Friday, 15 May 2009

Why Is Springtime the 'Killing Time' Around Here?

Recently the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (‘Defra’) released statistics that indicate that biodiversity is continuing to decline in the UK (1). Apparently, Defra is studying these trends as part of a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), aiming to “significantly reduce the rate of species loss by 2010”. Apparently eighteen “indicators” (where would we be without targets?) have been devised ... blah, blah, blah. Wildlife Minister, Huw Irranca-Davies (no, I’ve never heard of him, either!) said: “The Government is continuing to work with the public, wildlife conservation groups and farmers to conserve our valuable wildlife” ... Zzzzz! Oh, sorry, I just dropped off for a moment there!
Anyway, no-one believes Mr Huw whatsit. For example Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, told BBC News that there was “no chance” that the 2010 target would be met.

It’s all very depressing. Month in, month out we learn of butterfly numbers declining, bees dying out and plant and bird species declining or becoming extinct. And I believe that you don’t even have to move out of South Manchester to see why.
Yes, it’s happening right here – where you and I live – and the reasons are plain to see. I’m forced to conclude that we live in a culture that has a complete contempt for the plants and animals that we share this planet with – if we notice them at all they are just messy and untidy ‘weeds and vermin’ to be exterminated as expeditiously as possible ... Shame about the Rain Forest, though!

I’ve always loved the spring – a season of hope, fresh green foliage, gentle rain and scented air. But round here it’s the ‘Killing Time’. As soon as March gives way to April, out come the chainsaws, the heavy-duty grass mowers, the strimmers and the herbicide sprays. “Killer, commie, terrorist weed in sector 5 – call in an airstrike!” Sorry, got carried away there – must avoid facetiousness...

In my opinion, if you really care about wildlife and biodiversity, there are two basic principles that you need to know (well, there are more than two – but bear with me). The first principle is that plants are important. Plants are the basic elements in any terrestrial ecosystem. As David Lloyd, the first Chief Warden in the Mersey Valley, once said to me: “If you get the plants right, you get everything else right”. The second principle is that a healthy environment consists of a mosaic of habitats, and the edges between the elements of the mosaic are important. Hence, in a wood or plantation, for example, lots of interesting plants can often be found along woodland boundaries and rides (which are, of course, edges) or in clearings, and lots of interesting insects feed, or lay their eggs, on these plants, and other organisms, like bats and birds, feed on the insects. Around here, though, even ‘nature reserves’ are treated like bog-standard, boring urban parks and the precious edges are mown, strimmed or, even, drenched in herbicide. I’m convinced that this is really to do with notions of tidiness – but these days it’s attributed to ‘facilitating access’ and even ‘health and safety’ (yes, if people don’t know where the edge of the path is they might trip over and might sue the Council – God help us!).
A conventional urban park, as invented by the Victorians, is not a good model for a nature reserve. Parks are ‘green deserts’, mainly consisting of a few, even-aged trees and acres of closely mown grass. Here’s a quote from one of my favourite writers, the American Science Fiction writer and ‘futurist’, Bruce Sterling (2) talking about the underlying or ‘true’ nature of such a place:

“It’s hard to recognise that a neatly groomed lawn with a little kid, a puppy and a kitty is a biological holocaust. But it is. Whenever you witness a lovely sight like that, it means that half an acre of the planet’s surface, which formerly supported many hundreds of various weeds and beetles, has been reduced to just four species (not counting their microbial inhabitants). That is the true face of the Sixth Great Extinction. It’s a face that we humans find pleasant.”

And in South Manchester the ‘biological holocaust’ is in full swing – especially in the springtime in many of our ‘green urban spaces’ - where it should be protected and nurtured, not exterminated.

So, should we leave such spaces to their own devices? Not really. Benign neglect tends to lead to species poor scrub, which takes many decades (if at all) to develop into anything interesting. Some form of management is probably essential if the ideal mosaic is to be created and biodiversity is to be maximised - but timing is crucial for such management operations!
In the old countryside trees were felled, lopped or coppiced during the winter, that is during their dormant period, and before the bird nesting season – but now these operations are often carried out in the spring. Hedges were also laid or trimmed in the winter – but now they’re often savagely ripped to pieces with tractor mounted flails – often at the point when they’re just coming into flower or leaf. Finally, grassland was once cut in high summer, when many flowering plants had set seed, but now it’s cut in May and June – often before many flowers have even opened. All of this has devastating knock-on effects for all the organisms which depend on plants – such as insects, birds and bats.

The photograph above is of a scene which greeted me at the western end of the Mersey Valley a week ago – a young man, operating a JCB was reducing this ditch to a lifeless ‘slot’ in the landscape. The other photo shows the same ditch on the other side of a small bridge from where he was working. Is May an appropriate month to perform such operations? Actually, I'm not too sure – but somehow I doubt it.

Of course, biodiversity is supposed to be protected by law, now. For example, under Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural communities Act, 2006: “Every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as it is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity”. And every level of government from national to local is awash with ‘Biodiversity Action Plans’. But none of these laws and fancy plans seem to have any effect on the ‘springtime holocaust’ – the chainsaws were just as loud, if not louder, this year as they have been in previous years.
So if you want a ringside seat for the “Sixth Extinction” you don’t have to go to Africa or South America, or even as far as the Lake District. All you have to do is step outside your South Manchester doorstep, preferably in April or May.

Dave Bishop, May 2009


1. BBC NewsScience & EnvironmentUK Biodiversity still in decline, 6th April 2009: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7982461.stm/

2. ‘Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years’ by Bruce Sterling, Random House, 2002.

No comments: