U.K. saltmarsh & dune system: Gibraltar Point

Wild About Wetland brings together the management systems of a collection of protected sites, ranging from small community nature sites to biome-sized wilderness areas, as exemplars of how plans for sustainable biodiversity are made and operated. In this comparison it will be seen that management plans, whether they are produced for a national nature reserve or a small local patch of neighbourhood greenery, follow the same system logic. This logic can also be adopted by community volunteers to make and apply plans for a wide range of community issues of sustainability.

Wild About Wetland uses the 'wiki' as a basic user-friendly web tool for schools and communities to participate in distance learning. At the moment the content consistes of background material but work is currently underway to make educational exemplars based on the management plans of wetland sites of national and international importance.

An educational model

The local nature reserve of Willow Tree Fen in Lincolnshire occupies just 35 ha yet it is the largest remaining wet fenland habitat in the county. This county is one of the biggest in England and was once characterised by vast amounts of freshwater wetland. From early times, landowners regarded these fens with hostility as fever-ridden impediments to prosperity. The 18th century drainers were treated as social heroes, making record crops of cereals grow where only reeds and sedges had once prevailed. Indeed, an important truth is that the incorporation of wild wetlands into the base of the human food chain was a major input to increased prosperity of Western nations. In fact, the engineered drying out of European wetlands in the 17th century began five hundred years of ever-increasing unsustainable exploitation of Earth's natural resources. It all started with the great reclamation schemes of the Netherlands, then came the adoption of this Dutch know-how to the East Anglian river basins, and it was later applied to drain the great flood plains of North America. In this grand sweep of history, Baston Fen is a microcosm of human endeavour, first to produce productive farmland, now to protect wildlife.

The system is only a tiny local example of 17th century water engineering to control the flooding of a small river valley, but the great cultural lesson of Baston Fen is delivered through the new ecological management objective to maximise wetness and wildness. On a tiny but compelling scale, the water management system maintains endangered molluscs and insects that cannot exist anywhere else. In winter, large numbers of wildfowl are attracted to its few hectares of flooded grassland. In summer, dragonflies patrol over black peaty pools, which hold a rare assembly of aquatic plants that are not to be found in the surrounding bone-dry fields overflowing with wheat and barley.

Baston tells us what we have lost in drying out the world's wetlands, and that we need to manage the remaining pockets of wildness and wetness through planned protection and, wherever possible, devise new restoration schemes to bring the natural delights of wetland habitats before the eyes of urban dwellers. They carry vital scientific and aesthetic messages to remind us all that we are still part of nature in everything we do, and that our day-to-day activities as consumers can have profound impacts on the stability of our planet. Baston Fen also illuminates what we lose in the drive for mass production, and reminds us that investment in development is still dominated by economists and engineers. The real developmental value of wetlands is the role their ecosystems can play in achieving social and economic goals. Here there is much to be learned from traditional forms of wetland uses, adapted to today's conditions, and supported by government policies that give greater control over community resources to local people. In particular, where the continued growth of population is driven by intense poverty, the importance of wetlands in the lives of many rural communities throughout the world arises from giving them a central role in establishing local prosperity. This interface between economics, culture and ecology is an important challenge to conservation.

Willow Tree Fen is managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust


Wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life.

They are defined internationally as areas of
  • marsh,
  • fen,
  • peatland
  • or water,
whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is
  • static or flowing,
  • fresh, brackish or salt,
  • including shallow areas of marine water at low tide (estuaries and coral reefs).
In addition they may incorporate river and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands.

Wetlands are among the most productive life-support systems in the world and are of immense socio-economic and ecological importance to mankind. They are an integral part of the biosphere and critical for the maintenance of global biodiversity with regards their high concentrations of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrate species.

Wetlands are also important storehouses of plant genetic material. Rice, for example, which is a common wetland plant, is the staple diet of more than half of humanity.

Historically, wetlands have been perceived as wastelands associated with disease, difficulty and danger. Emphasizing the negative impacts and ignoring their importance, these habitats were considered obstacles in the path of progress and hence drained, filled, despoiled and degraded for economic gains. The wetland loss has been responsible for bringing to the verge of extinction countless species of plants and animals. Inadequate understanding of the crucial role and utility of wetlands is a matter of serious concern.

Wetlands and their management have become internationally recognized issues, and the hydrological, biological, sociological and administrative factors of wetland management planning were given a very high priority in Agenda 21 of the Rio Environment Summit in 1992. In many ways, the natural system of wetlands provides a model of the way that conservation of a remarkable natural environment can go hand-in-hand with community involvement and development.

The exact area of wetlands on earth is poorly known, but it has been estimated that terrestrial ecosystems cover 29% of the planet's surface and wetlands (excluding estuaries and coral reefs) cover about 0.6% (1.5% if estuaries and coral reefs included). In an economic estimate of the annual contributions of 16 global ecosystems to 17 to renewable services, marsh, mangroves, swamps and floodplains produced $4,879 trillions in services per year. This is about 15% of all ecosystem services, and exceptional proportion in relation to their relatively small area.


This project explores the topic of conservation management for citizenship through distance learning.

It has developed from a community programme initiated by the UK Conservation Management Consortium (CMSC), a not-for-profit gathering of all government conservation agencies and the big players in the voluntary sector ( CMSC focuses on the production and promotion of a computer programme called the Conservation Management System (CMS), which is an MS Access database for making and recording conservation plans for all kinds of sites and organisations.It is the UK's standard professional package developed over a couple of decades from the inputs of site managers.The Consortium, through its training courses and user groups, networks good conservation practice throughout the UK and into Europe.In the late 1990s the CMSC turned its attention towards making simple toolkits to help schools and communities collaborate in making local plans for sustainability (the COSMOS project: reason for this move is a belief that there is a dialectical relationship between top-down development planning, which impacts on the everyday lives of people, and a basic right of citizenship that allows an autonomous grass roots input. A range of COSMOS templates in the form of annotated mindmaps of cultural ecology may be found at

The problem is that there is a disjuncture and a structural hiatus between the role of government in promoting citizen-driven development and the capacity of ordinary people to participate in this process with their own action plans.Education in making and operating plans for local sustainability is an important but neglected area in school curricula and community capacity building.The central idea behind COSMOS was for schools to act as a focus for broad-based community action in the context of curriculum targets being integrated with neighbourhood objectives for the Local Agenda 21.The assumption was that schools working with the communities they serve could play a key role in the introduction of sustainable development principles into everyday living by moving towards a more locally based and neighbourhood-focused education.Many educationalists feel that this is the only practical route to sustainability where interdisciplinary knowledge and know-how about making and operating community action plans for sustainability are bound together with locality.Community cannot be distinguished from locality because it is locality, in terms of such factors as history, demography and income that sets the agenda for how the community functions.

COSMOS is organised on the premise that traditional subject-based teaching is an impediment to learning about how to function as an involved citizen in a world dominated by cross-subject issues of environment and economic development.Becoming a citizen in today's world focuses learning on cultures of sustainability with multi-subject organised syllabuses.The first outcome of COSMOS was the creation of 'cultural ecology' as an exemplar interdisciplinary mindmap for e-learning about sustainability knowledge organised for managing the environment responsibly.Cultural ecology has been on-line for several years and receives several thousand hits a week, even though it has not been indexed on the web.Basically it offers a flexible interdisciplinary scaffold for navigating the five concepts set out in the UK's 'one future-different paths' framework for sustainable development.

Current work on COSMOS involves incorporating cultural ecology into a global distance learning system for communities in the form of a prototype 'citizen's environmental network'.The latter was envisaged more than a decade ago in the UK Strategy for Sustainable Development and referred to as a community tool for the Biodiversity Strategy.The aim was to spread ideas and achievements about operating plans for environmental improvements as an exercise in interactive citizenship.It was to be pump-primed by Government and then run by community volunteers, but nothing has happened in the interim to realise this community-led objective.

Unfortunately, Agenda 21 is no longer the grass roots driver it was set up to be, so we have shifted focus to UNESCOs concept of Biodiversity Reserves, which have the same objectives but demand school/community involvement as the first principal.Indeed, the prime function of a BR is as a learning and demonstration site to promote local capacity building for global citizenship and sustainability.The UNESCO package is set within the framework of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD).

In this respect the BRs have:

  • a conservation function - to contribute to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation;
  • a development function - to foster economic and human development which is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable;
  • a logistic function - to provide support for research, monitoring, education and information exchange related to local, national and global issues of conservation and development.
The aim is to encourage citizens of all ages to get involved with the integrated management of all these functions.

The principles for citizen involvement designed for BRs can be applied to any area that its population defines as being a special place (SEAS).Different localities will display different profiles but all will have the same basic features, so that special environmental areas of sustainability can be operated anywhere with the following four on-line elements.

  • Interdisciplinary information about world development with tools for building personal bodies of knowledge linking culture and ecology;
  • Citizenship toolkits for making and operating long-term plans for sustainability that deal with neighbourhood issues and family life;
  • Open forums associated with a dedicated web viewer for networking ideas and achievements;
  • A central webmaster to hold the network together on a day-to-day basis.
The product of SEAS is a greater capacity amongst local inhabitants to work together on constructive solutions to new problems of living in a shrinking world.

Educational Framework


There are many routes to obtain an understanding of a nature site. Ten of the most obvious starting points are listed in the left hand diagram.


The history of a site is a continuum from its geological beginnings to the point at which it was declared to be a nature site worthy of protection. Many, if not all the major aspects of its history will determine the way it is managed. The aim will be to conserve the major heritage features, physical, biological and social.

Non-material values

We have non-material relationships to Earth because as science finds new explanations for our material being it also increases the mystery of the unknown. Mysteries, yet to be explained in material terms, are expressed in the great spiritual emotions of sublimity, grandeur, and majesty. Like scientific endeavour, these emotions have also evolved for us to know the unknown. They are part of mental processes, of which we are unaware, that endow objects and events with beauty, reverence, awe or respect. By means of these notions we can communicate the innermost and most central parts of a thing powerfully and non-scientifically. With regards a nature site, there are non-material values in a flock of birds outlined against a setting sun, a flower or reflections moving on a the surface of water. These values may be expressed in writing, art and photography.


Maps are essential to provide an overview of the physical extent of the site and also to pinpoint its invidual physical and biological features. In this connection, most people think in terms of locating themselves with a map, and maps therefore provide points of access to a complex site.

Species and Ecosystems

Species and ecosystems are the intrinsic features of a site and their presence is the reason for protecting it. Regarding the ecosystems a primary classification is made with respect to six ecosystem groups: Coastlands, Woodlands, Lowland Grasslands, Heaths and Scrub, Open Waters, Peatlands, Upland Grasslands and Heaths. Wetlands may represent of more than one of these primary groups with artificial boundaries drawn between them. A list of valued species is the other way of describing a nature site.


Photostudies range from an album of species, ecosystems and landscapes of a nature reserve, to aerial surveys and year by year pictures taken of parts of the site from fixed viewpoints.

International context

Every nature site can be compared with other places on a global scale. These comparisons are made in relation to the terms under which the site is protected, such as international laws and agreements, common species, or shared know how between managers and local communities.


No part of the world is a wilderness and the relationship between a protected site and the community surrounding it or even occupying it is not only a part of its history, but also an important element to be brought into its management.


Projects describe the jobs of management. They are an integral part of the management plan for the site and say what is to be done, who will do it, when the work will be carried out and afterwards what was actually achieved.

Management plan

Every nature reserve should have a management plan. For each feature (species, ecosystem, and systems for access and public education) there should be a measureable objective related to the ideal condition of the feature. The factors preventing the management team reaching this objective have to be addressed by projects aimed at bringing the condition into this favourable condition. From time to time, special projects are organised to measure the state of each feature. These are monitoring projects and provide performance indicators of the efficiency of management in reaching its objectives.