Discover more from Urban Nature Diary
Why nature needs space
Are nature reserves the best solution?
It was a public holiday here in the UK on Monday, so we had a long weekend to explore. More specifically, one day to cycle for 10 miles for the first time in I can’t remember when, and two days to recover.
Cycling around East London in the sunshine is a delight.
Spring is in full bloom, with white tree blossom drifting on the air and coating everything in a thick layer of warm fluffy snow. The weekend was the kind of weather that brings out everyone between the ages of three and eighty-three, and the canal towpaths were streaming with people on their way to lay on the grass and drink gin and tonic from a can.
We rode for hours without crossing or even nearing a single road, an easy feat in East London but still one that pleases me greatly when I achieve it. An entire day without cars, without the monotonous moaning of engines, without the rasping drag of rubber on tarmac. Just the soothing squeaky rattle of bike wheels, the lapping of water in the river, and birdsong.
The journey took us to a gem hidden away in the corner of one of the larger parks in East London. We were looking for otters. Someone we met birdwatching the other day told us he had seen them in the river nearby, and with kits, too. Although there are plenty of signs throughout the Lea Valley telling people to keep an eye out for otters, I’ve never seen a photograph of one in the area or heard of any around, and even the rangers will be the first to admit the information signs were written rather optimistically.
Otters need clean water to survive, and the River Lea is anything but clean. Otters are a myth, a legend, signs erected in the hope that they might one day return to the valley. We hunted high and low for signs of them in the waterways, but to no avail.
What we did find, however, were some incredible wild hideaways for nesting birds.
Old filter beds. Long since abandoned by people since they were built in the 19th century, the beds have become a wetlands, quickly re-established by toads, newts, dragonflies and damselflies.
An incredible reimagining of life after industry, nature reclaiming its place amongst the concrete.
Naturally, the authorities want to keep it that way, so there is plenty of signage requesting people stay clear, leave the place alone, leave the wildlife alone.
The concept of nature reserves is an interesting one.
Greater London is a tapestry of nature reserves of all sizes, from Richmond Park to this tiny little patch of greenery in Hackney. Indeed, there are seemingly countless laws and bye-laws across the whole country protecting various spots of wildlife from tiny parks to peat bogs. Protecting them in theory, at least. They are beautiful, valuable, and without them the country would be a much greyer and much drearier.
But the very existence of nature reserves in the UK is also their weakness. They are oases, green spots dotted throughout the country, isolated and unconnected. They are the very opposite of what wildlife needs, which is space and connectivity.
A local nature reserve may well be the perfect habitat for a breeding pair of hedgehogs or shrews, but if that nature reserve is not connected to anything else then just one predator - one unassuming ginger cat - can absolutely decimate that population.
In much the same way we have connected our towns and cities with roads, wildlife needs travelways between habitats. They need hedges, wildflower meadows, food and shelter in which to move around and spend the nights and escape from predators - all valuable spaces which have been removed from Britain over the last hundred years, replaced with concrete and brick.
Nature has been pushed to the limits, to the edges, relegated to a smattering of token green patches around the country, imprisoned in the name of their own protection. Anywhere that’s not a nature reserve is considered fair game, but even existing nature reserves aren’t safe from our insatiable diggers.
There are of course ambitions to remedy this. Buglife’s B-Lines project is mapping out meadows and flowerbeds and gardens for pollinators to travel across, encouraging people to make their own spaces as insect-friendly as possible. WildEast is admirably asking the people of East Anglia to pledge their green space for wildlife.
Without top-down government policy, nature will always be on the back foot, the David doing battle with Goliath’s property developers and civil engineers. But unlike David, nature doesn’t have a perfectly wielded slingshot. It needs us to stand up for it, give it a voice, and shout for change.
I would love for children to grow up in a world where nature doesn’t have to be locked behind barriers, where mammals and insects can roam between the ends of the islands as freely as they did before humans walked upright. But until we can learn to live in harmony with the 70,000 or so other species we share these islands with, they will be relegated to fenced refuges.
Refuges we must never take for granted.