The idea of habitat destruction has had it’s day. I think we need to move on.
Anyone who has ever seen the ulcerated sore of an open-cast mine, or the mud-slide run-off from a deforested tropical hillside will know what habitat destruction is. But neither of these is very common in Britain. There is the occasional gravel pit or chalk quarry, but even quite large new building developments or road schemes seem relatively minor scrapes when viewed in aerial photographs, we have Google Earth to thank for this calming revelation.
And yet conservationists, especially entomologists, are always barking on about declines in biodiversity due to habitat destruction. It has become a mantra of our times. The trouble is, no-one is really listening. The reason they are not listening is because, intuitively, they don’t believe it. They look out at the world, from the car or train window, or even when they walk down a country lane, and the world out there is still obviously green and pleasant. Where is all this destruction that’s supposed to be going on?
Talk of habitat loss isn’t much better. It simply conjures up images of minor landslips in Dorset or Lincolnshire. Dramatic they may appear on the pages of the red-tops, and sad, yes, for the people whose houses are plunged into the sea; but, again, these are minor plots of land — nothing to get het up about, and no serious sway on environmental opinion.
We should stop talking about habitat destruction, it isn’t helping much.
Of course, what we can’t see, are the subtle, insidious changes that have been going on cankerously since the 1940s, with the intensive industrialization of agriculture and the demise of traditional rural husbandry.
Woods are still full of trees, and they all look very green. But close inspection shows that they are gone to pot. Coppice cycles have been abandoned and woodland management is now, very often, no management at all; the once rich, varied mosaic of copses has become crowded, overgrown and dark, and the delicate woodland flora has been replaced by dull uniformity.
Even the language of green fields is skewed by the obfuscation of farming propaganda; at best it is counter-productive, at worst it is directly misleading. Contrary to any reasonable understanding, ‘improved’ grassland actually means ruined grassland; it is only improved for agriculture. Fertilized beyond care with chemical preparations or over-manured beyond its natural capacity, the thick, lush grasses useful only to the commercial dairy farmer are increased, at the expense of a broad, mixed, flowery richness, which is everywhere diminished. The hay meadows of blessed memory and literary allusion, alive with butterflies, bees and all those other insects, are now the empty fields of factory silage — virtually green deserts. Still green to the eye, though.
Elsewhere the insipid dilution of natural wonder gives us dank secondary woodland dense with sycamore, flailed hedges thick but dull, roadsides rank with nettles, riverbanks polluted with invasive balsam and once smoothly undulating chalk grazing hills now encrusted with the erupting pustules of scrub encroachment.
It all looks green, though. Very green indeed. But it is becoming more uniform, less varied, less diverse. As hedgerows are removed piecemeal (hardly warranting the title ‘destruction’ though?) the mosaic of small diverse fields becomes a mundane prairie. The embroidered quilt, rich in a million shades of verdant emerald, pea, jade and lime, tinged with russet, gold and ochre, is becoming a bland process colour, and if the landscape designers working for agribusiness and housing developers are to be believed, I expect we could identify it as a single Pantone number.
Diversity is failing, species (plants and animals) are lost. The habitat has not been lost, or destroyed, though. Instead it has been floristically and faunistically cleansed. Talk of habitat ‘destruction’ no longer serves this danger. Instead, we have to move on — we need a new vocabulary of environmental alarm.
I offer these: