Biodiversity in the UK

I was aware of the horror figures for global species loss (150-200 gone every day, 50% gone by the middle of the century* – the Holocene Extinction) but somehow it always seemed that this was something happening ‘out there’ in the rainforests & such; I didn’t see it as a crisis  immediately affecting me in my home-land. It took about ten minutes’ research to disabuse me of these notions, and I’d like to share a couple of links in case you too were suffering from the same comfortable delusions 😉 First, a bit of noise in the press from a year ago about the cuckoo –  the RSPB had put it on their ‘red-list’ after ‘a “shocking” 37% decline in the species since the mid-1990s’. Here’s David Adam’s article in The Guardian: ‘Cuckoo joins official list of UK’s most endangered birds‘.

Mark Avery, conservation director of the RSPB, said: “An increasing number of charismatic, widespread and familiar birds are joining the list of those species most in need of help. This is scandalous. When the RSPB was formed 120 years ago, few would have been concerned about the cuckoo, lapwing, starling or house sparrow. Now, these birds are some of our greatest conservation priorities.”

A few days later Nicholas Milton wrote a CiF piece arguing that ‘The decline of the cuckoo pits the environmental movement against the powerful farming lobby’. He reasoned this way:

As a brood parasite, the cuckoo has a complex life cycle which includes migrating more than 4,000 miles each spring from sub-Saharan Africa. Problems in its wintering grounds and climate change may be causal factors but experts think the answer is more likely to be a lack of food, particularly its favourite – hairy caterpillars. Crucially, a lack of insects has also resulted in the decline of two of its host species, the meadow pipit and dunnock. The culprit? Modern agriculture.

The plight of the cuckoo has therefore become highly political. After years of cooperation it threatens once again to pit the environmental movement against the powerful farming lobby. This time the battle is over the future of set-aside, the European Union agricultural scheme designed to take surplus land out of production which was abolished last year. The British government has just closed a consultation looking at two very different ways of trying to replace a scheme which by default has thrown a lifeline to many beleaguered farmland birds including the cuckoo. The option favoured by conservationists is for farmers to manage a small percentage of their land in return for subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy. Unsurprisingly, the option favoured by farmers is a voluntary approach, not linked to their subsidies.

I was surprised to see wildlife’s enemy again named so openly in a more recent article for the Sunday Times, which got picked up elsewhere in the press in almost a ‘flurry’ of attention to this criminally neglected subject. The reason for the attention? David Attenborough has come out in support of a new book, Silent Summer, ‘in which 40 leading British ecologists detail how factors such as pesticides, population growth and intensive farming are destroying the plants, insects and animals on which the rest of the country’s wildlife depends.’ The article links farming to declines in butterflies and moths:

[…] the caterpillars of many species need particular plant species to feed on — but these are often targeted by farmers as weeds. “Nearly every butterfly decline can be attributed to habitat loss or the degradation and increased isolation of surviving patches of habitat,” [Jeremy Thomas, ‘professor of ecology at Oxford University’] said.

to the killing of rivers:

[…] scientists [chart] a general collapse in populations of caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies.

Such species were once renowned for forming vast, shimmering swarms as their aquatic larvae hatched and took to the air in summer. They also provided an important source of food for birds, fish, bats and predatory insects.

Cyril Bennett, a researcher with the Riverfly Partnership, whose research is featured in Silent Summer, said such sights were now rare.

In the book he links the decline with the growing use of pesticides on sheep and cattle. “If sheep or cattle are allowed to enter a river after treatment the entire invertebrate population can be wiped out for miles downstream,” he said.

and to diminishing populations of even the ‘weedier’ bird populations:

Robert Robinson, of the British Trust for Ornithology, said the intensification of farming, and the consequent loss of habitat and food sources, had been “catastrophic” for farmland birds.

Starlings and swallows, both insect eaters, are among the worst affected with populations down by two-thirds since the mid-1970s.

How do we react to news like this, and where – what experience – does this reaction stem from? What do we make of Norman Maclean’s (Silent Summer‘s editor and ’emeritus professor of genetics at Southampton University’, no less) statement that ‘The evidence is that we could be in the middle of the next great extinction of wildlife, both globally and in Britain’? Here are some of the rather conflicting reactions that flitted through my mind – see what you think:

  • That’s too bad for them (on the ‘outside’; in ‘the wilderness’)
  • What do I care about caterpillars and caddisflies? What services do they provide me?
  • Meh. This ‘wildlife’ is obviously not up to the challenge of Natural Selection. (Okay, I didn’t really think this one – but how many people do?)
  • These ivory tower scientists don’t know what they’re talking about. I saw two butterflies in my garden the other day!

  • What an impoverished world without birds and insects!
  • Could we live without them?
  • Would we even notice if they were gone (we certainly don’t spend a lot of time with them during office hours)
  • What has happened to us that the destruction of biodiversity – of all ‘non-essential’, non-human life – barely raises a shrug? Why isn’t this all over the front pages all of the time?
  • What a bunch of cold-hearted killers we’ve turned into!

People who get all of their food from agriculture, all their medicine from pharmaceutical industries, all their wonder and enjoyment in life through pixels on a screen: what reason do these people have to care about ‘wildlife’? How dearly will they fight to save (or ‘preserve’) it? I think part of the reason I’m able to move into the lower group of reactions above and find this news more acutely distressing is because I’ve started to move into a position where I actually depend upon the surrounding ecology (rather than upon its destruction† – something inherent to all – not just modern – farming, if you ask me) for my sustenance. Here’s my slogan: Eat the Wildlife: Save the Wildlife.

And for anyone who thinks ‘we’ don’t really need a diversity of lifeforms on this planet, here’s an analogy Daniel Quinn came up with which I hope you’ll find compelling:

We’re very like people living on the top floor of a high rise who every day set off two or three explosions in the lower floors of the building, weakening and even demolishing walls. Still–so far–the building stands, and the top floor where we live continues to sit on top. But if we continue to set off two or three explosions a day in the lower floors, then eventually and inevitably, one of these explosions is going to create a critical weakness–a weakness that combines dynamically with all the other weaknesses to bring the building crashing down.

We can say, “Yes, it’s true that we drive a couple hundred species to extinction every day, but there are tens of millions–hundreds of millions–between us and catastrophe.” We can SAY this, but the sheer number is no guarantee, because like the random bombers in the high rise, there’s no way of telling which extinction will be the one that suddenly combines dynamically with thousands of others to bring the whole structure down. (link: ‘Technology And The Other War‘)


* – 150/day and 50% figure from Jared Diamond who discusses the topic most extensively in The Third Chimpanzee, 200/day comes via Daniel Quinn who has this to say about it. Of course, for now, these figures will most often be the subject of ‘controversy’ and denial (if they’re acknowledged at all) for the same reason that nobody knows that there have been over a million excess civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion/occupation – the dominant power interests always downplay the true extent of the damage they’ve caused. Especially when it comes to the Enemy; the Other Side, well … ‘We don’t do body counts’ as some murdering shitbag put it.

† – I think the ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ which has been decimating bee populations made headlines and penetrated public consciousness to a greater degree because, well, as the Wikipedia article puts it: ‘Colony collapse is economically significant because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by bees’. There you have the logic of farming: If it serves no ‘productive’ use, fuck it: it has no business being alive, stealing OUR valuable resources. Perhaps the RSPB can put a spin on the cuckoo, saying it’s valuable for nature tourism and thus worth saving. Either way it seems fairly clear which side is going to win (and which side is going to capitulate away into nothingness) in any contest between Nicholas Milton’s ‘environmental movement’ and ‘powerful farming lobby’. Well, ‘win’ in the short term at least…


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