The invertebrate conservation charity Buglife describes a ‘brownfield’ site as one which has been altered by human activity, with the general exception of forest plantations and farmland (which are I suppose considered ‘green’ land or ‘countryside’). That’s quite a broad definition which could be stretched to cover almost any habitat type, such is the extent of human influence, but it seems what we’re talking about is derelict factories and mills, disused streets, yards, car parks, no-man’s-lands in city centres, the type filled with buddleia and graffiti and abandoned shopping trollies. I have fond memories of time spent in the brownfields. I’m not kidding: some sites that fit somewhere into the brownfield category are quite attractively situated, from the abandoned airfield in the New Forest where I once recall riding bikes as a child to the former sand pit on Horsell Common near Woking (which happens to be where the Martians landed in H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds*) to Greenham Common, the ex-US military base turned nature reserve near Newbury in West Berkshire.
The general assumption – and maybe we’re hard wired to be fond of the colour, I don’t know – is that green is good, and brown is bad. Green means trees and grass which equal life, versus cold dead brown brick, stone and concrete. The word brown gives brownfield sites a bad name. As a nation of gardeners we also have a tendency to prefer tidy amenity planting over a seemingly unruly and unordered sprawl of plants and rubble and rubbish. As a result, there is a general assumption – enshrined to some degree in law (I think, though I’m by no means a planning law expert) – that brownfield sites should be developed first, and so-called green spaces or open countryside only considered for building once these are exhausted. I have some sympathy with this view. The classic British countryside is, for all its flaws and recent changes, one of the world’s great landscapes, a rich and beautiful tapestry, much of it worth preserving; and nobody would deny the need for safe, open, usable parks** in towns and cities. Urban sprawl breeds many ills. But the modern British insect or plant doesn’t necessarily see the world in the same way as the modern British ape.
In fact it turns out that many plants and insects in particular (but also a few birds, most famously the black redstart) absolutely love the places we call derelict or wasted. In their varied, unplanned way, brownfield sites often evolve into rich habitat mosaics that support many species which are rare or absent elsewhere in the country, including around 15% of red data book invertebrates (probably an underestimate). Conversely, it might well turn out that the golf course or scrap of farmland or playing field or bit of plantation woodland you’ve chained yourself to a gate to save are harbouring nothing particularly exciting at all.
And even where we’re not talking about wildlife of national importance, on a local scale attractive and engaging things turn up in all sorts of unexpected places that you might call brownfield.
For example, I spent the majority of last weekend on a small street in central York, one of a maze of brick and tile terraces with predominately paved back yards. Yet even here bryologists would probably find a few species of interest, and enough life at least comes up through the cracks in the pavement to sustain the blackbird which provided our seven o’clock alarm.
Or take an incident from early last week, when I saw a flock of redpolls feeding on a row of small alders hard up against the wall of Showcase Cinema in Reading. Though they had undoubtedly filtered into the suburbs by following lines of the same trees that flank the River Loddon – a wildlife corridor in action – they weren’t snobby about flying over a bit of concrete to get to some more food, and even spent a good while hoovering up loose cones from the ground in the car park. How many moviegoers noticed the pretty pink finches outside and wondered what they were? Also close to home, I was fascinated to discover that there’s a long running study of the biodiversity of urban roundabouts in Bracknell. No, really!
I’m not trying to suggest that we should take Coronation-Street-esque northern towns or sprawling suburban Berkshire as models of how to manage land for biodiversity. What I am suggesting, and I think those of you who love wildlife already know this, is that a bit more discernment is needed if we’re seeking to create places that are inhabitable by both people and wildlife alike, locally, nationally and globally. To do this, where most people see the world in big chunky colours, black-and-white or brown-and-green, naturalists need somewhat keener eyes. To search out where life is getting through cracks in the urban or rural deserts, and to nurture and encourage the infinite subtle hues which make up the full spectrum of life wherever we find them.
*It tickles me that Wells’ Martians crossed 140 million miles of space only to crash-land in north-west Surrey.
**Actually, I think a ‘brownfield park’ that manages to mix the potential biodiversity of an undisturbed post-industrial habitat mosaic with the ease of access and (one hopes) cleanliness and safety of a more traditional greenspace would be a fantastic thing. I’m sure there are already examples of just that, if readers would like to point them out to me! Technically there is both a public park and a nature reserve near my house, but it’s not really a brownfield site in that the nature reserve is mostly ancient-ish woodland.