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12 August 2018

What Countryside?

Tag(s): Sustainability
It would seem that the British love the countryside more than almost any other nation, yet we have come to live amid one of the most denatured landscapes on Earth. We have many organisations dedicated to the protection or conservation of aspects of our environment but they rarely work together and indeed may work against each other as I will show later. Some of these organisations have huge membership. The National Trust has 5 million members, one in 13 of the population and 1 in 10 of all voters. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has 1.2 million members, while the Wildlife Trusts have 800,000. Then there are twelve other organisations all with substantial support: Friends of the Earth UK (300,000), the Woodland Trust (227,516 and claiming 500,000 supporters), Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (over 200,000). Greenpeace (120,000), Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) (over 60,000 including my wife and me), Butterfly Conservation (26,000), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (19,586), British Trust for Ornithology (17,256), PlantLife (11,000), the John Muir Trust (over 10,000), Hawk and Owl Trust (7,000), and Marine Conservation Society (5,500).

While some people will belong to more than one of these organisations, nevertheless the total membership adds up to over 8 million. Contrast that with the membership of the main political parties in the UK. As of January 2018, Labour had 552,000 members, compared to 124,000 Conservative members reported in March 2018. As of April 2018, the Scottish National Party had 118,000 which considering their members will almost exclusively come from the Scottish population of circa 5.4 million means it’s the largest per capita; the Liberal Democrats 101,000, the Green Party 41,000, UKIP 21,000 and Plaid Cymru 8,000 members.  These totals come to just 965,000, so eight times as many of us subscribe to a nature conservation movement than to a political party. So why don’t our apparent desires have the desired effect?

In 2013 some of these organisations and a number of others, twenty five in all, did collaborate to produce the first publication of the State of Nature (2013) report. It summarises all types of expertise from herpetologists (amphibians/reptiles) to mycologists (fungi), and looked at organisms you’ve probably neither heard of (bryophytes), nor seen (liverworts). But it also covers bats, birds, bugs, bumblebees and butterflies. It investigated the health and prospects of British wildlife in a way that had never been attempted before. It analysed population data of 3,148 different species and it concluded that of these 60% had declined in the past 50 years, and 31% had declined badly. About 20% of these species were threatened with extinction.

Particularly badly affected are once common farmland birds such as grey partridges and turtle doves. Their losses exceed 90% since 1970. The farmland bird index has been utilised right across Europe, and Britain has the worst statistics of any of the countries. Yet while the RSPB boasts 1.2 million members its equivalent in France (League pour la Protection des Oiseaux) has 46,000 members. The German counterpart (Natürschutzbund Deutschland) has 478,000. The Dutch Vogelbescherming Nederland has 154,000 while the Spanish version (Sociedad Espanola de Ornitologica) has 12,000. If we factor in the relative populations then the UK membership is more than twice the size of the Dutch, three times the size of the German, 25 times greater than the French and 87 times that of the Spanish.

Since the 2013 report State of Nature 2016 has been published. This now includes the capacity to extrapolate from the disparate figures an overarching unified assessment of how nature fares in any country. This specific metric – the Biological Intactness Index (BII) – calculates how complete a country’s biodiversity is and how much has disappeared as a result of human activities going back centuries. The BII suggests that the UK has experienced a significantly greater long-term loss of nature than the global average. We are among the world’s most nature-depleted countries. If one considers just England the figure is 80.6% and in a list of the 218 countries on Earth for which BII values have been calculated, England is twenty-eighth from the bottom.

The writer and naturalist Mark Cocker brings great clarity to these problems in his outstanding book Our Place[i] which has the subtitle Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? He then tries to answer his own question by outlining Ten Truths about the British Environment and what mankind has done and is still doing to it.
  1. In the 20th century the British people devastated huge areas of their environment, mainly through farming and forestry policies. These crimes were compounded by paying taxpayers’ money in subsidies to the destroyers. 99% of 4 million acres of flower-rich meadow was wiped out and 44 million breeding birds disappeared from the countryside.
Coastlines have been better protected largely through the National Trust. Density of occupation is a significant factor as the UK, particularly England, is one of the most densely populated nations on Earth but it’s not the only factor as monocultures like sheep and non-native conifers have displaced much more diverse wildlife and plants in the hillsides. Indeed species diversity can be much greater in urban and suburban areas causing the great naturalist Tony Hare to say: ‘Whenever people talk to me about the British countryside, I ask ‘What countryside?’ ‘. Mr. Hare became so despondent about all this that he took his own life.
  1. The State of Nature reports indicate a direction of travel not a final location. No single generation since the First World War has bequeathed a healthier British countryside than the one they inherited. The one species whose population grows inexorably is man and that puts ever greater pressure on natural resources. In this country there is a huge demand for more housing and so more roads. The last Labour government deliberately allowed mass immigration. The present government talks about containing it but fails to do so. It also says it will reverse these trends and improve the environment. But its actions like HS2 and a third runway at Heathrow all have the opposite effect.
  2. The third Truth is about understanding nature. Ecology as a formal discipline has only been in existence for about 150 years. But maybe before that as most men and women lived in the countryside they may have had a better instinctive understanding of nature as a circular process. Many of our so-called innovations to improve productivity in agriculture have a linear effect such as the spraying of pesticides and the use of nitrate fertilisers. So while fertilisers boost crop production they also accumulate in the aquifers and must be stripped at high cost from our drinking water. They convert to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 200 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This downstream cost is double the value of the original gain in crop output.
  3. Nature is irregular. Urban man wants neatness in his environment. This leads to wanton and unnecessary destruction. Our public places and our private spaces like our gardens are all systematically and ruthlessly tidied up at great cost to wildlife. Just think how many small creatures lose their lives or their habitat every time we mow the lawn. Instead of fitted grass carpets we could have zones of colour and diversity, rich in pollinating insects such as bumblebees and butterflies.
  4. Our political system and its structures are responsible for much of the damage. For centuries the House of Lords used their political privileges to protect their immense land holdings and for many of them its main purpose was as a source of recreation through the deliberate breeding of and then mass slaughter of millions of so-called game birds. The idea of protecting vast areas of natural reserve through the creation of national parks was only adopted after the Second World War and even then was resisted by the Scottish landowners so that no national park was created in Scotland.
  5. The British, more than almost any other country in Europe, are a landless people. In excess of 53 million of us possess an average of just seven one hundredths of an acre[ii]. Just 0.3% of Britain’s 65 million people own 69% of it all. In Scotland, which has the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in Europe, 75% of the entire country is held in estates of 1,000 acres or more. As land is the business of a tiny minority, it would seem that it just does not register with the British public. And perhaps that explains how we have put up with a massive transfer through farm subsidies from the poor to the wealthy. In the 12 years to 2011 just 50 Scottish farmers received £230.6 million in subsidy between them, an annual average of £384,000. At least we should ask why?
  6. There is also the question of what denaturing our landscape has done to the human spirit. Marine and terrestrial life do not just feed our stomachs. They feed our souls. Diversity in nature inspires creativity in all the arts. Aldous Huxley once suggested that if you took birds out of  English poetry you would have to dispose of half the nation’s verse canon. If one had to redact the references to nature from the complete works of William Shakespeare, then one would have to disfigure virtually every single page he wrote and ruin whole plays and sonnets. And the best of our painters, Constable and Turner, mainly painted from nature.
  7. There have been many attempts to protect areas of land or types of species but the whole structure has become too complex. It is as if the environmentalists have fallen into the same trap as scientists and professionals of developing an arcane impenetrable language as a barrier around their craft. This weakens their case in the court of public opinion. It should be simplified as, for example, the notion of a UNESCO World Heritage Site actually covers many different areas of human interest but all are under the same architecture and universally understood and respected.
  8. If this step could be taken then the next should be simpler and even more powerful. The media refer to the ‘environmental movement’ or the ‘green lobby’ but in truth it is highly fragmented with no national coordination. This is one reason, maybe the main one, why it has had so much collective failure. When a small charity is set up to protect the lesser spotted hedge fly, objections to some developer’s plan which will wipe out this humble creature’s habitat  are easily overcome by the developer’s lawyers and spin doctors. They talk up the economic needs for the project and so both the objections and the fly are swatted.
My own CPRE leads on the battle to protect the Green Belt and I fully support them in this. I am currently supporting a local protest movement over a plan to build a giant waste incinerator on Green Belt land just a few miles from our home. One of CPRE’s main arguments is that there is plenty of so-called brown field land on which such developments could be built. But some brown field sites may also be rich in wildlife. There needs to be a coordinating principle that can work in everyone’s interest.
  1. In matters of wildlife loss none of us is innocent. Every one of us is to blame. We are the problem. Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of our lives, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet as a place for humans and all other forms of life to co-exist. But while we may be responsible, every one of us is, therefore, potentially part of the solution. We merely have to act to make a difference.

[i] Our Place Mark Cocker. Jonathan Cape. London 2018
[ii] My wife and I own four times that but it still does not seem like a big piece of land.

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