Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife by Hugh Warwick
(Square Peg, hardback, 264 pages. Out now and available here.)
Review by Sue Brooks
Before reading Linescapes, I went back to Chapter 5 in Hugh Warwick’s The Prickly Affair (2008), to enjoy once again the account of a solo trip to China to track down Hemiechinus hughi – a hedgehog about which almost nothing is known, and of which there are no photographs. One which may be close to extinction. Hugh’s hedgehog. A heart-wrenching story of mad desire and synchronicity.
Linescapes is not about hedgehogs per se, but it is inspired by them. Hedgehogs require a minimum habitat of just under a square kilometre to sustain a viable population – a habitat which is not chopped up by linear features such as roads, canals or railways. The man-made lines so evident from a train window provoked an idea for a book which would highlight the two themes which have been present in all of Hugh Warwick’s writing — the desperate need for connectivity and the catastrophic damage caused by fragmentation. It couldn’t be more timely.
Before the Industrial Revolution, lines in the landscape were beneficial to both humans and wildlife. Lines of connection – reaves, dykes, hedges, walls and Green Lanes. The ones created after industrialisation – canals, railways, roads and pylons — increasingly restricted the freedom of wildlife to expand to other areas when they became overcrowded. In the 1950s there were 30 million hedgehogs in the UK. In 2015, there were only 1 million. Hugh Warwick sets out to investigate what changes have taken place since Sir John Lawton’s white paper “Making Space For Nature” was published in 2010. He is well aware of his own prejudices and campaigning history (at Twyford Down and Newbury), but is resolutely determined to find the good, even in the most unlikely places…
There is good. In the hands of the Canal and River Trust, the canal system has been restored. Its chief ecologist is proud of the management of bridges and tunnels for bats and the rare raft spider, and even otters. Despite the terrible carnage on the 246,000 miles of roads in the UK (15,000 hedgehogs, 50,000 badgers, and 40,000 deer each year) the author heard about ambitious plans for the Soft Estate. Both road and rail management teams spoke of wanting to make a contribution to Britain’s biodiversity by managing the banks and verges differently. By mowing less often for example, and in Dorset, remarkably, by stripping topsoil to reduce fertility and allow wild flowers to flourish. Ian Glover, at the National Grid, with responsibility for 250 substations and 7,000 kilometres of overhead lines, described his vision of a ‘Natural Grid’ – I am very much driven by the Lawton mantra, as I think all biodiversity managers should be, of better, bigger and more connected.
This is difficult to swallow – that bigger could ever be better and more connected. But, willing as ever to remain open-minded, Hugh Warwick listens. Natural Grid has evolved from Natural Capital – Sir John Lawton’s idea that if nature can be given a value which shows a cost benefit to humans and is therefore in need of protection, it can also have influence on planners and policymakers. He was given just over £7 million of the £1.1 billion he asked for, and at the end of the Coalition Government in 2015, funding was cut altogether. But the work has been continued by Natural England and the Linear Infrastructure Network (over 70 organisations collaborating with the express purpose of improving the linear features that connect and fragment us and the natural world). There are inspiring examples on the continent, especially in Holland where the government introduced the Long-Term De-Fragmentation Programme in 2004.
In Britain HS2 is looming. The route will pass through 34 ancient woodlands and 4 Wildlife Areas. It is heartening to know that people like Hugh Warwick are actively involved. His optimism and enthusiasm and easy engagement with people who hold views totally different from his own are a lesson to us all. A hard lesson if we have to accept the political landscape requires everything to pay, so it’s not about scattering wildlife bridges and calling it a success…better to learn what destruction we, as a society and an ecosystem can live with, than for those less sensitive to nature’s needs to be given a free hand. Hard but true.
Linescapes is available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £17.99.