This year, I have set myself the very modest challenge of reading 12 books about my field. Not limited to horticulture, I’m excited to explore more nature writing, conservation literature and – unexpectedly – books about animals. When you change career, it can be tempting to develop tunnel vision for your new industry, but it is important to explore the periphery too. So to kick this off, I have done exactly that.
In this book, ecologist and hedgehog expert Hugh Warwick uncovers the history of the lines that have fragmented British land, from the reaves in Dartmoor dating back 3,500 years to the rail network cutting a patchwork pattern in all directions. While anyone with a modicum of interest in conservation will be familiar with the high-profile challenges we are currently facing, habitat fragmentation is not nearly as mainstream, considering its enormous impact.
Habitat fragmentation is a fairly straightforward issue – when impenetrable man-made structures such as fences, canals and train tracks are put in place, once sprawling land becomes finite. Resources become depleted, predators face more competition and animals may be forced into urban settings to find food, a mate and shelter.
Fragmentation is much more complex and has bigger implications on the delicate network of nature for me to explain, but when I first started reading this book, I was acutely aware of the parallels that exist between fragmented wildlife in Britain and the ever-narrowing plains in sub-Saharan Africa. Urban expansion – and the consequential transport and energy infrastructure that comes with it – have forced animals into land that shrinks year by year.
When I think about some of the issues I am most interested in, they all come down to the same thing: the natural order has been disrupted. Where animals once fed on vegetation as they moved through the land, boundaries now keep them confined to a space with limited resources to feed growing populations. We often see this as a driving force in elephant culling. Vegetation is destroyed faster than it can recuperate and this leads ecologists to deem a cull necessary – to protect the plants and maintain the ‘delicate balance’.
Let’s just say I have questions.
- What if we used a variation of crop rotation, a familiar vegetable growing technique, to give the soil, trees and organisms a chance to recuperate?
- Would it be possible to ‘rotate’ these animals around different parts of the larger nature reserves?
- Would this allow the important vegetation time to recuperate?
- Does it need to recuperate, when we know that dead vegetation created a habitat for a humungous range of organisms?
- Would all of this simply be creating more fragmentation?
I don’t know, but this book has brought a lot of questions out of the woodwork for me, which I think is the tenet of any good book. So if you saw this in your local bookshop and were on the fence about grabbing a copy, make sure you do. But be warned, by the end of it, you’ll want to rip that fence out of the ground and plant a species-rich hedge instead.