From Badgers to Biodiversity Offsetting – the Trials of Owen Paterson

Fresh from the badger culling debacle, Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson has once again provoked the anger of environmentalists, this time with his support for the controversial policy of ‘biodiversity offsetting’ where development is granted planning permission even if it leads to the loss of important wildlife sites so long as new habitats are created elsewhere. In a move that has provoked outrage among campaigners and even less-than-wholehearted support in The Daily Telegraph, Paterson has said that proposals that involve the destruction of ancient woodland could be allowed with appropriate offsetting, although he sought to downplay the likelihood of this happening.

The Secretary of State suggested that up to 100 new trees could be planted for each existing tree that is destroyed

Whilst this may sound on the face of it like a good deal for the environment and for the communities in whose neighbourhoods these proposals take effect, it demonstrates appalling ignorance, wilful or otherwise, of the importance of ancient trees and the web of life that they support. Conservationist and author, Oliver Rackham wrote in his The History of the British Countryside: “10,000 oaks of 100 years old are not a substitute for one 500 year old oak”. Due to the history of exploitation of their timber resource and the ravages of two world wars, our continental neighbours do not have the same opportunity that we do in Britain to appreciate these historic specimens. “In much of mainland Europe, you would be hard pushed to find a tree much more than 200 years old” according to the North York Moors National Park Authority. The Ancient Tree Forum exists to protect and raise awareness of our oldest trees and their Founder President Ted Green MBE has told me in conversation that he believes that the 900 acres of Leicestershire covered by Bradgate Park  contains more ancient trees than the whole of Germany. Environmentalists often bemoan the fact that we live on a crowded and over-developed island so an ecological resource such as this that many neighbouring countries simply do not possess is surely something to be treasured not trashed.

During his 15-month tenure at DEFRA, Paterson has probably done more than any other politician to unite the disparate strands of the environmental movement. Sadly, they have been united in horrified opposition to the policy pronouncements emanating from the Department. This support for biodiversity offsetting follows in the footsteps of the Secretary of State’s climate change scepticism and his assertion that the badgers ‘moved the goalposts’ when asked to explain the failure of the badger cull to reach its targets.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett  said of the offsetting policy: “The concept of biodiversity offsetting betrays a failure to understand the complexity of nature and the inter-related nature of different ecological elements. It suggests that animals, plants and microbes are simply like Lego blocks, to be moved around at will, when in fact they exist in complex inter-relationships of which we frequently have only the dimmest understanding, or none at all.”

The National Trust, viewed as being one of the more conservative voices in the countryside, is not impressed either. Its spokesman told The Daily Mail: “Offsetting the losses of wildlife that usually accompany development by creating replacement habitats could be a useful addition to the planning system but it mustn’t mean mature irreplaceable habitats being replaced by low-quality habitats that will take decades to develop the character and complexity of those that have been lost. There will be some habitats that are effectively irreplaceable and should not be part of any offsetting scheme.”

Environmental campaigner Arthur Pendragon, veteran of the Newbury and Twyford Down protests against the driving of infrastructure projects through important wildlife sites added:  It’s all about money. The government is relaxing the laws so developers can make a killing.”

Owen Paterson has conceded that the present generation will lose out as they will suffer the loss of wildlife sites but the benefits of the new sites established as a result of offsetting will take longer to be felt. He also conceded that replacement sites will not necessarily be in the same locality as those lost but could be up to an hour’s car journey away. He did however insist that the fact that more trees would be planted was good news as he told The Times: “The point about offsetting is it will deliver a better environment over the long term”.

His opponents, on the other hand would argue that the Environment Secretary is seeking to espouse the virtues of quantity over quality or, in the words of Oscar Wilde “is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Interestingly, this was Wilde’s definition of a cynic. Is the current DEFRA figurehead guilty of cynicism as well as scepticism?

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