Victoria Summerley: City Life

'At a time when we are more aware of environmental threats to wildlife, we seem to be shooing it out of our lives'
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The Independent Online

I went to a briefing this week on climate change, at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Headed by Dr Vicky Pope, who is head of the climate-prediction programme at the Met Office, the event was aimed at gardeners, and addressed how conditions would change in gardens in the next 20, 40, 80 years. Hot, dry summers will become much more common, with water shortages becoming an annual fixture. In winter there will be far fewer frost-free days, and much more rain, leading to problems with waterlogging. By 2080, summer temperatures in the South-east are likely to hit 40C on a regular basis.

The gardeners at the forum were rather worried about this. What sort of plants would they be able to grow? Would the cottage garden still be viable in 2080? Not one, having seen the charts showing galloping global warming over the past 60 years, asked, "What can I do, right now, to help make things better? Could even switching my greenhouse off help to cut down on greenhouse gases?".

You probably read the prediction above and thought, yes, I know all that. We all know it. We all think we're so environmentally conscious these days, yet we probably live less green lifestyles than ever before. Indeed, those of us that are householders seem hell-bent on creating an organism-exclusion zone around our properties as fast as possible. We concrete over the front garden so there is somewhere to park the car. We concrete over the back garden because we can't be bothered to mow lawns or maintain planting. Yet this has been shown to contribute to the risk of flooding by cutting back on the amount of "soakaway" available (not to mention the loss of habitat for birds and insects).

We rip down plants and trees on or near our properties because some loss adjuster somewhere thinks there's a chance they might cause damage. But these plants may provide insulation in winter or shade in summer that could make a crucial difference to the amount of energy we use to heat or cool our homes.

In the road next to mine, the council has cut down 100-year-old London planes because the roots were affecting the courts at the local tennis club. Yet recent research tells us that street trees are vital to the health of cities, and even reduce the risk of asthma by filtering particles out of the atmosphere.

And despite all the advice telling us that encouraging wildlife into our gardens helps the environment, we seem determined to make it as difficult as possible for birds and bugs to get a toehold in them. The latest victims of the desire to wrap our homes in some sort of impermeable bubble are house martins, whose numbers are down by 20 per cent this year, according to the British Trust for Ornithology. The Trust believes that the birds have been affected by cold weather in southern Europe on their return from Africa this spring, but they are also worried by the number of householders who are ripping out house-martin nests because of the mess caused by bird droppings.

Other victims of zealous refurbishers have been sparrows, who love to roost in ivy growing on walls, or in the eaves; and hedgehogs, whose numbers are declining as a result of loss of habitat (tidier gardens mean less chance of finding a home) and poison, in the form of slug pellets (because we can't bear the idea of a few holes in a few leaves, or don't want to be limited to plants that are slug- or snail-resistant).

Of course, there are a number of factors that contribute to the decline of any particular species. But what puzzles me is that, at a time when we are allegedly more aware of environmental threats to wildlife, we seem to be busier than ever when it comes to shooing it out of our lives. We have become murderous control freaks who demand plants that don't grow very big, wildlife that is cute, furry and non-threatening, and climate-change action or legislation that doesn't involve higher fuel prices or, indeed, penalties of any kind that might impact on our comfortable lives. The hot air from all the whingeing that has gone on in London – one of the busiest, most traffic-choked cities in the world – about the congestion charge and the low-emission zone has probably made a significant contribution to greenhouse gases all by itself.

So, what can we do? Well, start by going to the Energy Saving Trust website at www.energysavingtrust.org.uk, or call 0800 512 012 to speak to your local Energy Saving Trust centre. They will do a quick home-check to look at ways you can save energy in your own property, and they have lots of advice about grants and offers and renewable energy and energy-saving products.

I'm going to have a look, too. I don't use slug pellets, I haven't concreted over my front garden for parking, I don't object to paying the congestion charge, and I would welcome house martins with open arms. But unfortunately, when it comes to making inconvenient green changes to my lifestyle, yes, I'm just as lazy as everyone else.

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