Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2010: UN International Year of Biodiversity

Well, we’re only a day or so from 2010 which you may, or may not, know will be the UN International Year of Biodiversity. You can read more about it here: http://www.countdown2010.net/year-biodiversity. As this website tells us:

“The year 2007 marked a milestone: it has seen the turning point at which more people live in cities than in rural areas. According to UN projections, 85% of world population growth between 2000 and 2010 will be in urban areas. Cities are therefore responsible for the well being of the majority of the world population, which is directly linked to sound biodiversity management. As urbanization is leading to an increase in their size, they also control an increasingly vast area of land. The concept of urban biodiversity is therefore becoming extremely important. As a result, cities need to take up the challenge of halting the loss of biodiversity by taking biodiversity into account in their decision making process.”

So is Manchester taking up this challenge? I’ve searched the Council’s website (http://www.manchester.gov.uk/) and I cannot find a single mention of the UN International Year of Biodiversity. On their associated ‘Wildaboutmanchester’ website (http://www.wildaboutmanchester.info/site/) I did find some stuff about a ‘record breaking’ tree planting attempt earlier this month. Apparently:

Manchester residents assembled in five different locations across the city on Saturday 5 December to take part in the BBC Breathing Spaces Tree O'clock event.
This hour long planting session was part of a nationwide bid, not only to beat the world record for the number of trees planted within an hour, but also to raise awareness about how important trees are to the environment. Events took place in various parts of the city and over 11,000 trees were planted in the hour provided
Councillor Richard Cowell said: "Tree O'clock is a wonderful campaign to spread the word about the benefits of trees to the environment, so it's fitting that we're supporting it here, where tree-planting has always been a top priority.”

Sadly it now appears to be the only priority! Which is odd as tree planting actually has very little to do with conservation. As one of our most distinguished experts on the British countryside, Dr Oliver Rackham puts it:

“Tree planting is not synonymous with conservation; it is an admission that conservation has failed.” (Rackham, O., ‘The History of the Countryside’, Dent, 1986).

Perhaps it’s not so odd if you consider that tree planting is also easy, cheap, highly visible (an important characteristic of a token) and ideal for facile publicity stunts like record tree planting attempts. On the down side it diverts attention from the continuing degradation and destruction of our remaining scraps of local biodiversity and far too often the trees are planted in the midst of our even smaller scraps of species-rich and rough grasslands - which are much more important, in wildlife terms, than a few planted trees. There’s much more to say about tree planting but I’ll finish this bit by reminding the Council that trees plant themselves (and have been doing for millions of years without the Council’s help) and that old trees are hundreds of times more important, in biodiversity terms, than planted saplings, but we’re losing more and more old trees locally at a ferocious rate. The Environment Agency has been doing some work along Chorlton Brook recently. Ostensibly this was to shore up the banks but they, almost casually, cut down many of the large White Willows along these banks, which means that we’ve lost some of the oldest and most valuable trees in the district – and no amount of tree planting will make up for this loss. This, for me, is an indication of the real contempt that the local authorities have for local biodiversity.

So what might be happening to biodiversity, in South Manchester, in 2010? To be quite honest it’s not looking good (in fact it’s looking terrible!). As soon as spring and the bird nesting season arrives, the Mersey Valley will no doubt ring to the sound of motors and engines as contractors of various sorts apply their chainsaws, strimmers, herbicide sprays and heavier machinery to the vegetation of any wild bits they can find left, and the birds will be driven from their nests and the wild plants will be cut down in flower and fail to set seed. As in previous years, if challenged, the workmen will claim that what they’re doing is absolutely necessary and furthermore they have a legal right to do it, no matter how destructive it might be. That’s why I call them ‘licensed eco-vandals’ by the way!

Until recently we had a linear wildlife corridor stretching from Old Trafford to Didsbury. This was, of course the route of the old Midland Railway line closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s. As we all know this is to be the route for the new Metrolink line. The Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE) made all sorts of extravagant promises for conserving biodiversity along this route but I have to confess that I’m not very impressed with progress so far. Much of the route was/is flooded and these water bodies were/are full of frogs and newts. GMPTE claimed that they would be ‘re-housing’ the displaced amphibians but, apart for a small, cheap makeshift pond in a small field behind Chorlton Leisure Centre, the ponds have not (to the best of my knowledge) materialised yet. I wonder what the amphibians are supposed to do in the meantime? Die, I suppose ... ?
But local conservationists really lost faith in GMPTE’s promises when, in March 2009, they cut down an avenue of mature trees between St Werburgh’s Road and Mauldeth Road West. To the best of our knowledge this avenue had not even been surveyed by independent ecologists so no-one really knows what effect its destruction has had upon the local ecology. Mind you I do question the point of commissioning surveys when you are intending to destroy what the surveyors find!
I have to tell you, though, that GMPTE are going to plant five trees for every tree that they cut down. When I read promises like this I imagine a workman walking into the Sistine Chapel and saying: “We’re going to have to sandblast this ceiling you know. But, never mind, when we’ve finished we’ll give it a nice coat of whitewash!”

And, of course, the fate of Hardy Farm hangs in the balance. For those of you who have been on another planet recently, a massive, floodlit sporting complex is planned for this site - which is rich in birds, plants and insects and contains within its boundaries part of a Site of Biological Importance (SBI). As consultees in the planning process Greater Manchester Ecology Unit stated that:
“The creation of the new sports pitches will result in a loss of botanical diversity and a loss of nature conservation potential.”

And they concluded that:

“The proposed development will detrimentally affect habitats and species in the area by causing direct and indirect loss of habitats. The adjacent SBI will be directly and indirectly affected by the development proposals.”

In spite of this, and many more objections, Manchester City Council Planning Department have decided that they are “minded to approve” this development. The Council Planning and Highways Committee are due to visit the site at around 10:15 am on the 14th January 2010; they will then vote on the matter, in the Town Hall, in the afternoon. Will they take biodiversity into account, in the UN International Year of Biodiversity? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see ...
Still, it’s nice to know that the developer is going to plant some trees if he gets his planning permission!

Dave Bishop, December 2009

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