Shortly before you arrive in Oxford, the train from the capital passes by the Didcot Railway Museum. Rolling stock bearing the colours of decades past sit in silent sidings alongside stationary steam engines, a short step from the electrified lines of the modern network. They preserve the last, rare examples of a system that once dominated the length and breadth of the country. In the forty years before 1870, an extraordinary period of active creativity saw the construction of over 20,000km of railway lines. Journey times between the town and the country, between the mill and the market, were reduced on an almost unimaginable scale. In the space of a single generation, the countryside became interconnected. The social and economic impacts of the railway revolution are still being felt today, almost two centuries later.
What lessons can a conservationist learn from looking at the railways? The obvious analogy is between the few remaining examples of once ubiquitous wagons and engines that roamed the rails across the nation, and the now threatened species of wildlife similarly reduced in both number and extent. Like the steam leviathans, there is little room for them in the modernised world; they are assigned the same fate as the inefficient.
Two important reasons, however, make this simple analogy unhelpful. Firstly, we might want to reject the suggestion that, in order to be conserved, plants and animals must be efficient and useful to human society. Surely there are wider reasons to conserve wildlife than simply the use we can make of it? The second reason is more powerful. It concerns the positive ability of a generation to change the world in which they live.
What strikes me about the railway revolution is the time in which it was achieved. Without modern construction equipment. Without JCBs and diesel-driven diggers and four-ton trucks. Without these aids, a generation built a network of corridors that linked the entire country, across fields and pastures, through cities and towns, around and under the chalk sea-swept cliffs and across the mountains, mire and moor. Twenty thousand kilometres of track, in less than forty years.
Alongside many of my generation, I think that the future of conservation must look beyond the old approach of isolated reserves, somehow meant to survive surrounded by a hostile industrial landscape where there is no quarter made for anything ‘natural’. Instead, whilst reserves are still essential, to succeed we must also address the landscape mosaic in which they exist. The future of conservation lies in connecting these vestiges of the natural world in a matrix in which human and non-human society can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.
The lesson that we should take from the railway builders of the nineteenth century is this: it is possible to re-connect the countryside with itself in the space of a single generation. If we have the will, it can be done. It is a reminder of the incredible creative potential of human societies. It is a message of hope.