What is wealth? GDP? Per Capita GDP? GDP growth? Balance of trade? A particular income? A particular lifestyle? Bling? We are conditioned to think of wealth in terms of economic wealth, the stuff we own. Having stuff is nice. It makes life easier.
However, there is another kind of wealth – and it is something we can experience for free, any day of the week, almost everywhere. Nature is incredibly rich in beauty and diversity. Some of my most amazing experiences have come in natural places.
So it was that I was walking around our woods yesterday. In the space of about 90 minutes, I was privileged to see and photograph a nuthatch feeding her chicks, a kestrel with prey being chided by a blackbird, a brimstone butterfly exploring the new buckthorn bushes we planted this winter, and an unbelievably cute pair of tawny owl chicks dozing in the summer sunshine. Then there were the things I heard and didn’t manage to photograph – the chatter of the nesting blue tits and great tits, the jackdaws, the blackcaps and their lovely scratchy song, the chiffchaffs, the great spotted and green woodpeckers, the nuthatches and treecreepers, the angry wrens, the stealth voles, and rabbits, and muntjac deer, a glimpse of the fox. Then there are the things I didn’t see, or pay much attention to, but upon which all of these other species depend – the beetles, bugs, flies, larvae, other insects, lichens and moss, leaf litter, grasses and sedges, reeds and rushes, bark and logs, the fungi and flowers, including our beautiful bluebells, coming to their best right now.
In our tiny little patch of land, just 20 acres, there was so much wealth it was brimming over – so much I couldn’t even see it all, or take it in. And that is just 20 acres, on just one day, in just one place.
Even in the town, in our little garden, we have nesting sparrows stripping the pampas grass for their nests, busy blue tits taking bugs from the crab apple tree, in which we also have woodpigeon making a rather poor attempt at nesting. I see collared doves, long tailed tits, greenfinch, goldfinch, mallard, herons, buzzards…and that is just in the garden, and just the birds. There is a lot of other stuff too.
A recent visit to the woods by a beetle and bug expert in foul weather revealed nearly 40 species of beetle and bug. FORTY species – and most of them I had never seen. In better weather, on another day, there may well be many more.
All around us are amazing things, in amazing places, one of which is our lovely ancient woodland. What is sad is that so few people now get the chance to experience a truly rich habitat like this. Woodland is destroyed, trees chopped down, and although planting new trees can be good, and in time will produce habitats for many creatures, it can never reproduce the wealth that has been developed over hundreds, or thousands of years, in these special places.
The Transport Secretary recently suggested that ancient woodlands could be dug up and moved to make way for HS2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-17867138 – a statement that betrays a lack of understanding of the difference between a truly rich, wealthy habitat, and an also-ran. We need a lot more also-ran habitats, a lot more woodlands, heathlands, grasslands, hedgerows and new ponds – but we must preserve the true gems that we also possess. This doesn’t mean that they should be monuments, devoid of human activity or life. Indeed, human activity has shaped these habitats, and sustainable management of these woods by coppicing is instrumental in providing a truly rich habitat. But it does mean that they should not be destroyed.
Just spend a day in one of these rich places with somebody who knows what to look for, and you will be astounded at what is there, right on our doorsteps, completely for free. Perhaps that is the problem – this wealth is not monetary wealth, and we don’t usually have to pay to enjoy it. So we don’t value it in the same way as we value our stuff. Until, eventually, it isn’t there any more. By which time we have become conditioned to an impoverished existence, devoid of the wealth the nature has to offer. How very sad that would be. Nature is treasure of the highest order. It is true wealth and upon it all other types of wealth depend. I hope we learn this before it is all gone.