Once its gone, its gone for ever was
once the keening cry of conservationists clinging on to some threatened
fragment of biodiversity. Not any more. New techniques have proved
that lost landscapes can be recreated and wildlife brought
back from the dead. Chris Baines reports on a revolution in creative
conservation that is giving Britain the chance to rebuild
The past half-century has seen an escalating scale of habitat
loss across the UK. From mountain top to tidal estuary we have
seen our wildlife disappear squeezed out by buildings,
roads, coniferous forestry and intensive agriculture. For much
of that time, conservationists have felt they were fighting a
kind of valiant rearguard action, arguing that once its
gone, its gone. The focus has been on protectionism
a largely vain attempt to hang on to the best of what survives.
But there has always been an irony for conservationists in the
UK. Almost all the habitats we hold most dear exist because of
human intervention. We really have no untouched wilderness. Instead,
we fight to save the bluebells that have flourished because of
the regular harvesting of coppiced woodland, the meadow flowers
and butterflies that thrive thanks to a centuries-old cycle of
haymaking, and the rare wild plants and animals of heather-covered
heathland, chalk downs and sea-washed saltmarsh, each one of which
depends on grazing livestock.
It is this conundrum that has always made the conservationists
case confusing. It is not human intervention per se that threatens
natural heritage. It is the increasingly brutal scale and pace
of intervention that has done the damage. The switch from haymaking
to chemically managed silage crops has wiped out 98% of wildflower
meadows. The insensitivity of subsidized over-stocking has degraded
the sheep-grazed uplands. Densely planted conifer crops have snuffed
out the woodland wildflowers and silenced the songbirds.
However, whilst the mainstream conservationists have lost more
battles than theyve won, a largely unsung provisional
wing has been achieving great success in recreating habitats.
Initially they were largely opportunist. At Minsmere, for instance,
on the Suffolk coast, the wartime military defences left a stretch
of brackish wetland stranded. The Royal Society for the Protection
of Birds enhanced it as a sanctuary for wildlife, and avocets
returned to breed. Up and down the country, worked-out gravel
pits began maturing into valuable habitat for dragonflies and
waterfowl: the Game Conservancy, Wildfowlers Association and others
worked with nature to speed recovery. In post-industrial urban
Britain, the seeds of silver birch blew in, took root, and clothed
the landscapes scarred by slag and mineral waste. This natural
model was employed in helping to establish urban forests on no
end of reclamation schemes.
More recently, creative conservation has become much
more proactive. Early in the 1970s, Miriam Rothschild challenged
the assertion that it would take many centuries to recreate an
ancient wildflower meadow. Vowing to make a passable replica in
a lot less time than that, she took a typical rye-grass desert,
carefully introduced appropriate species, and restored a cycle
of summer haymaking and winter grazing. Now that meadow is a site
of special scientific interest. Throughout the 1980s, the Institute
of Terrestrial Ecology refined techniques for meadow restoration.
Initially the aim was to create colourful amenity
habitat, and the trunk road verges clothed with ox-eye daisies,
field scabious and cowslips are a testament to that. Gradually
the techniques became much more sophisticated, until now there
is a brilliant example of brand-new chalk downland covering the
old A3 at Twyford Down, whilst on the Essex coast converted arable
land is supporting saltmarsh species once again.
wetland habitats have been just as successful. At the RSPBs
reserve at Leighton Moss, the old field boundary walls now share
the flooded landscape with bitterns, bearded tits and innumerable
birdwatchers. At Otmoor, north of Oxford, the blocking up of land
drains has restored the wet meadow wildlife. The Worcestershire
Wildlife Trust has otters visiting a 50-hectare reedbed which was
farmed for wheat until three years ago; the National Trust is re-establishing
wet fen across the carrot-fields of Cambridgeshire.
Barn Elms, by the Thames, is the Wildfowl and Wetland Trusts
latest variation on the famous Slimbridge theme. This 55-hectare
wetland was created from scratch less than five years ago, but
already has breeding lapwings, marsh warblers, roosting swallows,
water voles and a host of other species making their home there.
Lost woodland habitat has always been regarded as impossible
to recreate, but here too, recent successes are quite startling.
Trees themselves crop up wherever we abandon land. Indeed, they
are seen as the biggest single threat to many other wildlife habitats.
By contrast, where new woodland is desirable, then trees alone
are not enough. Leaf litter, rotting wood, and seedlings of the
missing wildflowers all need to be reintroduced, but now there
are carpets of primroses and swathes of pink campion and yellow
archangel in many corners of the emerging urban forest. Many of
the post-war conifer plantations were planted on the site of ancient
broadleaved woodland. In Wales alone, such sites cover an area
equivalent to the size of Pembrokeshire. The Woodland Trust, the
RSPB, the National Trust, Coed Cymru and the Forestry Commission
all now have projects where the smothering canopy of evergreens
has been carefully removed. Exposure to sunlight and rain re-awakens
wildflowers that have been suppressed for half a century, fungi
and invertebrates that have survived in clearings and alongside
paths and forest roads recolonise the open woodland and
gradually a whole new generation of the local native trees and
shrubs begins to re-establish itself.
Together, this cocktail of happy accidents and carefully constructed
demonstrations show that we can indeed bring our wildlife back.
The evidence is there for all to see: green woodpeckers and marbled
white butterflies on brand new chalk downland; migratory waders
and wildfowl in shallow scrapes and coastal marshes; Caledonian
pine-trees, cranberries and capercaillie taking the place of conifer
crops in the Scottish highlands; skylarks singing over waste tip
wildflower meadows in Merseyside and Stoke on Trent; sparrowhawks
and tawny owls keeping songbirds and small mammals on their toes
throughout the urban forest; wild salmon spawning in the tributaries
of the Thames.
With over 30 years of world-class demonstration projects in the
bag, the time has surely come to rebuild biodiversity across the
whole country. We have the technology, as they say, and surely
we can muster the political will. We know that these revitalised
landscapes can bring all kinds of benefits for people. We know
that we need extensive wetlands to contain storm water and reduce
the risk of urban flooding [see GF23]. We know that the stress
of modern living is relieved when we have access to some natural
green space on our doorsteps [GF22].
We have the proof that we can rebuild biodiversity: we know that
there is massive popular support for more accessible wildlife.
In these post foot-and-mouth days, the nation clearly needs a
bold new vision for its future countryside, and nature in the
city has a vital role to play in healthier urban living. Nine
years ago in Rio, we made a global pledge to take much better
care of Planet Earth. Perhaps Rebuilding Biodiversity
should be the big idea we take to next years anniversary.