The next time you are on a train take a moment to look out of the window. As you trundle along the line consider all the other lines you can see – roads, canals, power lines; and (once you’re out of the city) hedges, ditches, dykes and drystone walls.
It is one of the defining features of humanity that we love lines. So significant is our love that we have created a “linescape” out of the landscape. These lines bring with them both great benefits to the life with which we share the land and also considerable threat. The first lines we etched into the land were specifically to fragment it – to assert ownership or restrain livestock – but these have inadvertently become the agents of connectivity for wildlife. For instance, stoats make wonderful use of walls to weave their way through moorland.
We are, rightly, concerned about loss of wildlife habitat. But there is less attention paid to the fragmentation of what remains. For example, recent research shows that we need at least 90 hectares (0.3 square miles) of undivided, good quality habitat to support a population of hedgehogs. Now try to find where these patches are in our suburbs and you will begin to understand why hedgehogs are declining so fast.
We need to reclaim the lines that have sliced and diced our lives into such insularity. From the green lanes under threat of neglect to hedges that remain unlayed and unloved; from verges mown clear of vital flowers to railway lines that need to operate within a cordon sanitaire, there are lines that can help wildlife flourish. We just need to start treating ecology with the same degree of seriousness with which we treat the economy.
There is a great risk, however, that in trying to tackle the obvious we exacerbate the bigger problem. For example, last week the Guardian’s Tim Dowling argued for great walls to be built alongside roads to reduce the death toll caused by our cars and lorries.
Yes, roadkill is a vast problem – some 150,000 hedgehogs alone die every year on our roads – but to hermetically seal roads from wildlife will create absolute fragmentation of the landscape for all those not blessed with the power of flight. Already this is being done, to some extent, with the roll-out of concrete barriers down the central reservations of busy roads.
Land alongside roads are home to more than 800 species of plant and can be, if managed sensitively, a refuge
Roads are such an obvious blight; they affect not just the terrestrial – birds, bugs and bats all suffer, so much so that it can be hard to see roads ever presenting an ecological good – but even they have potential. For instance, the dormice that live alongside the A36 in peace and with security, while their nests are shaken by the turbulence of passing articulated trucks, enjoy the absence of people and predators.
Conservation charity Plantlife released a report extolling the virtues of the verge. In fact, the expanses of land alongside roads are home to more than 800 species of plant and can be, if managed sensitively, a refuge. Artist Edward Chell took note of this in his brilliant exhibition and book, Soft Estate, in which he argued that this landscape should be considered close to wilderness in that it remains unpeopled.
In 2010, Professor Sir John Lawton published a report called Making Spacefor Nature. This significant document was one of the most powerful calls for a more ecologically literate approach to conservation. It was filled with an optimism that is left seeming a little naive in the face of seven years of anti-ecological politics. But it remains important. We need more space for nature, it needs to be of better quality – and it needs to be joined up. That is where our linescapes can come into their own.
Poppies thriving by a lane in Lincolnshire. The narrow strips of land beside rail and road can protect flowers and wildlife. Photograph: Alamy
How do we start to rebuild and reconnect? There are examples of wonderful bridges, ecoducts, from around the world, where this issue is treated with more respect. And there are a few examples closer to home, such as the Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey. After many years of campaigning by local people, plans to devastate the beauty of this natural amphitheatre, already compromised by the A3, were shelved and a tunnel built. This has re-consecrated a remarkable habitat. So a tunnel under Stonehenge might seem a great idea, but is fraught with difficulty and, if done as currently planned, will just further diminish this sacred land.
There is hope, beyond Lawton’s wishes. And this comes in the shape of the Linear Infrastructure Network (LINet). This gathering of charities, businesses and government agencies has in mind a practical vision of a connected landscape. It calculates that the land associated with the 250,000 miles of public roads, the 10,000 miles of railways and 9,000 miles of energy networks totals 16,000 square miles. This is land that could, and I believe should, be managed with ecological good in mind.
We can argue this through the cloudy lens of natural capital, the way in which accountants price and value nature with a crude currency. Or we could be bigger than that, recognise that the economy is but one small subset of the ecosystem and manage this land for the benefit of all the life that depends on a connected landscape. Because this is more than just nature at stake.
We should reclaim the linescape of this country for us all. For what we see racing by through the train window is what keeps us alive.
Hugh Warwick’s latest book is Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife