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Bring it back! 

‘Once it’s gone, it’s 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 its biodiversity.

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 it’s gone, it’s 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 they’ve 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.

New wetland habitats have been just as successful. At the RSPB’s 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 Trust’s 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 year’s anniversary.

 Reproduced from
Green Futures magazine 31
with permission

Chris Baines