Book of the Month – Linescapes: Hugh Warwick

A challenging and wonderfully engaging book about linear features and connectivity that may change the way that we look at our landscape. Hugh Warwick takes a journey along lines that were created to separate or enclose – reaves, dykes, hedges, walls – and those built to connect or stitch together – roads, canals, railways –  and considers the ecological consequences of this network of lines we have drawn through or imposed upon our landscape.

The book looks at the benefits and threats of these lines which have sliced up the land and Warwick looks to find the positive, seeking out the opportunities that exist to reclaim and enhance these areas. He talks, argues, agrees and disagrees (not always predictably) with a range of people from the Country Land Association to radical eco-farmers, public relations officers, canal poets and ecologists.

Of particular interest is the issue of the damage caused by fragmentation – especially relevant to local chalk grasslands. As well as losing nearly all of our wildflower meadows, heaths, ponds and half our ancient woodland in the last fifty years, what few pockets we have left have become isolated which has huge implications for biodiversity and the risk of local extinctions. Interestingly, the linear features that fragmented parts of the landscape, like roads and canals, have inadvertently become routes of connectivity – it is along their edges that flora and fauna can flourish.  The ‘soft estate’ of road and railway verges could be managed differently in order to greatly benefit bioabundance. Our nation’s seeming obsession with the idea that verges should be clear-mown of wild flowers needs to be addressed – a more visionary approach is needed that sees these unpeopled areas as something close to wilderness: a recent report from Plantlife showed that these areas can hold up to 800 species of plant if managed sensitively. The Canal and River Trust are working to manage their network for the benefit of flora and fauna: everything from Daubenton’s bats to fen raft spiders and, as Warwick shows, Network Rail are attempting to ‘put the lineside back to work’ for wildlife.

It is hedges, designed to keep things apart, which are often the most visible ‘natural’ lines on the land. Many were put up between 1750 -1830 during the period of enclosure when land was handed from the community to the wealthy. The result was a monotone of straight hedges enclosing rectangular fields in a pattern that is often viewed as being traditional – although earlier hedges, some still visible a ghosts in the fields, were wandering and frequently unruly. Hedges can have great value to wildlife if not flailed to death and managed for aesthetic value, avoiding what Oliver Rackham described as the ‘Vandal hand of tidiness’.

Another very visible presence are the pylons carrying electricity cables. Although naturally prejudiced against these, Warwick again looks for the positive. This is epitomised brilliantly by the work of Ian Glover at the National Grid who has instigated regimes of less frequent mowing and removal of topsoil to allow wildflowers to flourish in 250 substations and is working with the Wildlife Trusts to enhance the land under nearly 4,500 miles of overhead lines with the aim being to create a ‘Natural Grid’ – achieving change at scale as envisaged by the 2010 Lawton Report.  This Report, ‘Making Space for Nature’, argued for a more ecologically literate approach to conservation –  full of optimism in the face of profit-driven, anti-ecological policy making – with its key theme being habitat creation initiatives that aim for more wildlife sites which are bigger, better and joined up. Warwick essentially calls for engagement, to explore the connections that already exist. ‘Our linescapes follow us; it is up to us not to let them govern us. It is time to take these lines back for good.’