How Long to a Wilder Britain?

Despite the various attempts of some of the more struthian* (Struthio camellus – the Ostrich) of our leaders to ignore or deny it, there can be no doubt that the world is getting a less inhabitable place. The climate has warmed, some may doubt that humans have been the cause, but this is the scientific age and the evidence is clear. We have undoubtedly modified, by direct action, a great part of the surface of our plant and indirectly damaged the rest through carelessness. What is more the rate of these changes has been remarkable, in under 10,000 years we have effectively left our mark across the whole planet, modified most habitats and caused the extinction on a scale achieved only five times previously in the geological record. So why don’t conservationists give up?

At our recent staff meeting the question was asked if we were individually pessimists or optimists about the future of our wildlife. I found this quite a difficult question, I am not optimistic, but I refuse to give up, so I concluded that I was probably an optimistic pessimist, or perhaps a pessimistic optimist. Things are unquestionably looking bleak for our wildlife, in my lifetime it seems likely that the amount of wildlife in the UK has more than halved, this is a loss of individuals. Lots of species that once were common are now rare, or just much less common than they once were. This is most obvious and well recorded for birds which have been well surveyed over a long period. I was used to yellowhammer and turtle dove as the sound of the summer hedgerows, they were common birds. Some that I now rarely see were literally “Common or garden” species, the spotted flycather is one such.

It has long been suspected that insects too have been declining, but hard evidence has been harder to come by, but now this is changing. I have mentioned a recent study done on nature reserves in Germany before but I will copy a link to a newspaper report on it again Insect decline on German nature reserves

Perhaps this decline is not so surprising in Europe where we have highly modified our environment, fragmented it and plied it with pollutants and the various after effects of intensive agriculture and a generally casual approach to resource use. However it now seems that these effects are happening in the biodiversity hotspots of the tropics too see Climate-driven declines in tropical arthropods

It seems that the cause here is probably climate change rather than pollutants or habitat fragmentation. In truth we all now know full well that climate change is not a good thing, either for wildlife or for humans. It seems overwhelmingly that human activity is the  driver and that without a change in our behaviour it will run away to the greater detriment of all of us.

Obviously we should all do what we can to reduce our impacts upon the climate and so our wildlife and our fellow humans. Only the most remarkable about face by governments and ourselves is likely to have any effect as it seems increasingly unlikely that a scientific “quick-fix” is going to bail us out. The future is undoubtedly looking less than rosy!

So in the face of these seemingly impossible odds why don’t we give up? The immediate answer is that we know wildlife is good for our health, humans do best in a green world, particularly our mental health is better for being out in “Nature”. The more that survives now, the more that will be able to spread out into the wider countryside when we finally wake up to what we are doing and take steps to turn things around. This is why nature reserves matter, they can act as short term refuges for wildlife so that it can recolonise wider areas once they become more hospitable again.

If you want a long-term (and I do mean long-term) answer, it is because we know from palaeontology that, however large the extinction event we are living through, life will continue. We cannot guess just what will survive and where evolution will take it, but the more that survives now the wider the pool of options for the future.

So I am a pessimist for the immediate decades but an optimist for the deep future, when there will be life as yet unimagined, but determined by what survives today. That said I would obviously like a Wilder Britain starting now, building upon what we have in our nature reserves and other biodiversity rich places, so don’t expect to see me giving in anytime soon.

*I know, not a real word, but I just coined it!