The Gwent Levels might be my favourite natural landscape in all of Britain, and they’re just a stone’s throw away from where I grew up in Newport, Wales. Over 100 square kilometres of wetlands on the fringe of the Severn Estuary, and home to an abundance of diverse wildlife, ecosystems and stunning views.
Over the last five years or so, however, I’ve had to visit with my campaigning hat on as well as my walking boots. George Osborne and the Welsh Government have been locked in a battle with local residents and environmentalists, determined to split the landscape with a filthy M4 relief road. Aside from the obvious climate impact of this relentless dedication to dirty road building, this would have devastated one of the most precious parts of Wales’ natural heritage.
In June last year, we won our campaign, and the government scrapped their plans to rupture the levels with a £2-billion motorway. Since then, I have been filled with hope about protecting and extending our country’s wetlands. As we celebrated World Wetlands Day this weekend, it has never seemed more important to support these spectacular and vital environments.
Wetlands are essential to tackling the twin threats of the ecological and climate emergencies. According to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), freshwater wetlands cover less than one percent of the UK’s land area, but are relied on by over 40 percent of all species. Peat wetlands alone sequester more carbon than rainforests – up to a third of the world’s total – despite covering only three percent of all land. The potential for wetlands to restore ecology and fight climate chaos is massive.
Yet, despite all of this, between 1970 and 2015, nearly 35 per cent of the world’s wetlands were lost. This trend must be reversed urgently, in a range of creative ways – small as well as big.
As important as it is to have pristine, expansive environments like the Gwent Levels protected and extended, I don’t want wetlands to just be ‘out there’ on the peripheries of cities or deep into the countryside, a place to which you make a special pilgrimage to be among nature. We should be among nature when we go about our daily lives.
A good place to start is literally at home. It might not sound like much to have a little pond or just a boggy patch at the bottom of the garden, but these are wetlands as important as any heritage site. Take the issue of flooding. With the devastation of entire regions of the country becoming a crisis worsening year on year, embedding wetlands into urban planning could help keep our communities dry by storing rainfall, and helping slow the flow.
Too often, we build houses with concrete gardens, and wonder why water seeps under the doors, especially after we’ve stripped the uplands, sending water barreling towards our towns and villages. Wetlands embedded into the heart of our communities could transform everything. On this, Wales is ahead of the curve, with sustainable urban drainage schemes being mandatory on any new construction larger than a single house.
We can build ecological principles into sustainable drainage schemes, and make them a public asset as well as a pragmatic bit of engineering. Across cities, we’re starting to see more and more parklets, reclaiming places like individual car parking bays as small green spaces. Why not make some of these wetlands? Imagine if our government pledged a marsh every mile, providing pockets of wetland less than a mile from anywhere you live in the UK.
The impacts on flood mitigation could be profound, when coupled with larger-scale projects on the outskirts of settlements. But aside from stopping bad things from happening, they would also offer an unmitigated good: adding a bit of wilderness and nature to our lives.
Last year, the Green Space Index revealed that 2.6 people have no access to a green space within a ten minute walk, yet we know that time in nature has an incredible impact on our mental health. That’s why the benefits of wetlands can’t be locked away in faraway heritage sites to which we have to make special trips. We have to bring them to our doorsteps, our walks to work, our lunch breaks.
Whether it’s finding frogspawn in the pond at the bottom of the garden, or seeing a common crane which has returned to the UK after 400 years of effective extinction, wetlands offer a window into nature like nothing else. They are essential to the survival of an unfathomable number of species, and they are indispensable in the fight against climate chaos.
If you can, why not visit a local wetlands this weekend, and enjoy some of Britain’s most beautiful, diverse and thrilling landscapes. And if you’re lucky enough to have a garden, consider bringing a bit of the wetlands home with you too, by introducing a small marsh or pond. It might just seem like a soggy bit of soil, but it could be the most important thing you do for the environment all year.