Gove? Urgh. How Bad Can it Get?

Pob.jpg

Pob

So we get Gove. I don’t quite know what to make of this just yet. The man is clearly a venal little weasel, but then that doesn’t necessarily put him top (or bottom if you prefer) in my arbitrary list of awful choices for Secretary for (the environment), Food, and Rural Affairs. But then he has some pretty stiff competition.

The last seven years have seen some absolute corkers thrown up to plug the role of NFU yes-man (or woman). Although more recently the position appears to have become some form of purgatory for those who dare challenge the Maybot.

So here, in descending order, is my own personal league table of those who for the course of the now slowly dying Tory government have sullied the position by wilfully ignoring the whole ‘environment’ part of their job description.

Leadsom:

Ah, bless her. She didn’t really have a chance to demonstrate her skills. For the past year she has been about as visible as Hen Harriers on a grouse moor, probably discerning that it might be for the best to keep her head down and her face out of May’s eyeline. As a mother, and therefore with a vested interest in the future, you could have been mistaken for thinking that she would actually care about things like climate change and biodiversity. Instead her only contribution appears to have been washing up at the NFU conference and telling them they could have the moon on a stick after Brexit.

Spelman:

I must confess that Spelman is a bit of a blank spot in my mind, from which I deduce that she was a bit of a non-entity. However, from reading her wiki-bio it appears that in a rare example of someone actually being appointed to a government post they have real-life experience for, she worked for the NFU for 3 years. Admittedly that might have made her ever-so-slightly biased in her outlook. Apparently she also owns a lobbying firm for the food industry, so…swings and roundabouts, eh? Although, it’s clearly mainly swings, isn’t it?

Truss:

Comedy gold, if nothing else. And honestly, she wasn’t a lot else. Appears to be going from strength to strength post-post, which I can only assume is another example of May attempting to surround herself with people who can in no way show her up with their competence. During her tenure, Defra attempted to close the wildlife crime unit, funding was withdrawn from local environmental records centres and Pre-Referendum, Natural England tried to row back on some of the EPS license outlines. Used to work for Shell. But does at least acknowledge climate change.

Which brings us nicely on to…

Patterson:

The absolute nadir. A nincompoop of the highest order. A self-serving, self-aggrandising, smug, narrow-minded, punchable little shit. He of the badger relocated goalposts.

A Climate Change denier. Let me just repeat that…a climate change denier. As Secretary for the Environment. Refuses to listen to reason and science because he’s just got a gut feeling, y’know?

If you’re house has flooded in the last five years – blame Patterson.

If you’re a badger with a murdered family member – blame Patterson.

If parts of Essex are underwater in fifty years – blame Patterson

Famously referred to the environmental movement as ‘The Green Blob’. Again, let me repeat that, the Secretary for the Environment openly disparaged the environmental movement.

He’s since gone on to talk nonsense about Ecomodernism (how the environment can be saved be even more intensive farming) and, perhaps not surprisingly, to support the Leave campaign.

A jackass.

So go ahead, Gove. Do your worst. I suspect you’re not going to have very long to do it in anyway.

The State of Nature Report: PANIC!

The State of Nature report is out! Hurrah it is a time for rejoicing and celebration and…wait, no, that’s not right. If I could borrow from H2G2 for a moment, it would perhaps have been best if they’d just plastered PANIC! across the title page to save everyone the trouble of reading it.

And they’d have been right to do so, because if not now then when? When do we actually start to panic?

Well, not yet apparently. Because everything is fine. Everything is absolutely fine. It’ll all be OK. Climate change? Pah! Habitat loss? Nothing to it. Sixth extinction phase? What are you talking about? At least this is what some would have us believe.

The State of Nature report predictably, accurately (although perhaps not very diplomatically and without much of an eye towards future collaboration) laid the blame primarily at the farming sector. So it’s not surprising that a few predictables came out swinging with what amounts to barefaced lies backed up by irrelevant stats.

DEFRA – the Department for Farming – reassured everyone that “our natural environment is cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution – woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century, we have improved water quality in 9,000 miles of rivers since 2010 and in the last five years almost 19,000 miles of hedgerow have been planted.” Let me repeat that: our natural environment is cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution. Clearly poppycock but also the kind of wide ranging claim that it’s virtually impossible to actually disprove (or prove, but who needs to prove anything?).

The NFU, those paragons of restraint who absolutely do not have squatters rights at Westminster, came out with a peculiar statement claiming that it can’t be their fault because they stopped that whole intensive farming stuff back in the 90’s (Yes, seriously. Although the exact wording left just enough wiggle room to question the exact meaning).

patterson

‘Owen, with your face like a bankrupt pug.’

They were happy, like that goon Owen Patterson, to shovel as much blame as possible onto uncontrolled predator numbers (Patterson actually tweeted this statement with a picture of him in front of a GWCT stand. Yes, seriously). There are a lot of my fellow conservationists who will turn a blind eye to the problems caused by increased predators numbers and I am not one of them, but seriously, give over. It’s peanuts in the scale of things. It’s not even peanuts. And it’s a problem the industrialisation of farming caused in the bloody first place.

Then there’s the Daily Mail approach which seems to amount to saying ‘yes, I know I don’t know the first thing about the subject, but I saw some birds outside my house, so everything must be fine. Expert opinion? Who needs experts? I’m a journalist and the farmers told me it’s all lies‘. I know it’s the Mail and we don’t exactly expect high standards of journalism, but this is pushing the envelope for half-arsing it.

It’s a whole new field of denial. I think everyone has just about got the message now that Climate Change denial is not OK and is quite likely to have you pigeon-holed with the flat-earthers, but there’s still plenty of seemingly obvious things you can deny. This is the post-expert age after all (sorry, “expert”). At the moment it is still absolutely OK to argue that the natural world is not in a state of decay or that the intensive management of 75% of the land could possibly have any detrimental impact on it. This will not get you ridiculed. It might even get you appointed Secretary of State for Rural Affairs. In the wake of the referendum, you should probably get used to it. Because house on fire or rising sea, some people are going to keep telling us that everything is just fine.

Ecomodernism – Widening the Great Divide

He may have his occasional porcine peccadilloes, but our spam-faced overlord might have been onto something. Looming down on us proles from those giant posters, declaring ‘We can’t go on like this’, he may as well have been talking about the gaping void between agriculture and environmentalists.

Owen Patterson is back and he’s brought a new trick with him – Ecomodernism. It’s the latest shot fired in an escalating war that guarantees only a pyrrhic victory. Oh Owen. There’s something about his face. He has the look of a cat that not only got the cream but has also, against all logic and reason, found himself running the dairy. Smug doesn’t come close to describing him.

Cameron v Patterson: Let the 'smug-off' begin

Cameron v Patterson: Let the ‘smug-off’ begin

But my new resolution is to take a more measured view of an idea or statement, regardless of its provenance. Yes, we all know Owen is a stooge, but even stopped clocks, and all that. The general notion of Ecomodernism isthat the more technology human beings adopt, the more they can decouple from dependence on the natural environment and live lives that are prosperous but green’, that only through economic growth can the environment be saved. It is basically…erm…rampant capitalism. This will result in a ‘decoupling’ of production and the environment which will have huge benefits for wildlife. Indeed, it is, apparently, improvements in business and industry that has led to the recent boom we have seen in many species…wait, what?

I’m not going to pick apart the errors in Patterson’s assumptions in his latest barely-disguised rant against the sector (we could be here a while, and people keep shouting the word ‘brevity’ at me in the street). There’s a bit of everything in his Telegraph sulkathon – thinly veiled climate change denial, confusion over the term ‘non-renewable’, ludicrous statements like ‘Europe and North America, are now teeming with far richer wildlife populations than for many centuries’ – but what there is mostly is a sense of injustice for poor old Owen.

By trumpeting ecomodernism, Owen is once again putting himself forward as defender of the natural environment. This is clearly codswallop, and I should know, I’ve walloped a lot of cod in my time. If he was serious about the environment, he wouldn’t continue to blame the ‘Green Blob’ for his demise, he’d try and build some ruddy bridges. Instead he continues to wear his persecution complex like a badge of honour. He has the bearing of someone who obviously believes that if it weren’t for a malevolent conspiracy against him, conducted by his own supervillains – a hyper intelligent cotterie of badgers with a 70’s Scottish Football fans penchant for mucking about with football furniture and their sidekick, an amorphous Green Blob – he’d be King of the Countryside by now. But don’t cry for Owen, he seems to be doing alright for himself.

They'll be the death of me

They’re coming for you, Owen…(I’m getting a lot of use out of this stock image)

Now, I think there’s actually something to be said for the underlying message here – I’m not a complete luddite. Improved technology will reduce so many of the outputs that can be detrimental to the environment, there’s even a case for ‘letting go’ some areas to more intense agricultural practises – let’s be realistic here, peoples gotta eat. But as an argument, I find this ‘the future will save us’ line as weak as my Gran’s tea. It’s the same kind of argument that has delayed any serious action on climate change, this idea that ‘technology will develop’ so we don’t need to act now.

The problem with ecomodernism (the Patterson redux) – well, one of them – is that the onus is entirely on the environmental sector to adapt and fit themselves in somewhere (as it has always been). Even worse is Patterson’s apparent assertion that environmental benefits will just happen somehow, irrespective of the ‘Green Blob’.

Ecomodernism takes the agriculture/environment antipathetic relationship to it’s logical conclusion – a ‘decoupling’ of the two. You just can’t decouple nature from agriculture (and visa-versa), and that’s something that both sectors just need to grow up and accept. It benefits the ‘ecomodernists’ and the agricultural sector as little to claim they can carry on with no consideration for their environmental impact as it does for the environmental sector to continually exist in a head-butting relationship with farmers and landowners. A common feeling in the environmental sector was expressed to me recently:

‘This whole ethos of having to work with the landowners to be effective, has really been a millstone around the neck for British conservation NGOs.’

For me, this argument that we can produce positive outcomes for the environment without working with the people who actually own the land is as pointless as a midday firework, all sound, no show. It just can’t happen.

As ever, the answer to a healthy environment and a fed and healthy populace is a complicated one that will involve cooperation and a certain degree of coercion for our landowners. However, Owen has declared that the ‘cure’ for all our environmental ills was there all along, and funnily enough it lay precisely in what we were doing in the first place, only more so. It would be reassuring to think the answers were so simple, but ecomodernism is a comfort blanket, a ‘greenwash’, a smoke and mirrors magic trick conducted with smart words and irrelevant stats. It takes some gumption to argue for the exact opposite of what your opponents are recommending and then telling them it’s actually the magic bullet they’ve been searching for all along. Now that Dr Patterson has proscribed his medicine, we need to take care he doesn’t poison us with it.

Not bored? Want to learn more about just what the heck on ecomodernism is? Interested in productivity, yields per sq metre, and ‘decoupling’? Here’s some links:

Patterson sulking in the Telegraph

Ecomodernism is bad – George Monbiot

George Monbiot doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Ecomodernism is great – The guys behind Ecomodernism

Ecomodernism – home website

Dark thoughts on Ecomodernism – The Dark Mountain Project

Badger Backpeddling

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice, but the badger cull is back. This prompted me into one of my infrequent forays into the murky world of social media ‘engagement’, resulting in a degree of soul-searching on my part. Perhaps soul-searching is over-egging things a tad. I don’t generally go in for much in the way of self-evaluation. I don’t spend countless hours noodling about feeling glum and listening to Exit Music (for a film) on a loop (not for years now, anyway). But sometimes I have to accept some pretty unpalatable truths, the hardest of which is that occasionally, just very occasionally, I might be wrong.

Naughty badgers

Having set this article up in such a way that you are now expecting me to figuratively prostrate myself before you and admit my error, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. This is not so much about me admitting that I was wrong, as admitting to myself that the possibility of me being wrong might actually exist.

Back to the point – There’s a lot of science out there on the Badger cull. Perhaps too much science1. But what there is a shortage of is consensus. What I think we all know and can agree on is that the case for the cull is dicey. There’s little evidence that targeted removal will effectively reduce cases of bTB in cattle. It’s also unarguable that considering the potentially devastating effects of bTB on herds and, scaling up, the farming economy, we should be considering all means at our disposal to reduce cases. If this involves the reduction in numbers of a charismatic, yet abundant, mammal, then so be it. I don’t think conservation does itself any favours by refusing to be realistic and perpetuating an anti-farming rhetoric.

Now if I can be brutally honest, I’m not radically opposed to the badger cull. I do think it is rather a ‘shoot now ask questions later’ approach (which, in my opinion always leaves you without anyone to answer your bloody questions), I think it’s knee-jerk, I think there are other factors involved (does the resurgence of bTB in the last two decades correlate to an increase in badger population or a decrease in regulation?), but if it is proven to be the best method of reducing incidence of bTB in cattle then it should not be dismissed.

Where I’ve recently had my own moment of self-doubt regards the rather more one-sided argument for badger-cattle bTB transmission. I managed to get my knickers in a twist when I saw a statement from a vet that a 50-60% reduction in bTB where badgers were proactively culled was all the proof that was needed of badger to cattle transmission. I objected to the assertion – and despite what follows, I still do. It’s bad science. Correlation not equalling causation and all that. Predictably, I was asked ‘what more proof do you need?’2 Well, science, for one. So they gave me science. Science I had – perhaps due to the media circles I frequent – not seen before.

If you only read the Daily Mail, you can start to see the world in a very Daily Mail-esque way. It’s worth remembering that this works with papers like the Guardian, too. So it was with the environmentalism – because of my own interests, I do tend to only be exposed to papers and studies that make the case for transmission less than conclusive. When it comes to science, I should certainly know better. There’s some pretty strong evidence out there that transmission is not only possible, but likely.

That’s not to say I’ve completely come around to the notion that badger-cattle bTB transmission in the wild has been irrefutably proven – transmission has not been recreated to a decent standard in non-artificial settings. My issue, and it’s an issue with myself as much as anything, is that though I still don’t find this utterly conclusive I suspect there would probably be enough evidence to convince me if the species were reversed. There would probably be an ‘acceptable’ level of probability, given the stakes, had it been a question of saving badgers.

So what’s my point? Read wider, don’t be afraid to discuss what you don’t understand, give as much scrupulous attention to the arguments that match your ethical standpoint as those that don’t – all good advice. Or perhaps it’s that I’m suffering from sun damage this week and have become even more incoherent than is usual.

1Sorry, that’s just a ridiculous statement, I’m not sure what I was thinking. There’s no such thing as too much science

2I was also asked if I had any experience of farming (I do, as it happens) as ‘living with the outcome of your decisions looking after a large herd of animals gives you an insight others don’t have.’ I can’t say that I think much to this ‘unless you’ve farmed cattle, you can’t understand’ argument. It’s the kind of logic that builds closed-shop industries that wither and die through lack of innovative thought, but that’s by the by.

Rewilding Britain – Pie in the Sky Romanticism, or the Future of Conservation?

Rewilding has been making a big splash again recently. With the recent Monbiot book ‘Feral’ and the formation of a brand new organisation – ‘Rewilding Britain’ – encouraging (very tentative) talk of charismatic big beast reintroductions, it is now firmly on the environmental agenda. Broadly, rewilding advocates a removal of altering anthropogenic factors and a ‘hands-off’ management technique, allowing the area in question to develop of its own accord without predefined outcomes. This may involve the reintroduction of flora and fauna previously removed or lost due to human influences. The basis for re-wilding has many appealing facets from a conservation perspective, not least the relaxation of the interventionist approach widely implemented in many natural areas, which serves to reinforce the dependence of endangered species on anthropogenic interference. Re-wilding may also be seen as a measure for ‘redressing the balance’ of destructive human activity over the past few millennia. The enforcement of a re-wilding ethic is not without its negative factors though, including the complexities of removing human needs and influence, uncertainty regarding outcomes and issues over the true nature of ‘wild’.

Though not a new concept, increasing dissociation with the land has brought about a romantic longing for something wilder, something to breathe some life into the mundane and everyday. This has advanced the desire to improve and expand wilderness areas and, though it is oxymoronic, to increase areas of wilderness for public enjoyment. This begs the questions how could the population at large benefit from these new wildernesses without visiting and experiencing them, and therefore sullying their intrinsic wildness? Any rewilding project would ultimately always be judged from an anthropologic perspective and therefore not truly wild. However this, many would argue, is still a vast improvement on the current provisions of nature reserves pegged to one permanent ecological habitat type.

Lynx - Soon coming to a woodland near you...

Lynx – Soon coming to a woodland near you…

This in itself is an issue though. Conservation practitioners are accustomed to an interventionist approach. From working in and alongside conservation organisations and with professionals and volunteers, my experience has been of an underlying desire to meddle, to be seen to be doing something, often to attempt to placate or secure funding or improve visibility of the organisation in what is becoming a crowded market. Can that desire to tweak and interfere by advocating practical approaches just be dismissed? If this is what our professionals are trained to do and have the skills for, can they resist the urge to exercise those skills? I have even heard from some the worry that advocating a ‘hands off’ laissez-faire approach would result in fewer jobs in the sector, particularly for those with a practical background.

Furthermore, the question arises regarding the actual results of re-wilded areas. With pristine wilderness no longer in existence in the UK, the outcomes of re-wilding are no longer the true representation of a natural habitat. With invasive species spreading and anthropogenic changes to nutrient levels, climate and species composition, certain species may come to dominate where they would previously have been negligible or absent. It must be judged whether the prospect of this is preferable to a static-interventionist approach of holding a site in a preferential condition for a few select species. During re-wilding these species may disappear from a site, but should this be discouraged? If the wild state of an area is unsuitable then it is surely not worthwhile maintaining it in an unnatural condition at great expense for ill-adapted species.

So much of conservation writing and rewilding theory is nostalgia. How can one have the right to be nostalgic for something one has never seen? The ideal of wilderness is a profoundly human creation. Where once areas of wilderness were viewed as inhospitable regions fraught with danger, the romanticism of groups like the Sierra Club and John Muir have transformed these in modern day thinking into areas of virtue, untouched by human influence. Industrialisation, accompanied by scientific and cultural advancements in recent human history has served to place the rural idyll on an ideological pedestal

An important question to address when considering re-wilding is what do we want from our environment? What is deemed as a favourable condition is ultimately determined from a human perspective, and ideas of restoration can rest as much on social traditions, such as aesthetic value, as scientific theory. An issue occurs when areas are left to re-wild and then fail to conform to expected anthropogenically defined outcomes, and a desire to once again manage the area to fit these standards is likely. A lack of preconceptions regarding outcomes with respect to species and habitat composition is necessary if re-wilding is to be truly embraced, indeed the prospect of an environment with no ‘outcome’ and a flux of successional stages should be accepted and expected as natural. In the UK, this will be particularly low with a population accustomed to a history of a managed landscape with farming and forestry being prevalent. The timescale for a return to a defined baseline condition may be a matter of decades, in many cases longer than the lifetime of those involved in site management. A need for visually obvious progress and an innate human desire to see achievement may often compromise re-wilding efforts.

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

OK, not quite. But it’s in my image library and I need to break-up this text, so give me a break, yeah?

A main issue with rewilding theory is defining a baseline for restoration. This has and will continue to be an area of debate between proponents as some species are looked on more favourably than others due to such esoteric data as their first appearance in the pollen record of peat bogs or the last recorded sighting. It has been argued that due to the historical pastoral use of land and anthropogenic shaping there is no relevant specific baseline for ecological restoration. My two penneth sits with defining this baseline around the disappearance of the land bridge with Europe, but such issues are minor quibbles. There are much more serious barriers to rewilding within the conservation movement, and that’s before the notion is even brought fully into the mainstream.

The big stumbling block

Much greater, more practical, stumbling blocks stand in the way of the rewilding movement though, especially in the UK. Big questions such as ‘where’ and ‘who pays’ need to be addressed. Logically, this will involve the traditional discordant wrangling between environmentalists and the farming lobby as the only areas now feasible for rewilding are the uplands of Wales and Scotland. Unsurprisingly they are likely to be at loggerheads again as each lays a claim as the defenders of an idyll. For the environmentalist, this idyll is a less tangible desire for a rawer natural experience, for the farming community, this idyll is the quintessential British landscape of pasture and crop.

Elephants: Look at that noble, dignified face and think about what you've done.

Sorry. Wrong again.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
― Aldo Leopold

Now, slowly but with gathering pace, the rural community is more willing to see and be told otherwise. Opponents push the notions that rewilding and in many cases the environmental movement is sentimental and unrealistic and it is true that there is a certain sense of collective guilt assuaging associated with rewilding measures. We all, rightly, have drilled in to us the damage our actions have wrought on the natural environment, though environmental education still lags in its position and importance at our secondary schools. But the main opponents to the rewilding ethic are not themselves averse to conjuring up a romantic idyll as a counterpoint. When arguing for the continuation of marginal, heavily subsidised upland farming, the farming community will talk of families owning farms for generations, of hard work and honest toil of salt of the earth types, of man’s intrinsic link to the land and the loss of community. These communities are already failing economically, and in many places are no longer viable with the growth of global free markets. Therefore would these subsidies not be better served supporting environmental practices that may have greater long-term value and support just as many jobs in tourism and conservation? Conservation will only succeed when the owners of land are paid to manage it in the public interest. They will need to be led by the nose, in most cases by waving money under it, and this may be the true issue that consigns rewilding to the dustbin as an exercise in conservation wishful thinking.

Positives for Rewilding

There is a future for rewilding though. Subsidies for marginal farming will undoubtedly become more stringent and many marginal farming communities are likely to disappear as the next generation look elsewhere for a career. And if you are looking for an example of how it can work, even in an urbanised area, I recently visited Zealandia on the outskirts of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. Surrounded by an impassable fence, the 225Ha reserve sits in a valley in the suburbs of Wellington and has removed all invasive species from the site and reintroduced some rare flora and fauna. It is heavily geared towards visitors and public engagement, aiming to educate while also providing a reservoir and sanctuary for endangered native species, but retains a wilderness ‘feel’ as the rear two thirds of the reserve have minimal paths and access, ensuring that the public largely remain in the front third, where facilities and hard paths are plentiful. Securing such a large area of land near an urban centre is unlikely in the UK, but perhaps this represents a future ‘shop front’ idea for the rewilding movement, such as we are seeing the start of at Knapdale in Scotland. Future sights for such reserves are plentiful (Snowdonia, Cumbria, Yorkshire etc.), and perhaps this tourism based approach will be the first step towards a wilder Britain.

Destroy Urban Wildlife Sites to ‘Save Our Countryside’?

This post started life as a post about the value of Brownfield sites for urban wildlife. That was until I stumbled across the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s ‘Save Our Countryside’ charter. I wholeheartedly agree with the charter. Almost every word of it. Almost. Our countryside should be protected from development, of course it should. It’s only right that people start to get a bit jumpy when word gets out that someone is trying to punch a hole through the green belt.

I promise, that after this post I will have a long run of posts that do not lay into, lambast or otherwise pick holes in another environmental organisation’s latest campaign. No, I will heed my own advice and talk about the positives to be found in the environmental movement and how the latest conservation measures or outreach activity offers real hope for a brave new world where all things are possible for all people and our wildlife thrives unmolested by Yahoos with guns or well-meaning lefties with petitions. I promise. But for now, for today, I wanted to address the narrow-minded, ‘make it someone else’s problem’ agenda pushed by one particular line of this charter.

You could easily dismiss the CPRE as NIMBYism writ large and given a voice, albeit a voice that, like some Hitchcokian blackmailer, has tried to distort itself by holding the handkerchief of environmental protection and public interest over the mouthpiece. A handkerchief made up of bits of twig, fur, and carping indignation (Yes, I may have been reading about Simile and Metaphor this week). Well, you could. I’m not saying I would, though. I’m happy go lucky and like everyone. Especially potential future employers. But the ‘Save Our Countryside’ charter is surely a good thing, protecting our environment and wildlife from the rampant developers and profiteering…you know what, I can’t even be bothered to finish that sentence. You can construct your own one using the words ‘Capitalism’ ‘economy’ ‘ecocide’ and ‘libertarianism’ if it makes you feel better. I’m not Naomi Klein. That stuff just bores me (and more to the point I don’t understand it).

Anyway, dragging myself back on topic, I thought this was an issue I was, for once, totally in line with. Then I looked at the CPRE website again, and thought, hang on, just what are they trying to protect here? Is it wildlife? Is it the environment? Or is it farmland and a non-existent rural idyll? Are they really saying that they want to protect farms, those famous hotbeds of biodiversity, from development? Look at the CPRE website and you will see that their interpretation of the countryside is one of rolling farmland and picturesque villages. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is when you scout down the charter a little further that you find my particular bone of contention:

Don’t sacrifice our countryside
‘Our open spaces are being destroyed unnecessarily. Previously developed brownfield sites should be re-used first.’

Cornfield or derelict mill and stream. Hands up which one you think is more biodiverse?

Cornfield or derelict mill and stream. Hands up which one you think is more biodiverse?

I think this the nub of the argument right here. CPRE would rather see new housing crammed in to every space of our cities, to the detriment of some of our most diverse sites for wildlife, than see the urban sprawl encompass surrounding farmland and, possibly, swallow up a few of those picture postcard little villages of an England that once was. Fair enough, but I think targeting Brownfield is a huge mis-step. Why target Brownfield sites? It’s as if they have been asked the not unreasonable question ‘if not here, then where?’ and have plucked an answer out of a hat without really thinking about it. These sites are crucial in our cities as reservoirs of wildlife and as connections between different areas of greenspace. They (and green and open space in general) are also vital for the health and well being of our urban populations. Is the answer to our burgeoning housing crisis to fill-up every remaining square foot in our cities with more housing? That can’t be the only answer. Of course, this all comes under the banner of a larger argument about population control, but I’m not about to touch that one with a barge pole. Not yet. But there must be places of low biodiversity in both rural and urban settings that would be more suitable for sensitively considered development.Brownfield or Greenfield

Now, I must declare my own allegiances and interests here. I grew up in the countryside, and despite my line above about farmland generally being barren wastelands for biodiversity; I generally support farmers against the many slings and arrows many in my sector would throw at them. Farmers, individually, work harder and care more about the environment than many conservationists I know. But collectively, as part of a Union, say, they can be mighty destructive. Add to that external pressures and it is only right they get a bit uppity when anything endangers their livelihood. But market forces and Union machinations in the agricultural sector is yet another post for another day. For the last eight years I have lived in London. I have often felt caged, hemmed in, and greenspace and frequently, Brownfield, has been my outlet. These are the sites I have improved my species ID on or searched for reptiles, not the open spaces of our parks or the farmland I grew up around. Unfortunately, through my education and experience in the sector, I can’t see the rolling fields of farmland as something to be treasured as I once did. Unlike the CPRE, I do not see these as a positive for wildlife and am using this as an excuse to crowbar one of my favourite quotes into this article:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

This is not a call to concrete over the rural heartland of England. It is a call to not underestimate the environmental value of something just because it is in the city and has been labelled as ‘neglected’. That’s why I would like the CPRE to reconsider the wording of their latest campaign to ‘previously developed sites of little or no biodiversity potential (as judged by a specialist in the field) should be re-used first.’ (OK, so they might need to come up with something a little snappier, but marketing was never my strong point.)