Many of us will be aware of the extraordinary way in which peregrine falcons have colonised Britain’s cities, taking advantage of cliff-like buildings on which to build their nests and scope their prey – the ubiquitous pigeons which fly beneath them. Stephen Moss begins his story with a description of this charismatic creature, the fastest bird on earth, perched on the roof of Tate Modern ready to swoop at 180 miles an hour and pluck some unfortunate bird out of the air.
Having drawn us in with this dramatic moment, the author goes on to describe how wildlife has colonised our ruined buildings, our wastelands, our flooded quarries, sewage farms, abandoned collieries and gravel pits. In the Shetland Islands, tiny migrating storm petrels head for the island of Mousa by night, and nest in the gap between the two stone skins of Mousa Broch, a dual-skinned Iron Age fort, safe from the predatory black-backed and herring gulls. Hadrian’s Wall is a haven for wildlife, sheltering early migrants such as wheatear and ring ouzel; house martins breed amongst the stones, and peregrines and ravens nest along the wall itself. Old Churchyards are hugely important for lichens, and have been studied by lichenologists more than any other habitat.
The coming of the railways allowed plants and animals to expand their range along the newly opened corridors. It also opened the countryside to enthusiastic Victorian botanists, bird watchers and collectors of fungi, who established natural history societies all over the country, and introduced the new idea of nature conservation. Abandoned rail corridors have become walking and cycling trails, and railway tracks are now home to 1600 species of plants as well as scarce butterflies such as the heath fritillary.
Railway lines still in use by trains also provide wildlife corridors. In 2018, The Guardian reported that Network Rail was removing tens of thousands of mature trees in order to prevent the slowing of trains by leaf fall; not only that, but they were chopping them down in spring and summer, when birds were breeding in them. That contravened the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act that protects breeding birds against disturbance, and the Government stopped the programme. But, as the author demonstrates throughout the book, our accidental countryside is by and large unprotected from development.
As demonstrated by Chris Packham and other environmentalists, our National Parks and our agricultural land tend to be wildlife deserts, nibbled by sheep or managed for grouse shooting, or in the case of arable land, often ploughed, compressed by heavy machinery, burnt and poisoned until the soil life that is the basis of our hierarchy of wild creatures disappears, and so do they. In the UK there is more wildlife outside National Parks than inside them, in forgotten corners safe – for a while – from the attention of people. To quote Stephen Moss, “It’s these messy corners that need to be prioritised, not the green swathes of agri-desert that make up so much of our lowland countryside”.
And sometimes, they are prioritised, in urban corners such as the Gunnersbury Triangle in Chiswick, protected by local action in 1982; in Woodberry Wetlands at Stoke Newington reservoir; or in Samphire Hoe, deliberately created by the dumping of spoil from the building of the Channel Tunnel and now a wildlife friendly destination for 100,000 visitors a year. Our own gardens, managed sustainably, are hugely important refuges for wildlife. So are many of our city parks and green spaces, gradually being rewilded due both to budget cuts and to a new ecological awareness among parks management teams. We are exhorted to ‘bring about that change, by telling councillors and park keepers that we want more butterflies and skylarks, and fewer sterile deserts’.
Enshrined in the new Environment Bill is the notion of Biodiversity Net Gain (inexplicably delayed until 2024), whereby developers will be required to examine the wildlife to be found on the site and ensure that the completed development provides an increase in habitats. The Government estimates that this will save an estimated 9,644 hectares of habitats a year, and create an additional 5,428 hectares. Environmentalists have been working with developers for many years, encouraging simple changes that make room for wildlife. The author describes a housing estate outside Peterborough, the Hamptons, built in the 1990s on a brownfield site, a collection of 19th century clay pits. Working alongside local conservation organisations, the developer integrated these man-made wetlands into their plans and made a series of village communities where people could live close to nature and wildlife. Kingsbrook, just outside Aylesbury, is an example of a wildlife-friendly development achieved in partnership with the RSPB.
These things can happen, and this book is well worth reading as an introduction to the new actions and debates taking place around conservation in the last decade or so, as well as being a fascinating summary of our accidental wildlife havens.
The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s
Wildlife, by Stephen Moss, Guardian Faber, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78335-164-0
Book review written by Pippa Stilwell, CFWI Climate Ambassador