On the day that a press release from the Rio+20 summit confirmed a 30% global decline in wildlife since 1970, the University of East London and Buglife completed an innovative urban habitat creation project in order to try to prevent the extinction of what might be Britain’s rarest insect.
After being considered extinct in the UK since a record at Beachy Head, East Sussex in 1928, a population of the streaked bombardier beetle (Brachinus sclopeta) was discovered in 2005 on a brownfield site adjacent to Thames Barrier Park, East London. The beetles were found on a mound consisting of a few square metres of sparsely vegetated brick and lime mortar left on site since the last time it was cleared. With development of the site looming a special nature reserve was created for the beetles consisting of a similar mound of rubble and a group of volunteers hand collected 61 specimens and translocated them to the new site.
Roll on to 2010 and the original site had been developed into riverside apartments. On a fenced-off area of land next to the Thames Barrier the mound persisted and, despite the odds, a search by entomologist Richard Jones revealed that the beetle was still there. In addition, during routine invertebrate monitoring, a single female was found 3.5 miles north-west of the original site in Mile End Park. Roll on a further 2 years and history has repeated itself. Despite a search of the translocation mound revealing no streaked bombardier individuals, a population was recorded on a rubble mound a couple of hundred metres from where the original population was recorded. The bad news being that the rubble mound was on another brownfield site about to be redeveloped, Silvertown Keys. The site represented one of the last brownfield sites in the area and, despite being perhaps the last population of these beetles in the UK, planning permission was again granted.
Rio+20 has been billed as a chance for world leaders to put global society on a sustainable path and an opportunity for the world to get serious about the need for development to be sustainable. Nevertheless, seven years down the line from the original planning application which began the chimes of doom for streaked bombardier beetles in Britain, the message does not seem to be getting through.
For development to be truly sustainable this must include conserving, on a landscape scale, the valuable ecosystem services that biodiversity provides. This means protecting and conserving natural and semi-natural landscapes and also restoring green and blue infrastructure of high biodiversity value in urban areas. As such, rather than merely targeting conservation efforts towards high profile or ‘cuddly’ species, all biodiversity should be targeted in order to protect the natural cycles and services that nature provides on a global scale.
Putting this in a regional context, the Thames Gateway has been designated a national priority for urban regeneration and sustainable development. The area is, however, also recognised under Natural England’s Natural Area designations for its distinctive and unique nature conservation value in terms of wildlife and natural features. In addition to statutory designation, the value of brownfield sites in the area has been recognised. A series of post-industrial (brownfield) sites have been found to support nationally significant populations of numerous UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) and Red Data Book (RDB) invertebrates. These brownfield sites are under greatest pressure from Thames Gateway development. For development in the region to be environmentally sustainable, nationally important invertebrate populations in the region must be protected.
Unfortunately, despite Rio+20 and the numerous previous global sustainability agendas, the message still does not appear to getting through on a local level. In the Thames Gateway, key wildlife sites of national importance are disappearing at an alarming rate. In 2006, Buglife published their ‘All of a Buzz’ study which identified over 70 out of 180 brownfield sites surveyed in the Thames Gateway as being of high invertebrate importance. The project was developed to provide a tool for planners to identify brownfield sites of low, medium and high conservation importance to better inform the planning process. Nevertheless, since the All of a Buzz surveys were carried out, at least 50% of these highest importance sites have been lost to development (personal communications, Jamie Robins, Buglife).
This pattern has been repeated again at Silvertown Keys. Despite hosting what could be the last population of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan Species the streaked bombardier beetle, planning permission was granted with the only options being to remove the beetle or let the population be destroyed. Although there are few examples of invertebrate translocations and even fewer successful ones, with no other alternative Buglife and UEL teamed up to attempt to rescue the beetles and save the species in Britain.
UEL’s Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) works with local industry, developers and government to support sustainable development. Under this umbrella role, one specific area of research and expertise is the landscape-scale conservation of biodiversity within the East Thames Corridor. This includes supporting the protection of sites of high conservation importance through identification of key sites, survey, management and technical advice. The SRI also promotes innovation in the management of the surrounding landscape to increase landscape connectivity. To achieve this connectivity in urban areas requires the landscape-scale provision of green roofs, walls and innovative ground level landscaping to create urban green infrastructure containing habitat characteristics of regional importance. It is this work of the SRI’s with local developers, promoting, designing and monitoring urban green infrastructure that led to their involvement in the project and provided an opportunity to practice what they have been preaching.
Just days before the bulldozers rolled into Silvertown Keys, permission was granted for an attempted rescue. Buglife, UEL and London Wildlife Trust staff, students and volunteers teamed up to create a ‘Beetle Bump’ as part of the landscaping for UEL’s new Sports Dock development. The Beetle Bump was constructed as a brownfield nature area designed specifically to support streaked bombardier habitat requirements. Made on top of a large hibernaculum comprising hard core capped with topsoil, which was part of the original Sports Dock landscaping, the work team created the Beetle Bump from 65 tonnes of recycled materials (hard core, chalk, brick and top soil). The site was seeded and plug planted with species recorded at the Silvertown Keys site and species known to be favoured by the prey of streaked bombardiers. Beetles were then rescued from the donor site and released at UEL at the last hour before the bulldozers moved in. The site will be managed sympathetically for the conservation of the beetles. It will also be used as an outdoor laboratory, to study the behaviour and habitat requirements of the beetles and to record what other wildlife takes advantage of this pocket of wildflowers and brownfield habitat features.
Whilst monitoring the success or otherwise of this last ditch rescue attempt is an important outcome, it may not prove to be the most important part of this project. The key component will be the demonstration of the ease of creating and maintaining ecologically functioning and aesthetically pleasing habitat capable of supporting diverse wildlife in urban areas. If the value of ecosystem services as part of sustainable development can be recognised and ecologically-functioning habitat such as this become the norm within communities and developments across our urban landscapes, then last ditch rescue attempts such as this should become a thing of the past.
With information boards to explain the importance of the habitat in the region, the Beetle Bump will stand as a bold and visual statement of UEL’s commitment to the conservation of regional and national biodiversity. The hope into the future is that the site will act as an educational resource to explain the value of brownfield habitat features in supporting Britain’s wildlife and to demonstrate to other landholders the innovative ways these habitat features can be incorporated as part of urban green space within sustainable development.
More information? See Buglife:
Bug of the month
Picture credit: Craig Slawson