I am passionate about protecting nature. It has been a driving force throughout my life - for example, I’m probably the only Conservative MP to have once boarded Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior. I’ve taken this passion into Parliament, serving as Chairman of the All-Party Parliament Group for the Environment, and I am just as keen to see Cambridgeshire grow greener.
Cambridgeshire is one of the most nature-depleted parts of the country, something I was acutely aware of growing up here, but spending my summers on family trips to wilderness-covered Norway. We have lots of fertile farmland, but comparatively little natural habitat. Our woodland cover is one quarter the national average, and just 8% of our land is managed for nature. The challenges we face range from water shortages leading to ponds and streams running dry, to high levels of housebuilding and infrastructure development.
But biodiversity has some great local champions. These include Cambridge Past, Present and Future, best known for the spectacular Wandlebury Country Park but responsible for several packages of land South of Cambridgeshire. They are actively seeking to increase biodiversity, offering innovative nature-based solutions to problems that might once have been solved by concrete or chemicals.
There are also our fantastic nature-friendly farmers. We are fortunate to have a number within our borders, including the farm of the Nature-Friendly Farming Network’s Chairman Martin Lines, whose farm seeks to maximise both profitability and nature. The RSPB are also showing what can be achieved at its Hope Farm in Knapwell, where environmentally friendly farming has led to a staggering 1,500% increase in overwintering birds.
Then there are the campaigners, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and water pressure groups such as the Cam Valley Forum and Water Resources East. Our work together has now led to the launch of a national Chalk Streams Working Group, designed to protect the valuable streams we are lucky to have dotted across South Cambridgeshire. I am also hoping to ensure our area is classed as water-stressed, giving the Environment Agency greater scope to work with water companies to tackle the problem.
One final battlefield lies in the gardens and vegetable patches of residents, and this is one the Government is taking to in its own fight to increase biodiversity. Last weekend, to coincide with World Environment Day, I welcomed a new Government initiative to get the country planting more trees and flowers. The #PlantForOurPlanet Campaign calls for people, businesses, and communities to get planting and protecting nature in little ways. On this, Cambridgeshire is ahead of the game.
Over the last few months, I’ve been meeting with Natural Cambridgeshire, our local nature partnership, about how we can promote exactly this kind of behaviour. Their goal is to drive positive environmental change, enabling the recovery of nature across the naturally depleted areas of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.
Since 2019, Natural Cambridgeshire has been calling on us to “double nature” by 2050, as measured by the amount of land managed for nature. Supported by organisations and our local authorities, they have been encouraging both large-scale land management projects and smaller activities in search of this goal. I’m glad that Natural Cambridgeshire’s vision has been embraced by South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Council, and I hope the new Mayor will continue the Combined Authority’s commitment to this goal.
But how will we do it? Well, there are the major projects such as the Cambridge Nature Network’s scheme to increase the amount of land managed for nature. Local Authorities can do more with the land they own – for example, if Cambridgeshire County Council reduced verge trimming in non-essential areas it would have an enormous benefit for wildlife. Larger plants and bushes growing on verges produce berries and other foods that insects and birds need to survive. Not cutting the verges would also save money. We also need to look at what we as individuals can do. From planting flowers or letting our grass grow to wider nature activities such as building insect hotels or planting a vegetable patch, we can all play our part.
As restrictions are easing, I’m hoping to spend much more time in the community supporting this kind of activity. If you have any community projects, village gardens, or even just a litter pick, please do get in touch. I’ll also be running my regular Environment Forum next week (more details on my Facebook page and website) and would love to hear your suggestions on how we can build back greener, or how you are already helping double nature. Many great things are going on in our communities, and I would be delighted to support them!
We need to do more than just double nature to tackle the comparative lack of biodiversity in South Cambridgeshire. But it is a start – and one we can all get behind.