Friday, 22 August 2008

Mersey Valley Plants - Part 3, The Twentieth Century

In many ways the modern Mersey Valley embodies 20th Century people's view of the land and its uses: land was there either to grow crops or to raise livestock on or to build on. Any scraps that were not suitable for either of these purposes (because of the possibility of flooding or other problems) was regarded as ‘waste land’ and could have rubble or household waste tipped on it. This view regarded all of the other organisms - plants and animals - that lived on the land to be, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, just a load of weeds and vermin to be exterminated. In the 21st Century I believe that this is still the predominant view (although I’m convinced that the vast majority of people hardly think about it al all). But now there are stirrings of unease - lots of fashionable twittering about ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ (of ten, I suspect, from people who have no intention of changing their own behaviour) and some, not very effectively enforced, laws designed to protect ‘biodiversity’. Occasionally, vaguely scary things happen, such as largely unexplained crashes in the populations of once common organisms such as house sparrows, starlings and small tortoiseshell butterflies. Recently there has even been talk of mysterious maladies affecting bees – and if bees die out what will then pollinate fruit trees and other crops? Where will it all end?

I think I know … but I’m straying too far from the point.

In the first of these articles we saw how the Mersey Valley landscape was shaped by people. They first harnessed the power of the river and eventually used flood waters to create water meadows which were cut for hay or grazed. Higher ground, less prone to flooding, was ploughed and used for growing crops. This landscape was, of course, the result of countless thousands of man and woman hours of back-breaking labour. The fields and meadows would have accommodated a lot of wildlife but the people would have lived in an often uneasy relationship with it. I sometimes wonder if the modern world’s shocking disdain for wildlife is in some way the ploughman’s atavistic revenge against the tares that tangled in the ploughshare or the birds that ate the corn.

Nevertheless, the 20th Century tore this old and carefully nurtured landscape apart in just a few short years - mostly well within living memory. Rubbish tips, sewage works, golf courses and sports pitches all took their toll, followed by gravel extraction and motorway construction. Remaining scraps of meadow were either badly over-grazed by tenants’ livestock or allowed to grow out until they fell prey to local vandals with matches.

In the 1970s decisions were taken to improve the mess that the Mersey Valley had become. Unfortunately the local authorities proceeded with more enthusiasm than knowledge. They failed to recognise that the Mersey Valley was, from an ecological point of view, mainly important for its unimproved grasslands and their rich floras, and obliterated even more of this grassland by tree planting. Planting trees is not a universal solution to all conservation problems and can be counter-productive. Unimproved grassland is a much rarer and more precious habitat than new plantations of trees – no matter how pretty the latter may look! Recently some prominent figures in the fields of conservation and ecology have begun to speak out about the catastrophic losses of grassland; for example George Peterken, OBE one of the UK’s most eminent woodland ecologists, has commented: “As a professional ecologist who has promoted woodland conservation for almost 40 years, I have no hesitation in saying that the priority is now grassland conservation” (quoted in ‘Plantlife’ – the magazine of the wild plant conservation charity – Issue 50, Spring 2008).

Dave Bishop, August 2008

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