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26 Natural Realms Of The UK: The Writers Shining A Light On The Biodiversity Crisis

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26 Natural Realms Of The UK: The Writers Shining A Light On The Biodiversity Crisis

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Writers’ organisation 26 teamed up with The Wildlife Trusts to raise awareness of the UK's most endangered habitats and why they're vital for tackling the climate crisis.

26 member Philip Parker shares two of these habitats and accompanying poems.

Philip Parker

Thu 30 Sept 2021

The world’s focus is on Glasgow this November as it hosts the COP26 Climate Conference, under the presidency of the UK.

While the climate crisis makes the headlines, there’s another crisis – inextricably linked – in its shadow: the immense loss of nature.

In the UK, one in seven wildlife species are now threatened with extinction.

Tractors plowing field

Yet a wealth of solutions to ease the climate emergency are hiding in plain sight.

Healthy natural habitats can store huge amounts of carbon, removing it from the atmosphere and locking it away in soils and plant matter, sometimes for millennia.

But many of our wild places are damaged, fragmented and threatened with destruction. And as these habitats are lost, carbon is released.

Forest in autumn

About 1 billion tonnes of carbon is locked up in UK woodlands, mostly in the soils.

Trees are by no means nature’s only carbon-locking tool.

Peatland is a vast store of carbon holding around 3.2 billion tonnes, but it is heavily degraded.

Hedgerows possibly store 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

Just off our coasts, seagrass meadows are biodiversity hotspots. They take in carbon to build their tissues, while dead material collects on the seafloor, holding carbon for millennia.

Seagrass captures carbon at a rate 35 times faster than tropical rainforests.

Green woodland with moss on the ground

Woodland is vital for absorbing carbon

The UK's 26 vital habitats explored

The Wildlife Trusts are collectively one of the largest land managers in the UK and are at the forefront of repairing thousands of hectares of peatlands, saltmarsh and other carbon-storing habitats, as well as giving new areas of land a chance to recover.

In response to the interlinked climate and biodiversity crises, writers’ organisation 26 teamed up with The Wildlife Trusts to explore 26 vital habitats and wild places and respond creatively with poems and thought pieces.

Earlier this year 26 writers headed into their chosen environments to research, talk with local conservationists and immerse themselves in the habitats.

They visited: hedgerows, woodland and meadows; peatland, bogs and wetlands; saltmarsh, coasts and seagrass; heathlands and freshwater habitats; and gardens and urban green spaces.

Their brief was to respond with a poem of exactly 100 words (called a centena), where the first three words are repeated at the end. And they produced work in a huge diversity of styles reflecting the diversity of habitats.

Each poem, plus a background thought piece, was published daily online throughout September.

Accompanying each poem was a striking illustration by graphic designer and 26 member Lydia Thornley, who visited writers’ locations on sketch walks and on-screen, illustrating the characteristic environments.

The result is an extraordinary anthology of words, ideas and emotions as the writers faced the damage being inflicted on the habitats, as well as the extraordinary potential of ‘nature-based solutions’ to ease the climate and biodiversity crises.

Grassland with a tree in the foreground

The Wildlife Trusts are working to help habitats around the UK recover

A successor project, 26Pledges, runs in October where more members of 26 pick up the habitat baton and compose haikus and further creative pieces based around personal pledges to reduce their impact on each habitat.

A final part of the project runs in November, when New Zealand members of 26 launch their own project, composing centenas on their threatened habitats like drylands and offshore islands.

Read on to find two featured habitats and poems.

Rocks on green grass in Dartmoor

Dartmoor's peatland is a vital habitat for wildlife

Seagrass captures carbon at a rate 35 times faster than tropical rainforests

How can peatland help stop climate change?

Peatland is a vital habitat for rare plants, birds and insects.

The waterlogged soils made of dead and decaying plants form at an incredibly slow rate, accumulating only 1mm each year, but this habitat holds around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon.

Globally they cover just 3% of the land area, but account for 30% of all soil-stored carbon.

Yet 80% of UK peatland is damaged, from actions such as drainage to create agricultural land and forestry (and so releasing carbon). Plus - much of the compost that is still sold to gardeners contains peat.

Illustration of Dartmoor Peatlands

An illustration of the peatland on Dartmoor

See, she smoulders

Ramblers trudge her boggy tors,

Curse narrow contours,
Scratchy gorse,
Fog diverting them off course.

Heavy boots skin her heath,
Disregard treasures deep beneath,
Her fertile, rainforest womb,
Pipit eggs and sundew blooms.

She cries out, fascicles torn,
Fibrous roots filched, shorn,
Mulched, bought as peat,
For some sterile suburban street.

Her spongey sphagnum contracts in pain,
She holds on but in vain,
Her protective waters burst downstream,
Flooding careless housing dreams.

It’s time, she whispers, more gas less air,
Enough of these pesky fleas,
Verdict delivered, she lights the fuse,
We scorch, stupefied, confused.

We didn’t see, she smoulders.

Written by Jess Swales, one of the 26 writers who explored the peatland on Dartmoor.

Coastline with a sandy beach near Hull

Sea level rise, development and storm surges are eroding our saltmarshes

Saltmarshes are superstars of the carbon storage world, absorbing carbon at a faster rate than either peatlands or woodlands

How do saltmarshes lock away carbon?

Saltmarshes are superstars of the carbon storage world, absorbing carbon at a faster rate than either peatlands or woodlands.

A distinctive feature of estuaries, these habitats are regularly flooded by the tide and are made up of salt-tolerant plants.

They also act as a buffer against erosion and as important breeding and feeding grounds for birds and other animals.

Plus, they help us combat climate change.

One hectare of saltmarsh can capture two tonnes of carbon a year and lock it into sediments for centuries.

However, in the UK we are losing nearly 100 hectares of saltmarsh a year due to a combination of threats including sea level rise, development and storm surges.

Illutration of salt flats

An illustration of the saltmarsh mudflats of the Humber

The Tide

I am awash as a swell of salty brine creeps softly to meet fresh crisp water
a clash of unorthodox lovers rekindling a passion. Unsettling my silty
foundations – swilling and surging – back and forth – back and forth -
As it retreats, the stir of sea bids a long farewell. 
Leaving my secrets exposed. Fleshy carpets 
teem with undiscovered life. 
Grubs up time to feed. 
Opportunists dig in.
Tick. Tock. 
The tide softly threatens. 
Swooping slowly closer, closer  
Eager to be welcomed. Returning with an abundance of wisdom 
Replenish my silty foundations as the deep conceals me. Soon I am awash.

Written by Poppy Collier, a 26 member who was inspired by the saltmarsh mudflats of the Humber.

More poems, pieces and pledges can be found at 26 Projects.

Join or donate to The Wildlife Trusts, a federation of 46 independent wildlife conservation charities covering the UK, with 850,000 members and 35,000 volunteers.

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