Thursday, 12 June 2008

What is the price of a singing Blackbird?

The UK economy (and probably the world) continues to edge towards recession. The link between the welfare of wildlife and the welfare of the economy may appear to be a tentative one but there are important implications for birds and wildlife. During a recession, development slows down which could mean less building on green sites- a good thing for wildlife. However there also appears to be negative impacts. For example there are negative implications to eco-tourism- people spending less money on eco-holidays, depriving fragile eco-tourist economies of revenue to manage their habitats.

Environmental economists have long argued that one important way of protecting birds and wildlife is to put a value on them and bring these values into cost calculations of development. There are measures which are currently being introduced in the tree care industry to apply this kind of thinking. Some trees in London (and maybe elsewhere) are being valued in terms of what price they are worth as an asset to a property. Some trees, such as a large London Plane in a premier London property have been valued at several tens of thousands of pounds which are added to the price of the property; in essence, you buy the tree at a certain price (in the same way that bricks and mortar are priced- one room, two rooms etc). By removing the tree, the owner would then incur a loss of value of their property. The hope is that rather than removing a tree (because it is causing root damage) and loosing, for example. 10K off the property value, it makes more economic sense to, for instance, replace a few of the slabs on the patio for 2K.

This kind of environmental economic approach may well be making a head way into current mainstream economic thinking. I was wondering, how might this be applied to birds. For instance there is certainly a value to garden birds and for many people they add a much desired living element to their garden environments. However you cant buy wild birds in the garden centre as you can shrubs and trees. But this does not mean that they are not valuable and they must have a hypothetical price- although I will admit to having little idea how to price a Blue Tit or a singing Blackbird. Perhaps if there was an index that estate agents could use, an attempt to add a value to aesthetically pleasing wildlife friendly gardens it would help to curb the degeneration of these environments- e.g by hedge removal to be replaced by fences, pond removal to be replaced by patios, lawns replaced by driveways. Perhaps if this was backed up by central planning restrictions-making it illegal to degenerate garden environments e..g by the extension of tree preservation order type restrictions, it would be effective in controlling the environmental demise of many urban areas. Something which I encounter as a garden management company partner on a daily basis.

Of course one of the main problems such an approach will encounter is the perspective of value. Some people have very little appreciation of garden birds, wildlife, shrubs and trees. In these cases they will not be prepared to pay for them. I consider this is a problem of ignorance.

Under-valuing- not only wildlife but also people, is considered by environmental economists to be one of the main reasons for market failure. Market failure is where the free market fails to create a desirable human environment. Often where there are environmental and social problems- it is because certain aspects of that environment have not been properly valued. It therefore appears quite obvious that the value of wildlife and birds needs to be taught in the education system, enforced by the legal system and encouraged by the economic system. It follows therefore that to effectively protect wildlife and birds it is important to understand these systems.

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