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.)