The Great British wildlife wipe-out

Wildlife habitat and green spaces are under steady encroachment in Britain from corporate interests, reports Graham Checkley

Photo of Swanscombe marshes. Keywords: gentrification urban cities green spaces wildlife habitat Britain RSPB
Swanscombe Marshes in Kent, which are slated to be destroyed to make way for a theme park. Photo: diamond geezer/Flickr

Habitat destruction has been pointed out, by both the UN and the World Health Organization, as a major contributing factor behind pandemics. In such situations we see displaced and distressed animals, carrying their own viruses and probably sick, coming in to contact with new potential hosts, including humans. It is not only the animals that are distressed; people, driven off their land and deprived of any other food, can end up eating dangerously prepared and already diseased meat.

Nature does not usually do things this way; a common analogy for the relationship between species is a long, slow, evolutionary arms race between predator and prey (sometimes, oddly, to mutual advantage). But there is a potential for violent change, and from an evolutionary point of view this is ‘nothing personal’ to the human race – just a virus living through a period of mass species extinction by evolving to use a novel new host, all 8 billion of us. Avian flu, Ebola, HIV and SARS have all jumped the species gap from their original host to humans; Covid-19 is only the latest virus to do this, and with global habitat destruction ongoing, it will not be the last.

While the habitat destruction in Africa, Brazil and China makes the headlines, the devastating of habitat and wildlife is also happening here in Britain, a few trees at a time. The same economic forces that are driving habitat destruction and associated climate change abroad are also in play in the UK.

The National Biodiversity Network’s annual State of Nature report for the UK in 2019 documents that 15% of UK species are threatened with at least local extinction, and that 41% have decreased in abundance over the last 50 years. Perhaps most alarming is the 60% drop in UK priority species over that period, species identified as key indicators of the health of UK biodiversity; what this means in practice is that our habitat is becoming less species-rich and, as a result, less resilient to change.

Habitat loss is a major factor here, putting pressure on wildlife as thousands of hectares of farmland, woodland and wetland are built on every year to meet the needs of our increasingly urbanised population. However, it is local government policy that is driving that urban sprawl, a policy with an emphasis on city centre offices, shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, Airbnb, student accommodation and no affordable housing. Want to buy a family home in Edinburgh? Forget it, you need to live on the outskirts, or move out to East Lothian and commute.

At a more detailed level we see one development project after another leading to habitat destruction. While the most infamous have been the destruction of ancient woodland for the HS2 rail project and the conversion of SSSI protected dune systems into golf courses, we also see proposals for a theme park on Swanscombe Marshes in Kent, and the building of a dual carriageway through bat habitat in Norfolk. But perhaps the most bizarre and revealing piece of un-joined-up thinking is a proposed development in Edinburgh, felling more than 800 trees to create a new green corridor walking and cycle pathway. This development was green-washed by ‘planting’ 5000 new trees – which is really to say, trees were moved there from a nursery. These may never grow to maturity and do their bit to combat climate change; the real result is a net loss of trees. It is perhaps not surprising to discover that biodiversity is a declining government priority, with expenditure in this area dropping by 42% in 5 years; it now stands at 0.02% of GDP.

However, the good news is that good work is still being done. Local Ranger Services still look after important biodiversity sites, public groups participate in such work both physically and financially, and conservation groups can still celebrate major achievements in habitat restoration and species re-introduction. Similarly, some species have benefited from improved legal protection under EU law, but Boris Johnson wants to see an end to that.

But why does it have to be such a struggle? The science tells us that we need a healthy ecosystem to avoid pandemics; to that extent, aren’t we all in this together?

Simply put, the rich worldwide do not have to live with the destruction and pollution resulting from the activities that make them money. To take a more extreme example from another part of the world, the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto mining company declared an $8bn profit in 2019, and at the same time are facing accusations of poisonous waste leaks in Papua New Guinea. More than 150 people have filed a complaint with the Australian authorities, saying that waste from the abandoned copper and gold mine is causing health problems for 12,000 people living nearby. The actual beneficiaries of these activites do not live beside polluted places; they can afford not to. At a corporate level, one of Rio Tinto’s shareholders is Barclays Bank, a household name that millions of ordinary people bank with.

Closer to home, the HS2 development threatens 108 ancient woodlands (63 of these are threatened with direct loss). Nonetheless, investors are encouraged by talk of railway contracts worth £11bn and rolling stock contracts worth £7.5bn. Money talks, trees do not.

Even in more socially conscious environments, there is still a sad disconnect between recognising a climate emergency and doing something about it. In 2019 the Church of Scotland General Assembly recognised that ‘we are experiencing a climate and ecological emergency’, but they still failed to disinvest from oil and gas companies. As one participant put it, ‘I love my church but today I’m ashamed’. A view, as a church member, that I share.

So, if this explains the, at best, indifference of the rich, what about our locally elected representatives? There are some who lobby to see the right thing done on environmental issues, but they are mostly mesmerized by the money. Decades of cuts have forced councils to become developer-friendly when it comes to planning regulations and decisions; they may enforce the letter of the law, but why should a little less woodland matter? The council gets a little more money, the developers make a very big profit.

There are, however, a million voices and more in the UK who do not share this cavalier view about our wildlife. On a local level, a small protest in Edinburgh has focussed attention on council plans for tree removal along a proposed new cycle path; while nationally, organisations like the million-member RSPB, with many others, have joined together to successfully lobby the Scottish Government against the proposed Coul Links golf course development. Protests and lobbying work such as this are an important way for anyone to get involved in protecting green spaces.

However, for better protection of our wildlife against corporate interests at home and abroad a deeper political change is needed. There are lots of opportunities to get involved here too. Scot.E3 (Employment, Energy and Environment), for example, was initiated by a small group of rank-and-file trade unionists and environmental activists keen to find a way of taking climate action into workplaces and working-class communities. They are campaigning for climate jobs and a just transition to a sustainable economy, and it is a sustainable economy that we really need for the long-term protection of our wildlife.

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