To save the world, start here

The end of the tiger may make headlines, but the flora and fauna in our own backyard is equally in danger of extinction. Nicholas Schoon has a solution
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The Independent Online
We thought the tiger, that most potent symbol of endangered wildlife, was safe. But India's efforts to save the great cat from poaching and habitat destruction are failing. The tiger is heading for extinction in the wild.

When we think of the rapid, man-made decline in the world's wealth of plant and animal species we think of developing countries. We ought to focus more of our worries on our own backyard where wildlife is equally precious and threatened, but where there is a much better chance of success.

Our influence in India, Kenya, Brazil and the like is limited. We can condemn and cajole but treasuring the animals and surviving wildernesses of far-off lands is insufficient incentive to save them, even if millions of us were to become eco-tourists.

Meanwhile, here in Britain we have done more harm to our own depleted, abused countryside and wildlife in the past 40 years than in the 400 before that. Our priority must be to get conservation working properly here, because we have the resources and the knowledge to do so. We ought to be setting an example, because for decades Britain has been what most of the developing world is becoming - a densely populated, intensely urbanised land where the bulk of the countryside is used for intensive food production. That is what most of the world will be like in the next millennium.

Our ancestors waged war on the wild, felling the forests which once covered most of the country and ruthlessly exterminating the predators which hunted their gamebirds and farm animals. We lost the wolf, the wild boar and the beaver. But, like a triumphant guerrilla army, wildlife came back with a combination of flexibility and opportunism, taking advantage of the way in which people changed the land. A rich variety of insects, birds and flowers flourished in man-made habitats such as heathland, marshy hay meadows, chalk downland and coppice woodland.

Then, halfway through this century, nature went into rapid retreat as intensive farming - driven first by government and then by European Union subsidies - took off. Ancient pastures were ploughed up and doused with pesticides and fertiliser. Countryside was gobbled up by suburbs and new roads. Survey after survey showed plant and animal species in decline and some becoming extinct at the hand of man.

The rush to destruction has slowed, thanks to public pressure and a dawning comprehension that subsidising farmers to grow too much food and ruin the countryside in the process is insane. We can now help nature make a comeback.

Should we bother? Conservationists argue that the world's immense variety of plants and animals - about 13.6 million species - include as yet undiscovered ones which could pave the way for important new drugs or crop varieties. They say natural habitats like rainforests provide "ecosystem services" - they regulate the regional climate, keep the life-giving rain falling yet prevent it causing soil erosion.

Such reasons for conserving nature may apply in the tropics, but they won't wash in Britain. We got rid of the great bulk of our forests, our most extensive natural habitat, more than 1,000 years ago without any catastrophic results for climate, agriculture or economic growth. It is unlikely that some endangered species found in these islands will one day provide a great medical or agricultural breakthrough.

You could argue that our native wild species have some intrinsic right to exist but you'd be entering a philosophical minefield. Much better to fall back on the unarguable, practical point that wildlife is popular. There is a huge and growing public appetite for conservation. One example: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds hopes to recruit its millionth member next year.

Technology and urbanisation have forced us away from the land. We love nature in the abstract but are pretty ignorant about it. A recent survey found that a third of 1,000 primary school children thought badgers were not native to Britain.

How should we protect and encourage nature? The purist, deep green view, is that we ought to somehow withdraw and let nature get on with recreating a primeval wilderness bereft of man. This seems hopelessly inappropriate for Britain. Two per cent of the nation's area is now owned by nature conservation bodies and devoted primarily to wildlife conservation. The rest is for humans - for our buildings and roads, for growing crops and timber, raising livestock, game birds and deer for shooting.

On a small proportion of this manscape landowners regard nature conservation as an important secondary consideration. But on the remainder, wild species have to fit in as best they can, along road verges, hedgerows, in suburban gardens and on derelict urban land.

There is going to be more and more heated debate about what nature conservation is for, how it should be done, how money should be allocated. An uninformed, urban public leans to the deep green view that nature should just be left alone, unharmed and undisturbed, to get along with being wild.

But the conservation professionals working for the government and wildlife charities have a more informed, quite different view. They see nature's recovery as having to be carefully managed by man. Habitats have to be manipulated to provide the desired balance of plants and animals, otherwise you just get a mess of brambles and bracken.

One director of English Nature, the government's wildlife conservation arm, puts it thus: ``It is not just a case of fencing off an area and letting nature take its course. That way, the toughest and coarsest species would obliterate everything else.''

Conservationists argue that Britain's flora and fauna is largely the result of man's traditional uses of the land and the semi-natural habitats they created. But those traditions, such as cutting reeds, grazing heathlands and coppicing woodlands, have largely died out so they need to be revived for the sake of wildlife - using labour-saving machinery to save money.

It is a sort of scientific gardening on a grand scale and it is already leading to strange conflicts. Gangs of conservation volunteers cheerfully chainsaw and burn birch trees on lowland heaths. Why? Because the invading birch is slowly turning the heath back into the forest it was thousands of years ago, before people cleared it for hunting and grazing. The conservationists want to preserve the heaths as habitat for the rare sand lizard, natterjack toad and Dartford warbler - species which would vanish if it became forest again. But they find themselves accosted by outraged walkers and nearby residents demanding to know why they are felling innocent trees.

Conservationists protect endangered, nesting seabirds from foxes by picking off the predators with high-powered rifles. Grey squirrels are routinely poisoned because they are out-competing the red squirrel and chewing saplings to death. Conservationists do not boast about these awkward interventions. The conservationists' holy grail is for the entire pounds 3bn a year of taxpayers' money now subsidising British agriculture to be made conditional on farmers protecting or encouraging wildlife and traditional landscapes.

At the moment only pounds 100m a year of these subsidies, just 3 per cent, is linked to looking after nature. If this sweeping reform took place the conservationists would then be heavily involved in advising farmers and in keeping check on whether all that subsidy was succeeding in making species flourish. They would also have succeeded in aligning their interests with those of the country landowners of Britain, one of the most subsidised and influential groups in Britain. Both groups would have a big interest in the subsidies continuing indefinitely.

But as they make progress towards that goal they will face a rising backlash from townies questioning whether nature conservation is a proper use of large sums of taxpayers' money.

That is one forthcoming conflict. Another split is emerging between professional conservationists and ecologists who work in cities and those who work deep in the country. The urbanites celebrate the way nature takes over derelict factory sites and abandoned railway lines with a riot of vegetation. They also welcome the fact that these plant species are often "exotics" from overseas, brought in accidentally. But rural conservationists often fear and loathe these aliens. They detest the way in which species like the sycamore, rhododendron and grey squirrel are barging their way across Britain. There is no doubt that some exotics do harm native species. Yet in a city-dwelling, globally trading Britain the urban ecologists' tolerant outlook has much to commend it.

Even if it never reaches its pounds 3bn-a-year holy grail, the nature conservation cause is set to gain more influence and money. But there are four goals its adherents should keep in mind if they want to keep the public on their side.

First, go with the flow of nature and favour low-cost, low-intervention methods. Second, reach out to educate and enthuse young people. Third, bring nature to town. For every tract of semi-wilderness conservationists buy in Britain's uplands there should be half a dozen small reserves created or protected in urban areas which people can easily visit. And four, aim to create an authentic British wilderness within the next half century, a huge native, broadleaf forest stretching for dozens of miles. Bring back a sizeable chunk of the wildwood which covered most of post Ice-Age Britain 6,000 years ago, when man recolonised these islands. It should be a forest large enough to support sustainable populations of big herbivores like deer and wild boar.

We in Britain may not be able to save the tiger in Asia, but we could and should return the wolf to these shores.

An Independent/World Wide Fund for Nature Book, Going, Going, Gone by Nicholas Schoon is published by Bookman this week, price pounds 6.50.