It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to realise this, but we really need nature. I have always sought solace with nature as an escape from essays and news. But now, more than ever, I have found watching nature has been a welcome distraction from the constant pandemic updates and the stresses and confines of lockdown. But I know that I am very fortunate to have a decent mature garden. I have been able to watch birds fledge their nests, butterflies and bees appear at the flowers and I’ve even seen a hedgehog. I’ve also started recording the moths in my garden, which has been amazing because I knew absolutely nothing about moths before lockdown! But so many people don’t have access to a garden. People who live in very urban areas may be lucky to even get a window box. I hate that gardens now seem to be a luxury, and with social distancing in urban parks often nearly impossible, this will have had an impact on people’s mental health during this pandemic. But of course, sacrificing green space for building and development has a huge impact on nature.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ key message is “give nature a home”. And currently we’re not doing that. And, for me, one of the key failings has been our inability to integrate nature into our urban spaces. Roadside verges are vital habitat for a number of grasses and flowers that many people class as weeds, but they actually support a diverse range of butterfly, bee, moth, ladybird and other insect species. And yet our councils seem intent on cutting every verge, even when the vegetation isn’t impacting visibility at junctions. Surely when so many councils are talking about rates increases, reducing verge cutting to essential maintenance would be an ideal way to save money. We also need to be taking the threat posed by cutting trees and hedges in the summer more seriously. It is an offence to damage or destroy a bird’s nest which is why hedge cutting is strongly discouraged between March and September. Again, the current scale of cutting back hedges is way beyond what is required to maintain footpath access and visibility. We also need to give our urban green spaces more respect by reducing the litter in our parks, verges and on our beaches. This month Ulster Wildlife has been highlighting the threat that single use plastic poses to our marine life. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans and by that same year, 99% of seabirds will have eaten a piece of plastic. Plastic can have lethal consequences for wildlife and yet our local beaches in Northern Ireland continue to be covered in rubbish.
We are facing two crises at the moment: the well-documented climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis. We are facing a sixth mass extinction due to our activities and the damage will be irreversible. If we’re serious about averting these crises, we need a real ‘green recovery’ in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, the current government’s rhetoric doesn’t provide any optimism that a green recovery will be a policy priority. Boris Johnson’s recent pledge to “build, build, build” painted conservation as the enemy to economic development by blaming European newt protection legislation for the UK’s slow house completion rate. In fact, this is wholly inaccurate as a government review concluded that the UK is slower at completing houses because of the type of houses that are being built . Despite the Conservatives’ well-meaning #worldenvironmentday tweets every year, it is clear that this government isn’t taking the biodiversity and climate crises seriously. And don’t be fooled by impressive tree planting pledges. Research has shown that tree planting schemes often do very little in terms of carbon storage. While the promotional images will show politicians planting a classic oak tree in their local park, these schemes mostly support planting monocultures of economically profitable plants. In the UK and Ireland, this is often in the form of non-native Sitka spruce which is creating “ecological dead zones” in Ireland. These tree plantations often replace peatland and grassland which are essential carbon stores and support huge numbers of threatened wildlife such as Curlews. While these are disappearing, our seemingly green tree-planting schemes aren’t even replicating the carbon stores that they are replacing.
If we are to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, we need to have well-thought-out policies that are backed up by research. We also need the political will to really make a difference, not to simply be seen to be green. And we need good government scrutiny, from citizens who really care about these issues. A green recovery will not be a return to normal, but ‘normal’ wasn’t working. Obviously, it’s going to be an uphill battle but every roadside verge left to bloom naturally and every piece of litter lifted will be a step in the right direction. The end of the pandemic will offer us an incredible opportunity to change the way we live and create the world we want future generations to inherit. What sort of future are we going to choose?
Dakota Reid is a final year International Politics and Conflict Studies student at Queen's University with an interest in environmental policy. She is a volunteer with the RSPB.