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Stephen Moss on the Wonders of the Accidental Countryside

Posted on 2nd March 2020 by Mark Skinner

Stephen Moss has delighted readers with his festive ornthological volumes The Robin and The Twelve Birds of Christmas, and now he turns his attention to the natural world as a whole and, in particular, the weird and wonderful places that some animals make their homes. In this exclusive essay, Moss explains the rationale behind his latest book, The Accidental Countryside

If you asked most naturalists where they would go to see a wide range of British wildlife, the chances are they would reel off a list of nature reserves, national parks and other well-known sites. And it’s certainly true that places such as Minsmere and Cley, Dartmoor and the Cairngorms, and Skomer and Shetland, all have their fair share of natural attractions.

So why did I travel around Britain for the best part of two years, stopping off at mostly unknown and far less glamorous sites? What brought me to Canvey Island in Essex, Blandford Forum in Dorset; to a disused opencast coalmine in South Wales and to Belfast Docks? And what did I find there?

What all these places have in common is that they were never designed for nature in the first place. All were originally created for our own use, yet nature has now moved in. To many people’s surprise, wildlife is now thriving in these former industrial sites, military areas, golf courses and disused railway lines.

Partly, of course, that is because the wider, ‘official’ countryside is often not as good for nature as it could and should be. Large areas of lowland Britain – especially in the south and east – are now basically a food factory: using industrial farming methods to produce the highest possible yields of crops or the biggest concentrations of livestock. Nature also thrives in these accidental habitats because they often provide just what wild creatures need: plenty of food, water, and places to roost and breed.

A huge range of wildlife has sought sanctuary in these hidden places: what have been called the ‘Edgelands’, which are often on the fringes of towns and cities, and may be ignored by everyone except for a few keen local naturalists who recognise their value.

I met many of these dedicated men and women when I toured Britain gathering stories for this book. Some are professional conservationists, but most are not: yet they all took pride in their local patch and its special wildlife, and were delighted to show me around.

On my travels I saw orchids blooming along roadside verges, egrets feeding on former peat diggings, rare butterflies flitting along railway cuttings, and dragonflies hovering over gravel pits. I was constantly surprised at what I found, maybe because these sites are not always the prettiest of places, though they do have their own special magic.

I also learned that nature is both incredibly tenacious and infinitely adaptable: and that when we provide some space – however small and unpromising – it will take advantage and move in. That’s the message of The Accidental Countryside.

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