Five reasons why the UK is a sad place for nature lovers

The United Kingdom can be a great place to live and is a popular migration destination for many reasons, including English-speaking jobs, cultural diversity and free healthcare. However, if you’re like me in that you need easy access to ‘the great outdoors’ to preserve your sanity and keep your eco-anxiety in check, living in the UK can be tough at times. Here are five reasons why, from the humble perspective of a foreigner who has previously lived in continental Europe and the US.

The UK countryside – little nature, lots of sheep! Photo by Stage 7 Photography

1) The population density

As a small island nation, the UK is very vulnerable to the effects of human population growth. The British Isles have been inhabited by humans for thousands of years – generations of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Romans, and Vikings have come and gone, cutting down once vast forests to build settlements and roads. When human numbers began increasing exponentially across the globe thanks to advances in medicine and agricultural productivity, so did damage to the natural world. Today, the UK’s population is 66 million and growing, now in large part due to net migration from people like me (yes, I appreciate the irony). To make way for ever-more humans, UK forest cover has been reduced to only 13%. Within the EU, only Ireland and the Netherlands have lower forest coverage (both 11%).

However, this is not the whole picture. People in the UK are very unevenly distributed. Holding over 80% of the total UK population, England’s nature is by far the worst off, with only 14% of all land classified as ‘natural’ or ‘semi-natural’ – the rest is farmland and built-up areas. Remaining relatively free of human crowds, Wales, Northern Ireland, and especially Scotland have tremendous potential to be great places for outdoor enthusiasts, which brings me to my next point.

2) The unprotected protected areas

If you visit a national park in the UK after having been to Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, you may find yourself very surprised to be looking at farms, villages, and endless herds of sheep. The UK’s national parks do not actually qualify as national parks under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s classification system. They are included in the fifth of six categories, where 1 is most and 6 is least protected. Sadly, pristine wilderness is non-existent in the UK.

The Scottish Highlands offer some stunning sceneries and are world-renowned for their ‘natural beauty’, but there isn’t a lot that’s natural about them. Most of the forests are heavily managed plantations, the mountains are grazed-bare livestock pastures and the wildlife is largely absent due to ruthless persecution by gamekeepers (who try to maintain artificially high grouse populations). Sadly, UK protected areas are for profit rather than for nature, which leads me to point number three.

The beautiful, barren Highlands. Photo by Krisjanis Mezulis

3) The missing wildlife

According to the 2016 State of Nature report*, the United Kingdom is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Between persecution and habitat destruction both outside and inside protected areas, there’s no escape for terrestrial wildlife. It is well known among conservation biologists that island species are hard to keep alive in the presence of humans. Not a single large carnivore remains on the British Isles – wolves, bears and lynx all used to prowl the local woods but none of them stood a chance against the onslaught from nature’s top predator.

Government bodies are still sanctioning the intentional slaughter of countless native species, usually to protect the interests of the agricultural industry. Over the past five years alone, the ironically named Natural England issued licences to destroy 170,000 wild birds, eggs and nests, including rare species. Badgers are being mass-exterminated as a precaution against their possible role in the transmission of bovine tuberculosis. British beavers went extinct after decades of persecution and the small handful of reintroduced ones continue to be cruelly killed, despite legal protections.

One in five UK mammals is now at high risk of extinction. The number of hedgehogs, still common across the rest of Europe, has plummeted by an estimated 97% since the 1950’s due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, pesticide use and collisions with vehicles. In fact, many Brits see more roadkill than live wild mammals, which brings me to point number four.

These prickly little guys are now more often seen dead by the side of the road than snuffling through leaf litter. Photo by Piotr Łaskawski

4) The car culture

The UK’s addiction to personal vehicles makes densely populated areas particularly unpleasant. Over 80% of England’s adults live in a household with access to a car. The transport sector is now the UK’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, mainly due to growing car traffic. Air pollution from traffic has become a public health crisis, causing more than 60,000 premature deaths every year.

Public transport is largely available but is often expensive, still running on dirty diesel, and of poor quality. It is not uncommon in the UK to pay more than twice as much for a train ticket than it would cost to drive, and then be forced to stand for the entire journey because of overcrowding. Buses are cheaper but many areas remain inaccessible by public transport and walking or cycling is rarely a safe and pleasant alternative. Active travel along a busy A or B road comes with an unhealthy serving of stress (hoping you don’t end up like that poor little hedgehog), toxic fumes and plastic litter, which brings me to my final point.

5) The litter

This issue comes up frequently when I ask other foreigners about their impressions of the UK – the amount of litter is unusual for a developed country. It seems every park, roadside, and pavement is seen as an acceptable waste dumping ground. I have a hard time understanding why this attitude has become commonplace because there is no shortage of public bins or waste collection services, but it seems many locals have no qualms about tossing their empty food wrappers, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and coffee cups on the ground or out the car window. Many green areas are (illegally) used as fly-tipping sites – there’s nothing quite like walking past a heap of dumped rubbish to ruin your attempt to be close to nature.

The return of the wild things?

The good news is that these issues are fixable. The UK is the birthplace of countless conservation organisations and the environmental community here is arguably one of the most active in the world. The exciting notion of large-scale rewilding of the British countryside and reintroduction of lost species has been gaining increasing traction and if implemented, could see damaged ecosystems restored to their former glory. The UK Government must listen to the public and stop prioritising industry interests over nature. Stricter protections, better environmental outreach and education, cleaner transport and eco-friendly urban planning are all essential steps towards a wilder, healthier United Kingdom.

*UPDATE: The 2019 State of Nature report was released shortly after the publication of this blog post. Unsurprisingly, it shows UK wildlife is now even worse off than three years ago.

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