Living on the edge

I learned a new word a few months back - ecotone. It is used by biologists to describe the boundaries between different habitats, and of course these are where most of the interesting stuff happens. Woodland margins are ecotones, and so are beaches and riverbanks. I don't know the equivalent term in human geography, so let us borrow this one.

The fringes of a market town are a kind of ecotone: a debatable land where the suburbs end, and the countryside begins. It is where we keep our sports fields and our scout huts, our golf courses, recycling centres and recreational woodland. It is where the eleventh century built its leper houses, and the nineteenth, its prisons. Apart from all these, the town of Lewes - whose leper house on Spital Road closed a few centuries ago - has its seven bonfire societies to make provision for. Each of these needs a firesite close enough to march to, but far enough away that thousands of pounds worth of fireworks can be set off without actually burning anyone's house down.

I am afraid that wherever you get human geography, you will also find the dismal science of economics, exerting its baleful influence. The disparity between population growth and housing availability results in rising land prices, so the patch of waste ground on the edge of town is transformed into a prime development site. As the town pushes outward, so the countryside pushes in, because the expanding population also needs more food, and is becoming aware that there are some serious downsides when you bring this in from overseas. And where then, in this narrowing margin, can you fit your lover's lane, your riding stables, and your allotments? For the human inhabitants of the town, this presents a series of challenges. For wildlife, it is a bloody disaster. Because this is also an ecotone in the biological sense: a boundary habitat, and a refuge for those birds and animals that cannot adapt to life alongside humans, but finds the countryside, bereft of hedgerows and soaked with pesticides and herbicides, a difficult place to feed, or breed, or nest in safety.

Just to the south of Lewes there is a running track, and, as is often the case, this is surrounded by hybrid black poplars. There is a team of tree surgeons pollarding these, which is fine - a pollarded tree will usually last longer, and is often a better home for wildlife. ( Except woodpeckers, and anything else that needs standing dead wood ). Unfortunately the arborists have also cut down all the small trees between the poplars. From their point of view, this is common sense. A big old poplar is a dangerous tree to work on at the best of times ( See image! ) and these stand on a steep, muddy bank beside a ditch. However, the small trees were planted by volunteers, to provide homes for wildlife, and to keep light pollution from the track's floodlights out of the neighbouring meadow.

Now, in the short to medium term, this can be fixed. If the landowner gives permission, there are plenty of volunteers who will turn out to replant a wildlife hedge - and if he doesn't, well, scrub grows back. However, it strikes me that there is a fundamental flaw in our approach to this sort of work: a failure to understand the concept of ecosystem services. I asked the chairman of the athletics club if he was happy with what had been done, and he told me that the track was rather windier than it had been before. It didn't seem to have occurred to him that his sports field was tucked into the angle between two busy main roads, and that his runners were gulping down deep lungfuls of polluted air. How many people die every year in this country from diesel fumes? And what have we got to clean the air up, apart from the leaves of trees and shrubs? Perhaps it might be a good idea for us to accept that an environment that is healthy for wildlife is also healthy for human beings. Why does this basic principle not underpin our council policy and our planning legislation?

Jon Gunson, TTL.