This blog is a celebration of the nature in the South East and highlights ways you can get involved and explore nature in the region. If you've got news of the South East’s nature that you'd like to share, please contact the RSPB South East office on 01273 775333 or email SERComms@rspb.org.uk
I was chatting with a new member of our London team the other day and inevitably the subject of motivation came up. That little devil on my shoulder bit my ear then shouted in its loutish voice... "Motivation? You're like a pig in clover. You are able to let motivation choose your career choice? You don't know how lucky you are".
When I was in my final year at school, the careers advice was: "You can choose one of the three F paths in life. Farming, Forces or Factory". Presented with this meagre list of options and the facts that all the local farms were large family owned busineses with sons lined-up to inherit and that my Dad told me not to follow him through the factory gates, I went to discover the world. In my view, I chose life as the character Renton says in Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting. After a succession of jobs, I chose conservation. It links me with my childhood experiences of living and working in the countryside. It requires the skills I learned as a journalist and developed during my time working with communities and educators in regeneration, tempered by my time serving customers in cafes and garages or labouring on sites, farms and in gardens. Some of those earlier jobs were gained through necessity, but now I have been able to let my ideals steer my career choice.
So here I am in London where neighbours in my street have never eaten an apple they've personally plucked from a tree and where many of my children's primary schoolfriends don't know the difference between beef, lamb or chicken; to them it's just meat and has no link with any living animals. How do I share my excitement over green roofs or sustainable drainage systems? How do I begin to explain why chopping down trees and paving over gardens is causing flooding and higher summer temperatures? Why did we help London Underground manage their embankments for nature? Then there's the BIG question I'm constantly asked ... "Why does it matter if the birds or bees die?
I could quote the many world religions on mans "custodianship" of nature. I could say we have an inherent responsibility. Maybe I could opt for the threat approach that 90% of the world's food crops come from just 100 plant species and that 71 of those are dependent on honey bee pollination. Maybe mention that a single swift can gobble ten thousand flying bugs, such as mosquitoes, every day, saving human lives otherwise blighted by malaria. I could give them tons of research on how plants soak up rain and pollutants while providing oxygen and cool air or how birds clean-up dead and rotting material or help spread seeds. There are so many things nature does for us that we could never afford to do artificially.
The bottom line is that we're all dependent on natural resources and we're already using more than exists. That's why 60% of the UK's species are vanishing and partly to blame for the increased climate extremes that bring floods and droughts. By monitoring birds we can measure that destruction. Birds are towards the top of most food chains and because they're visible, any declines in their numbers sets alarm bells ringing to say our natural systems have broken down. Right now, I'm deafened by those alarm bells.
Nature's amazing and people are amazing. We can produce awesome films like this. We can split atoms and travel through space. Why can't we put nature before building new homes or airports in unsuitable locations, after all, without nature, there will be no need for homes or airports.
Edging through queues of traffic on my cycle ride in to the RSPB’s Westminster office this week, my mind went over a statement I’d heard on the radio that we are not a crowded island. Living in densely populated London you can quickly forget that urban living is not the norm.
I am used to shops being open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so I find it “quaint” when I go home to the Welsh borders and stumble across towns with half-day closing or their windows dark and doors locked on a Sunday. It’s what I grew-up with, but it is no longer my “normal”.
Yes, we do have vast tracts of land that are not built upon, as that man on the radio had stated. Yes, I do value those large tracts of land and yes I do realise we are in desperate need for more housing and infrastructure. What we need is some oversight. Urban areas tend to be the centres of commerce and rural areas supply the resources that run that commerce. Both rely on nature and on each other to enjoy smooth running.
In the High Court, a judge has refused leave for the RSPB to appeal his decision allowing expansion of Lydd Airport (also known as London Ashford Airport at Lydd). This is deeply disappointing to the RSPB and comes after a long and complex debate. The RSPB is a determined organisation and we’re considering what we can do next to best safeguard the site and all that it supports.
Kent is known as the "Garden of England", and like gardens around the country, it’s being whittled away by a bit of fashionable decking here, a bit of hard-standing for a car there and an opportunity to make money over there by building a one-bed flat over the veg patch and that old shed. Pretty soon, all that’s left of this mythical garden is an overshadowed flower bed and some window boxes.
Kent cannot be allowed to go this way. The airport at Lydd will see a runway extension of almost 300 metres, allowing flights to increase to carry not the current limit of 200,000 passengers a year, but 500,000. All of this next to one of the UK’s most treasured natural sites; Dungeness. It is a special place for many reasons, some sentimental but many more scientific, biological, social, geograhphic and yes, even global. It is officially the UK’s only desert. It’s also fragile and has vast effort heaped upon it to ensure visitors can rely on its raw beauty and otherworldliness being forever accessible. It’s a landscape to cherish with a fistful of UK and European designations that are supposed to protect it from harm.
North of Dungeness is another “protected” site in danger of being whittled away. Lodge Hill is a Ministry of Defence site with proposals to build 5,000 homes on it. This largely un-touched land has lain securely vacant for use by the military and its undisturbed nature is perfect for nightingales, so the UK Government listed it as a Site of Special Scientific Importance [SSSI]; the only one for nightingales in the UK.
We are losing our wildlife in the UK. Research shows that 60% is vanishing. There are growing national divides in wildlife, wealth and resources. Kent’s orchards, fields and other special places need more space. Other areas of the UK have space and resources but lack development. Careful garden planning creates resilient spaces for people and homes for nature. That’s a vision worth pursuing.
I’d like to start a campaign to increase spaces.
We have constant demands for more housing and more infrastructure, yet it’s rare to hear anyone cry “… hold on a minute. Can we have a bit more grass and maybe a hedge please?”
I admit the need for housing is huge and growing, especially in the south and always in London. Any extra housing brings with it a need for more energy, more water, more waste processing, jobs, schools, doctors, shops and everything else needed to create a sustainable community. It’s neither too hard nor expensive to include wildflowers or orchards.
I concede that development is necessary, so the tough question is; how do we increase both greenspace and density? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @rspbLondon #buildgreen
Ultimately we will not be able to do both, because we have limited space in London. There is a finite amount of land, and while we are building on more brownfield sites or reclaimed land, that too is in demand for wildlife and for linking existing greenspaces. There are some brownfield sites that are now as important for wildlife as many so called greenfield sites. In some cases the brownfield is more valuable because of the species it supports or its location in relation to dense housing.
In Seattle, in northwest America’s Washington State, they have been trying something a little different. City planners calculate how much greenspace they have and when someone proposes a new development, they must maintain or increase the greenspace that would be lost. This has led to a growth of green walls, living roofs, landscaped parks and all the benefits this brings, alongside increased housing and improved infrastructure. Protected areas remain untouched and threatened species saved, but it makes for a more logical whole. Seattle is a better place for this approach.
In the UK, we’re following the age old conservation mantra that sacrificing brownfield instead of greenfield is the way forward. With London cinched by an increasingly strained greenbelt, basements go ever deeper and the skyline ever higher. We are a captive audience in an overcrowded cell. Conserving the best of our natural assets and improving the rest is surely a better roadmap for our future?
The UK is not America. We don’t have anything like the land mass they do. But maybe it’s time to bear in mind our limited land availability and start to develop solutions that give us all space to, metaphorically, spread our wings and fly.