Looking to the Natural World to Protect Our Environment

An article from the TRG by Jeannette Towey

For too many people, especially those influenced by XR and Greta Thunberg, the discussion about protecting and improving our environment seems to focus on removing all the improvements to daily life that industrial progress, fuelled by capitalist economics, has given us.

And yet, in spite of many of the disastrous things, humankind has done to the planet over the millenia, nature still seems to find a way to recover. So maybe, rather than destroying our modern way of life, we should look to nature for solutions to the problems we have created.

A few examples of this are occurring, dotted about the country. Let’s take beavers as a starting point. The British Isles used to be busy with beavers, but they became extinct during the hard-hunting reign of Henry VIII, when they were valued for their fur and castoreum – a glandular oil secreted from the base of their tail which was used to cure all manner of aches and pains. The extinction of beavers through hunting, however, has caused us more headaches than ever they cured. Without their hydrological engineering, and with the land drainage practices instigated since the Industrial Revolution, our lands have become prone to both flooding and drought. As well as attenuating flow, the University of Exeter has proved that beaver dams are effective at capturing soil eroding from intensively managed fields during heavy rain and neutralising artificial nitrogen and phosphorous and other pollutants. Carbon is also locked up in the sediment. This extraordinary mammal could be one of the most powerful tools available to us for mitigating climate change.

Then there is sea kelp. Did you know that sea kelp forests used to stretch the length of the Sussex coast? Over 95% of these have been destroyed since the late 1980s, by inshore fishing, poor water quality and storms. Now Sussex Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authority is rebuilding the forest. Not only will this provide habitat for breeding, feeding and shelter for over 1000 different species, but kelp forests also sequester 20 times more CO2 per acre from the atmosphere than land-based forests. Oh, and kelp also produces oxygen.

When contemplating natural solutions for carbon sequestration, everyone thinks of planting trees, but the UK isn’t big enough to plant the number of trees needed. These two examples show that there are other, so much more attractive, options. Looking more widely at what nature can do is surely the way forward and policy makers should review what is happening out amongst the Conservation Authorities, Wildlife Trusts and more, to build up a full picture of developments, many of which would help and enhance the environment in so many exciting ways.

Jeannette Towey is a Board Member of the TRG, and the policy co-ordinator for South East Region Conservatives, in which capacity she organises an annual policy conference which this year focuses of the Environment. She is also a volunteer with the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and a member of Sussex Wildlife Trust and spends her spare time painting the beautiful landscape of rural Britain.

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