Friday, June 5, 2020

The Accidental Countryside - Stephen Moss

This was the last book I bought before bookshops locked down, it felt appropriate then, and even more so now - almost 3 months later. The subtitle is 'Hidden Havens for Britain's Wildlife' and I'd describe the book as a sort of manifesto for how we can make space for wildlife in relatively urban settings and the benefits that has all round.

It's very much preaching to the converted in my case, to the point that the only criticisms I have are that this is a book that could really do with an index, and if not an index at least a bibliography, or list of further reading.

What we do get is a comprehensive list of places (railway embankments, roadside verges, old gravel pits, and similar odds and ends of land) and some of the work that's being done with them to create wildlife reserves, or otherwise create space for nature. When it works it's brilliant, although sadly for a lot of these spaces their status is fairly unofficial and they can be easily lost to development.

There's also a persuasive argument for building on greenbelt rather than brownfield land. We have a fixed perception, particularly in England (the debate is somewhat different in Scotland, I don't know enough about Wales) that farmland and countryside are more or less synonymous, and that farmland is a good place for wildlife. The reality is that a lot of farmland is an industrialised monoculture that actively discourages natural diversity (messy, machine cut hedges which are full of gaps are an example of this that I particularly dislike).

It's also true that people in cities need more access to green spaces, so why not start putting them in cities where the people are? Quite apart from anything else it's a brilliant way to build an interest in wildlife, and help people learn how to be around it. The point is made a couple of times that a nature reserve is not the same thing as a park.

I'm lucky in Leicester in that the council have taken a light touch approach to the riverside and parks around me. They're maintained in such a way that they feel safe for human use, but with enough bits left untended to encourage a decent range of birds and insects. We also have Bradgate Park about 5 miles north of the city centre. It was once the home of Lady Jane Grey, and there's still a Mulberry tree in the grounds of the now ruined house that was meant to have been a gift from Raleigh. There's also belladonna growing in odd corners. It's another landscape which is expertly managed to provide space for people and wildlife (although perhaps more accurately deliberate rather than accidental countryside).

We could be luckier though, there's a biggish redevelopment of part of the riverside going on at the moment which is going to be housing, but could have been something else altogether that might have been a significant draw into the city.

Getting back to the book, Moss also looks at the impact humans have had on the landscape since ancient times, and how we've created, as well as destroyed, habitats. One of the first he discusses is the Broch on Mousa in Shetland. Storm Petrels use it's walls as a nesting sight, somewhere they're well protected from predating gulls. There's an irony here in that the Broch's ancient inhabitants very probably used these birds as candles (they're very oily, the details are not pretty and can't have smelt pleasant), their descendants certainly did well into the 19th century.  The way peregrines are colonising cities comes with no such associations and is something that I find deeply hopeful.

That sense of hope runs through 'The Accidental Countryside', over and over there are examples of things that can be done to make space for nature. They range from the simple and cost effective option of reducing how much verges are mown to new housing estates building in genuinely wildlife friendly measures (which can add value so it's not asking very much of developers to do more of it).

A consistent theme throughout lockdown is how important, and helpful, so many of us have found observing more of the nature on our doorsteps, which is why this book feels so relevant to this moment.

 Bradgate, where the dog couldn't fathom how laid back the ducks were (kept responsibly on a lead at all times). The deer in the bottom picture are in an area that people are kept out of. They have the whole of the park to roam, but there are sanctuary areas throughout too.

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