Science & Nature: Unnatural Habitats ; Nature Conservation Is Big Business. There Are, for Example, More Trees in Britain Now Than at Any Time since the Middle Ages. but, Asks PETER MARREN, Is This Actually Good News for the Countryside?
Marren, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
The road banks near Cirencester were bright with flowers this spring. But they were not the ones you would expect to find on a Cotswold hillside. These were a vivid purple-red, and their seeds had been sprayed on by a lorry, complete with a dollop of fertiliser and mulch. In all probability, they came from a consignment of seeds labelled "wild flowers" - maybe even "Cotswold mix" - and, like most such seeds, they originate not from natural meadows, but from the plant breeder's laboratory. Nevertheless, this project, and countless others like it, is considered to be a contribution to Britain's natural diversity, and is funded on that basis.
Last year the Forestry Commission announced that there are now 25 trees for every man, woman and child in the country. That is twice as many trees as there were a century ago, and probably more than at any time since the Middle Ages. This was also represented as a triumph for nature conservation. Yet about 20 of these 25 trees are either saplings or conifers, and they will have come from a nursery. Moreover, these trees are of foreign origin. The hawthorns used for new hedging are said to come from Hungary. Most of the newly planted oaks are from Germany. Our new woods will be nothing if not cosmopolitan, but sometimes they are planted in places which, in conservation terms, would be better left alone.
Enthusiasts have even discovered ways of effectively "planting" wild animals. A month ago, we learned that the osprey had returned to Rutland Water. In fact, it did not have much choice. Migrating ospreys instinctively return to the place where they were born, which in this case was a cage overlooking a reservoir. The youngsters had been reared, and, after release, fed with regularly replenished fishy snacks. And in case they have any difficulty settling in after their winter holiday, artificial nests have been built for them. This year anyone visiting Rutland Water will be able to see an osprey, providing they pay up pounds 3 for the privilege.
Since projects like this are expensive and need partnership funding, they are likely to be confined to big, impressive animals (sponsors have been hard to find for endangered beetles or water snails). Even so, we may soon have "planted" beavers in Argyll, choughs in Cornwall, martens in southern England, and - who knows - maybe wild oxen in Oxon or lynx in Lincs. But where does nature conservation turn into zookeeping? Does the "wild" in wildlife matter?
Nature conservation has come a long way in the past 20 years. As a business, it has blossomed and flourished, turning from a minority pursuit with an income of less than pounds 10m to a popular crusade with an annual turnover of at least 20 times that. With growing wealth and influence has come a much more businesslike approach, and a sophisticated public-relations machine. Wildlife is commonly "sold", using attractive animals such as otters to attract more custom in the form of membership subscriptions and legacies. To do so more effectively, they borrow the aspirant language of government and businesses. The Wildlife Trusts partnership talks confidently of "green shoots of recovery starting to come through". The Woodland Trust is busy "planting the seeds of hope". The general sense of what they are saying is that the losses of wildlife we have experienced are recoverable, once "environmentally friendly" policies start to kick in, and so long as we go on supporting the trusts.
If so, it has to be said that there is not the slightest sign of it so far. It would take a hard heart to mock David Bellamy's vision of "skylarks singing over every home in the land", but the sad truth is that skylark numbers are going down, not up, having fallen by more than half since 1975. And they go on falling, despite supposedly environment-friendly farming schemes like ESAs (Environmentally Sensitive Areas) or Countryside Stewardship. …