Building trust to help wildlife

IN HER 20 years trying to help protect and enhance Suffolk’s wildlife, Dorothy Casey has witnessed a change in the attitude of many farmers from “detachment” over wildlife issues to engagement and enthusiasm.

Much of that change has been due, she believes, to a strengthening of relationships between conservation “professionals” and the landowners and other people who manage the county’s countryside.

The latter often need to know not only that the conservation advice on offer is sound but that it will meet the targets laid down by the various agri-environment schemes.

“It is all about trust and this needs to be built up over a long period,” said Dorothy, conservation manager for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.

She is one of a rare species herself - a person who can not only walk across land and identify all the different plants growing - even when they are not in flower – but who can inspire others to do their bit for wildlife.

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During her years with the trust, she has seen the philosophy over wildlife protection change from an “oasis” mentality - in which wildlife was largely confined to isolated nature reserves - to a “living landscape” approach where work is focussed on creating wildlife corridors – to enable species to move more easily in response to environmental changes.

“I am optimistic. What is uplifting at the moment is farmers’ enthusiasm for conservation and for helping wildlife on the land they own. I don’t think this is just because of the money on offer through the agri-environment schemes - a lot of the interest has nothing to do with these schemes it is purely a result of genuine enthusiasm

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“The financial incentives are critical but there is real interest developing, particularly focussing on key species,” Dorothy said.

The Suffolk Barn Owl project – in which hundreds of new owl boxes have been erected in suitable habitat areas – has also been successful in terms of strengthening links between conservationists and landowners and stimulating interest in other wildlife.

“Barn owls are an iconic species. Everyone likes to see them gliding over the land and through the barn owl project and talking to landowners we have been able to promote habitat protection elsewhere,” Dorothy said.

“Farmers are looking for expertise and good advice. They increasingly look to us for accurate information and they can see us as having a balanced view – being aware of both conservation and commercial needs and understanding land management. Because we manage our own land and keep livestock, we have hands-on experience,” she added.

The biggest current challenge over environmental change is global warming and Dorothy believes that by creating a mosaic of linked habitats wildlife will stand a better chance of moving and surviving.

She acknowledges that the sea will eventually invade some of the freshwater grazing marsh and reedbed along the Suffolk coast but also points to the opportunities this will bring for the creation of new areas of saltmarsh, also a declining habitat.

“The search is on for sites inland which can replace the freshwater habitat lost but there is limited scope for this in Suffolk and I think the best chance of creating new areas of this kind of habitat lie in the Fens,” Dorothy said.

Connecting these new sites through the establishment of “wildlife corridors” is of crucial importance.

“As far as species are concerned climate change will create winners and losers in Suffolk. We will lose some species but undoubtedly gain some new ones,” Dorothy said.

As well as talking to owners of other land about wildlife habitat, she is also responsible for ensuring that the best conservation benefits are delivered by the trust’s own nature reserves which extend to thousands of acres, throughout Suffolk.

She and her team also advice on development issues, surveying sites and helping to identify areas where building will cause the least detrimental impact on wildlife and looking to create “corridors” along which plants and animals can migrate.

Dorothy was brought up in north London and took a biology degree at Manchester before undertaking a Master of Science course on the same campus.

It was working on her first degree that inspired her love for plants. “We used to go on field trips to the Isle of Mull and that’s what hooked me,” she said.

After completing her MSc she worked in Brighton for a year, for the RSPB, English Nature and others, and then got involved in the management of new towns, first Warrington, and then Milton Keynes, where she helped spread the environmental message, particularly in schools.

“Most of the inhabitants of these new towns came from cities and knew nothing about the countryside and wildlife,” Dorothy said.

When her husband, John, obtained a job in Switzerland, she moved there with him and gave birth to their daughter, Alex, now 26, about to set off on a six-month adventure in South America.

While in Switzerland, Dorothy worked part-time in nature conservation. When her husband obtained a job with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) at Lowestoft the family moved to Suffolk, to Somerleyton, and eventually to Bungay, its present home. Dorothy, who also has a son, James, a musician, started with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust as a surveyor and was the County Wildlife Sites officer before becoming conservation manager.

Her vision for the future is to carry on working with farmers and other landowners to the benefit of the county’s wildlife. “Obviously there are huge challenges but working together in partnership we can make a difference,” she said.

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