After Oaken Wood, ‘biodiversity’ has come to mean very little

An ancient woodland in Wiltshire, England (by D. Greenwood)

“The very considerable need for both crushed rock aggregates and dimension stone, together with the eventual biodiversity improvements, and the ongoing socioeconomic benefits, would clearly outweigh the loss of the ancient woodland and the other adverse effects of the development in this case.” – Eric Pickles, July 2013

When Eric Pickles described ‘the eventual biodiversity improvements’ in destroying Oaken Wood in Kent, an ancient woodland sat conveniently on a bed of limestone and next to a commercial aggregates mine, it may have been the final call for a phrase that has come to mean so little. By this I mean ‘biodiversity’, a phrase that attempts to describe the diversity of non-human life. It’s now a word sucked into planning regulation and the corporate tongue that blankets all meaning – it is impossible to put into one word or describe the immense variety of wild animals, plants, fungi and other living organisms that make their home on planet earth today. In the case of Oaken Wood it is a saddening instance, where a kind of Orwellian newspeak is being used to make people feel better about the largest loss of ancient woodland in England in decades, and purely for economic, short term benefits. Note also the phrase ‘the ongoing socio-economic benefits’, hinting that the government’s stance on the environment is improving the economy and getting people ‘back into work’ where they belong.

In the case of Eric Pickle’s ecology lesson, he should note that an ancient woodland takes 400 years to mature and establish, for the soil conditions to be right for the species of plants, lichen and fungi (yes, wildflowers and mushrooms, not just trees) that will make it a unique and stable ecology for the insects that will pollinate it and act as food for the bats and birds that give ancient woods their star turns and top predators. We can only hope that in 400 years no one will have heard of Eric Pickles but sadly people might have no idea that an oak woodland once grew in that part of Maidstone, nor might they enjoy Pickles’ ‘biodiversity improvements’, which sounds like a London landscaping company. There will be no benefit to wildlife in comparison to how things are now, just disruption, local extinction, desecration and, for the species of birds and migratory insects that might manage to return on the wing after the aggregates gurus have had their way with the landscape, pollution.

It is perhaps now time to point out that if woodlands and other wild places are not treated with their ecological and natural importance in mind that there will be wider and wider declines in species depending on ancient woodlands, meaning that in 400 years there will not be the diversity of wild creatures to even enjoy a renewed woodland. In short, biological life will be far less diverse. Unfortunately this horrendous government do not understand the impacts of their decisions. Just like Justine Greening thinks the 50 ancient woodlands that HS2 Ltd have in their sights could be ‘moved’, Eric Pickles thinks a woodland can be put back where it was, like a rug pulled up from the floor, swept under and replaced. The characters mentioned here are not fit to make these decisions, just like Owen Paterson’s failure to listen to the people and the science over both a badger cull and bee pesticides make him ethically unsuitable for his post as Environment Secretary.

If we can’t use ‘biodiversity’, what can we say? I always go for ‘wildlife’, it’s not perfect, but it indicates the living creatures which do not have a voice, which haven’t been domesticated like dogs or cats and refers even to urban ‘horrors’ like the brown rat or ring necked parakeet. It also rouses our sense of the wild, of freedom from human strictures and civilisation, of the world that we came from and that underpins all our activities, for which we depend on for nourishment, energy, mental and physical well being. It also uses that vital word – ‘life’ – which ‘biodiversity’ fails to point to at all. The loss of a wild place means a lot of death and, in Oaken Wood’s case, purely for human greed. Isn’t that what society was developed to put an end to? Biodiversity is a scientist’s term and for all the incredible scientists out there more often than not many fail to describe things simply or to capture people’s interest and passion for nature. Smartphones wouldn’t be as popular if they were marketed by the geniuses who developed them.

I remember listening to a park keeper talking about doing things for ‘the biodiversity’, to attract ‘the biodiversity’. I have no doubt this phrase had filtered down from talking to bureaucrats in the council, the same language drenched all over planning documents and used in this sense to mask the fact the speaker didn’t know or really care about how the land was being managed to benefit the environment. It’s also used by politicians to appease conservation charities, to make them feel they’re being listened to. It’s the new ‘green’. When people hinge their argument or point on the word ‘biodiversity’ is it possible it could be to hide the fact they don’t know or care about what they’re saying? Perhaps not always but at times it is resoundingly true. All we can do is be clear when arguing the case for preserving and enhancing our natural heritage both for wildlife but also ourselves and those yet to be conceived who deserve and need to see, experience and live alongside wildlife. For those trying to champion the diversity of natural organisms, our language has been compromised and used against the very thing it’s intended to support.

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