The first steps towards a new sort of nature conservation in Britain – the creation of large-scale "ecological networks", linked up across the landscape – were taken yesterday when the Government announced the setting-up of 12 new Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs).
The new zones, covering hundreds of thousands of hectares in total and ranging from urban sites in the Black Country and industrial Yorkshire to the marshes of the Thames estuary and the woods and rivers of North Devon, will all feature the reinstatement of habitats and the creation of havens for wildlife, carried out with the involvement of local people. A total of £7.5m of government money will be made available to fund them between now and 2015.
At first sight the NIAs might appear to be no more than a new set of nature reserves, but they are something quite different: the beginnings of an attempt to change the way conservation is carried out in Britain in the 21st century.
They represent a shift from just "hanging on to what we have" – protecting what is there, the role of the traditional nature reserve – to proactive, large-scale habitat restoration and creation, so that ecological networks or "wildlife corridors" can be established.
The new vision was enshrined in a report published 18 months ago, Making Space for Nature, by a committee headed by the eminent ecologist Sir John Lawton, which called for "a step change in wildlife conservation".
The Government accepted the committee's conclusions, and in the Natural Environment White Paper published last June promised that Nature Improvement Areas would be set up. The 12 NIAs, which will be run by local groups, councils and wildlife and conservation charities, were chosen in a competition which received 76 entries.
The present level of funding may seem very small: Making Space for Nature estimated that the annual costs of establishing a "coherent and resilient" ecological network across Britain would be in the range of £600m to £1.1bn. But it should be seen in the context of massive cutbacks in conservation funding.
"We are delighted this competition has demonstrated a real appetite for putting nature back," said Paul Wilkinson, of the Wildlife Trusts partnership. "But 12 Nature Improvement Areas are not enough. This concept should be driven forward everywhere across England and given formal recognition through the new planning process, expected next month, and agri-environment grants."
The conservation writer Mark Avery said: "This is a good start – but let's hope it isn't the finish, too. English wildlife has suffered so much that the whole country should be an NIA. That's what water voles, lapwings and grasshoppers need."