A message from JNCC Chair Peter Bridgewater

31 January 2014 


Sunday 2 February marks World Wetlands Day - the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea. In many parts of the UK in 2014, a day devoted to wetlands may not seem all that welcome, and for some even a cruel reminder of the devastation they have suffered as a result of the floods in December and January, and we commiserate with those who have suffered in this way.      


World Wetlands Day has the theme of Wetlands and Agriculture this year.  But wetlands and agriculture might be seen as polar opposites – surely wetlands are in the way of agriculture?  Well, just think for a moment about the resources wetlands have in them, both plant and animal.  Even today lotus root and seed from wetlands is important in Chinese cuisine, and many local people all over the world grow or harvest yams and other starchy tubers from wetlands.  “That’s all very well” I hear you say, “but surely extensive agriculture has a severe impact on wetlands?”  Well, that’s certainly true, and some forms of agriculture are in direct competition with wetlands for water resources. In other areas, where the landscapes are the result of considerable human change over centuries, we need to be mindful that continued management is essential, even if that seems counter-intuitive to conservation.  Much of the wildlife in these areas is the result of long-term management, and we need to keep up such management for people and wildlife together. 


There was an interesting exchange on the Ramsar Forum in recent months over the materials provided by the secretariat this year, since the images may not be comfortable for those who see intensive irrigation as a problem.  And indeed it can be, if developed without thinking about balancing agricultural ecosystems and wetland ecosystems.  All too often, of course, intensive irrigation is used because it is “simpler” and “easier” than using natural solutions.  Yet we have to move away from that technocratic paradigm, and move to a more balanced situation.  Hopefully that’s what the Ramsar secretariat materials were trying to say.


The first Ramsar resolution on wetlands and agriculture was in 2002 in Valencia, Spain, and has been followed by others since.  That first resolution called on Parties to the Convention to “to ensure that management plans for Ramsar sites and other wetlands are developed within wider integrated catchment management approaches which duly acknowledge the need for appropriate implementation of agricultural practices and policies that are compatible with wetland conservation and sustainable use goals, and to identify and enhance positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, including sustainable agricultural systems related to these wetlands.”


It also requested that the Scientific and Technical Review Panel investigate a number of issues including “enhance the positive role that sustainable agricultural practices may have vis-à-vis the conservation and wise use of wetlands and minimise the adverse impacts of agricultural practices on wetland conservation and sustainable use goals”.


And finally last year a report under the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity (TEEB) program released a report on wetlands which among many things noted that “it is also important to recognise synergies between policies and objectives – such as the role of wetlands in recharging soil water tables which can supply water to agricultural users and the role of improved soil management in improving crop yields and reducing off farm impacts, including on wetlands.”


All of these points illustrate the important relationships that wetlands and agriculture have had, and must continue to have, for sustainable living into the future.


So, on Sunday visit a wetland, wonder and think how that wetland is helping maintain quality landscapes, availability of water, and provision of species to help surrounding and adjacent agricultural systems function effectively.  After all, the village ponds of yore were not there by accident, they had (and were understood to have) very specific purposes!