Habitat Destruction and Road Building

Michael Mallia

Some weeks ago the World Widelife Fund (WWF) published an unusual but revealing map showing how the various continents on the planet are dissected by lines of (land) communication, principally roads.  The idea behind the map was to indicate how human activity has cut up the areas of habitat needed for the existence of all species, plant and animal, on the planet.  The most compact area of undisturbed habitat remaining is Australia, with a large central block which in some areas comes quite close to the coast. But even here, the large scale exploitation of minerals in the Australian interior – the latest “gold rush” is going after deposits of lithium, now the base material in the best electrical batteries on the market – is beginning to have an effect.

The point that WWF wanted to make was that road building has now reached a level where it is making a significant contribution to the accelerating extinction of plant and animal species.  And this just at the point in time when climate change – a non-selective mechanism exerting powerful pressure on habitats – is clearly accelerating.  Recent reports from Greenland have  shown an arrival of Spring some three weeks in advance of the past long term  onset.  Out at sea of course, the habitat situation is not rosy either, again from a mix of climate change, overfishing, and vast human-made pollution.  The recent analysis of contents of sea bottom animals living in the Marianas Trench (at 11,000m the deepest part of the ocean) have found  frighteningly large amounts of “technological” pollutants, prominent among which is PCB,  a now-prohibited transformer coolant. These creatures of the abyssal deep depend on the organic debris drifting down from the surface layers for their food supply.

Turning from the WWF planetary survey to a much smaller patch: some 30km to the north of Bristol in the U.K.  The M4 motorway has a bridge crossing of the estuary of the R. Severn.  On the west side the road enters Wales, going in a south westerly direction close to the line of the A48 Chepstow-Newport main road towards the industrial town of Newport.  In fact even at the time of construction, the M4 went through the northern suburbs of Newport, along a rather “winding” course.  The inevitable building sprawl as well as industrial estate development, have now seriously reduced the traffic flow of the six-lane motorway. Serious congestion – principally from private cars and heavy goods vehicles  –   has   become  commonplace;   loud     complaints accompanied by  much calculation of the negative effects on Newport economic activity have proliferated.

Enter the Welsh government – Wales like Scotland has a regional parliament — with a plan for a £1 billion (ℇ1.2 billion)-22km “relief road”, designed to curve round to the north of Newport and near-by Caerleon.  Other than raising the money – regional governments are not liberally funded – there is one problem with the proposal: it looks like a classical habitat destroyer. The line goes through the Gwent Levels, an ancient wetland on the east side of the R.  Usk just north of Caerleon.   The road will bisect the wetland with a sort of Berlin Wall going through four sites of special scientific interest, with otters, water voles, rare species of bees and dragonflies and since last summer home to the first cranes to breed in Wales in 400 years.

In true U.K. fashion, a five-month public inquiry has just begun. The odds against the (feather) cranes overcoming the (metal) cranes are high.  But there is one verdict in already, from the Welsh commissioner who advises on the impacts of large projects on future generations: “we have been building roads for 50 years; it is not what we should be about in 2017”.  Apart from the fact that those “50 years” are a gross underestimate – nearby Caerleon was in fact an important Roman border fort – that sounds like a good piece of advice for us to follow.

One small anecdote about habitat cut-up by roads.  Last week I made three forays into the countryside between my house and the walls of Mdina.  The purpose was the location of a certain “property” that has been much in the news very recently.  I failed to locate the property but I inadvertently found a way to scale the walls of Mdina without too much effort. The quickest way to get to the walls started off from the Crafts Village along a narrow, badly surfaced road which crossed the main road going from the Ta’ Qali roundabout to Mosta.  In a 300m stretch of this road, which is flanked by partly-worked fields, I found three dead hedgehogs, all run over while crossing this road which sees few passing cars in a day.