THE ACCIDENTAL COUNTRYSIDE: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife
Guardian Faber, 2020, 260 pages | Hardback £16.99 ISBN 978-1-78335-164-0
Review by Barry Larking
Stephen Moss’s latest book arrived at a propitious time. Forced by Covid-19 regulations to limit social contacts and abiding by travel restrictions, I found myself taking exercise where I could locally. This was a chance to explore overlooked places in my own back yard. Mr Moss has written a book about those very places most of us drive past getting to somewhere else. He explores roadside verges becoming wildflower ‘meadows’, motorway services, golf courses and railway lines transformed into wildlife corridors. He tries to link these fragmentary experiences into a coherent idea of what our real encounters of nature might be in this complex century. It’s a stranger place than most of us imagine. We are adapting to this ‘new natural history’ experience in our crowded island, but find numerous plants and animals have beaten us to the punch.
Wilderness is the acme for conservation and by the end of the 20th century it was running out fast, if not all gone. Still, the lure of ‘true’ wilderness in the British Isles remains hanging like fruit in a Greek tragedy, waiting for the unwary to pluck it.
We fight constant battles over the Green Belt, that post-War planning achievement we thought impregnable and essential. Today, many precious patches of amenity and open space amidst our settlements are being eroded by new housing. House building spreads out seemingly everywhere, regardless of the shaky economy, flood-impacts, traffic effects, or any other possible environmental objection.
This leads to a troubling anomaly. The rules that struggle to protect our existing national wildlife heritage don’t stretch to the pockets of unnatural regeneration our urban places are revealing year on year. Stephen Moss cites Gunnersbury Triangle, west London. A ‘hidden corner’ as he puts it, that despite being an inadvertent ‘snippet’ left by the railway age, had become a space cherished by local people. As the Greater London Council’s resident ecologist of that time in the 1980s, the distinguished David Goode, had to point out professionally, beyond his own enthusiasm for retaining such places, it “had none of the features in traditional nature conservation terms which would make it worth preserving”. No SSSI then. But all’s well that ends well for once. After a Public Inquiry the Inspector placed local interest and support for a slice of green space rare in the borough above all else. A sort of principle had been laid down, but not secured. There is no certainty of protection for these regenerating bits of green nowhere.
Which brings me to an observable paradox. The sites I have found so rewarding locally aren’t greenfield. They are brownfield. Our major house builders are infamously brownfield averse. The name of the game is profit and the profit margin on selling customers a dream house ‘on the edge of open countryside’ is just too lucrative to pass up. My city has already lost 10 per cent of its Green Belt this century and more is going under for ‘much needed’ housing, all of it ‘aspirational’.
Brownfield nature won’t ever replace our epic wildlife places; but we are I think very aware today how much of what we see is in fact residual, not original: a few mountain tops and sea coasts, that is about it. The gains in embracing those de-bruised places, so often scraps of land that no one has thought of a way to make money out of, standing ignored beside a busy road or railway lines, used by passing butterflies, wasps and rodents, home to garden escapes and often fly-tipped, are worthy of our attention. Never beauty spots, the unofficial countryside in name only. Such places are not conservation targets, and maybe never will be, but they can delight the open minded visitors who chance upon them, or residents, young and old, who use them as local wildness. Never more so now, that should not be sniffed at. Stephen Moss doesn’t.
“That’s the problem with the Accidental Countryside: by definition, much of it is temporary, fleeting and uniquely vulnerable. No one cares for it; no-one will report any damage; no one will fight to protect it. No-one will stand up for these strangely beautiful places, and the gleaming creatures that find a space to thrive here” says the author.
This book might change all that.