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19 de maig de 2012

Park life: the wildlife of Britain's cities

Far from destroying the British love of nature, our cities have become urban oases for wildlife


The Guardian (Regne Unit) [Crònica]


An urban fox in a town garden Photograph: Alamy

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the British are more obsessed with nature and wildlife than any other nation on earth. Television programmes such as Springwatch have legions of loyal fans; the RSPB has more than one million members, while almost as many have joined their local wildlife trust; two out of three of us feed birds in our gardens.

And yet this national passion for wildlife is a very modern phenomenon. Its origins lie in a major change that occurred in British society around two centuries ago: the shift from a mainly rural society to a predominantly urban one, a change that at the time threatened to destroy our passion for nature altogether.

Until 1800, as many as three in four Britons lived in the countryside. A lucky few were rich landowners, living a life of leisure, but the vast majority were poor, and spent most of their waking hours working the land. If they thought about wildlife at all, it was probably with a very practical approach: was a particular creature dangerous, or simply good to eat? They certainly had little time for the appreciation of nature we take for granted today.

The industrial revolution changed our relationship with the natural world forever. Within a couple of generations, our ancestors moved lock, stock and barrel from the countryside into towns and cities. By the end of the 19th century, almost four out of five Britons lived in urban areas.

But they didn't forget their rural heritage. Indeed, Victorian Britons soon began to hanker after the life they had left behind. Excursions into the countryside, first by railway and later by road, became a regular part of people's lives. Societies such as the London Natural History Society, founded in 1858, and the West of Scotland Ramblers' Alliance, created in 1892, were formed to enable men and women to enjoy days out in the hills, woods and fields of rural Britain. By the beginning of the 20th century, an increase in mobility and leisure time saw a surge of interest in outdoor hobbies such as rambling and birdwatching; pastimes that would see an even more rapid growth after the second world war.

Yet, for many people, the occasional visit to the countryside was not enough; they also wanted to bring nature into their daily lives. Town and city parks were created, where on summer evenings and weekends they could enjoy a breath of fresh air in a green space. Later, towards the end of the 19th century and during the early years of the 20th, the demand for private green spaces created a growing network of urban gardens. As time went on and Britons became more prosperous, they sought to attract wildlife to those gardens by providing food, water, and places to nest. In doing so, urban dwellers were creating a vital refuge for the wildlife itself.

The need to be self-sufficient in food in the years during and immediately after the second world war led to the destruction of many of our most valuable natural habitats. Millions of acres of ancient hedgerows and hay meadows, fens and marshes were ploughed up, drained and destroyed.

Even when food rationing came to an end in the early 1950s, and self-sufficiency was no longer quite so crucial, the destruction of our countryside continued. The rise of chemical farming, driven by a demand by consumers for cheap food at any cost, led to vast swathes of lowland Britain turning into little more than a food factory. During this same post-war period, the rapid rise in Britain's population fuelled a demand for more houses and roads. This provided a vital boost for the economy, but often proved disastrous for Britain's wildlife.

By the closing decades of the 20th century the countryside of our grandparents' childhood had, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. In its place was a green desert: clean, efficient, yet in places almost totally devoid of wildlife.

The consequences for our rural plants and animals have been devastating. Bumblebees and butterflies, cuckoos and cornflowers, skylarks and lapwings – every one an icon of our natural heritage – are all in rapid, and in some cases perhaps terminal, decline.

And yet this dark cloud does have one silver lining: the rise of what nature writer Richard Mabey has memorably called the "unofficial countryside" – Britain's roadside verges and railway cuttings, canal towpaths and brownfield sites. This also includes the million or so acres of private gardens – an area around the size of Suffolk, and bigger than all the nature reserves in Britain put together.

These places – many of them in the heart of our towns and cities – provide a vital oasis for Britain's wild creatures, a haven as important as anywhere in the British Isles for supporting a diverse range of plants and animals. Perhaps because of the wide range of wildlife found in our urban areas, and the frequency with which we encounter these city creatures, urban Britons are just as connected to nature as – arguably sometimes more so than – their rural neighbours. The countryside and those who live there no longer have a monopoly on nature.

So, even as we have witnessed the wholesale destruction of some of our most precious habitats and their wildlife, our passion for nature has thrived and developed into something that now defines us as a nation. This has its roots in the events of two centuries ago, when our ancestors were wrenched away from life on the land, and herded together into cities. Far from losing our passion for nature, we city dwellers need it more than ever.

Two hundred years after the greatest change in British society, landscape and nature began, we and the wildlife are together again. Yet this is not in some bucolic, rural idyll, but in the heart of our biggest and busiest cities. These are the places where Britain's wild creatures can still be seen, loved and appreciated in all their beauty, diversity and wonder.


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