Blue skies and unseasonably warm weather means that the park will be thronged with picnickers and men labouring over barbecues. With food everywhere and people sprawled on the grass it’s no place to take a cavalier for a walk – too much hassle as she circles the blankets snuffling for scraps and making the occasional dash to grab a sarnie.
So I do what I usually do on days like this: go for a walk through Childwall woods and fields. It’s a place I love, though it’s not pretty or kempt, particularly at this time of year, with the trees bare and winter-worn brambles sprawling through the browned-off remnants of last year’s grasses. But it is wild, alive with wildlife and birdsong. Today, a large fox crossed the path a few yards in front of us and stood some distance off and watched us, alert with ears pricked. A kestrel circled, watching for movement in the scrub below.
It’s a surprisingly large area of open land for an urban area, and still has the abandoned air of a former landfill site. A short walk offers a variety of micro- landscapes, from the dappled shade of the woods to the expansive views from the fields across the M62 motorway to the hills of Lancashire and east to the Runcorn Bridge.
Every time I walk here I think of the vulnerability of this open space. Though the wood is a Local Nature Reserve, and the open fields have been planted with native deciduous trees as part of the Mersey Forest project, these days, it seems, anything can be sold to yield a profit. As someone wryly remarked in a letter to The Guardian the other day, after privatising the NHS and schools, and proposing toll roads, why not privatise pavements and charge to walk them?
In the Autumn 2011 edition of the National Trust Magazine, there was a thought-provoking article by Simon Barnes, a journalist wildlife writer, suggesting that we need a new conservation movement: the Society For The Preservation of Nothing Very Special. His case was that, while we treasure special things that are rare, unusual or not the sort of thing we bump into every day, Not Very Special places (such as Childwall Fields) are taken for granted.
As Simon Barnes remarks, protecting these Not Very Special places is becoming a matter of urgency ‘because the bad news is that these places are becoming more special by the minute’. He continues:
That’s why the SPNVP is so important, it seeks to protect living things and living places before they get special. While we still have the privilege of having them on a routine take-’em for granted” basis; while they are still part of the daily life of this country, rather than something you make a pilgrimage for. The country is full of little patches of this and expanses of that, places where you can find small brown birds and not very special butterflies…just the place for running a frightfully quick train or putting up more houses. Why worry about these places? Plenty more where they come from.
Barnes observes that the country is full of places a bit like Childwall Fields:
little patches of this and expanses of that: places where you can find small brown birds and not very special butterflies and buzzing insects and caterpillars and stuff like trees and grass and the odd flower – just the sort of place for running a frightfully quick train or putting up a few more houses. Why worry about these
places? Plenty more where they come from.
Childwall Woods and Fields may appear nondescript, but at least 60 species of bird inhabit the site, with Grey Partridge being notable in this urban area. Kestrels and Sparrowhawks regularly nest in the woods along with Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. Herons can be seen in the marshy wet areas of the fields and in the autumn Long tailed Tits and Goldcrest flit through the woodland treetops.
Year after year, though, ‘not very special’ places like this disappear, overrun by development. And as the land is submerged beneath houses and roads, wildlife expires, too. Barnes writes:
Five per cent of British butterflies went extinct in the last century and 71 per cent are in decline. Moths – considered even less special than butterflies – are doing just as badly: 75 species have declined by more than 70 per cent in the last 35 years. Bumblebees are not special at all: six of the 25 British species have declined more than 80 per cent in the last 50 years, and the short-haired bumblebee has gone extinct.
When we think of the Natural World …we think with our ancient atavistic selves: as if we were still at war with hostile nature and had to fight every step of the way to keep civilisation on track. We won that war a long time ago But we are continuing, almost without noticing, a frightfully fast programme of destruction and extinction. And always, the first places to go are Nothing Very Special.