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Putting nature at the heart of our planning systems

By Robbie Still, Projects Officer at the Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre

Sun setting over a barley field

With eight river systems and a wide variety of habitats, Oxfordshire is home to many rare and threatened plants and animals. However, wildlife in Oxfordshire has suffered serious decline over the past two decades and urgent action is needed to save some species from disappearing completely.

Robbie Still, Projects Officer at the Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre (TVERC), an organisation collecting, analysing and sharing geodiversity and biodiversity information in Berkshire and Oxfordshire, explains some of the ways in which they are working to reverse species decline.

The Nature Recovery Network

The Nature Recovery Network (NRN) is an ambitious national plan to put space for nature at the heart of our farming and planning systems and to bring nature into the places where most people live their daily lives. It is a major commitment in the UK Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan, intended to improve, expand and connect habitats, to address wildlife’s decline and provide wider environmental benefits for people. 

The concept for the NRN is simple. Existing protected sites represent the best areas for wildlife, and should therefore form the core of any network. But to support nature’s recovery, action is required to extend and link these existing sites, both to support wildlife and to recover the range of economic and social benefits that nature provides.

Oxfordshire’s Nature Recovery Network

In order to achieve nature’s recovery, large areas are needed where wildlife is able to flourish and where nature provides the range of ecosystem services (the tangible benefits that nature can provide for humanity) we will need in the future. In Oxfordshire, our ambition is to double the amount of land of high value for nature by 2050. Future local development plans will need to consider in detail how to plan for more nature. 

The Oxfordshire Plan 2050 provides an opportunity to use the draft Nature Recovery Map and recommended associated policies such as habitat restoration, natural flood management, agri environment schemes and re-wilding to help plan for nature’s recovery at a county-wide level and to set the framework for future Local Plans.

Oxfordshire already has the foundations for a local NRN. Since 2006, the Conservation Target Areas have been established as the spatial component of Oxfordshire’s strategic approach to biodiversity. They are concentrations of priority habitats and species and include surrounding land that can buffer and link these habitats and provide opportunities to create new sites.

Draft Map of Nature Recovery Network for Oxfordshire

A draft Nature Recovery Network map for Oxfordshire has now been created and consists of three zones. 

The Core zone (seen below in deep green) includes the most important sites for biodiversity in Oxfordshire and includes all nationally and locally designated sites, nature reserves, priority habitats and ancient woodland.

The Recovery zone (in emerald green) comprises the Conservation Target AreasImportant Freshwater Areas and additional areas added to provide better habitat connectivity. While the Wider Landscape zone (in light green) covers the rest of the county, recognising the important contribution that agricultural and urban landscapes beyond the Recovery zone can make to nature’s recovery.

Nature Recovery Network map

Future local development plans will need to consider in detail how to plan for more nature. Oxfordshire Plan 2050 provides an opportunity to use the draft Nature Recovery Map to help plan for nature’s recovery at a county-wide level and to set the framework for future Local Plans.

Oxfordshire’s Biodiversity Advisory Group has proposed a number of policies for the Oxfordshire Plan 2050.  These include:

  1. Support for the development of an Oxfordshire Nature Recovery Strategy.

  2. Requiring developments in the three nature recovery zones make a positive contribution to nature’s recovery. Oxfordshire’s environmental organisations have a shared ambition to achieve 20% net gain across the county.

  3. Giving the Nature Recovery Network significant weight in planning decisions

  4. Avoiding major new built development in the Recovery zone.

  5. Protecting and enhancing habitats of particular importance for nature and strengthening ecological networks.

  6. Focusing on improving nature in the Recovery zone, including the establishment of large nature areas of at least 5000ha in size.

  7. Investing more in monitoring the change in nature so that it can be seen if the improvements are actually being achieved and action taken if not.

Oxfordshire Treescapes

Another project TVERC are working on is to enable wider tree planting across Oxfordshire. We are currently in a climate crisis, and although tree planting is not the only solution, it is still a viable option for offsetting carbon emissions. However, care must be taken to not plant trees on unsuitable land, as tree planting on grassland will lead to a loss in biodiversity, not a gain. 

TVERC have been working with Jamie Hartzell, a social entrepreneur turning his talents to helping to address the climate crisis, and Victoria McNamara, an expert on agricultural land use, to select parcels of land that have the potential for tree planting without compromising their current land-use or biodiversity. 

It is estimated that doubling UK tree cover would absorb 10% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions (Friends of the Earth). Approximately 9% of Oxfordshire is covered in trees, compared with a European average of 35%. Our aim is to improve the number of trees in the county to offset carbon emissions from the local area. 

TVERC will be undertaking the technical work for this project, with Jamie and Victoria leading the outreach and consultation process. The technical work will involve analysing a detailed geodatabase developed by TVERC in collaboration with Alison Smith, a researcher in Natural Capital at the University of Oxford. TVERC will select suitable packages of land for the nine possible treescapes which include woodland, hedgerows, community and commercial orchards as well as new parkland and silvopastures (managed grazing). 

Following the initial selection, TVERC will determine the likely impact of the proposed treescapes and prioritise those likely to offer a significant improvement in ecosystem services. Jamie and Victoria will then focus on working with landowners, particularly those who own agricultural land, to encourage tree planting and using these treescapes to advise them on the optimum tree-planting strategy for their land. 

This is a fascinating project that could yield serious improvements to the Oxfordshire environment, and encapsulates the complex data analysis that TVERC can provide for organisations looking to improve the environment through data driven decision making. 

Policy created without consulting long-term, high-quality data is prone to suffering from observation bias and would be less likely to succeed. TVERC have the best quality environmental data in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and their staff have the expertise to analyse and interpret the data to best inform decision-makers. TVERCs involvement in projects such as the two described above helps to ensure that conservation and environmental policy across the two counties have the highest possible chance of success. 

Getting involved

You can find out more about Oxfordshire’s Nature Recovery Network here, and you can keep up with the progress of both of these projects through subscribing to TVERCs newsletter and social media.  As anyone who watched David Attenborough’s Extinction: The Facts will know, the best way to make a difference and help maintain our natural environment is by joining a natural group. 

This will allow you to do vital work on the ground, but also record and contribute important data. TVERC have a list of local recording groups on their website, and TVERC collect data from all of these groups that will be used in local conservation policy. If you don’t want to join a group but are interested in recording and submitting your records, iRecord is an excellent recording tool that TVERC regularly scrape data from, or you can send it to them directly


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