The variety of coastal profiles and habitats in southern England makes for a phenomenal biodiversity both resident and migratory. There are mudflats, shingle, soft and hard cliffs, saltmarsh, dunes and estuaries, all of which are valuable and all of which host rarities. Theoretically our coastal ecology is protected by such agreements or legally enforceable rulings as the Ramsar Convention, the Bonn Convention, the Bern Convention, Natura 2000, EU Directives and the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, but despite these good intentions there are numerous problems.
Global warming and rising sea levels, which are likely to create significant opportunities for wildlife while removing others, appear to be a natural cyclical event possibly given extra impetus by human actions. Many of the other difficulties nature faces are much more closely associated with our activities and aims, particularly in the field of economic development.
Land reclamation, barrage schemes, pollution through industrial, agricultural and urban waste water discharges, oil and gas extraction (and oil spillages), dredging for aggregates and to assist freight navigation have all played a part in harming the coastal and marine environment. They will continue to do so unless the value of flora and fauna is given proper consideration when assessing all proposed development across Britain.
That, essentially, is one of the main failings of the principal political parties in Britain as they increasingly fall over each other in almost laughable attempts to trumpet their 'green' credentials, especially in the wake of the massive review by Sir Nicholas Stern of the economic impact of global warming, published in November 2006. (Note the terms of reference - economic impact, not environmental impact.)
Focussing, as the politicians tend to, almost entirely on the excellent principle of reducing the use of fossil fuels, thereby cutting carbon emissions, may make good sound bites and be splendid for headlines in newspapers. It may have the ring of being concerned for the world at large - a laudable mindset, given that the effects of global warming, including desertification, will have a worse effect on the residents of less-developed countries than those in the industrialised west.
But few if any of the headline-grabbing proposals, including such masterpieces as making cars 'greener' while continuing to encourage everyone to have one and use it willy-nilly, combine this grand global view with doing anything to minimise the powerful threats to our environment that exist in the here and now. To put this in context, in a speech to the United Nations in 2006, future Prime Minister Gordon Brown boldly said: "We have a compelling and ever-more-urgent duty of stewardship to take care of the natural environment and resources on which our economic activity and social fabric depends."
Fine words and a fine sentiment, but what happened when Mr Brown reached Number 10? The proposed UK Marine Bill, a vital piece of conservation legislation needed to protect a superb habitat that is acknowledged to be in decline, was not included in the Queen's Speech, though happily the Marine and Coastal Access Bill finally received Royal Assent in November 2009. The first Marine Conservation Zone was set up in 2010 and there are now 27.
Another bit of nonsense was the trumpeting of so-called eco-towns, a programme of development supposedly offering the opportunity to achieve high standards of sustainable, zero-carbon living while also maximising the potential for affordable housing. The proposed towns, ten of them, would, we were told with no conviction, be largely car free even though most would be plonked down in locations with indifferent public transport. Inevitably this would result in extensive peripheral infrastructure being created.
To compound the buffoonery of the notion, eight of the 15 sites in the short-list for development happened to be significant places for wildlife, including a Site of Special Scientific Interest and two reserves run by Wildlife Trusts. In 2009 the list was cut to four, in Norfolk, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Cornwall, but it was not until 2012 that North-West Bicester got the go-ahead to proceed with development. Construction began in spring 2014 and the first homes went on sale in June 2015.
The distinctly environmentally unfriendly High Speed 2 rail line from London to Birmingham then Manchester and Leeds is another example of a white elephant, if not mammoth, coming at a prodigious price and at no advantage to the environment. Initially the cost was projected at £33 billion, then raised to £42 billion in 2013. It has since been raised to £56 billion. Given the proven and habitual chronic incompetence of governments in calculating anything accurately, some informed observers expect the overall cost to be more than £100 billion, or around £400 million per mile. More than half this amount will come from the taxpayer.
So who exactly will benefit significantly in social, financial or economic terms from taking just over 30 minutes off the time taken to get from London to Birmingham? Not that many, and any advantage will probably be to London, which is already dangerously inflated in power and influence. Overall, more than 100 of Britain's most important wildlife habitats and dozens of ancient woodlands will be directly affected by HS2, with hundreds of acres of green-belt land lost and more than 1,000 buildings demolished. A masterpiece of vandalism.
Just to emphasise how little governments, of whatever persuasion, care about the land we live in, cuts in expenditure of up to £300 million proposed by the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) towards the end of 2007. Worse followed in the austerity regime of the coalition government, with cuts in the Defra budget of 30 per cent (£700 million) between 2010 and 2015 along with losses of up to 8,000 jobs at Natural England.
Threats to our environment, inland as well as on the coast, are often a consequence of actions which have carbon emissions merely as a by-product. Without a radical reappraisal of economic planning and what exactly constitutes genuine economic growth, together with broad national and regional development strategies and land usage, our environment may well be gravely compromised before the brave new world of low carbon emissions - surely a pipedream in some respects - is realised in the distant future.
Destruction of habitats, driving species away and poor protection are our loss as well as nature's. On one level, it contributes to removing the vital faculty of wonder - how on earth can a square metre of mudflat contain up to 300,000 mudsnails (Hydrobia ulvae)?
On another level, not being able to watch thousands of geese flying to roost in the evening above The Wash in Norfolk, or thousands of Knot and Dunlin wheeling around the sky and feeding in the estuarine mud in the same area, would deprive us of a wild experience to which words can never do justice.
Any inquiries - please e-mail me at Nature Conservation Imaging.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.