If the countryside could vote

Here’s a marketing idea for party spinners in search of a new angle as the current Rag, Tag and Bobtail electoral race enters the home straight: hedgehogs. Few animals have such a devoted and impassioned human constituency, and yet, according to a new book called Silent Summer, they are among many British species which are likely to die out unless action is taken. There must be votes in a Save the Hedgehog campaign.

There will, though, be little action. Silent Summer has important, awkward things to say about the way we live – so important and awkward that they are likely to be ignored by politicians. Written by 40 leading ecologists, it points out that intensive farming, use of pesticides and rapid urbanisation of the landscape are having a devastating effect on wildlife. Over 75 per cent of butterflies are in decline; insects generally are disappearing. The population of farmland birds has halved over the past few decades while more than 50 per cent of British bird species are of conservation concern – a situation that Robert Robertson of the British Trust for Ornithology calls “catastrophic”.

As for Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it is estimated that hedgehogs are likely to die out in the UK by 2025. Silent Summer is “like a Domesday Book of British Wildlife”, according to its editor, Professor Norman Maclean. In a foreword, Sir David Attenborough warns that “it is invaluable now and in the future it will be irreplaceable”. Will any real action be taken? Of course not. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s masterpiece, alerted the world in 1962 to the effects of agricultural pollutants such as DDT and in many ways launched today’s environmental movement. Silent Summer raises more complex and local questions.

It is convenient for politicians to blame species decline and the degradation of the landscape on global warming. Climate change is conveniently big, and demands sweeping political gestures, grand statements but no awkward, vote-losing decisions or – for the moment at least – personal sacrifices. Silent Summer reveals that the problem is not global but local. The British landscape is being thrashed for financial gain. In the 1970s and 1980s, farmers cheerfully grubbed up ancient hedgerows and filled in ditches in a rush for subsidies. Briefly, their lust for cash was diverted by the European Union’s support of setting aside fields from food production for environmental gain.

Now, with the emphasis on cheap food and biofuel, every inch of land is used, every wildlife-supporting weed sprayed with poison, the only exception being land that is used for shooting and hunting. There, man’s love of sport (and the profit to be derived from it) has worked in favour of wildlife, with considerably more woodland and managed habitat. In saner, braver times, the hard, unavoidable evidence that we are destroying our natural world would demand political solutions. “The problem is chiefly man-made and the solutions can be man-made, too,” as Professor Maclean put it. After all, every survey known to man has shown that a connection to wildness and to the rhythm of nature is beneficial to man’s psychological wellbeing. Its effect on our economy, on the food chain, on tourism is immense. Yet politicians, even vote-hungry politicians during an election campaign, will be careful; that their reaction involves warm words, hand-wringing – and no policy commitments.

Farmers are a powerful lobby. Cheap, mass produced food is deemed in our metropolitan society to be incomparably more important than wildlife. The pressures of population, transport and industry have meant that developing unspoilt countryside has become an easy political option.

It is deemed unfashionable, maybe even globally irresponsible, to think locally any more. Those who worry about the depredation of the landscape in their backyard are judged to be prissily out of touch with the realities of the modern world. Big politics, big business, the wider economy are, so the thinking goes, where solutions are to be found and there is no place for talk of skylarks or butterflies. Never mind the Domesday Book of British wildlife. Where is the profit? Where are the votes?

Independent, Tuesday, 27 April 2010