A CONSERVATION director has made an impassioned call for local government to "up its game" to combat disastrous declines in nature.

Chris Woodley-Stewart sounded a stark warning and a hopeful plea to councillors who are considering declaring an "ecological emergency" in the region, having declared a climate emergency in 2019.

"Were this a football match, nature and we would be 5-0 down," he told a special meeting.

"We can and must fight back."

The director of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership pointed to the "astronomical" loss in wildlife and "catastrophic" declines in nature.

He said well-known species were slowly "slipping away" from our doorsteps.

"There's been a failure globally, nationally and regionally and a lack of leadership on an epic scale," he added.

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He challenged Durham County Council to be "national leaders" in biodiversity.

He urged councillors to "join things up" and consider the ecological crisis, as well as climate change, in all its decisions.

"Nature's been in a box for far too long," he told the environment scrutiny committee.

"It's been in the box over there marked 'pretty' or 'nice' or, recently, the box marked 'too hard to do'. It's not too hard to do. It's crucial.

"The economy is built on something that it doesn't value which is a high-quality natural environment.

"Nature provides all manner of goods and services for us that we have to value."

The Northern Echo: The Durham coast. Picture: Visit County Durham.The Durham coast. Picture: Visit County Durham.

He was asked whether he had met any experts who did not think there was an ecological emergency.

He replied: "There's just no evidence that anybody could present to the contrary.

"There is unquestionably a catastrophic decline in nature that will come and bite us hard on the backside sooner rather than later.

"I don't know anybody that doesn't think that there is a massive biological ecological crisis, despite all the efforts that we're making.

"We just have to get the political will behind this to make it happen.

"We are in a terrible state and everybody thinks so.

"What we do is cause-driven. I get up in the morning to work for this because it's what I am, and we all think there is a really serious ecoological crisis."

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However he stressed he wanted to balance the "doom and gloom" with inspiring examples of what wildlife trusts and conservation groups have done to tackle the situation in this "amazing and beautiful county".

He said: "There'd be no point in discussing the idea of an ecological emergency, talking to you about decline, if we couldn't do anything about it.

"There's actually lots of really good and important things going on in the county."

He pointed to the "wonderful coastland, absolutely transformed in the last 25 years".

He highlighted achievements including the County Durham restoration of 16,000 hectares of peatland - an area the size of Newcastle - avoiding a massive carbon loss equal to taking 2,800 cars off the roads.

The Northern Echo: A Dingy Skipper butterfly.A Dingy Skipper butterfly.

Other projects included restoring 12 miles of unique Durham coastline, planting 200,000 trees, improving river water quality and work on grassland, wetland, trees, hay meadows, woodland, marine environment, public access to nature and training for farmers, contractors and volunteers.

The Durham Wildlife Trust had helped restore forestry and save a species of butterfly from extinction.

The Tees Swale project - "arguably the biggest nature conservation project in the country" - covered 850sqkm working with 300 farmers.

Mr Woodley-Stewart said it was "critical" to showcase local people's efforts to inspire others.

He added: "What we need here is interest, care and action.

"These things are growing but they come from enjoyment and discovery and they start with stories more than they start with statistics.

"There's a huge amount of really good work going on engaging young people particularly in their environment in this county.

"If you're doing all you can... these things will connect. It's about making connections for nature, making areas of habitat as big as we can, as well connected as we can, and it's very much a team game.

"Supporting those organisations that do that work is important."

He said work with thousands of schoolchildren and "making this stuff fun" helped convince people of grassland's importance.

He added: "It is a battle. I absolutely accept that and it won't be overnight."

Asked what could be done in County Durham, the council's head of environment Oliver Sherratt spoke of promoting experience of nature, improving knowledge to get more people involved in supporting conservation and managing habitats.

Principal ecologist Stuart Priestley gave a presentation on the decline of species, including grass snake extinction, and the condition of sites and rivers.

He said: "There'll also be an argument that if you declare an emergency you need to be putting more resource into this."

He said work converting green areas slowly persuaded people that "mown and manicured is not necessarily the way forward".

The Northern Echo: Cllr Jonathan Elmer. Picture: Paul Norris.Cllr Jonathan Elmer. Picture: Paul Norris.

Committee vice chairman Cllr Jonathan Elmer said a cross-council review was proposed, with an "ecological recovery map" acting as a blueprint on what needs to be done.

He said: "This isn't just about having a pretty street.

"It's also about the fundamental aspects of our future survival as well.

"So there's a need for a step change in the way we deliver education."

Cllr Dan Nicholls said: "You don't need to convince me that we need to declare an emergency. We absolutely do.

"What's in nature's best interests is almost always in our best interests as well.

"Nature's taking back and nature can heal. If we can give it a helping hand it will do the rest.

"Durham and County Durham can really be a beacon for this and show other places how it's done and the benefits of it.

"More and more people want to live in County Durham as a beautiful place. I think we need to get on with it and reap the rewards."

Cllr Chris Lines suggested the crisis could be built into neighbourhood budgets.

He said: "We need hope. It's a tricky balance to strike.

"It's vital that we don't dilute the urgency and the alarm in any declaration but we need to affirm to residents that we really can claw back the 5-0 deficit."

Cllr Eddy Adam said funding needed to be built in or "these things that we're talking about here today will not be achieved".

Councillors were in favour of declaring an ecological emergency.

The committee agreed to send an interim report to the council cabinet in April, then a full report in June.