People have lived in wetlands in the UK, as far as I know, for as long as the UK has been inhabited. The fens of the east coast were vast, and Hereward the Wake hid there when trying to fight off the Normans. The Glastonbury area was once wetland. Subsistence living is entirely possible in fens. However, draining fens for agriculture has, ever since the Normans showed up, been treated as a civilizing process.
Wetlands will support people alongside wildlife, but there are things a subsistence lifestyle cannot do. It cannot pay for a military, for building castles or roads. It cannot support an indolent class who wish to have both considerable leisure and luxury. You need much more intensive agriculture for that. Before the Normans, we had a lot of wetland. After the Normans we started draining the wetland and we also developed the most unfair land distribution in Europe. I don’t think these things are coincidences.
Low lying wetland that has been drained is problematic. It may sit lower than the water near it. You may be obliged to expend a lot of effort pumping and draining. The land may keep sinking as it dries, and the sea levels now are rising. Wetland used to be part of how we dealt with floods. Stretches of land known as flood meadows – because that was where excess water went – have been built on and must now be protected from flooding. This is just as inherently political as that stuff with the Normans. We have more rain now, flooding is a bigger issue. We need flood meadows more than ever.
Many wetlands are not perpetually or continuously wet. With patches of land and water, a proper wetland is for most of the year a complex patchwork of habitats supporting a vast array of wildlife. Fish, amphibians, water birds, water mammals – they all need wet places. There are many plants that only really thrive in these wet environments, too. As we dry out the land, we kill off the wetland creatures. This too is a matter of political choice, and priority.
A combination of paying fair prices for food, and not wasting between a third and a half of it, would mean farmers might not need to keep all low lying land in ‘useful’ production. We might be able to give some of it back. This is a political choice that brings in the role of supermarkets in price setting, and the way we all contribute to the total immorality that is food waste.
Wetlands are liminal places, uncertain, wild, beautiful and full of wonder and mud. They are not entirely human-friendly even though we can live in them. They are not tame, and they change without our permission in response to seasons, tides and rainfall. As climate change makes everything ever less predictable, we need these wild margins to help us cope with unexpected floods, to soak up the water and to lay down the carbon.
It would take a large and complex network of human choices to make wetlands more viable and to let them return. We’ve harmed ourselves by harming our habitat, and I hope that we see that and make the changes while we still can. If we can’t do it for love of the world we live in, we should be doing it selfishly for our own safety and survival.