Belfast Telegraph

Our wildlife is in peril and we’ll only miss it when it’s too late

By Michael McCarthy

Some truths are never voiced because they are virtually impossible to perceive. For example, I have never heard anyone declare how appallingly impoverished Britain's wildlife is.

That's not the subject of a national debate.

That's not even a national perception. In fact, I don't know if it's anybody's perception. But it's no less than the truth.

I have spent most of my life hearing time and again a peculiarly smug proposition, which is that “Our xxxx is the best in the world.”

Fill in the xs at your leisure from a long list: Civil Service, dinner-party conversation, breadth of heritage, movie technology, sense of humour. It's a statement which trips ever so comfortably off the tongue. But how would you like to be told: “Our wildlife is among the poorest in the world”?

But the fact remains that our wildlife today is but a mean, miserly fraction of what its true, “natural” level is. And we are blind to the fact. The reason is a curious one: every generation tends to take what it finds around it to be the norm.

American marine biologists have coined an evocative term for this: the shifting-baseline syndrome, first applied to the management of fish stocks.

You may think that the baseline, or natural state, of a stock is what it was at the start of your career, yet actually it may once have been very much greater.

And this applies across the natural world — to poppies, skylarks, tortoiseshell butterflies, of which your grandparents saw thousands, your parents saw hundreds, you saw dozens, and your children will see the odd one and never apprehend there is anything amiss. I have felt this for a long time, yet my sense of it was triggered anew last week when I found myself in the Mississippi delta, covering the BP oil spill.

The Louisiana marshes are swirling with life, graced with clouds of exotic herons and birds of prey, even at the side of the road, and I was put in mind of the wildlife showpieces of our own, and how little they had in comparison.

Louisiana is sub-tropical, of course, and species richness increases as you move towards the equator, so let's do a comparison in more temperate zones.

How many wild bird species do you think have been recorded in central London? About 65.

How many in Central Park in New York? More than 200.

Or we can bring it back to Europe. We have about 60 butterfly species in Britain; go to France and you will find 250.

This is partly geographical accident; since we are cut off at the end of Europe it is impossible for many species to replenish their populations from the continent. But why do we often seem to have so little of what we do have?

Three years ago, in a groundbreaking book, Silent Fields, the biologist Roger Lovegrove provided the answer. He revealed in detail how, for the best part of 400 years, an unremitting campaign of organised slaughter was waged against wildlife in Britain.

From the time of Henry VIII until the First World War, systematic killing on a scale unthinkable today, was directed at most of our familiar wild animals and many wild birds: badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, otters; green woodpeckers, jays, kingfishers, bullfinches. Millions were slaughtered, first, by country people, from about 1530 to 1800, to claim bounties under the Tudor vermin laws, and second, by gamekeepers controlling predators on aristocratic shooting estates, from about 1800 to 1914.

Besides “thinning out” wildlife everywhere, this drove to the edge of the abyss, and to the remote corners of the land, a whole series of creatures which in Shakespeare's day were familiar to everyone in the countryside: polecat, pine marten, wild cat, hen harrier, red kite. We have never recovered; and since the arrival of intensive farming 40 years ago the situation has only worsened. Half the birds in the fields of England have disappeared since the Beatles broke up.

Britain's wildlife is one of our dearest assets and a balm for our souls, but it is very far from what it ought to be, and its impoverished nature seems to me now to be its most striking attribute.

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