Habitat connectivity: back to basics

John Beech – Land Management Adviser

Currently this National Park Authority has two strategic priorities: one is to promote the North York Moors and the other is to improve the connectivity of habitats in order to benefit the biodiversity and landscape of the area, and mitigate the encroaching impacts of climate change.

Habitat connectivity features quite heavily on our Blog; that’s because it’s important to us. Habitat connectivity is the main driver for the work of the Conservation Department. It’s generally accepted that some of the most (ecologically) important habitats within our countryside have declined and fragmented over the decades and good quality habitat now tend to only exist in isolated pockets across the landscape. The first step is to conserve these remnants and then go on to establish connections, buffers, corridors, stepping stones – linking and increasing the habitat resource and therefore its sustainability into the future. These connections, buffers, corridors, stepping stones allow animals, birds, plants to move through the landscape between the habitats they need which helps populations thrive and grow (helping to mitigate the effects of climate change) – ‘stitching’ the landscape back together for wildlife.

Imagine a habitat e.g. native woodland and the biodiversity that depends on it e.g. oak, ash, birch, hazel, bluebell, wood anemone, wild garlic, great spotted woodpecker, nut hatch, wood warbler, tawny owl, ringlet butterfly, feathered thorn moth, barbastelle bat, wood mouse, not to mention the ferns, fungi, lichens, mosses, beetles and spiders etc. etc. We want to better the condition of existing native woodland habitat, to increase the extent of native woodland habitat, to create new native woodland habitat, and to ensure native woodland habitat is better connected; all to ensure a linked landscape for native woodland and the wildlife that depends on it.

Woodland with bluebells, near Hawnby - copyright NYMNPA

So what does this mean in practical terms?

Back in 2012 we sat down with a map of the National Park and considered where we were at. As discussions developed a clear picture of where concerted effort was needed began to emerge. We knew more or less where the surviving key habitats were and we also knew where we wanted to enhance other habitats more generally e.g. the areas which had been key habitats in the past and could benefit from restoration. Key habitats such as Ancient Woodlands, species rich and semi-improved grasslands, riparian strips and coastal hinterland were used as focuses around which to plan for greater connectivity. In the North York Moors, heathland/moorland which makes up around a third of the National Park would seem a likely key habitat but as this is already well connected with large expanses stretching as far as the eye can see, it does not require the attention that more isolated habitats do in terms of habitat connectivity.

We identified the strategic corridors where our efforts would be best focused in our 2012 Management Plan. We then identified the key ecological gaps along these corridors as well as a number of essential gaps to address more widely – 132 of them in total.

Strategic Connections Map from the North York Moors National Park Management Plan 2012

Target Connection Sites map from North York Moors National Park Business Plan 2012

What we then needed was a method of implementing our thoughts and vision. We draw polygons around the gaps to provide a framework for practical implementation. Officers are assigned individual or groups of polygons and using the original objectives for each ecological gap (e.g. restore PAWS to having Ancient Woodland characteristics, develop a mosaic of habitats, enhance species rich grassland) we develop rationales setting out what might be done on the ground and how best to do it. If we are going to carry out work and spend money in these target areas we need to establish sound reasons for doing so and to be able to justify our decisions. We start by carrying out a desk study of the habitat interest and records in that area – this includes previous habitat surveys, species information, existing and previous agri-environment agreement areas, public access, historic environment records, designations, and aerial photography. The records are important because as well as looking for opportunities we need to also consider potential constraints such as the historic environment because we don’t want to accidentally damage a valued feature by attempting to achieve the aims of Habitat Connectivity.

Once we have this background picture of a target area we need to get our boots on and get out on the ground to see what’s really there. We’re looking initially from Public Rights of Way only (unless specific permission to access the land has previously granted) – we need to assess how much of the information we have matches the real situation on the ground. A key requirement is to take good quality photographs (both of individual habitats and the wider landscape) as well as making accurate field notes, annotating our original maps and at the same time looking out for possible linkages across the landscape. As our main habitat survey information (a Phase 1 Survey) is nearly 30 years old it is not always still accurate as habitats have changed and shrunk since then. This is especially true of unimproved grasslands identified in the late 1980s where scrub, bracken and bramble succession has since encroached.

Once back in the Office with the results of the field work, we consult with specialist Officers (Rona the Senior Ecologist, Mark the Woodland Officer etc.) to agree the best way forward i.e. how to make a difference. A plan of action is developed using the following principles:

  • Identify – find and assess the current condition of the key habitats.
  • Protect – ensure that quality habitats are in some way ‘protected’ i.e. conserved. If there are particularly important species e.g. breeding waders, making use of a habitat e.g. rough pasture, that habitat might be enhanced but shouldn’t be transformed.
  • Enhance/restore – most areas of habitat need some form of continuing care and maintenance to prevent decline or loss.
  • Expand – are there any adjacent buffer areas of land that could be incorporated into the habitat?
  • Create – establishing new areas of habitat nearby – this is easier for some habitats e.g. woodland than others e.g. grassland. Long term commitment is required.

To take forward any ideas the involvement of landowners/land managers is essential. In many cases for a land manager and their family the land is their living. To protect, enhance/restore, expand or create the landowner/land manager has to be willing. We’re talking about facilitating capital works like fencing to control stock, scrub control, tree/hedge planting, spreading wild flower seeds, cutting grassland, managing woodland etc. Following negotiations, the National Park Authority can provide grant assistance, use its own Volunteers and Apprentices to carry out the required tasks, or buy the necessary materials and the land manager provides the labour. Longer term requirements are met through maintenance clauses or land management payments over time.

Then once the work is organised and underway, at some point we need to be able to declare whether the gap has been addressed and the looked for key ecological connection made, or rather is on the way to being made. We do that by returning to the rationale – have we been able to achieve what was identified as being required at the beginning of the process?

Although the process takes time it is necessary in order to ensure that we achieve the best workable and sustainable linkages we can.

Little Fryupdale - copyright Mike Kipling, NYMNPA

2 thoughts on “Habitat connectivity: back to basics

  1. Pingback: Habitat connectivity: evaluating potential | The official blog for the North York Moors National Park

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