Ralph Underhill writes: I passionately believe that the planning system needs to do more for wildlife, particularly areas that currently have no protection. However, I do not think “Biodiversity Offsetting” is the right mechanism, even if existing proposals aren’t too bad it is the principle and precedent setting that we should really be worried about. Given the track record of government do we really think that once such a precedent is in place that it will stop there? I feel this is naive and that it will only be a matter of time until the same principle is used to justify damage those sites and species that are protected.
Seven organisations took up the Minox challenge on this blog; they each wrote a Guest Blog on why they should get your support. All made their cases strongly and clearly.
Here are the links to the individual blogs:
In a few days, probably next week, and probably on eBay, I will auction the pair of Minox 10x43HD binoculars donated by MinoxUK and the proceeds will go to the charity that you, the readers of this blog, select.
Who gets your vote? Voting closes on Sunday evening.
Matt Williams is a conservationist and photographer. He is spending 2013-14 working in Indonesian Borneo for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project. Matt is also an ambassador for the A Focus on Nature project, and a freelance writer for the Good Men Project and The Ecologist online. Starting his conservation career early, he has been a member of the RSPBsince the age of five. Follow him @mattadamw and find more of his work at mattadamwilliams.co.uk.
Whether you vote or not, go birdwatching
In the recent spat between Russell Brand and Robert Webb about politics, voting and revolution, one key element seems to have been forgotten. What role is there for birdwatching?
By this I partly mean, will the post-revolution, empowered and engaged citizenry of tomorrow, who have thrown off the manacles of their fawning political overlords (never anything more than branded and packeted corporate puppets), still find the time to take up binoculars and dabble in a spot of twitching, in between collectivising local vegetable production and setting up new councils to manage the equitable redistribution of revenues from comedy shows?
But mostly I mean that birdwatching, that most understated and seemingly conservative of pastimes, is a deeply political act. I will argue this for three reasons.
First, in conversation a couple of years ago with a friend (who while interested in the environment frankly couldn’t tell her arctic tern from her albino robin) we came to a profound conclusion: birds are the ultimate anarchists.
As a very young child, I remember sitting on the end of my bed, looking out the window with my father, seeing a huge bird flying away. I was told that this was a heron. My mind boggled. As a four year old my entire life was, in a sense, decided for me. I was got up, washed, dressed, fed, read stories and put to bed by other, larger people. This huge bird, on the other hand, could fly around without a single person telling it where to go and when to do so. This is perhaps why birds have, in so many cases, become symbols of freedom.
They are also ubiquitous: if I ask you to go outside and show me the first living creature you can find, chances are the easiest thing to do is to look up and show me a bird.
No politician, corporation or individual tells a bird when and where to fly. Their freedom is, symbolically at least, absolute and inspirational. While this is perhaps an inaccurate way to think of human existence, it does at least offer some motivation to take advantage of the opportunities we do have, even if for many these are restricted by outside factors.
The second and third reasons why birdwatching strikes me as deeply political are two sides of the same coin. Let us begin by considering it as escapism. Now, I am always watching for birds, from the moment I wake to the moment I sleep. I even dream of birds more frequently than is probably healthy but that’s a story for a therapist one day.
But to truly go ‘birdwatching’ involves leaving urban settings behind, or at least seeking out their greener corners. It means recognising the artificiality of our towns and cities and getting back to something to which people are more fundamentally connected: nature.
Finally, birdwatching is also deeply political for the exact opposite reason: it draws us into the politics of the day. By going birdwatching unashamed of the stigma or stereotypes that are attached (anoraks, moustaches, long telescopes, many of which are giant sandcastles of fallacies built on a minuscule grain of truth), each of us is, silently, saying something important:
We value the natural world. Our existence would be diminished, the edges of our world imperceptibly and yet undeniably shrunk inwards by damage to nature. For example, if the purr of the fast-disappearing turtle dove ceases to grace the UK’s shores, I will, for perhaps more than a moment, pause to mourn.
Economies may demand endless growth, politicians may decry the legislation which protects our green spaces at the expense of development, but there’s something wrong with that. In birdwatching is something that nature provides for free, that we love and cherish and want to see protected. Take your rainforest-devouring over-consumption, your climate-warping fossil fuels, your intensive, chemical-rich, unsustainable, subsidy-dependent farming and find better ways to do things that don’t threaten nature and its creatures.
Indeed, the late nineteenth century origins of the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection for Birds are in the political acts of the women who rose up against the fashion industry’s unsustainable reliance on feathers. The US Audubon Society fought the same cause on the other side of the Atlantic in the early 20th century. To this day such organisations’ stock in trade is being the fly in the ointment for Governments and businesses that think they can ride roughshod over the natural environment.
Birdwatchers are part of an esteemed political history. Every time we take up binoculars we are making a political statement. So whether you side with Robert Webb or with Russell Brand, whether you choose to vote or not, go birdwatching.
Miles King has been causing trouble in nature conservation for over 25 years and is currently Senior Ecologist at Footprint Ecology. He has been variously, head of conservation at Plantlife, The Grasslands Trust and Buglife. At other times Miles has worked for English Nature, Natural England, Dorset AONB and as a freelance conservationist. Miles lives in Dorset with his family.
We are living in the age of Can Do. We haved moved on from “I think therefore I am”, and now we are “I do because I can”. Smart phones are a good example. Not so long ago, people on trains or the tube would read the paper, listen to music on their walkmans, read a book or stare at their feet. Now most of them play games, listen to music, read the paper, stare into space, all on their smart phones (or tablets). Not because it is a better thing to do, but because they can. It’s the path of least resistance.
The same is true of our relationship with the rest of nature. We used to depend utterly on nature in a real and very direct way – if we didn’t gather wild plants and hunt wild animals we starved. We muddled along before and after the Neolithic, learning to live with the nature we could live with (domestication); avoiding the nature we couldn’t live with – with varying success – and cursing the nature that created problems for us. Weeds, that were originally wild food, became things that prevented us growing better crops; predators that once threatened to eat us, became demonised and/or worshipped, but still ate our livestock. Disease took our children, crops and livestock – and we created gods to channel our grief, assuage us and allowed us to express our desires to control that which we could not. We made sacrifices, precisely because we could not afford to, of our children, animals, harvest, and material goods, in the hope we could appease the deities we had created, to avoid further loss or perhaps to provide favour. Providence held sway in our minds.
It wasn’t all bad. We also gloried and wondered at nature and its beauty (when we weren’t cursing it) and created deities to explain the inexplicable pleasure and wisdom nature provided us. That relationship with nature also created music, art, dance, poetry and epic stories to encapsulate that glory, pleasure and pain and to provide explanations for the inexplicable. What we know from that which has survived from eg Palaeolithic art (like my favourite, the spotty horses of Peche Merle) indicates this relationship has been there for over 30,000 years, possibly far longer.
That relationship has gradually changed. The changes started at a pace we would now think of as glacial. It’s difficult to know just how far back, though Palaeolithic peoples were already managing drylands by fire 50,000 years ago (and previous species of Homo used fire many millennia further back). Even in the UK only a few short steps after recolonising the land after the Ice, the first tentative efforts to manage the land included the creation of hunting grounds by burning areas of upland heath that were already partly open, to encourage prey animals to visit or improve sight-lines for missile-based hunting. Before cereal crops arrived with the Neolithic, there is evidence we were already increasing the production of key wild plant resources, favouring hazel growth over other understorey shrubs in the Holocene forest.
The Neolithic certainly speeded things up. Though there were plenty of setbacks along the way; and with each ebb and flow as civilisation rose and fell, techniques were developed then lost, then returned. By the enlightenment there was a clear philosophical (and theological) basis to “improve” the land, to break out of the Malthusian trap of development, overpopulation, starvation and decline. With each technological improvement, the relationship between us and nature (not a balance but a dynamic interplay) has shifted incrementally in our direction. What, for example, did the shift from the Ox to Horse power in the 18th century do, for our heaths, woods, cereal fields and grasslands? What did the introduction of gunpowder to Europe from China do for our effectiveness at hunting down and finally exterminating those denizens of our Palaeolithic nightmares, the Wolves.
Fast forward to the 20th Century where on land the creation of potent agrochemicals combines with the shift from horse to Tractor; and at sea, sailing trawler gives way to steam trawler then diesel trawler in a historical eye blink; monofilament plastic replaces hand woven fabric nets and horsetail, silk or linen lines.
After all those centuries of having to make do, of toiling to grow more crop than weed, of watching cattle die of the mysterious Murrain, of making sacrifices to appease the gods, of losing fishermen to storms and watching woven-grass nets disintegrate: Now we are in charge! We have reached that sunlit plateau, we have the dominion over nature the Bible (other religions are available) has taught us is our birthright.
We can choose to evict nature from “our” spaces, and increasingly all spaces. We don’t have to accommodate wild flowers in our meadows – we can create meadows and pastures of pure grass, full of the nutrients we know produce more meat, more milk, faster and cheaper. We don’t have to bother with wild trees in forests, we can produce pine rapidly and cheaply, in neat rows that are easy to harvest. We can forget about all those pesky weeds (many of which started out as our wild harvest remember) in our crops and focus on producing more of the plants with the highest levels of energy. We will not go hungry or die from devastating infections like our forebears did.
In our gardens we can choose whether we want dandelions and daisies in our lawn, or not. We quickly chose not to harbour parasites in and on our bodies (no surprise there) and we can consign many infectious diseases to the history books if we choose to: Smallpox is already consigned to a Level 5 biosecurity facility or two – Polio will be next.
For some elements of nature, such as Smallpox, we have deliberately chosen to eradicate this species. The same is true of those elements we call diseases of livestock and crops. But in the totality of nature, these are an infinitesimally small proportion of the lost or disappearing species. The others are just collateral damage to a greater or lesser extent. There is no conspiracy to exterminate nature, we just do because we can.
Farmers can choose whether to have wildflower meadows or not. Not surprisingly they choose not to – And 98% of all the meadows that existed just 75 years ago, when they did not have that choice, have gone. Fisherman can now choose whether or not to remove all the fish from the sea. Not surprisingly they choose to do so; not because they actively want to see the seas devoid of fish, but because it provides them with a living. They can and therefore they do.
I think this can-do approach is leading fairly rapidly to the end of an age; the age of the semi-natural, when human endeavour combined with nature to create post wilderness landscapes and seascapes. The habitats and communities of species that co-existed in this semi-natural realm were mostly derived from what went before; and would re-emerge in slightly less tangible form with each civilisational collapse, plague, war or agricultural depression. Such post-war “wildernesses” have emerged in Europe, as described in George Monbiot’s book and this essay. How long they will survive is anybody’s guess, but history would indicate their all too temporary nature.
This semi-natural age was not some Romantic ideal of harmony, more like a long battle front, some places seeing little action, others with skirmishes and occasional full-scale battles along the way. The semi-natural age, that has lasted, 15000, 30,000, perhaps 70,000 years is coming to an end. We can now choose which of nature to retain – for example we can create a cacophony of different versions of the ancient Denizen Canis Lupus, from forms which help us protect our stock against their wild cousins, down to infantilisms like the tiniest Chihuahua – how about that as a testament of our Success? Or we can choose to re-create a modern version of the pre semi-natural Pleistocene age, perhaps re-engineering a few extinct megafauna, like the Straight-tusked Elephant or the Glyptodont. We can do what we like. Or at least we think we can….
Where does that leave nature conservation? What are we trying to conserve and why? We are certainly trying to conserve the last vestiges of the semi-natural, or at least its most recent incarnations – perhaps to assuage our guilt at what we now know we have done. We try and conserve farmland birds, even though they have been engineered out of the system. Just like the farmland birds, desperately seeking some place vaguely reminiscent of the niches they occupied just 50 years ago, our meadow flowers have already found there is nowhere to go; maybe the odd churchyard, or road verge, but mostly now just living in the leaky-lifeboats we call nature reserves and protected areas. I say leaky lifeboats because they are all too small to sustain populations of any but the most mobile and adaptive; they gradually leak the more demanding species away. Extinction debt is I think one of the most powerful concepts to arise for nature conservation in recent years. Climate Change is magnifying its impact.
So we grasp at straws such as landscape-scale conservation. Yes there are success stories (butterflies), but mostly we talk aspirationally and airily. We believe that through the power of persuasion and with the Righteousness of the enlightened, we can turn back this tide and that, magically, farmers and other landowners will willingly reduce their income and output, fighting against every sinew in their body and soul (helped by their High Priests in the NFU and CLA) telling them to produce more. In truth Society offers scant compensation for these losses, through Agri-Environment Schemes for example (another sacrificial offering?), and offering badges of honour. Wealthy landowners who have excellent cashflow and the motivation of long-standing paternalism, are happy to make sacrifices of production to see nature return, albeit temporarily and on their terms. But watch them take the lion’s share of those compensation payments, divvied up with the conservation charities which campaigned so vociferously for their creation “to support hard-up farmers to protect nature”.
Is it wrong of nature conservation to wish to conserve the semi-natural? Or course not. Apart from anything else that is what we have, and why would we not want to try and protect and cherish things of great beauty and wonder, things that provide meaning to so many of us? To criticise nature conservation for trying to conserve the semi-natural is like criticizing an apple for not being an orange. We all live in this age where nature, other than the domestic and their close companions the adaptive, is ebbing away, being forced into ever darker and smaller corners. And we do what we can to slow down the process, perhaps occasionally achieve a small reversal. Arguably what’s left of the semi-natural are indeed museum pieces – but is that really a pejorative? Museums, libraries and their ilk are essential repositories of culture and collective memory; they can teach us so much about our past and help us influence our future for the better.
We are starting to appreciate that nature provides our life support system and without it we will perish. Ecosystem Services are fashionable and the other neoliberal market-based approaches to valuing nature are modish now, but they are a side show. It really doesn’t matter how much something is worth economically, if you’re not there to realise its value. You can’t take it with you, either as an individual or as a species. Until we change our attitude to nature, as individuals, societies and as a species, we will continue down the road to a point where our extinction debt is called in.
Make Buglife part of Yourlife
Assumption – you think wildlife is worth conserving. If not, don’t carry on reading this blog. If you think that bumblebees, grasshoppers, beetles, snails or other little animals are amazing and fantastic, or if you understand that they are essential to ecosystems and us (e.g. pollination = £510 million worth of agricultural produce), or if you think it is morally wrong to drive other species to extinction please carry on reading.
What is wildlife worth to you?
Last year the UK governments spent £12.75 on your behalf to protect your environment, some of this was spent conserving wildlife and its habitats. To put this in perspective they spent on your (and each and every individual’s) behalf £420 on military defence and £1,616 on the National Health Service.
You may believe that the Government should pay for the protection of our natural wealth; you may believe that individuals and businesses should pay directly for the protection of natural wealth; but, in keeping with our mid-Atlantic attitudes towards Government, you probably believe that both society and government have a role in conserving wildlife. Where are you on the scale?
Government as environmental mother
If you are towards the ‘state as the environmental mother’ end of the scale then you should be pretty despondent. Defra budgets dropped by a quarter between 2009 and 2014, despite the fact that 94% of the British public believe that it is important that people respect and preserve the environment, and the response from Government to this year’s ‘State of Nature’ report showing that 60% of species are in decline has been almost non-existent (perhaps with the exception of the Welsh Assembly which seems genuinely concerned).
If you want government to invest more to ensure that other British species survive and thrive, or to support the ecosystem services that enable us to survive and thrive, you will be waiting a long time. We have a Chancellor who blames the environment for our economic problems and appears not to understand that the economy is rooted in a healthy environment. The Treasury proudly boasts about setting up the Natural Capital Committee to oversee work that will eventually put the environment on to the balance sheet, however the same Treasury then does not even bother to send a representative to attend the House of Commons debate on the Committee’s first report. You may have missed it but the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK Government gave a passionate speech on the importance of the environment last Thursday [http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2013/11/07/nick-clegg-environment-speech-in-full]. 95% of the public are probably unaware of the speech and none of the other political parties even bothered to respond – indications of ominous portent.
Just at the point when the environment most needs political leadership it has deserted her. However, while we may desire leadership from politicians, experience shows that they will follow when public attitudes change.
Those attitudes will change when enough people come together and show that they care. Your answer to the current political intransigence is to join and support NGOs that will take your concerns to the politicians and ensure that the needs of wildlife are more heard and respected. The proportion of individual giving going to environmental causes has dropped, from 3% in 2006/7 to 2% in 2011/12, despite this between 2005 and 2010 environmental NGOs saw strong income growth, an average of 21% in real terms. Before you get despondent remember as Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
‘Civic duty is the answer’
If you have no faith in government to deliver solutions and believe that society must take responsibility, there really is little need to discuss further, you know that to deliver a healthier environment rich in wildlife you have to take action with others to achieve this.
Buglife and other charities deliver outcomes for wildlife on the ground as well as campaign for politicians to take responsibility. You are probably already a member of several wildlife NGOs.
Why join Buglife?
Buglife started its world changing mission in 2002, the first European champion for the conservation of all invertebrates, from bees to earthworms and spiders to jellyfish – bugs as they are more colloquially called. Buglife has become the focus point for efforts to save bug species from extinction and to halt the general decline in bug populations.
Buglife is responsible for speaking out on behalf 40,000 species 64% of all UK species.
Buglife has a sound and proud track record of delivery and have been a dedicated and sometimes determined advocate on behalf of bugs we:-
- created and promoted advice on habitat management for bugs;
- tackled the conservation of neglected habitats such as soft rock cliffs, freshwater ditches and high quality brownfield sites – habitats essential for many bug species, but lacking more obviously glamorous flowery or bony flagship species;
- created new invertebrate habitats on a range of sites, including a number of roofs in London;
- led campaigns to restrict the use of deadly insecticides destroying aquatic life and bees – first cypermethrin sheep dip, now neonicotinoids,
- saved many sites from destruction and have taken high profile legal action in desperate circumstances to save the homes of highly endangered species from inappropriate development.
Buglife’s most significant impact to-date has been the increase achieved in public awareness of invertebrate conservation issues. Awareness of issues such as pollinator decline and environmentally damaging pesticides are now vastly higher than when Buglife was established. Buglife has also become a positive voice for some of the least loved invertebrates, such as wasps and spiders, and invertebrate habitats, helping to counterbalance myth, fear and vested interests and emphasising the important ecological roles bugs undertake.
Buglife developed concepts such as B-Lines and ‘Get Britain Buzzing’ promise, with adequate support from society, to put back large areas rich in wild flowers, reversing the decline of pollinators and other wildlife.
The problems facing invertebrates remain considerable, but Buglife has many solutions to contribute and even more to develop in the future.
Buglife makes a big noise on behalf of the little things that run the planet, we innovate and highlight emerging issues under the radar of other charities.
If you want to be part of our success and enable us to provide even more support for the species that are disappearing fastest from Britain please go to http://www.buglife.org.uk/joinus and become part of our life.
You and I both know that the natural world is of immense value. Anyone who has watched the sun rise over a Caledonian pine forest, or who has been enthralled by the acrobatics of a tern will know that nature is amazing in its variety and inspiring in a multitude of ways – from the high peaks to the deepest oceans and from the most remote wilderness to our city streets.
This is fundamental to what The Wildlife Trusts do. We are motivated by that personal emotional connection to the natural world. The 650 trustees, 40,000 volunteers, 800,000 members and 2,000+ staff of Wildlife Trusts across the UK value the natural world – and particularly its wildlife – because it is self-evidently great. We love it just because it is there. And we believe there should be more of it.
The Wildlife Trusts want to help nature to recover from the decline that for decades has been the staple diet of scientific studies and news stories. We believe passionately that wildlife and natural processes need to have space to thrive, beyond designated nature reserves and other protected sites. To achieve this it is vital that the richest wildlife sites are protected and sustained as a starting point from which nature can spread back into our wider landscapes. And at sea we must also protect areas as focal points for a future when our marine wildlife can thrive.
Society needs this as much as our wildlife does. A healthy natural environment is the foundation for everything that is of value to people – food, water, shelter, flood prevention, health, happiness and creative inspiration. It’s the source of our prosperity and our wellbeing.
Of course, others share our commitment and care about our cause, so what is it about The Wildlife Trusts that is of such fundamental importance to nature’s recovery?
I cannot, hand on heart, say that The Wildlife Trusts are perfect. Trusts vary from place to place and time to time. But this diversity lies at the heart of why and how Wildlife Trusts bring so much good to the world. Our work comes out of, and is accountable to, the local communities we are part of.
We stand up for, and look after, natural places close to where people live. We manage more than 95,000ha of land, across about 2,300 individual locations, each shaped by its location and its relationship with the local people who value it. In a very real sense, these are your places, and your Wildlife Trust helps you to look after them.
Every year, more than 7 million people visit our nature reserves, but we’re not just about land management. We run over 11,000 events a year, helping more than 380,000 people connect with nature in their local patch. We work with about 5,200 schools and welcome people to more than 120 centres. Through our work, we advise more than 5,300 landowners on how to manage over 200,000ha of land for wildlife.
I could go on at length about the numbers of people who benefit from the work of The Wildlife Trusts each year: nature therapy projects to improve mental health; urban regeneration programmes to bring more nature into disadvantaged housing estates; arts projects; natural gyms; after-school clubs; Forest Schools and marine wildlife surveys. In short, we stand for all wildlife, everywhere. And we work with local communities to help them to achieve natural environments rich in wildlife where they live and work – wherever that may be.
And why is this of such value to the world? It comes down to this: Yes: we share common cause with many others; we recognise the scale of the challenge needed to reverse the declines in wildlife. We have for many years put out the message of hope that nature can recover on a grand scale if we do things right – we must achieve Living Landscapes and Living Seas for our treasured wildlife to have a lasting and rich future. We recognise the fundamental reliance of human life on a healthy natural environment.
But for all this, there really is no point creating Living Landscapes or achieving Living Seas unless wider society values them. Not only for their intrinsic value but also because they provide us with good health, personal fulfilment, employment and all the other things that nature does for us. Only then will it become the accepted norm that we don’t diminish nature for short-term gain and that we regularly invest money, effort and emotional commitment into sustaining our environment.
This sort of change can only be achieved from the bottom up: by real people working together within real communities, in real places, to take practical action, to demonstrate what can be done. With 47 boards of trustees – each drawn from within their local communities – Wildlife Trusts have the presence in local places and communities to help local visions and values for nature to be shaped and to support local people in bringing them to life.
The Wildlife Trusts may not be the loudest organisation in the pack. We don’t try to be. We are not afraid to state our views. But we always look for purpose. In the same way that we work with people on the ground to achieve change, this is how we work in Westminster and Whitehall. We led the campaign for the Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009 and to save Lyme Bay; we inspired the Lawton Review and the recent Natural Environment White Paper. In the devolved nations we have been similarly influential. We may not always be recognised for everything that we continue to achieve quietly up and down the land, day in and day out but we are ideally placed to provide a real foundation to nature’s recovery, to enable people to understand why nature matters to them and inspire and support them to take action for it.
See wildlifetrusts.org for much more.
Bins are central to the way a birder views the world – literally and metaphorically. I remember the thrill when I first acquired my pair of ‘Dialyts’ (on joining RSPB staff). But the symbolism of binoculars risks becoming a deterrent to those who think enjoying birds and other wildlife is the exclusive pursuit of a club to which they do not belong. I have a sneaking suspicion that, through convergent evolution, I have a growing resemblance to the birder stereotype – of a bearded (well nearly!), middle-aged men peering out of a wooden box through a pair of binoculars! Birds and nature are in too much trouble for us to alienate support from people who care – we have to evolve how we communicate our conservation message.
Binoculars have also evolved. Nowadays, there are a wide range of high performance products (including, I am proud to say, RSPB’s own label range). Bins now also provide a window onto a wider range of wildlife, from close focus on a tricky butterfly or fast-moving dragonfly, to high light gathering for bats and other nocturnal mammals.
And, birds and birders will always be central to the cause, as we broaden the nature conservation movement and become even more inclusive. We are finding new ways of making clear the wider benefits of our conservation work and its relevance to people where they are. This is at the heart of our Giving Nature a Home strategy.
Of course our work has always benefited all taxa – directly and indirectly – including species you don’t need binoculars to identify – indeed a microscope might be more appropriate for some of them. And our Saving Nature strategy to 2020 is very much a collaborative effort.
We reached a very important moment in the history of environmental conservation this year with the publication of the vital report State of Nature. It has brought together the expertise of a new and unique partnership, comprising 25 UK research and conservation organisations. Together, we hold an immense breadth and depth of knowledge, combined for the first time in a document that received tremendous publicity around its simultaneous launch in four major UK cities. It is a statement of intent that no one can afford to ignore.
State of Nature has been produced to make sure we are all proceeding with an accurate sense of the challenges and priorities ahead. Along with our partners we gathered – for the first time – the best data on the status of species in the UK and its Overseas Territories (UKOTs) to assess the overall health of nature, which of course has direct implications for the current and future well-being of humanity. Indeed the RSPB’s current appeal is raising much-needed funding for UKOTs – a woefully under-resourced area of UK responsibility.
We know that 60% of the species for which data are available have declined over recent decades, 31% strongly so. Nature is in a profound state of flux. Over one in ten of the species assessed are threatened with extinction in the UK. All this reinforces the conclusions reached in 2010 that nature is continuing to decline. The pressures on the natural world are growing. However – and worryingly – our response to the biodiversity crisis is actually slowing.
The State of Nature audit has been a wake-up call for all of us. We know that we all need to do more to inspire moral, political and practical support for nature conservation. The report, produced in this time of austerity, is helping to stimulate a public debate about what we need to do to live in harmony with nature and to ensure its and our own future.
What is also clear is that to meet the challenges ahead we need to find new and greater resources – financial, volunteer and other forms of support. We are also embarking on a concerted effort to reconnect children with the natural world outside. Everyone, in whatever way they can, needs to buy in. We need more ‘Minox challenges’! (Thank you, Mark!)
We are very proud that so many organisations joined forces with us on Saving Nature and the Wild Network I know we are all determined to make a real difference for the fortunes of UK wildlife.
So, thank you again Mark for offering to donate the proceeds of this auction towards the challenges we face. Whichever organisation receives this valuable funding, I am confident they will use the money well.
Iris Murdoch once wrote ‘people from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.’ I couldn’t put it better myself but I have a feeling that Mark is looking for a few more words so I’ll soldier on.
This is a discerning audience, so I’m not going to bang on about plants (and fungi) being the foundation of all life (though they are) and that if you really want to help birds, bees and butterflies a step in the right direction would be to get their habitats (yes, plants) in good shape. I’m going to write a little bit about how plants fill us with joy. And if you want to bring a bit of joy into yours and your family’s life as we approach the season of joy… then why not vote for Plantlife?
When cultures around the world try to conjure up an idea of a place of perfect bliss it is often based on the notion of an abundance of plants and flowers – the Elysian Fields of Ancient Greece or the Garden of Eden perhaps. That is, to be in a landscape that is abundant with living, growing, green and flowering things is our idea of heaven. So, perhaps Plantlife is all about a little bit of heaven on earth…
We bring flowers into our homes, real ones, silk ones, illustrated ones on our wallpaper, curtains, rugs, chairs, cushions, pictures and greeting cards. We have the moving legacy of their names – traveller’s joy, herb robert, summer ladies tresses, cuckooflower, lamb’s succory, cowslip and Venus’s looking-glass – demonstrating an intimacy with wild flowers that many might think we have long lost. Plantlife is just coming to the end of a rather remarkable project called ‘Patchwork Meadow’ where we asked the public to create a patchwork square for any native plant which would go towards making our ‘meadow’. We were moved by the notes that came in with the squares: mistletoe in memory of a beloved father who always used to cut it from the apple tree in the garden, scarlet pimpernel after the elusive literary hero, dog rose and honeysuckle for love, clan plants like bracken and bulrush proudly recreated, and buttercups, daisies and rosehips from childhood. It is a profoundly important relationship.
And, today of all days, what is the iconic symbol of remembrance? Whether the poppy for Britain or the cornflower for France, it is a wild flower that we choose to speak for us. Perhaps you’d like to speak for them today?
And remember us as you kiss under the mistletoe. Joy, you see…
But if you are more practically minded, here’s something from the Guardian. “The vegetable world is the economy’s primary producer: photosynthetic cells capture a proportion of the sun’s radiant energy and from that silent, diurnal act comes everything we have: air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, fibres to wear, medicines to take, timber for shelter, fuel for bonfires and even stakes for stakeholders.” Magic.
Small is beautiful.
I’ve now stopped introducing the BTO as a ‘small’ organisation. With 120 staff, an annual turnover of £5m, 17500 members and around 40,000 wonderful volunteers whose birdwatching creates our data, the numbers speak for themselves. Of course we are small when you compare us to the mighty RSPB, the ubiquitous Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust’s public heritage. But then those comparisons are with mainstream conservation organisations, and the regular author of this blog doesn’t think we are one. So what do I think about why BTO does what it does, and why do we need more of the public’s support?
The beautiful thing about the BTO is purity of purpose. Our contribution is to provide decision-makers, opinion formers and society with information. And we do this without fear or favour, as an independent and impartial scientific evidence provider. Why do I think this is pure? Because the science stands on its own, results speak for themselves, and we can tell it like it is. In a way we don’t have to worry about the impact of our contribution, we don’t feel the need to over emphasise to make a point, to hold things back, or to serve our own needs. The other aspect of purity of purpose belongs to our fabulous volunteers. They only make their bird-watching (and increasingly their other natural history activities) count because they want to. It’s a gift.
Let me get back to the ‘why’. Data needs a purpose, and what our volunteers often say is that they expect BTO to use their data wisely, and for the benefit of nature conservation. And that’s why, even as an impartial evidence provider, I disagree with Mark, and say that BTO is a conservation organisation, and that our contribution is evidence on which the conservation delivery bodies base a lot of what they do. When I was in English Nature looking after England’s Protected Areas a decade or more ago, and a witness in the major Public Inquiry at Dibden Bay, it was birdwatchers’ records curated and presented by BTO that we relied upon as evidence to stop a potentially damaging development in its tracks. Cool, eh! Volunteers who, day in day out, record the birds they see can, through their partnership with BTO, have a profound effect on conservation.
So, why do we need more public support to ensure our contribution remains strong and relevant? In ten days time, BTO is publishing Bird Atlas 2007-11, the culmination of nearly ten years of work: beautiful artwork, striking images, intriguing maps, and informative and intelligent writing. In a way, the book is just the start rather than the finish of the work. Atlases have a habit of telling us things we didn’t already know, or at least providing real evidence and pointers about the issue we need to address. The farmland bird story, spawned by the first BTO Atlas in the 1970’s, is a prime example. This time around, BTO has prepared for a decade’s research to follow the publication of Atlas results. Rob Fuller, Simon Gillings and our BirdWatch Ireland partners, set the scene in the chapter on Pattern and change in the British and Irish Avifaunas over a 40 year period. It’s absolutely fascinating. You’d think BTO scientists would know everything an Atlas will confirm through results from many millions of records. But we have been surprised too! The loss of some species down the western seaboard of Britain such as Green Woodpecker and Yellowhammer is mysterious, the surprisingly frequent pattern of species such as Cuckoo, House Martin and Lesser Redpoll showing losses in the SE and gains in the NW, and the different colonisation patterns of non-native waterfowl, are informative.
It seems relatively straightforward to engage thousands of citizen scientists in collecting data, and attracting the funding to make that happen. Birders love Atlas-ing – maybe its the prospect of finding a singing summer Quail on your local patch, or investigating a new area and discovering inland Snow Buntings in winter. In order to turn these results into game-changing research, BTO would like to find an equivalent level of support for the research strategy. While scientific research relies on private, corporate and Government research funds, I would argue it is the public’s support that is equally crucial. And we know from Cuckoos emerging from the Congo and enabling us to see “spring coming from 4000 miles away” how we can touch peoples’ hearts with stories of our scientific research. I hope the engaging stories from this fascinating book, will ignite the public’s support, and they vote with their praise and their pockets – Atlas research relies on it!
If you were a traveller, holiday-maker or whale watching enthusiast in the mid 90’s you may have been among the hundreds of thousands of people who travelled across the Bay of Biscay on board P&O’s flagship ferry service ‘The Pride of Bilbao’. The ‘Billy’ as she was fondly known forged her way from Portsmouth to Bilbao every week all year round until the service closed in 2010.
On board were representatives of an enthusiastic young group who sailed under the flag of the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme or BDRP for short.
Biscay, as we know is an important and exciting area for cetaceans. Its deep canyons attract many different species including sperm, fin and pilot whales as well as rarities such as Cuvier’s beaked whale.
BDRP not only surveyed these routes for 15 years but ran an on-going education and training programme on board. Over the period BDRP delivered talks and educational activities to 30,000 people and around 500,000 made use of the deck displays and guided viewing opportunities.
In 2005 BDRP transformed into MARINElife and confirmed a new mission to conserve marine wildlife through research and education.
MARINElife in its raw form is a grass roots volunteer organisation which has over the years grown into a science based group working on a variety of cetacean and seabird projects.
Our ‘BIG’ project is to help transform our knowledge of cetacean distribution and populations in north Atlantic waters and to monitor changes over time.
Our contribution has been focussed on the 14 ferry survey routes we now operate from, local projects in Lyme Bay and off the coast of Northumberland and through the Atlantic Research Coalition (ARC) a highly active partnership of 10 European based cetacean groups.
Lyme Bay has been a case in point to show that our seas, even those close to our coastline have much new to reveal. A quick look at the JNCC distribution data from the mid 90’s shows only a small number of sightings of White-beaked dolphin in the Channel yet our own studies since 2007 have shown a population of some 150-200 animals in a localised area in western Lyme Bay. This southernmost population in Europe shows a high degree of site fidelity with some 97% of sightings occurring in an area of 800 km².
WDC recently reported a new population of Risso’s dolphin off Bardsey Island in north Wales and CEFAS have reported from their research vessel up to 50 fin whales travelling through the southern Irish Sea at one time.
All this is new and important data, which needs taking into account within MPA programmes and regional marine management planning.
It also hi-lights the difficulty of monitoring marine mammals. Not only is it an expensive process to put boats out to sea but season, weather and lack of physical boundaries can mean that a single trip can reveal no useful data at all.
The benefit of ferry based surveys are therefore obvious. Apart from the cost savings of boat charter (due to the generosity of the sponsoring ferry companies), repeat surveys can be made regularly over many years, over the same routes.
From a scientific perspective whilst there are challenges with this type of survey and data validation they can give a very accurate localised picture which potentially can be extrapolated to larger ocean areas.
Along with our ARC partners we are working to create a standardised survey method and validation process which can be used by all members. The potential benefit here is enormous as it will provide a database of cetacean records and mapping from 10 European groups and which will provide us with significantly more leverage when it comes to representing their status, prioritising action and influencing policy both at a national and European level.
MARINElife has always needed the public’s support.
On the ‘Billy’ we raised all the funds we needed to keep our work going. The public saw value in what we offered and although that particular ship and route has passed it was the primer for an expanded organisation with the same values but with a growing portfolio of ferry routes.
Today we are training some 200 new surveyors each year and we are working to utilise their skills in new ways, develop new opportunities and above all realise conservation goals.
In Lyme Bay we have now submitted our scientific report to DEFRA to propose a new MCZ based on our White-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise and bottlenose dolphin data supported by the data which highlights the important seabird populations in this area including the hundreds of internationally endangered Balearic Shearwater which pass through each summer.
Of course, the issues around MCZ’s are numerous and other designations may be relevant too. However, raising the profile of the area is essential particularly as there is a general move to bring planning processes to coastal waters.
By its very nature successful marine conservation needs many partnerships. Planet Whale reported in 2010 that there were around 200 charities / non-profits dedicated to conservation of cetaceans on a worldwide basis and my own tally says there are at least 8 significant charities in the UK (and that excludes groups who have multiple interests).
MARINElife had the good fortune to be self-sustaining in its formative years. Our work programmes have been growing rapidly in the last three years and whilst a great deal of this work is carried out by volunteers we do need to invest in the science effort.
This year we were successful in raising funds for a 3 year post for a Conservation Science Manager, enabling us to develop our data systems, deliver on the important goals of ARC and engage more deeply in the MCZ and marine management planning processes.
Unrestricted funds are harder for a small research organisation like MARINElife to target but are needed to support the administration to keep our hundreds of volunteer surveyors out at sea.
Go on give your vote to MARINElife!