Dr James Fenton: Nature is paying the price of development

Will our grandchildren be left asking: 'Were there really wildcats in Scotland? Picture Ian Rutherford
Will our grandchildren be left asking: 'Were there really wildcats in Scotland? Picture Ian Rutherford
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We have only one planet and, as the ­American poet Gary Snyder says, “this living, flowing world is all we have – forever”.

Why, then, do we not stand up for it more, instead of allowing developers to trash it, or, to use more measured language, cause continual attrition of its wildness?

Why are we reducing the richness of the planet by forcing the animals and plants with which we share it into smaller and smaller corners, until they have nowhere left to go? Indeed, why do we allow development everywhere, leaving no ­places where our grandchildren can ­experience nature in the raw?

Recently, the John Muir Trust conservation charity had to pay £50,000 to Scottish & Southern ­Energy for upholding the government’s own policy of keeping wild areas wild. The RSPB may have to pay ­similar costs for defending seabirds against wind farm ­development: 45 per cent of all European seabirds nest here, so presumably Scotland has some international responsibility.

Why do we let rich corporations with highly-paid executives extract cash from conservation charities who are always scraping around for money and most of whose staff are paid peanuts in comparison? Do the chief executives and shareholders not realise their descendants will have to live on the same planet, soon, through their own action, to be impoverished in wildlife and industrialised all over?

There was a time of hope in the 1970s and 80s when environmental protection rose high up the political agenda and rules and regulations were introduced. These are the same regulations that politicians now argue are too restrictive and a barrier to growth.

While global warming has risen up the agenda, some of this relates to the economic opportunities brought by climate change mitigation. However, wildlife ­conservation has dropped off the agenda.

The lack of import given to wildlife is, to some extent, reflected in how different professions are rewarded. We will pay, albeit grudgingly, a high fee to a lawyer, and we also accept that ­people who look after our ­money are allowed to cream off a high ­proportion for themselves.

However, those working in environmental education and protection are, in many cases, expected to be paid salaries not too far distant from the living wage. This gives the message that looking after wildlife is a frill that society cannot afford.

Perhaps it is only when the whole planet is industrialised and wildlife is restricted to a few remaining pockets, that we will have realised too late that we had our values all skewed. Our grandchildren will be left asking: ‘What was a lion, were there really wildcats in Scotland?’, ‘You mean there really were places without roads and masts which you had to walk to?’, ‘What is a seabird’?, ‘Was there really a peat bog outside Edinburgh?’

Surely we should not be paying those damaging the planet more than those trying to defend it?

Dr James Fenton was National Trust for Scotland’s first ecologist and worked on landscape policy with Scottish Natural Heritage. He is also former CEO of Falklands Conservation and an ecology consultant. He lives in Oban.