Met Office grows wild

16th January 2012


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How the enthusiasm of a few volunteers at the Met Office has blossomed into an organisation-wide biodiversity action plan

As a world leader for weather and climate services, it follows that the Met Office is closely involved in promoting sustainability at home and abroad. Minimising the environmental impact of its own operations is also a corporate priority and, since 2004, its work in this area has been formally captured in a 14001-certified environment management system (EMS). This system now includes a biodiversity policy.

The organisation’s biodiversity work has grown from the ground up, initiated by a few employee volunteers in 2007. Early efforts focused on individuals using their lunch breaks and other free time to nurture a wildflower meadow at the organisation’s Exeter site. Four years later, this initial enthusiasm has blossomed into the creation of a formal biodiversity working group, full integration of the Met Office’s biodiversity policy into its EMS, and the achievement of the Wildlife Trusts’ biodiversity benchmark, a challenging award that just 15 organisations in the UK have attained.

Harnessing support

A key theme running through the Met Office’s biodiversity work, and what has enabled it to thrive, is the internal and external engagement that the organisation has nurtured.

As Neal Pearce, environment adviser, comments: “It is about harnessing the enthusiasm and dedication for conservation and biodiversity that may already be present among the workforce. Tapping into that passion, as well as the expertise of external groups, has been a vital part of developing our biodiversity strategy.”

Biodiversity activity at the Met Office started when, several years ago, a handful of employees at its Exeter head office asked if they could turn three-quarters of an acre of land into a wildflower meadow. The group was mindful that 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK over the past six decades.

Given the go-ahead, this small band of dedicated enthusiasts spent their lunchtimes clearing the area of invasive weeds and thistles, helping nature to re-establish indigenous plant species to support the wildlife. The volunteers also introduced a different mowing regime, giving the wildflowers a chance to grow, flower and seed.

Even simple steps such as no longer applying fertiliser can have a significant impact on biodiversity, reveals Pearce. In the Met Office’s meadow, fertiliser had drained into the ponds, increasing the nitrate content in the water. Halting its use has improved the water quality, and planting water lilies has reduced the growth of algae, encouraging the establishment of colonies of amphibians. Mowing less frequently in the two metres around the pond has also led to an increase in the number of damp-meadow wild plants growing nearby, including the very rare maiden pink.

The initial voluntary work started to attract interest from other employees who, it turned out, had considerable knowledge of a variety of niche conservation areas. For example, one of the chief forecasters contacted the environment team to offer his assistance. He had an extensive knowledge of bats, and he undertook an on-site study of the mammals using a passive audio recorder at four different locations to cover the spread of habitats.

His research identified 10 bat species, including the rare barbastelle and greater horseshoe bats, as well as three other species now identified in the organisation’s biodiversity action plan. The results were shared with external bodies, including the RSPB.

It also turned out that the Met Office had a resident bird watcher working in the Exeter office, who has now identified 53 different bird species in the meadow since the project began, and another employee came forward with knowledge of ponds.

“We were able to tap into what people were doing in their own time and use their passion and knowledge to expand our biodiversity work,” says Pearce. “It would not have worked if we had taken a top-down approach and imposed these projects on people, we needed to build it from the bottom up.” This process of employee engagement is self-perpetuating and creates its own momentum, according to Pearce.

Coming together

The Met Office added a degree of structure to this activity on the ground by setting up a biodiversity group in 2010. Meeting regularly, the group is chaired by one of the early enthusiasts and works closely with colleagues in property management.

The existence of the group has helped to accelerate the active management of biodiversity and its ideas have already led to improvements including the modified mowing regimes, “under planting” with wildflowers rather than bark, log piles in wooded areas to encourage creature habitats, and garden markers highlighting rare wild orchids and “work in progress”.

In its very early stages, there was concern about extending the wildflower meadow project, says Pearce, with some employees thinking it might result in the site “looking untidy”. That view has now changed considerably with many staff, if not actively joining in the biodiversity work, enjoying its benefits by choosing to eat their lunch on some of the benches that have now been placed in the meadow.

One initiative that has really inspired widespread interest this year is the installation of beehives on-site, with the support of the Exeter Beekeepers’ Association. So far, these hives have produced 30lb of good-quality honey that was jarred, labelled as “Met Office Honey”, and offered on sale to staff.

This approach further engaged employees and generated a lot of internal interest in the subject, with subsequent talks to staff by the beekeepers being “packed out”, says Pearce.

Going outside

Once the Met Office’s biodiversity agenda began to gain momentum and purpose, the organisation wanted to find a way to demonstrate its compliance with national and local priorities in the area, and have its work formally recognised. It applied for and became one of only a handful of organisations to achieve the Wildlife Trusts’ biodiversity benchmark award. Only 15 organisations and 40 sites in the UK have met this rigorous standard, and the Met Office was the first from the public sector.

The Wildlife Trusts says that its benchmark can complement existing EMSs by integrating biodiversity into the systems of an organisation, and this is exactly what the Met Office has done.

“We have fully assimilated the biodiversity benchmark clause requirements into our EMS, as there was no point in duplicating operational procedures,” explains Pearce. “It is important that we streamline our processes and management systems to make them as accessible and easy to use as possible.”

The Met Office’s collaboration with the Wildlife Trusts has now moved up a level, with a close partnership in the process of being formed to help deliver the trusts’ “Living landscapes” project. This is the Wildlife Trusts’ vision to create a network of landscape-scale projects throughout the UK, restoring and re-creating wildlife-rich spaces.

Given the Met Office’s unparalleled expertise on the weather and climate change, this collaboration has the potential to be mutually beneficial, with the Met Office’s growing work on biodiversity continuing to benefit from the Wildlife Trusts’ extensive expertise in this area.

Under the draft strategy currently being considered, the Wildlife Trusts will offer advice and guidance for biodiversity enhancement at the Met Office’s head-office site, while the Met Office will provide valuable advice on factors, such as climate impact, which will affect the trusts’ long-term strategy for living-landscape projects.

Following the success of its work with the Wildlife Trusts, the Met Office has developed partnerships with other bodies (see below).

Expanding biodiversity reach

The geographical reach of the Met Office’s biodiversity work has also flourished. As well as expanding at the head-office site itself, where active biodiversity land management now encapsulates the entire 10-hectare grounds, the Met Office’s proactive biodiversity management now extends across the UK on sites where it has land management responsibility. For example, developing biodiversity management incorporates a weather balloon launch site in Cornwall and a 35-acre site in Bedfordshire that hosts a pair of nesting peregrine falcons.

The formalisation of the Met Office’s biodiversity initiatives into a biodiversity action plan (BAP) has enabled it to be more targeted in its work. The BAP’s broad objectives include:

  • increasing biodiversity performance on assigned flower-rich meadows;
  • generating increased habitats within wooded areas to improve biodiversity performance;
  • improving wetland habitat in on-site ponds and adjoining land to encourage diversity;
  • monitoring biodiversity performance and reporting findings; and
  • raising awareness and understanding of biodiversity issues among staff.

The BAP has enabled the Met Office to encourage the conservation of certain rare species or “species of principal importance in England”, such as the song thrush, the brown hare and the cirl bunting. It also keeps a record of all biodiversity observations, with more than 160 different species of amphibian, butterfly, bee, moth, plant, insect, bat, bird and mammal recorded on-site at Exeter so far.

Implementing a far-reaching strategy for biodiversity has been a sharp learning curve for Pearce and his team at the Met Office. He warns that it is a mistake to develop biodiversity in isolation. “Engage with others,” he advises. “You will not have to scratch the surface too deeply before you find an abundance of knowledge and support both inside and outside the organisation.”

Working in partnership

Engaging with external interested partners such as the Wildlife Trusts is key to effectively implementing a biodiversity strategy, says Neal Pearce, environment adviser at the Met Office.

This external engagement works on a number of different levels. On one level, it is invaluable to tap into the expertise that already exists on a national, regional and local level. This is why the Met Office engages with a wide variety of wildlife charities and bodies, ranging from the RSPB to the British Dragonfly Society.

Typically, these niche wildlife organisations are a font of specialist information. They are passionate about their area of expertise and more than happy to share their knowledge.

“You will find that you are pushing at an open door,” comments Pearce. “Nearly every organisation I have contacted so far has been willing to engage and help.” Undertaking this type of stakeholder engagement can always bring benefits in terms of knowledge transfer, both big and small, he says.

On another level, engagement with external parties can help to resolve perceived barriers to biodiversity enhancement. For example, as part of its strategy to support the RSPB and Exeter City Council’s encouragement of habitats for swifts, the Met Office has installed suitable nesting boxes at its Exeter head office.

Initially there were some concerns that the encouragement of additional bird activity could pose a problem to Exeter City Airport, which operates nearby the site. But by exploring the issue and through fully engaging with all interested parties, including the Civil Aviation Authority, the Met Office gained approval for the project.

It is also vital, adds Pearce, to find out what active biodiversity management is already going on in the adjoining areas to capitalise on the work already achieved and to assist in the creation of “wildlife corridors”. It also means taking into account any localised sites of significance, including designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and to assess the potential for supporting existing national, regional or local biodiversity action plans.

Access to East Devon County Council’s biodiversity action plan, for example, meant Pearce discovered that the common primrose (prima rosa) is valued in the county, from the perspective of being an “indicator” species and as an early season pollinator for invertebrates.

Such awareness can ensure that planting strategies can be adapted to generate suitable habitats, including identified supportive species, which subsequently can assist targeted wildlife.

A further land holding under proactive development includes a three-hectare site located near Taunton, which turned out to be set on ancient woodland. By making enquiries with the Forestry Commission and Exmoor National Park, the Met Office has discovered that work can be supported to reinstate native broadleaf trees.

Aside from its high-level partnership working with the Wildlife Trusts, the Met Office works on a local or regional level with some of the 47 individual wildlife trusts across the UK that make up the national Wildlife Trusts.


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