‘What makes Britain punch above its weight in biodiversity terms is not superior protection but geography …’
Last week, we featured on this blog Simon Barnes’ look at the next 25 years of British conservation. This week we offer another extract from the magazine, this time from Peter Marren’s August piece on the last 25 years.
Perhaps the greatest contrast between 1989 and today, however, is to be found not in the state of nature but in human perception. We are better informed about our world than we were then. Children learn all about environmental responsibility at school, even if they do not learn much about nature. Today everyone knows about climate change whether or not they choose to believe it (the wildlife believes it; that is why our more mobile species are moving farther north year by year). Many people have acquired an environmental conscience. They recycle glass and plastic, and insulate the house, and perhaps buy organic produce and fair-trade goods. They see trees as planet-saving, and they support windfarms and fuss about carbon footprints and air miles. ‘Green’ policies now permeate society and are upheld to different degrees by all political parties. One of the benefits of this new-found earth-consciousness is that farmers and landowners are willing to be a little kinder to the land; they plant hedges and preserve copses, and some try to reduce their dependency on poisons and chemicals. Local authorities routinely plant wild flowers on verges and in other public spaces. Every little helps.
One of the outcomes of the ‘big green swing’ has been the growth in membership of wildlife bodies, aided by successful television series such as Springwatch. Since 1989 the RSPB has doubled its membership to over a million, a measure of just how popular birdwatching has become. The county wildlife trusts, too, have a healthy membership of around 800,000. Even a relatively small charity such as Butterfly Conservation now has about 400 members for every native species of butterfly. The trusts have also got richer, not only through increased membership but also from Heritage Lottery grants and other windfalls such as tax credits and legacies. They can afford to do more than they used to. As a career opportunity, nature offers much more today than it did in 1989, whether in broadcasting and filming, wildlife holidays, consultancies and charities or in one of the government agencies.
State institutions with some responsibility for the natural environment have also grown in power and influence. The Environment Agency came into being in 1995, charged with keeping our beaches and rivers clean and healthy and reducing floods. The Broads, the New Forest and the South Downs have been designated as National Parks, along with, in Scotland, Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms. What, in 1989, was still the Nature Conservancy Council became three country agencies that by degrees took on other roles – land access and then farm income support – with a budget to match. They may lack political influence, but at least they have enough resources to operate the various official schemes to help wildlife – stewardship agreements, voluntary agreements on SSSIs and so on.
Perhaps the most interesting new idea since 1989 is that of rewilding. It began, in effect, with the highly successful reintroduction of the Red Kite into England and Scotland, followed by releases of White-tailed Eagles Haliaeetus albicilla, Great Bustards Otis tarda and Eurasian Cranes Grus grus into parts of their former range. In Scotland, the Eurasian Beaver Castor fiber has been semi-released on a trial basis; other animals have escaped from captivity and are surviving on the run. A few places have experimented with semi-wild beasts such as Konik ponies and water buffalo Bubalus as (in the jargon) ‘management tools’. There have also been attempts to create larger areas out of isolated habitats, most notably the Great Fen Project, in East Anglia, by restoring intervening land to wetland and wood. In Scotland, especially, there have been attempts to restore open hillsides with forest. All this has come together into a developing philosophy of ‘rewilding’ barren landscapes, partly for conservation reasons but also to satisfy a vaguely felt desire for wilder places with wild animals to match. It could even pave the way for the restoration of long-lost big beasts: Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx, Eurasian Elk Alces alces, European Bison Bison bonasus, even Wolves Canis lupus. It may happen, but it probably won’t.
Nature conservation in a densely populated, intensively farmed island like Britain is never going to be easy. With 383 people per square kilometre, England has three times the EU average population density. Moreover, there are, mainly through immigration, two million more of us than there were in 1989. The Continental model of creating National Parks in wild and remote places does not work here, mainly because England, at least, has so few such places. Our National Parks are normal countryside that just happens to be prettier than the places outside. There are planning constraints, slightly better resources and perhaps more rights of way, but that is about all. With the possible exceptions of the Broads and the New Forest, our Parks do not add significantly to the conservation of wildlife. Our British alternative, the SSSI, is a collection of often small, isolated ‘islands’ amid lifeless crops and suburban sprawl. What makes Britain punch above its weight in biodiversity terms is not superior protection but geography: our long coastline and our complex rocks, ranging from pre-Cambrian to post-glacial gravel, produce some of the most variable small-scale scenery in Europe. But we are also a cool, wet, everlastingly green island. Mosses and lichens do well in our damp Atlantic climate. In every other major terrestrial group except birds, however, we are impoverished compared with our nearest Continental neighbours.
Successful conservation is all the more difficult because there are pervasive things which we are unable to do much about. One of them is increased soil fertility, especially along roadsides and watercourses. A big increase in nitrogen from fertiliser and traffic emissions has shifted the balance of plant competition in favour of bulky, shading, fast-growing species such as Cow Parsley Anthriscus sylvestris, Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium, nettles and coarse grasses. Their spread comes at the expense of smaller plants that are thereby deprived of heat and light, as well as space. Increased fertility is probably linked to the increase in scrub in natural grassland and heaths and the spread of Tor-grass Brachypodium pinnatum on downland. Its most noticeable effect is fewer flowers (and hence less colour), less diversity and all that that implies for dependent invertebrates and food-webs. The failure to do anything about such observable changes in the soil is one of the more significant failures of conservation.
To the increased competition between native species must be added competition from introduced species. The globalisation of trade has vastly increased the number of ‘escaped’ plants, animals and invertebrates – you have only to look at the size of recent county floras to appreciate the scale of it. In some ways this is an exciting development, increasing the dynamic of nature and introducing a host of colourful and, mostly, harmless species to the urban landscape. The downside, however, is that a few of them become too successful, compete with native species and sometimes outcompete them. Everyone knows about the impact of American Mink Neovison vison, Grey Squirrel Sciurus carolinensis and Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis on native animals. More fundamental damage may be caused by humbler creatures such as the Harlequin Ladybird Harmonia axyridis or accidentally imported flatworms from far-away New Zealand. Aquatic habitats are particularly vulnerable to species we could well do without, such as Signal Crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus, various ‘killer shrimps’ and garden-pond throw-outs such as the pernicious New Zealand Pigmyweed Crassula helmsii. Most serious of all, we are introducing diseases that attack trees. Ash dieback is only the latest in a catalogue of new pathogens whose arrival and spread we seem powerless to prevent.
Then there is the weather. Climate change was a recent concern back in 1989. It is now, of course, at the forefront of the political agenda worldwide. In Britain every year seems to throw up new records, and the recent trend is for milder, wetter, less predictable seasons. If such places as the Somerset Levels continue to flood for months on end, farming there will become impossible. The gainer, potentially, will be nature. The same would be true if river catchments were afforested, or at least if they were afforested in the right way. But for now such gains are theoretical. Shifting seasons and bad summers create instability that throws the natural systems of the world into chaos. Climate change as we have experienced it in Britain so far is, on balance, not good for wildlife.
This is an excerpt; the full, much longer version of this article was published in August’s edition of British Wildlife magazine. Subscribe or order back-issues here: www.britishwildlife.com