The Accidental Countryside by Stephen Moss

4 out of 5 stars

We as humans, like to put various things into separate sections, the shops are here, the roads are there, housing is in this part of town and so on. This is great in principle, but it has the effect of obliterating the wildlife that was there before. What happens though is that we are not always neat at finishing these projects off, there are gaps in between and it is in these hidden corners that our wildlife finds a way to cling on, survive and in certain cases thrive.

He begins with the peregrine, a bird that after years of persecution and the horrific effects of DDT we nearly lost. They are most commonly found high on cliffs, but now if you know where to look they can be seen in the artificial cliffs we have built in our towns and cities. We even have some in Poole that fly between the high rise buildings near the harbour, picking off the pigeons that populate our towns now. Also, while in Dorset he visits the town of Blandford Forum to see what the council have been doing to the verges. We are lucky not to have a single meter of motorway in the county, however, there are over 5000 miles of roads and these almost all have verges. What they have done is to stop cutting them until the late summer this allows the wildflowers on them to set seed properly and providing a bounty for insects and therefore for birds and small mammals. These little mini nature reserves have become recognised as Sites of Nature Conservation Interest in their own right.

These linear wildlife highways also exist on the railways, or what is left of them, the embankments and cuttings having their own little ecosystems. The lines that were ripped out after the 1960s cuts have changed in usage now are have become cycle paths and in their own way very long and thin nature reserves now. In Wiltshire, there is a huge tract of land that is used for military training, Salisbury Plain. As well as having lots of unexploded ordinance around the plain is basically an untouched chalk grassland. The tanks make a little difference, but the wildlife is there because the military has ensured that it has never been developed.

Developers much prefer to build on untouched land as the cleanup bills for brownfield sites can be huge. There are a lot of them around the country, previous industrial sites that have been closed as we have moved manufacturing offshore. Where they have been left for a number of years, the natural world creeps back in moving to scrub land in what feels like no time at all. And in these unplanned scruffy patches of land, the natural world does really well. At one site, Moss goes to hear nightingales, it didn’t have the same ambience as a glade in a woodland, but the dense scrub suits the birds perfectly. One of these scraps of land, Gunnersbury Triangle, would become the subject of a famous ruling in favour of keeping it because of its value as a natural space for local people.

As with all of Moss’s book this is well researched and very readable. He is an engaging writer, with a fine eye for detail of the places that he visits and more importantly knowing the limits of his knowledge and when it is best to seek that from a local who knows far more. It is a book that builds on others writing on these marginal spots, including the excellent Edgelands and Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside. Well worth reading.

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8 Comments

  1. Helen Williams

    Love the sound of this, Paul. Great review, as always. My brother lives in Dorset, I never realised it had no motorways!

    • Paul

      Stephen Moss is a quality author. None whatsoever, even Devon has a bit of motorway. Whereabouts is he in Dorset?

  2. Helen Williams

    Portland! He’s been there a while now. We all grew up in Gloucester, he went south, I went north!

    • Paul

      It is nice there! A bit windy at times. I am in Wimborne

  3. Liz Dexter

    This sounds brilliant and is firmly on my wishlist. I just transcribed hours of Richard Mabey and realised I’ve not read any of his books, which is something I need to change.

    • Paul

      It is, Liz. Not read any Mabey??? Faints!

      • Liz Dexter

        I know, right! Will address that soon. I just need to wait for the charity shops to reopen and sort all the lockdown donations or I’ll bankrupt myself with books.

        • Paul

          I know that feeling. Just ordered one book and about to order fifteen more!

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