This article first appeared in the October 2022 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
Recently, the Somerset Levels were declared a Super Nature Reserve. The conservation efforts of the RSPB and others have paid off with an avifauna not seen since the feared fens of medieval East Anglia. Cranes dance, bitterns boom, and herons breed in quantity and variety. It’s a wonderful, acknowledged success.
I’d like to believe it is all the result of detailed planning and foresight by government. Sadly we know different. The truth is that it is only partly down to long-sighted nature lovers. Other factors combined with that goodwill. Climate change has meant flooding that should happen once a century has happened three times in a decade. Unfarmed land loses value, planned housing schemes finally get the hint that building on flood plains is an expensive non-sense and pandemic induced local nature tourism suddenly became a cash cow without government subsidy.
Our husbanding of natural resources has a long history of accidental conservation. The plains of the southwest are still buzzing with insects and hopping with seasonal frogs only because firing ranges are not ideal for trekking and unexploded ordnance an incidental protector of ground nesting birds.
Slag heaps are bulldozed for safety and left to revert. Brownfield sites where economic recession left industrial wastelands and polluted land cost too much to clear for housing serendipitously aided Black Redstarts and inland Kittiwakes, Marsh Warblers and Turtle Doves.
Forest were grown to fuel the fires of war, from Elizabeth’s Wooden Warships to the Great War’s pit props and trench planks.
What of our National Parks… surely that was a deliberate strategy to help nature? Nope! It was all about leftover Victorian appreciation of the picaresque. Soviet Russia and The US declare vast tracts of land National Parks to preserve wilderness and wild beasts… the Brits left land unbuilt on so poets could muse and landscape artists fill their boots. Our National Parks are frozen portraits of an idealised past where patchwork fields were shepherded by simple ploughboys and bucolic haymakers fat on honey and barley wine. Elsewhere our uplands were cleared of annoying rural workers save those who could beat the heather or feed the gamebirds on pasture given over to ‘noble’ pursuits.
Government never cared, but they should grasp opportunity now. A super nature reserve in the southwest should just be the start. Unless we embrace the concept some parts of the UK will be all carparks and motorways, commuter homes and chemical farms.
My corner of the southeast was once the garden of England. Its rapidly becoming the next economic and natural disaster area. Before long, and too late, someone somewhere will realise that building homes where there are no jobs, without schools, hospitals or parks, is creating future slums and enclaves hopelessness.
We could do so much better.
How about proper national parks where whole valleys and marshlands are put under conservation. Where the only subsidies are to ensure organic farming, or to reduce grazing to lower levels. Where ordinary householders may only keep microchipped cats and dogs indoors or on leads. Where we all sign up never to use chemicals in our gardens. Where marshland is restored and given over to nature and ingress is controlled so we can appreciate, but not damage the habitat.
Marginal agricultural land is heavily subsidised still, making food prices higher. Let’s divert that cash to restore nature for its own sake as well as ours. Breath-taking, chocolate-box views may bring in overseas visitors, but we all now know that we need real nature – tooth, claw, pungent odours, biting insects, nettles, brambles and all.