COMMENT: Why we should protect wildlife habitat of Seven Cornfields

West Midland Safari Park expert, broadcaster and university professor Mark O'Shea says he is opposing green belt house plans

Mark O'Shea has presented his own Animal Planet/Discovery Channel series O'Shea's Big Adventure
Mark O'Shea has presented his own Animal Planet/Discovery Channel series O'Shea's Big Adventure

The words Seven Cornfields are synonymous with my youth, with the 1960s.

I remember the Seven Cornfields between Wolverhampton and Sedgley from long before Colton Hills School was built to replace, amongst other schools, my old school Manor Road Secondary Modern, writes Mark O'Shea.

There used to be a farm there with a long track leading up to its door – I remember being chased away by the farmer on one occasion. Then there were the ‘danger pools’, one of which was rumoured to have swallowed up an entire coach and horses.

We used to punt across those pools on old wooden doors using a piece of wood as a paddle, despite the dark-cowled Orson Wellesian “Dark and Lonely Waters” figure in the Public Information Film warning children to stay away from such places.

I also remember the main pool being gradually filled in, with the loss of the local smooth newt population. In the 1970s I used to cross the Seven Cornfields and Penn Common to get to Baggeridge to look for grass snakes. In the 1980s I used to badger- watch in woodlands and I knew where great crested newts were to be found.

My friends and I used to drink in the Barley Mow, and I used to shoulder a pack and trudge around the tracks when I was trying to get fit for my earliest expeditions to Central and South America, New Guinea, and West Africa. Yes, I have decades of memories of the Seven Cornfields and the neighbouring Penn Common.

Parts of Seven Cornfields could be redeveloped for homes under wider proposals

Now it emerges the green fields that are still loved by thousands are under threat after the green belt was earmarked for 1,300 homes.

My concerns for the future of the Seven Cornfields are not some sort of Nimby-based nostalgic objection to change – after all I don’t live in the area any more. No, they are based on a concern for the environment and its wildlife. When I was working for the Royal Geographical Society on an ecological project in Roraima, northern Brazil in 1987-88, I took a two-week break from the project to tour around Brazil and visit other research projects.

One such project was located around the Amazonian city of Manaus, the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems Project (MCSEP). Established by the American ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, it had been running for eight-years when I visited. It is still running but has been renamed.

In Brazil at the time there was a law – if you owned a patch of rainforest you could only cut down half of it – but you could sell the other half. The person who bought it could only cut down half of it, but he could sell the other half…. you get the picture. Plots of rainforest were being cleared in measurable chunks. Lovejoy’s idea was to monitor the process and determine when species started to disappear – it was a study in extirpation (localised extinction), but for some species with small ranges it could mean total extinction.

Mark is a reptile expert at West Midland Safari Park

With a 40,000 hectare (154 sq.mile) area, which ran off into the contiguous Amazon rainforest, as their control, Lovejoy’s teams negotiated with land-owners to delay the felling of half-plots until after they had been surveyed biologically. Then teams of biologists went in and surveyed for everything from termites to tamanduas (anteaters), from snakes to song-birds, thus creating species lists for plots from 100 hectares (247 acres) down to one hectare (2.47 acres).

They came out and the land-owners felled the trees, then after a sufficient period of time, the plots were re-surveyed and re-surveyed to determine if any of the fauna had been negatively impacted by the destruction.

So why bother doing this surveying?

Here is just one example.

There are over 230 species of antbirds, and eighteen of them are directly associated with columns of army ants, which they follow in order to feed on the invertebrates fleeing the ravening hordes. Thirty-eight species of antbirds are directly threatened with extinction by the actions of man, by habitat destruction, alteration and fragmentation.

So let’s suppose there was a rare species of ant-bird living in close to Manaus and ecologists were campaigning to have a reserve set aside to save it for the future, and they are successful, a plot of land will be set aside for the antbird.

Mark says growing up on the fringes of Seven Cornfields helped shape his career

The next question is how large a plot of land does the antbird require, and not having that information a guess is made, the reserve is established, and the antbird goes extinct.

It turns out, from Lovejoy’s project data, that the antbird requires 20 times the guesstimated area in order to survive, and the isolation of the reserve means there are no wildlife corridors to neighbouring patches of forest, meaning no through-flow of genetic material from outside the reserve, no immigration or emigration of antbirds, and nowhere for the army ants to go when the colony divides and new queens fly off to seek new territories. A study in extinction it may be, but one that provides data to prevent future extinctions.

So why am I talking about the Amazon here?

Because the Seven Cornfields are like a microcosm of the Amazon. At present there are patches of woodland surrounded by arable fields, but the wildlife corridors are still there, the hedgerows, the little used footpaths, and most especially Penn Brook. Wildlife can move around at night, passing unseen down these trails, so the woodland patches are not isolated from one another.

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But if houses are built on all of the fields, hedgerows cleared, and the banks of Penn Book manicured and landscaped, then these vulnerable corridors will vanish and the wildlife of the woodlands will, in time, diminish also. Foxes and other anthropogenic species will persist, benefit even, but badgers, bats and butterflies, maybe even birds of prey, could vanish.

The British Government is adopting Professor Sir John Lawton’s ‘Making Space for Nature’ proposals, the aim being to conserve wild places. And the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust is working hard to establish better connected wildlife habitats.

So the idea of building 1,300 houses on the Seven Cornfields would seem to run counter to the flow.

Yes we need more houses, but do we need them here, or are there areas of disused land in more suburban environments that would be recycled for housebuilding? Just as houses were built on the land formerly occupied by Manor Road School.

  • Mark O’Shea is Professor of Herpetology at the University of Wolverhampton and a resident expert at West Midland Safari Park. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

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