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the GiGLer

The newsletter of Greenspace Information of Greater London CIC

Interview, Mathew Frith

Mathew Frith

GiGL’s Board of Directors are central to our work and our success. Their commitment and expertise helps guide GiGL and keeps us moving forward and developing. Directors are on the front line of biodiversity and open space work in the capital. They are GiGL service users and contribute to our data banks, as well as serving as ambassadors for GiGL.

Mathew Frith is currently London Wildlife Trust Conservation Director and has previously held a number of roles at the Trust. He has been a supporter of GiGL since its early days as the Biological Recording Project.

MFrithTown or countryside?

City all the time, although a salt marsh takes some beating.

Summer or winter?

Winter. I prefer cooler weather.

Early bird or night owl?

Up with the lark for me.

Outdoor or indoors?

Outdoors, eyes open, one foot in front of the other.

Plants or animals?

Aw, difficult – beetles, moths, deer and, er, dinosaurs.

What is your favourite Greater London open space and why?

Croham Hurst in South Croydon. I used to play there as a boy and its acidic pebbly heights, bedecked with heather and gnarled sessile oaks, overlying a cool chalky hazel-covered bottom, laden with dog’s mercury, wood anemone and wood sorrel, still tickle my fancies. It’s an exhilarating place, saved from development in the late 1890s by public protest.

What’s your first environmental memory?

Probably watching peacock butterflies emerge from a row of pupae hanging along the top of our television when I was a boy.

You’ve been involved with London Wildlife Trust almost since its foundation. What first drew you away from rock and roll and into conservation?

I became a member of the Trust in 1988, seven years after the Trust was founded, and started working with them a year later. At that time I was still running a band, making noises and trying to reach the giddy heights of recording albums. A chance meeting with ecologists working in the Greater London Council opened my eyes again. My eyes had been pretty much closed to nature since my university years when I studied genetics and biochemistry. It hit a chord (ho hum). I put down my guitars and tape-loops, and started to break my nails by managing a woodland instead.

How did you first get involved with GiGL?

In its embryonic days as the London Wildlife Trust’s Biological Recording Project in the mid-1990s, I helped the project to tread carefully across many eggshells without ruffling too many feathers. I was a strong advocate for the Trust establishing the project, to help underpin our early work on biodiversity action planning. I worked closely with Alistair Kirk, who is now with Surrey LERC, and then Mandy joined. I could see then that she would go far.

I was aware of the Biological Recording Project’s transformation to GiGL after I left London Wildlife Trust in 2000, as I served as a Trustee for the Trust from 2002. Later, when I was with Peabody Trust, GiGL helped me map their housing estates as part of my work with them. But also I kept in touch with Mandy as we were two of the Beeridiversional administrators, an email discussion group for London biodiversity professionals.

Returning to the Trust in 2009, I helped to clarify some of the fog that had developed between the two organisations, and was supportive of GiGL’s independence as a Community Interest Company.

Can you give us an overview of how your work with LWT and with GiGL has developed over the course of your career?

To be honest, I’m more and more bedazzled by the technology, which leaves me marvelling at GiGL’s potential. I don’t know how it works but it sure looks good. I’d like the Trust and GiGL to work closely. Our past collaboration on some projects, like the stag beetle survey that has been running since 1997, and the garden greenspace study, show what can be achieved. However, I think we’ve been subject to different cultures of recent years, which has served to throw up some haze. Nevertheless, we at the Trust wish to rediscover our campaigning edge, and we’ll need a strong evidence base to make our cases. I also think there are opportunities for us to work together on more research projects.

London Wildlife Trust recently published “Spaces Wild”, a report highlighting the importance of protecting London’s wildlife sites. Why do you think wildlife sites are so important to London and to Londoners?

If we relied on the statutory sites (SSSIs, SPAs, etc.) alone, then we could not protect the diversity of the capital’s wildlife from its greatest threat – development. The identification of over 1,500 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs), covering 19% of Greater London, is recognition that the capital’s ecological assets are much more widespread and are critical to the functioning of the city. SINCs form essential parts of London’s green infrastructure, even if they also serve other functions such as parks, cemeteries and railway line-sides.

The SINC system provides some protection from development pressures, and ensures wildlife is considered in the management of such greenspaces. “Spaces Wild” is a tool for championing the various roles that SINCs play, and for ensuring that we don’t lose the critical biodiversity elements within the dull language of green infrastructure.

What role do you think GiGL and other Local Environmental Records Centres have played in protecting wildlife sites over the past thirty years?

They’ve transformed the playing field. The notion of non-statutory wildlife sites wasn’t here in the early 1980s, and without the surveys and data evidence to prove their worth, wildlife sites would be so much harder to defend. What the Trust, Greater London Council and London Ecology Unit established in 1984-6, led the way for the rest of Britain. But it was initially a paper-based system. GiGL provides the bedrock of data to help us make the right decisions whether for site management or for planning.

What are the challenges for the future of wildlife sites, and what future role do you see for GiGL and other Local Environmental Records Centres?

We know that the capital’s greenspace is disappearing, as evidenced by the garden study by LWT, GiGL and the GLA in 2008-09, and that London is set to be home to 10 million people by 2030. This makes it even more important that we protect SINCs, if we are to retain the city’s diversity of habitats and species. GiGL and other LERCs are vital for maintaining an evidence base, and giving campaigning organisations the data they need to challenge development threats.

Records centres should also be providing the evidence for planning authorities to make informed decisions; ensuring they make the case for nature in local plans, and in making planning decisions. However, despite endeavours to promote green infrastructure, by the GLA for example, I am concerned at the way the planning system is evolving. Efforts to weaken site protections seem to emerge on a monthly basis. Perhaps LERCs need to think how to help meet this challenge in the longer term.

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