Wilder Britain

The past week has seen a lot of coverage of the environment and our impacts upon it. There has been the WWF report on extinction of vertebrates Living Planet Report 2108 which mirrors the decline in invertebrates noted in the tropics and Germany I linked in my recent post. Today the Meteorological Office report indicating climate change Met Office Climate Report has received much media coverage.

All of these reports are pointing in one direction, we need to get on with doing something about the state of our environment, our efforts so far have just not been enough to make any real difference. Some issues will only be properly tackled by action at national or international level, we can lobby to get policies changed, but we need to be acting more immediately if things are going to be improved or even if declines are to be halted.

So what is to be done? Can anything be done? The Wildlife Trusts have proposed that we should be seeking a “Wilder Britain”, Wilder Britain press release  essentially one in which we halt and then reverse the declines by establishing a nature recovery network. The objective is stated as follows: “The Wildlife Trusts believe in a future Britain where nature is a normal part of childhood and where wildlife thrives across the landscape. Where our urban spaces are green jungles and our seas are bursting with life. Where seeing a hedgehog is an every day experience.” The full document expands upon just how this might be achieved, Nature Recovery Network. 

A Wilder Britain, it is surely what we need,  it is now acknowledged that access to nature is really good for our mental health, we need access to nature. In addition an environment that is good for wildlife will be one that has low levels of pollutants, is varied, interesting and exciting. This is not a people or wildlife dichotomy, this is nature because we need it.

My worry is perhaps that we have been saying these kind of things for many years now without much effect. For example the value of larger, more connected areas for nature are now well recognised. However the research that demonstrated the truth of this was published in 1967 Theory of island bio-geography , it has taken over fifty years to break through to become mainstream thinking! If nature is to stand any chance of recovering, we probably don’t have fifty years to wait for the idea to take hold. If you are interested in a more accessible approach to the theory the excellent Song of the Dodo by David Quammen is a must read, brilliantly written and the kind of book that cannot but make you stop and think about where we are going.

In amongst the reserve reports you can expect to see more about these issues in future blogs, you have been warned!



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!