We have had some glorious days recently. Last week, walking along the River Tyne in the late afternoon, I experienced one of those moments when Nature seems almost falling over itself to impress. Willows along the riverbank were tinged bronze by the sunlight through that wonderful filtering effect only a harsh winter sky can deliver. By the side of the path, the first fresh shoots of wild garlic and Lords and Ladies were starting to unfurl into leaves. Hazel catkins quivered from overhanging branches, and here and there banks of snowdrops whitewashed the ground.
This familiar, mile-long corridor, between the mighty river and the railway line, is not a wood. It’s too narrow to appear in any woodland inventory and in any case is a random patchwork of riverside trees, open scrub, and rank grassy areas. Most of it wouldn’t fall under any definition of “priority habitat”.
In fact, it is like so many other areas on the urban/rural fringe – unrecorded, unprotected, and, many would say, unremarkable. Yet along here I regularly see herons, hunched on their island boulders, and sand martins swooping over the water. I have seen young otters, playing in the quiet twilight among a tangle of tree roots while bats darted overhead. In spring, woodland flowers appear in the grassy margins alongside the path, a popular and heavily used cycleway and dog-walking route. Despite its being so busy, it’s virtually impossible not to spot wildlife, if you just open your eyes.
How do we put a value on these wildspaces, the ordinary ones that account for the day to day experience of wildlife for many people? Many such spaces exist despite rather than because of our activities. Marginal areas, along the edges of housing estates, railway lines, rivers and canals, allotments and parks. Left to itself, Nature creeps in and irrepressibly takes hold.
Research by the Woodland Trust has shown the value of “Trees Outside Woods” (a publication is due out soon), such as those in hedgerows, field corners, gardens and parks. In some counties they cover as much land as the larger blocks we would call “woodland”, and they can be important reservoirs and stepping stones for wildlife. Trees outside woods are just one example of wildspaces at the margins, the forgotten areas that don’t necessarily figure in the policies and strategies for biodiversity. But when you add them all together, they’re a vital part of the whole ecological network. We need to remember that.
Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser