Ignoring biodiversity: misinterpreting what is 'natural' in fragmented environments

Hugh Warwick
Tuesday, 3rd July 2012

Hugh Warwick explains why the article by BBC Home editor, Mark Easton, 'The Great Myth of Urban Britain' is such a dangerous piece of economic propaganda

'The Great Myth of Urban Britain' was the headline from BBC Home editor Mark Easton's piece published on 28th June. In the article he argued that conservationists are too pessimistic, and that if you look carefully at the real data, things are not that bad, really.

He starts with a question that will probably flummox most urban-dwellers – what percentage of England is covered in concrete and tarmac? Go on, have a guess...

You were probably wrong... using as his source the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011), he points out that just over 2% of the country is built on... and goes on to say, "According to the most detailed analysis ever conducted, almost 98% of England is, in their word, natural."

At the very least this strikes as counter-intuitive – but then looking at the figures he gives, well, it becomes strangely convincing. Does this mean we have cause for celebration? Have the doom-mongers from the conservation groups been winding us up with their intimations of impending disaster?

In a word, no.

In fact I would go so far as to argue that Heaton's position on this is the disaster as it is so revealing of the appalling state of understanding of what the natural world is all about.

There are two major errors that have resulted in his excitement.

First, 'natural'? Throughout the 87 pages of the summary document there are as many references to semi-natural as there are too natural. I think he might be conflating a little. More importantly, what is natural? Are we looking for areas that are untouched? I think we would be lucky to find 2% unmodified by human action. What degree of intrusion is acceptable for the 'natural' tag to remain? In Easton's argument, the yellow deserts of oil seed rape and the alien fir-tree plantations are bracketed with the last pockets of primeval forest.

And the second mistake is to ignore hedgehogs. I have been studying these animals, on and off, for over 25 years and one thing they have taught me to do is shift my perspective. As I say in The Beauty in the Beast (quoting someone I can't remember right now, but if you can, let me know) – 'never underestimate the revolutionary potential of seeing things from a different perspective'. Shift your point of view to that of a hedgehog, for example, and the deliriously upbeat tone of Easton's article begins to seem less like a scientific analysis and more like a hack writing what he wants to see on the page.

While habitat loss is definitely a problem, it is only one part of the problem. Most critical is the way that the habitat is fragmented. At its most simple this is a very human-scale problem. Imagine your garden is the most wonderful wildlife friendly garden. Birds flock to the feeders, dragonflies emerge from your pond (that comes complete with ramps to allow hedgehogs to escape), your compost heap houses bumblebees even more effectively than the bee-hotels you have erected. And in the evening you delight in the bats as they flit in your carefully darkened garden. But you still have no hedgehogs or toads and are getting frustrated at their obvious lack of taste ... and then you look at your garden, at the concrete footings that you put in to hold the new fence and it dawns on you – they cannot get in! So, taking a lead from the wonderful Hedgehog Street, you set to work opening up your garden, and talking to your neighbours and then their neighbours and then the street is suddenly a wonderful space for hedgehogs and toads and all the other non-flying wildlife.

But the problem for hedgehogs, and so much of our biodiversity, is far bigger than the gardens that have become so many species' sanctuary. We have fragmented the landscape on a massive scale, creating ever smaller pockets of habitats. The fragmentation is caused, most obviously, by roads. More roads and more traffic (and it is not just hedgehogs that suffer, small birds and butterflies are so buffeted as to be prevented from crossing the arterial routes). But it is not just roads, the fields of oil seed rape, which Easton is happy to embrace as natural, can act as just such an effective barrier to movement. As do the fields now denuded of their hedges. Or the hillsides covered in a heavy fir coat.

So why is Easton's piece so damaging? Because people will want to believe it. And the report from which it was taken has as its main aim an attempt to truly place a value on what we have so that it will be better treated. But when couched in such simplistic terms the authorities will simply grasp with glee the opportunity to argue that 'increased development cannot be a bad thing, because, look we have so much natural land to spare. And it is only a few ecological eccentrics who are trying to obstruct us from building our way to a brighter future ...'

There is no 'natural' – it is nonsensical to argue that there is any natural left in this country. But there are areas of wonderful wildlife value that needs our continued protection and this article must not be allowed to sway those who hold the reins of the developers. There is a fight coming, I feel it, between those demanding growth and those resisting growth.

One day, perhaps, economists will be taught the simplest lessons of ecology. After all, as Satish Kumar pointed out in a lecture I heard, they spring from the same word, ecos, or oikos, meaning home. They refer to the management and the study of our home, the planet. But management by economists must not be allowed to take place without the understanding of ecologists. To allow this to happen results in the sort of madness that this article presents.

Hugh Warwick is an ecologist and author who maintains a busy website www.urchin.info when not writing books. His latest is The Beauty in the Beast.

Big Bird |
Wed, 04/07/2012 - 17:23
"In fact I would go so far as to argue that Heaton's position on this is the disaster as it is so revealing of the appalling state of understanding of what the natural world is all about." MARK EASTON, NOT HEATON
Big Bird |
Wed, 04/07/2012 - 17:25
"First, 'natural'? Throughout the 87 pages of the summary document there are as many references to semi-natural as there are too natural. I think he might be conflating a little." You know. you are just nit picking. In his piece, Easton clearly stated 93% of Britain is NOT urban, but when you factor in gardens, parks etc.... He wrote "In urban England, for example, the researchers found that just over half the land (54%) in our towns and cities is greenspace - parks, allotments, sports pitches and so on. Furthermore, domestic gardens account for another 18% of urban land use; rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs an additional 6.6%." you find that in England, 78.6% of urban areas is designated as natural rather than built". Since urban only covers a tenth of the country, this means that the proportion of England's landscape which is built on is 2.27%." Easton's piece was just that, a piece about the amount of land that is not built upon, Why would he mention hedgehogs? The article wasn't about untouched area's at all. You have either not read Easton's piece thoroughly or are using it as a platform for a rant. Here is the original article by Easton for anyone who wishes to understand what he was talking about: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18623096