Change tack or face loss of countryside, expert warns
Charles Green is planning spokesman for the Campaign for Rural England Shropshire. He writes today about the "alarming" decline of the countryside and threats to wildlife from climate change.
We all love the countryside, don’t we? It satisfies our atavistic craving for the majesty of nature, gives us room to exercise and provides breathing space away from the strutting and fretting of the urban lives that most of us lead. Indeed, as I write this the glories of spring are evident all round.
But we increasingly hear that the countryside, as we know it, is under escalating pressure; that it is fast disappearing and that it’s quickly becoming degraded.
To be fair, the “countryside” has been constantly changing. Ever since the arrival of Bronze Age farmers into Britain; through the act of clearing the primeval forests; the Enclosure Acts which dramatically altered the look of lowland Britain; and the move to greater efficiency as the Industrial Revolution got into full swing, the countryside has never remained static.
However, that pace of change has increased alarmingly in more recent times. This is essentially from three sources.
Firstly, there is pressure from development. Relentlessly eating into fields and the Green Belt, some estimates suggest that as much as one-eighth of England is developed! Frighteningly, if development keeps growing at its current rate of just over 1% a year, the countryside would all be gone within 200 years. Hopefully we’ll wake up before that happens.
Of course, development might not be so bad if proper green networks were put in on a landscape scale. But so often, development is accompanied by an attitude that nature just gets in the way.
Recently, this has been epitomised by putting nets over hedges to stop birds inconveniently nesting in them and slowing up building works. Likewise, hedges are all too frequently ripped out in the name of efficiency, and nature is generally tidied up, gentrified and suburbanised, even in country villages.
Secondly, there is pressure from agriculture as it intensifies and “progresses”. Mr Gove’s 25-year Plan to Improve the Environment contains a telling diagram which shows that intensive farming is some seven times worse for loss of biodiversity compared to urbanisation. Farmers now routinely use multiple doses of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, molluscicides, adjuvants, growth regulators etc as well as maybe a dozen different sorts of fertiliser – it’s hardly ‘natural’ and nature stands little chance under that onslaught.
Changing practices and timings of operations have also had creeping effects, as has increasing monoculture. We all used to hear the cuckoo at this time of year, but few of us do these days; a dramatic reduction in insect populations has been blamed.
Two recent reports have considerably frightened me. One said “the historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake”. The other said “one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival”.
That encapsulates humanity’s actions through farming and development and general over-consumption, all of which are racking up the pressure on the countryside.
But even development and farming consequences may be eclipsed by a third major threat. It’s something we’re warned of on a daily basis - climate change!
The climate has always fluctuated over geological time-scales; during the last Ice Age there wasn’t much countryside in Britain anyway, and before that, in deep geological time, as what became Britain wandered across the globe on tectonic plates, the coal, gas and oil measures were laid down at a time when carbon dioxide levels were vastly higher than they are now. Before even that, there wasn’t much oxygen in the atmosphere until photosynthesising life produced it, over aeons.
But the escalating and entirely man-made situation is now so scientifically obvious that even Shropshire Council recently declared a “Climate Emergency”. It’s all down to mankind’s activity since the Industrial Revolution and can be summed up in the following equation: “human population + ideas + fossil fuels x consumption x growth = environmental degradation”.
Each of those elements continues to increase as mankind strives perpetually to better itself, doing so to the point where some say it has become a plague upon the earth, at the expense of the rest of the biosphere, nature and the countryside. Plagues often increase exponentially until they outstrip resources, then plummet in number.
The myth about boiling frogs, where it is said that if you bring a frog slowly to the boil it doesn’t notice until it’s too late may well serve as a useful analogy here. However, it now appears that thanks to the likes of Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, we are finally realising that our own boiling point is fast approaching.
Any reversal of this process will involve massive changes of aspiration and behaviour in the 7 billion (and counting) people on the planet, with a rejection of much of the lifestyle we are currently so reliant on. You might as well expect turkeys to vote for Christmas!
Meanwhile, the countryside and its natural beauty, vibrancy, and non-human denizens are likely to continue to be eroded. My advice? Make the most of it and fight to protect it, while you can.