Unnatural habitats

Nature conservation is big business. There are, for example, more trees in Britain now than at any time since the Middle Ages. But, asks Peter Marren, is this actually good news for the countryside?
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The Independent Online

The road banks near Cirencester were bright with flowers this spring. But they were not the ones you would expect to find on a Cotswold hillside. These were a vivid purple-red, and their seeds had been sprayed on by a lorry, complete with a dollop of fertiliser and mulch. In all probability, they came from a consignment of seeds labelled "wild flowers" – maybe even "Cotswold mix" – and, like most such seeds, they originate not from natural meadows, but from the plant breeder's laboratory. Nevertheless, this project, and countless others like it, is considered to be a contribution to Britain's natural diversity, and is funded on that basis.

The road banks near Cirencester were bright with flowers this spring. But they were not the ones you would expect to find on a Cotswold hillside. These were a vivid purple-red, and their seeds had been sprayed on by a lorry, complete with a dollop of fertiliser and mulch. In all probability, they came from a consignment of seeds labelled "wild flowers" – maybe even "Cotswold mix" – and, like most such seeds, they originate not from natural meadows, but from the plant breeder's laboratory. Nevertheless, this project, and countless others like it, is considered to be a contribution to Britain's natural diversity, and is funded on that basis.

Last year the Forestry Commission announced that there are now 25 trees for every man, woman and child in the country. That is twice as many trees as there were a century ago, and probably more than at any time since the Middle Ages. This was also represented as a triumph for nature conservation. Yet about 20 of these 25 trees are either saplings or conifers, and they will have come from a nursery. Moreover, these trees are of foreign origin. The hawthorns used for new hedging are said to come from Hungary. Most of the newly planted oaks are from Germany. Our new woods will be nothing if not cosmopolitan, but sometimes they are planted in places which, in conservation terms, would be better left alone.

Enthusiasts have even discovered ways of effectively "planting" wild animals. A month ago, we learned that the osprey had returned to Rutland Water. In fact, it did not have much choice. Migrating ospreys instinctively return to the place where they were born, which in this case was a cage overlooking a reservoir. The youngsters had been reared, and, after release, fed with regularly replenished fishy snacks. And in case they have any difficulty settling in after their winter holiday, artificial nests have been built for them. This year anyone visiting Rutland Water will be able to see an osprey, providing they pay up £3 for the privilege.

Since projects like this are expensive and need partnership funding, they are likely to be confined to big, impressive animals (sponsors have been hard to find for endangered beetles or water snails). Even so, we may soon have "planted" beavers in Argyll, choughs in Cornwall, martens in southern England, and – who knows – maybe wild oxen in Oxon or lynx in Lincs. But where does nature conservation turn into zookeeping? Does the "wild" in wildlife matter?

Nature conservation has come a long way in the past 20 years. As a business, it has blossomed and flourished, turning from a minority pursuit with an income of less than £10m to a popular crusade with an annual turnover of at least 20 times that. With growing wealth and influence has come a much more businesslike approach, and a sophisticated public-relations machine. Wildlife is commonly "sold", using attractive animals such as otters to attract more custom in the form of membership subscriptions and legacies. To do so more effectively, they borrow the aspirant language of government and businesses. The Wildlife Trusts partnership talks confidently of "green shoots of recovery starting to come through". The Woodland Trust is busy "planting the seeds of hope". The general sense of what they are saying is that the losses of wildlife we have experienced are recoverable, once "environmentally friendly" policies start to kick in, and so long as we go on supporting the trusts.

If so, it has to be said that there is not the slightest sign of it so far. It would take a hard heart to mock David Bellamy's vision of "skylarks singing over every home in the land", but the sad truth is that skylark numbers are going down, not up, having fallen by more than half since 1975. And they go on falling, despite supposedly environment-friendly farming schemes like ESAs (Environmentally Sensitive Areas) or Countryside Stewardship. The well-researched reason is that the larks cannot find enough to eat in the modern British countryside. We are just too efficient.

The idea of happy families living in close harmony with larks or cuckoos or otters is a touchy-feely, human fantasy. The truth is that, as a species, our attitude to the natural world is ruthless and exploitative. To which one might add, hypocritical. The Government's support for GM crops threatens to finish off the skylark in sugar-beet growing areas. Another government policy is to increase skylarks. Meanwhile, their natural habitats continue to suffer eradication by a thousand cuts.

A recent report by the Wildlife Trusts and Plantlife reveals that counties have lost up to half of their remaining meadows during the past 10 years. In other words, since conservation schemes like stewardship and environmentally sensitive areas were introduced. Many meadows are too small and isolated to qualify for support, but we are also in the ridiculous situation where a farmer receives three times as much money to sow a new meadow as he does to preserve an old one. It is as if government believes that wildlife is a kind of crop that can be created by agricultural methods. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. New meadows are not as good for wildlife as old ones.

We are at risk of deluding ourselves that losses in wildlife and natural habitat can be made good by the methods of the landscape architect and town planner. Resources are being made available for techniques of habitat creation, rather than for protection, in the evident belief that the public benefit will be greater. This is a self-serving fallacy, and it ignores very real dangers.

These, as I see it, are twofold. Habitat creation channels the available resources into projects that, even if successful, can only produce a feeble, second-rate copy of the real thing: sown grassland, planted trees, released wildlife. The wilting saplings in their rows of Tuley tubes, and resembling a cemetery more than a wood, will never look anything like the New Forest. Competition will soon reduce the most fragrant wild-flower seed-mix to ryegrass and thistles. Far from being the policy of the future, the planned countryside that is seemingly the ideal of planners everywhere is a tacit admission that we have failed completely to preserve a pleasant, diverse countryside. Actually, although things are in truth bad, they are not yet that bad.

Worse, the excitement of habitat creation overlooks the fundamental problems. The uplands are overgrazed from top to bottom. The lowlands are awash with chemicals in the soil and in the waterways. And then there is climate change, and the blitzing of foreign plant and animal invasions it will bring. This is why it is essential to maintain a distinction between what is wild and natural, and what is created and man-made.

If habitat creation comes to mean conservation, then we will have transformed the remaining wild countryside into a suburban garden. In a sense, we will have created the environment we deserve: fake, second-rate and based on illusions. Shortly before writing this, I went for a walk in a local bluebell wood. The blooms have rarely looked so ravishing, the sky truly breaking through the earth, as Tennyson described it. And, as I reached the far side, at least a mile from the nearest road, and a long way from any garden, I found a purple Polyanthus flower on a bank among the fading primroses. Did it get there naturally, or was it planted by a well-meaning idiot? May this be the primrose of the future? And, if so, will we miss the old one?

'Nature Conservation: The conservation of wildlife in Britain 1950-2001', by Peter Marren, is published by HarperCollins, price £19.99

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