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Chris Packham asks –‘What’s the point of nature reserves?’

25/07/2008 08:22:10

Chris Packham

Postcards of the past

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In the UK we are extremely lucky to have a fairly comprehensive collection of terrestrial nature reserves which cover a representative set of British habitats. This is a rich legacy and we have to thank a small legion of our forebears for their effort, foresight and generosity. Without them we would have nowhere to go on Sundays to meet fellow minded geeks and discuss the minutiae of our passions. We wouldn't be able to stand hands on hips and smugly gaze at a living representation of what we imagine our green and pleasant landscape once looked like.

Going out into the countryside would be like going to an art gallery with nothing but modern works by Hirst, Emin or the Chapman brothers. Our nature reserves are the Constables, the Turners or the Nash's. Hirst is fields of oilseed rape; Constable is ancient woodland. I'm fairly sure that most readers will prefer the latter, in both senses, but which is actually more relevant? Let's not get too distracted by ‘bus stop' philosophy here but in all honesty trying to argue that the past is more important than the present is going to be a tough call, particularly when our imperative preoccupation is shaping the immediate future. So Hirst has it, Constable is a comforting curio, something to stir our nostalgia, but outside of that his image of the landscape is long redundant because outside of those tiny scraps, those little postcards of the past we call nature reserves, its all gone. It's all gone Damien Hirst.

Actually it's worse than that. John Constables past was fixed forever when his paint dried. Our nature reserves are very dynamic places, scrub grows over our beloved scraps of downland, pine and gorse encroaches on our faux Heathland and ancient woodland just gets old and dies. That's a natural process we all met at school called ‘succession', and boy is it a pain in our arse. You see every year we spend millions of pounds just trying to keep it in check, thousands of well meaning people get up, go out and fight nature in a never-ending and bitter war to keep things like they used to be. Because in ‘our youth', or ‘before the war', or ‘in Constables day' we all seem to think that things were apparently better. Well, I suppose if we forget serfdom, the Great Depression and the three day week maybe they were. Certainly at times some groups of our flora and fauna were more numerous but building our whole conservation ethos on rose tinted dreams of yesteryear is more than a bit short-sighted. It's a wholesale and lunatic waste of time, resources and money. And, critically, it's unsustainable.

Three things 

Firstly the next time you're out scrub-bashing look over the fence, glance up as you pull your Scots Pine sapling out of the heather and take a look at the real world. Your little postcard of the past perfect is just a tiny island lost in ‘Hirstland', floating in some agricultural or industrial apocalypse. And, as we also all learned at school, this means that it's fragile, vulnerable and, in the long term, doomed to decay. Isolated populations inbreed, get hit by catastrophes and become extinct, and with no chance of recruitment across the vast swathes of bleak Brit Art countryside the biodiversity slides into the valueless.

Oh, of course we can slow it all down, we can spend huge sums clearing, planting or even fighting extinction itself by re-introducing things but in the end you just can't beat the forces of nature. Ask the Large Copper butterfly, once denizen of the broads and despite numerous ill conceived and expensive re-introductions - a serial extinctee.

Secondly, these habitats that we try so hard to protect are rare for a reason and normally it's because they are redundant - that they no longer play any real role in the landscape. Let's use heathland as an example; a manmade artefact of woodland clearance on acid soils followed by hundreds of years of grazing produced this heather monoculture over great tracts of southern England. Its open, warm aspect attracted a unique flora and fauna including a number of species at the northern extremes of their ranges in Europe. But when the sheep business declined in the 19th century heathland was just a waste of space, so we ploughed it up, planted forestry on it and then built all over it. It became fragmented; the little islands that weren't destroyed got similarly lost in what is now ‘Hirstland', some burned and some got covered in birch and ultimately conifers.

By then the sexy Sand lizards et al were rare so we though we'd better save some of them for old times sake - and because they are beautiful of course, and even then we almost completely blew it. Recently too, even up to the late 1980's, we were putting houses full of lizard murdering cats and pyromaniac kids on the best remaining pieces of our heathland. Pretty shameful really, but not as stupid as the way that we manage some bits of this relic habitat. You see, we say we want heathland but actually we want some sort of idealized version of it and practically that simply doesn't work.

Real heathland is a blasted awful looking place; Constable didn't pitch his easel there, it's flat, barren and necessarily treeless - it doesn't fit our visual ideal of the countryside, it's actually a bit ‘Hirsty'. So we landscape it, make it more attractive to our eyes, by leaving ‘Feature Trees', invariably mature pines which therefore produce copious numbers of seeds, which spout and shade out the habitat we are trying to protect. So we cut them all down, but then the big trees produce more, so we cut them down again. And again and again. There's one place in the New Forest where in the last twenty years I've seen this happen at least four times. What a disgraceful misuse of money and resources this is. One morning with a chainsaw to get the big ones down and it would be sorted for relative ever.

With nature you simply can't have your cake and eat it too. However to overcome this conservational anomaly there is one small, but horribly prevalent problem - ignorance. The public volubly demand the comfort of a Constablian landscape to walk over with their Woodlark and Nightjar terrorizing dogs and I can appreciate that, I really can. But can we really continue to justify this idiotic patronage given how essential it is to target our efforts both here, and far more importantly, elsewhere? Of course not. What is needed is a massive drive to educate people as to why the nice big trees have to be slaughtered and then a fair compromise whereby the best plots of habitat are properly managed and the marginal ruins allowed to ‘look nice' , and all in arena of effective communication. Then we would have the semblance of some sort of sustainable strategy and equally essentially a public which truly values the resource. And this brings me pertinently to the third and most significant point of all.

Thirdly, and most importantly, what are our natures reserves worth to the people that live on or around them? What do they provide to that community in terms of financial or other value? Sadly I think for the majority it's virtually nothing. A few dog walkers might use them, most of the Sunday geek squad come from outside the area, and whilst they might visit the local pubs or stay over at B&B's, this probably only applies to some of the larger ‘honey pot' reserves such as the RSPB's flagship Minsmere in Suffolk, or those bunched along the north Norfolk coast. The average smaller isolated reserve realistically only attracts seasonal part-day visitors which, due to its isolation, means that they bring sarnies and a flask and their cars which clutter up the lanes en route. So for most of the year it just sits there empty with a fence around it and therefore contributes nothing to the people who should value it most. And given that by their very nature these sites are mainly rural that's not particularly useful when many such communities are struggling or failing economically.

Titley Pools Nature Resrve in Herefordshire. What's the point?

Titley Pools Nature Resrve in Herefordshire. What's the point?

Nature reserves are a waste of space
In conclusion it could be argued, albeit cynically by a devils advocate, that traditional nature reserves in today's world are a waste of space, play a paltry economic role in the landscape, that they are a continual and expensive burden to poorly manage, that their future is therefore unsustainable and that we persist with this approach to conservation only to give a tiny minority of nostalgics a cosy feeling on three Sundays a year.

I can imagine that you might be spitting with rage over this theory. Something like, ‘how can he be worried about the crass aspects of economics when he knows that without these reserves conservation would have had no foundations from which to grow and very few plants and animals left to protect'. And perhaps further, ‘it's the geeks who care, who have and will make a difference, and anyway saving stuff like Sand lizards is obviously the morally correct course of action, whatever the cost, if for no other reason than that we can'. Mind you if you add, ‘If it wasn't for that reserve my little grand-daughter wouldn't have seen that lizard last Sunday', then maybe I am wasting my time here. I'm not forsaking our own heritage, I'm not saying they're not a good starting point and a set of potentially valuable refugia, what I'm saying is that its time for a realistic re-think, a reappraisal of spending and for the acceptance of the straightforward indisputable fact that if these places have no value to those who live with them they have no long term future at all. They must be an integrated part of a working landscape, otherwise it won't be ‘For People, For Birds, For ever', it will be for nothing.

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