A misplaced conservation policy

George Monbiot in his Guardian section comments on the obsession of policy makers with keeping the uplands devoid of trees which in many cases would be the natural cover if the areas were left to their own devices.

In Britain this means the uplands. This is why I have become obsessed with the way they are managed. But wildlife in the uplands, amazingly, is faring worse than it is in the crowded, intensively farmed lowlands. The State of Nature report, published in May, revealed that while 60% of wildlife species in Britain as a whole are in decline, in the uplands the rate is 65%.

The primary reason is that almost all the trees and scrub – on which the majority of species depend – have been removed, mostly by sheep farming. On the continent, the uplands are now largely forested, while the lowlands are largely bare. That is what you would expect. Upland soils tend to be much poorer than lowland soils, so farming is less productive there: generally many times less productive. But in Britain, while the lowlands are largely bare, the uplands are even barer. The places that should be our wildlife reservoirs are in fact wildlife deserts.

This state of depletion has been maintained by three means, in escalating order of importance:

a. Stalking estates artificially boosting the population of deer

b. Grouse moor owners cutting and burning the land (and killing hen harriers and other predators) to maximise the population of the upland chickens people pay to shoot

c. Governments spending public money to sustain farming – almost entirely sheep grazing – in the hills.

I cannot emphasise this strongly enough: the entire basis of upland conservation, as pursued on most of the upland reserves owned or managed by the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the National Trust, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage and other bodies, is based on a misconception: that in keeping them open and largely devoid of trees, they are best protecting wildlife. This belief, which is largely unexamined by the groups that propound it, is diametrically wrong. It explains why many upland reserves are about as biodiverse and ecologically inspiring as the average car park.

In this open, blasted, impoverished land, there is little foothold for either wildlife or new thinking. We need to start a debate, a debate which asks a number of obvious questions. What are we doing and why? What is the basis of the decisions we have made? Is it sound? What do we want and how could we get it? These are the questions our conservation groups have failed to ask. Until they do so, they will continue their long and lonely trek into fatuity.

At the moment their vision seems as empty and simplified as the moors they fetishise. It is time they started thinking like a forest.


Comment   George Monbiot has raised an interesting and important question – why is it that upland areas are kept treeless?

The article also highlights the need to question accepted policies, to examine the evidence and encourage debate.   It is an approach which applies across many areas.


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