Swallowed up

The news that the Government has delayed implementation of the Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) requirements of the 2021 Environment Act prompted the posting of the blog below, which I had recently written mainly for myself, to clarify and formalise some of my thoughts. For many developments, the delayed implementation is only three months, but Nationally Significant Infrastructure Developments (NSIPs) won’t have to comply until at least 2025, the date for which implementation is “planned”. This is disturbingly vague; NSIPs have the potential to be particularly damaging to biodiversity. BNG targets, and the DEFRA metrics for measuring them, are certainly not perfect, and less scrupulous developers and consultants will be able to game the system and undermine them. But the latest State of Nature Report shows how vital it is to introduce a range of measures and practices for nature recovery. The BNG requirements of the Act, if monitored rigorously and objectively, are a step in the right direction.

One of the advantages of living in the midst of a reasonably sized remnant of farmland next to open-sided barns, and where one nearby landowner is committed on a small but important scale to nature-friendly farming, is the continued presence each year of a community of swallows. In the spring and summer months, they are the “genius” of the place – in the old sense of a protecting spirit. They are also geniuses of agility and long-distance navigation and endurance.

This year, a neighbour, for practical reasons, has decided to put full-size gates on their barns, where the swallows have been nesting for many years, and block them off from the outside world.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, “it is considered breaking the law if a person . . . intentionally takes, damages or destroys a wild bird’s nest while it is being used or built.” Ostensibly, the neighbour is doing none of these things, but the effect is the same: denial of access.

According to a study by the British Trust for Ornithology, most swallows return to the same colony, with 44% of pairs reoccupying the same nest. Furthermore, given their typical lifespan of little more than two years, “a good nest may be reused for 10–15 years by a series of different pairs”. So, the nests in our neighbour’s barns are in use. They are a second home. Imagine returning to your second home, if you have one, or your main home, and finding it boarded up and inaccessible.

We like our neighbour and do not want to sour relations; so I have not made an issue of it. It may seem to be a minor matter on a domestic scale; the swallows can go elsewhere, after all, and they are not on the Red List of endangered species in the UK. But will they be able to find alternative accommodation nearby?

Unfortunately, much larger developments are looming locally that could have a far greater impact on the swallows. To the south and west, a “garden village” of 2,200 homes, plus shops, new roads and a “science park” will shortly begin construction.

Of its 200 or so hectares, around 40% are supposed to be green or blue space of some kind; but 60% will be urbanised, and alternative barns and outhouses nearby where the swallows have also nested, or could nest, are due to be demolished.

That is not all. To the north and east, a vast 1,400 hectare “solar farm” has been proposed, covering a large number of fields where swallows soar or skim for food.

The developer promises biodiversity mitigation measures. I am not an expert, but it seems to me that 3,500 acres of glass and steel panels, albeit with some gaps between them, are not a hospitable environment that swallows would choose over less developed areas. Will they become locally extinct?

It is a question of cumulative effect.

It is pointless to “offset” biodiversity if where it has been offset to is in turn developed by other unrelated proposals at a later date. Swallows are just one of many species of fauna and flora that will have to adapt somehow to our local landscape changes, or abandon the area, and then perhaps the area next to it, and the next . . .

There is an existing scientific concept called “anthropisation” (see, for example, hypergeo.eu/anthropization/?land-en). This is the conversion of landscapes and natural environments by human action. In fact, humans have been doing this for millennia, creating farmland out of “wilderness”, diverting watercourses, and so on. Sometimes anthropisation can end up being beneficial to wildlife, as in the case of the thousands of miles of hedgerow that that were planted during the historical enclosure of open field farmland in England.

However, anthropisation does not cover what is happening here and all around the UK. I prefer to introduce the term “anthropification”: the substantial or complete displacement by humans and human structures of space, resources and habitat previously used by, or shared with, other species.

We certainly need to find sufficient dignified accommodation for our own species and to power our existence sustainably, but we surely cannot continue to anthropify our natural environment indefinitely.

If the swallows stop coming back here each year, which and how many species will already have abandoned the area, and which and how many will be next?

Nigel Pearce