know the quality of habitat being created under agri-environment schemes, biodiversity offsetting or other approaches.
The Government in “Biodiversity 2020” The new England Biodiversity Strategy has an ambitious target to create 200,000ha of new priority habitat by 2020. Creating chalk downland takes time! In the past it was just left to get on with it, but nowadays seed is moved around, soil is conditioned and “weeds” are controlled. Nevertheless producing a new top quality chalk downland in 8 years or less is a very tall order.
So the England Biodiversity Strategy groups have decided that an area of newly created habitat qualifies as counting towards the 200,000ha once the job has started, recognising that it will take time to reach the necessary thresholds.In that sense there is no need for an ecological threshold to qualify as contributing towards the 200,000ha target.
The other main target in B2020 is that 90% of all existing priority habitat is in recovering condition by 2020. But to qualify for inclusion in this target an area has to have reached the threshold for priority habitat. At the moment, the BAP habitats like chalk downland are based on the National Vegetation Classification, which is a wonderful thing but not that easy to use, and by necessity is fuzzy when it comes to boundaries like the boundary between old chalk downland and new chalk downland. Indeed new chalk downland didn’t exist as a habitat when the NVC was being developed in the 70s.
What about habitat such as chalk downland that has been created in the past 20 years but has not yet reached priority habitat status? It might be on its way towards reaching the threshold, but during that time it’s at great risk of being ploughed up and returned to intensive agriculture, or have trees planted on it. This is especially true of land where classic schemes such as ESA or Countryside Stewardship have finished, and there isnt enough money in the HLS pot to pay for a further 10 years.
So it’s important that we have a clear and relatively simple set of steps that can identify when a newly created habitat has reached priority status. But we also need to recognise the importance of nurturing habitat that is still developing and do everything we can to ensure it continues down the path to becoming top quality grassland habitat.