‘Good conservation depends on good science.’

Henslow's Golidlocks Buttercup (Ranunculus henslowii) in a Cambridgeshire churchyard by Brian Eversham

An evidence-based approach has long been one of our core values, underpinning all our work and featuring as a key point in our very first business plan back in 2000. But we don’t just apply science: we support, encourage, commission and promote it, too.

Over the last 20 years, not only have we utilised research and evidence in order to inform our approach to conservation, but we have also actively encouraged and supported study and research gathering of all kinds.

We have developed our own monitoring and research team, maintained one of the richest programmes of training workshops in species identification, ecology and management skills for our volunteers, and helped set up and support our three local Biological Records Centres. We have a strong tradition of education, outreach, training and work placements for all ages, from the under-fives all the way up to Masters and even PhD students, many of whom have worked with us, using our reserves for their research and answering ecological questions which can improve our management. 

Some of our reserves, such as Flitwick Moor and the Great Fen, have benefited from inter-connected series of studies. Other reserves have been the base for long-term studies of individual species which informs our understanding of species ecology and the health of the environment  - from understanding the energy use of breeding birds in our woodlands, to measuring the carbon flux of peat soils in the fens.

Research and new scientific discoveries demonstrate the importance of wildlife in our region and the need for our work to conserve it.

Given the current media attention on coral reefs or tropical forests, there’s a risk that people will focus only on these. But the evidence shows there are many species and habitats that only we can conserve. Next year we will launch our State of Nature Review of Beds, Cambs and Northants, providing a comprehensive review of the importance of the wildlife in our area.

The variability of habitats created by climate, geology and history means that no two sites are ever identical. But the distinctiveness of the Northants Limestone, the North Chilterns Chalk, the woods of the West Cambs Hundreds or the wetlands of the Fens, are more profound than that.

The same applies to species: some, such as Fen Ragwort, Fen Woodrush or Cambridge Milk-parsley, are unique to our area. Others require special attention for other reasons. About half the country’s Oxlips grow in our three counties, and we also have some of the strongest populations of water vole, Duke of Burgundy butterfly and bombardier-beetle.

Through research we are still expanding our understanding of just how much wildlife there is which only we can conserve.

The new Cambridge Flora of Great Britain and Ireland added over 50 species each of goldilocks buttercup and elms to the British list, and 18 goldilocks and 15 elms were described new to science from Beds, Cambs or Northants. The differences may be quite small, but the fact that you can see Henslow’s Goldilocks Buttercup only in woods and churchyards in south-east Cambridgeshire, or that Pertenhall Goldilocks Buttercup is currently known only from a single churchyard in Bedfordshire, provides a special frisson to fieldwork. 

The new elms are more controversial (the new Flora includes 62 species where most previous books had 2-8 species but disagreed about what to call them) but equally important. Once we can recognise the different kinds of elm, we can record them, and understand their place in the landscape better. That will be a particularly important task in our area: it is probably the most diverse place in Europe for elms, and nine of the new species are known only from the BCN area, and nowhere else in the world.

Elm leaves in the sun

Elm, possibly burred elm, (Ulmus serratifrons) in Cambridgeshire by Brian Eversham

I believe our Wildlife Trust has a duty to support and facilitate scientific research, and to make full use of the results.

Few organisations own or manage such a diverse set of important wildlife habitats, so we can provide the ideal study sites for a very wide range of ecological topics, close to any university.  I am proud of our long history of collaborations with the universities on our patch. 

But I was prompted to write this article by a more personal event: last week I was made a Visiting Professor in the School of Water, Energy and Environment at Cranfield University.  I hope this will foster even closer links with Cranfield, and that the new title will be seen as a mark of the seriousness with which the Trust values our scientific credentials and our academic links.