Beyond Conservation Peter Taylor Earthscan, UK, 2005, £19.99
IF THE LAST half-century has seen the disintegration of the British countryside, then the vision for the start of the new millennium is one of joining the landscape back together – restoring its integrity. Wildlife cannot survive in a disjointed landscape, however rich the individual pockets of preserved habitat may be. It certainly cannot respond to intensive farming practices, development pressure or climate change. Now there is a new determination to be more pro-active, more creative and much bolder, and Peter Taylor’s important book captures that mood brilliantly.
Taylor paints an ambitious picture of a countryside shaped by much bolder strategic intervention, but this is more than a simple plea for linked ecological corridors and wider tracts of wilderness. The concept of a holistic approach to sustainable landscape management is underpinned by clear accounts of the historic factors that helped to create the biodiversity that we are losing. The role of wild herds of herbivores and their attendant predators is explained and then translated into the modern context. The book certainly calls for a national commitment to much bigger tracts of wild landscape for its own sake, but it also highlights the scope for creative compromise where greater human pressure is inevitable.
Most importantly, this is a book which champions the need for proactive intervention. Taylor argues that we need to work much harder to rebuild the biodiversity of the British Isles. Until quite recently, habitat creation was seen, at best, as the ‘provisional wing‘ of mainstream conservation, and no match for the ‘real thing‘. This book makes a convincing case for placing it at the heart of our emerging post-industrial landscape.
The ambitious arguments are made all the more convincing through reference to a host of well-developed live projects. The portfolio of proof is impressive, and so are the land managers who make up the vanguard. The conservation charities feature heavily, with the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts already managing hugely ambitious land restoration projects, but there are other important players too. The Ministry of Defence, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and major companies in the water and minerals industries are also actively engaged, and in many cases the projects are co-hosted by partnerships of several of them, each playing to their strengths.
Beyond Conservation concentrates primarily on the need to manage extensive tracts of relatively remote rural countryside for the maximum benefit of wildlife, but it does highlight one other important feature of this new approach to nature conservation – functionality! Softening the Essex sea-defences by restoring coastal salt-marsh at Abbot’s Hall, or moderating flood risk and improving water supply through wetland and woodland restoration in the Lake District and the Welsh Marches: these are just two of the inspiring examples where conservation land management is delivering social, economic and environmental benefits as well as increased wildlife. Working with nature is starting to be seen as a cornerstone of sustainability.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the book sticks almost exclusively to rural landscapes. In fact the principle of a bold approach to landscape integrity and to working with nature is every bit as relevant in towns and cities. Tawny owls and sparrowhawks, hedgehogs, newts and foxes are now recognised as successful urban species, but the ecological integrity from which they benefit is almost all there by default. A combination of neglected brownfield land, over-mature Victorian street trees, quiet canal and railway corridors and non-aggressive gardening has, coincidentally, produced a mature mosaic of urban forest and grassy glade. This also needs to be embraced as a conservation challenge for the new millennium. Sustainable urban drainage schemes and air-quality strategies based on filtering functional green infrastructure deserve the same attention from the conservation movement as planned coastal retreat, rural recreation and organic food production. Add them all together, and there seems no doubt that ours could be the generation to rebuild biodiversity across the entire British landscape.
Chris Baines is Vice-president of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and of the Countryside Management Association.
Wildlife cannot survive in a disjointed landscape, however rich the individual pockets of preserved habitat may be.