If you visit the Isle of Wight regularly or perhaps have a home here, you will hardly need reminding that it’s a very special place. But in 2019, it was recognised by UNESCO (perhaps better known for awarding World Heritage Sites) as a biosphere reserve.
For many, this will immediately bring to mind Cornwall’s Eden Project, but a biosphere designation is much more than that and covers the whole Island. The Isle of Wight is one of only a handful of UK regions to be awarded this special status and the first for over seven years. It also covers much of the water surrounding the Island, so you enter the biosphere as you sail across from Lymington or Portsmouth with Wightlink.
Much of the Isle of Wight is already an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), in the company of national beauty spots like the Chilterns or the Cotswold Hills. UNESCO recognised the Island’s unique combination of amazing geology, diverse natural habitats and wildlife as well as how the environment has been enhanced by the people who live here. Producing a bounty of quality, locally-produced food and providing a range of activities from walking and watersports to fossil hunting and stargazing.
AONB status covers over half of the Island and highlights the quality and variety of our natural habitats and wildlife. We are famous for our red squirrels and woodlands, which without deer has allowed for space for animals such as dormice and bats of all varieties. The Island also has the only population of the reddish buff moth in the UK. The biosphere takes this all a stage further; UNESCO looks at how the people who live and visit here work with the natural world to ensure a sustainable future. In particular, UNESCO recognises the Isle of Wight is an area where people actively promote high levels of awareness and understanding about their environment and then find ways to raise involvement throughout the community.
Many Isle of Wight organisations and businesses have helped make this happen. The Tomato Stall is a commercial nursery which stood out for the innovative use of technology in the production of its delicious fresh produce. Local ‘environmental impact’ company Artecology has been working in partnership with local ferry company, Wightlink, to create ‘vertipools’. These provide spaces, between the low and high tide marks, that allow nature to thrive within the ferry terminals, that would otherwise be relatively urbanised parts of the coast. These award-winning vertipools now provide sustainable homes for 29 marine species including fish, shellfish and crabs.
There are a great many other examples like these, which UNESCO felt underlined why the Isle of Wight was worthy of becoming its latest biosphere reserve. On its own website, it acknowledged that the Island had a long tradition of promoting environmental initiatives. UNESCO summarised its ecological and socio-economic findings as follows:
The Isle of Wight represents a unique assemblage of species. It is a nexus between the northernmost point for some species and the southernmost for others, for example the Glanville fritillary butterfly is found in abundance on the southern cliffs of the Island, yet is exceptionally rare elsewhere in Britain.
The Isle of Wight woodlands are unique in the UK for the co-existence of stable populations of red squirrels, hazel dormice, Bechstein’s and barbastelle bats in woodland which is not influenced by deer or grey squirrel.
The Isle of Wight has a number of distinct economic strengths, including a strong, modern manufacturing sector, plus a healthy level of self-employment and micro-businesses, many of which are attracted by the quality of place offered by the Island. These, allied to the visitor economy and the offer to tourists, provide the opportunity for sustainable growth.
The Island became a biosphere reserve in the same year that ‘climate strike’ was named the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year. There’s never been a time when the importance of conserving and living in harmony with our natural environment has been as high profile. It’s an enormous achievement for the whole Island to receive this international endorsement, providing a well-deserved pat on the back for everyone who has been hands-on over the years.
Hopefully it will inspire us all to get out and actively enjoy everything the Isle of Wight has to offer whilst appreciating the effort required to protect and maintain it for the future.
Originally produced, in part, for Wightlife magazine