Guest Blog – What life is this? by Colin Rees

100_0498Colin Rees is a life-long birder/natural scientist and has devoted his entire career to conservation. He was Head of the Environment Unit of the Asian Development Bank (in Manila) and founding member and President of the Haribon Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources, the largest NGO in the Philippines. In 1988, he joined the World Bank where he was Division Chief with the Environment Department working on biodiversity conservation issues in over 80 countries.

Since retirement, he has consulted for the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the African Development Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.


I was born in the 40’s and grew up in the Vale of Glamorgan, taking every advantage of its exceptional rich rolling countryside. I spent my days exploring woodlands, hills and dales, ponds and the nearby coast. Spring migration abounded with birds, and habitats teemed with wildlife. Many a time I got up at dawn to enjoy the air pulsating with hundreds of singing birds. I travelled throughout the UK and grew to appreciate the diversity of its animals and plants and soul-satisfying landscapes. If there were hints that some species were in decline, there were compensatory gains, the return of avocets being the most celebrated.

With this view fixed in my mind, in the early 60s I left for United States and then Asia, returning for short visits. From time to time, I caught news of wildlife in trouble and the increasingly strident warnings of the conservation community. But it is only now that I am back to live here and visiting old haunts do I fully realize how much has been lost. Strolls in woodlands and grasslands are devoid of butterflies, and birds encountered regularly in my youth are few. Sadly, the “dawn chorus” no longer deserves its name. In the 50’s my ‘local patch’ was a walk along the edge of a woodland and my old notebook informs me that almost 40 species contributed to the chorus, including lapwings, curlews, nightjars, cuckoos, marsh tits, greenfinches and the like. It is very different now; just a few common birds sing in the hedgerows and the fields are devoid of breeding waders. But it’s the decline in number that’s the real shock: the volume of songs and their vibrant crescendos that I knew as a youngster no longer role across this land.

What I have experienced in my lifetime is profoundly disturbing and I feel that as a nation we are greatly diminished by our squandering of this treasure, this natural patrimony. Studies are clear: there is a comprehensive erosion of our wildlife. Landscapes have been homogenized and plants and animals uniformly assaulted and, sad-to-say, there is every expectation that this “blitzkrieging” of nature will accelerate. Books, nature magazines and country diaries may wax lyrical about Britain’s present day countryside, but little remains of its former wildlife.

Indicators of the scale of loss abound. Over the years, organizations such as the British Trust for Ornithology, Butterfly Conservation and many others have monitored the status of wildlife. They tell us that there was a rapid decline of plant and animal species at the end of the 1970s. More recent studies suggest that we are in the middle of another “tipping point” and about to face a mega-crisis in the life of our natural world. For example, The state of the UK’s birds 2013 indicates that the number of farmland birds, such as grey partridges, corn buntings and turtle doves are in free fall, the latter showing the greatest decrease of any species – 85% since 1995. The numbers of woodland species have also declined, with willow tits, lesser spotted woodpeckers and wood warblers (at 50%) suffering the most. Wetland and seabird populations are also in declining numbers.

Overall three-quarters of UK butterflies have shown a 10-year decrease in either their distribution or population levels. In 16 counties a plant species is lost every 1-2 years: Cambridgeshire has lost 120 species out of a native flora of 897 species (13%); and, Middlesex 146 species out of 816 (18%). Since World War II, hedgerows have been removed at a much faster rate than they have been planted. In some parts of the country 50% of hedgerows have gone, while others are so badly managed that their value to wildlife is much reduced

With this appalling state of affairs and almost certainly worse to come, why are the wildlife NGOs not taking to the barricades and declaring war on those who perpetrate such ecocide?? True, some are recipients of government or corporate finance, and so mute or soften their concerns. True some brave individuals attack the government for “greenwashing” and try to hold ministers accountable for their errant ways. But the unease grows and we are unlikely to see substantial change until a kaleidoscope of crises, worsened by climate change, force actions and then under the most daunting conditions.

So, fellow conservationists, we must scale up our actions to confront the biggest crisis in the nation’s history and assume the mantle of a crusade: join forces, find champions, agree hard-hitting campaigns, nurture and amplify the concerns of citizens and direct their anger at the constant betrayal of our political leaders. Demand government departments, district councils and others act on hard won scientific advice and make decisions favouring the recovery of the countryside.

Meantime, it should be the responsibility of each of us to reduce our cumulative impact on avian and other wildlife populations. For example, we should support regulations to control domestic cats — lethal hunters, killing at least 200 million mammals, 55 million birds and 10 million reptiles and amphibians a year in Britain and preying on a number of declining and endangered species. Every landscaper and home owner should plant native trees and shrubs preferred by our native birds and butterflies, rather than exotic species that are of little use to them. Forgo the use of pesticides. And finally, we must wean ourselves away from the vast biological wastelands called lawns that are now the major crop in suburban areas; they provide neither food nor shelter for the birds we wish to protect and should be replaced by herbs and shrubs to form water gardens and oases for wildlife.

The task we face will try our endurance, but can we doubt our cause? I end with a quote from Roger Tory Peterson, one of the Patron Saints of nature conservation:

‘I realize that we have got to fight like hell in the years to come and that most of us have been playing at conservation. I for one am going to become a very nasty fellow as the years go by because I see the disintegration in so many ways. We have got to be far more militant, and I am afraid that biologists as a whole have got to be a bit more aggressive from now on. The [people] who are destroying our world are very aggressive.’


Colin is the author of many scientific papers and co-author of Birds of the Philippines and Birds of a Feather:  Seasonal Changes on Both Sides of the Atlantic.

The Philippines: A Natural History is in press and A History of Cornish Ornithology is in preparation.


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46 Replies to “Guest Blog – What life is this? by Colin Rees”

  1. As a cat owner and with a garden full of birds but less small mammals The story died when some one jumps in and makes such statements as he did. Take the mammals my cat like the last one kills Stoats and Weasels but not Polecats. It is the best Rat catcher we have ever had. So how many birds would those mammals kill in my garden? If the garden was a desert [like so many are due to bad management] why would the birds come here to nest if the cat was going to kill them any way! With £5 BILLION spent on British gardens each year may be that is where the research should be aimed not just blaming a cat which we choosed to have to keep down the mammals that destroy our plants and vegetables.

    1. John,

      The evidence on the damage that the ~10 million non-native, free-roaming domestic and ~800,000 feral cats do to the UK's overall biodiversity is both stark and damning. See here - - here - - here - and here - .

      Even Chris Packham and Sir David Attenborough acknowledge the severity of the problem, see here – and here - .

      Ian Coghill is spot on in his post below, we need to change the law in order to stop the slaughter in our gardens and wider countryside and somehow foster a keener sense of responsibility in cat owners, while bringing about a sea-change in how we ‘keep’ such ‘pets’.

      The US, Australia and New Zealand are far ahead of us in this respect, and the RSPB has shown what can be achieved with ferals when the requisite resolve and political will exists, see here -

        1. Well Doug,

          They are clearly concerned about songbird survival, and that of other species too, hence their strongly-worded statements to the media pointing out the harm that cats are doing to our wildlife and urging cat owners to take responsibility for their pets, amongst other things.

          1. Nice try Keith.
            What do they think about "Songbird Survival" (your organisation - note the capitals) rather than the survival of songbirds?

      1. By the way Keith.
        Your "stark and damning evidence" which your links point to is:

        1) Not damning
        2) Nor indeed stark
        3) Not even evidence.

        But I suspect you know that (or if you really don't, you are less scientific in your approach than even I thought).

        What do you (and your "Songbird survival" minions) think of sparrowhawks Keith?
        Are they the problem too?
        Any "evidence" for that ("stark", "damning" or otherwise?)
        Do tell.

        I thought "bird-lovers" (as might be attracted to Mark's blog) might ALL by now have seen through the less-than-latent agenda of Keith's "Songbird survival" and their utterly empty claim to be "saving songbirds with [cough] science".

        I know many have, but perhaps more work is needed...

        1. Doug,

          ‘Minions’ – love it – I need some - where can I find some minions anyone?

          Not sure if the The Mammal Society, The University of Reading, The University of Exeter & The University of Sheffield would agree with your interpretation of their research not constituting ‘evidence’ but clearly you know more about the validity of their studies than you are letting on……

          Perhaps you ought to let The Mammal Review, The Journal of Applied Ecology and PLOS One know of your concerns about the efficacy of their respective peer-review processes……

          Great birds Sparrowhawks, my local male is a regular visitor to the back garden, see here -

          Anyway, time moves on, off to do a bit more 'saving songbirds with science' by participating with my fellow “bird lovers” in the Cornish Corn Bunting survey, see here - - more 'birding with a purpose' as Mark would say......

          1. Many thanks for replying Keith.

            You say "Not sure if the The Mammal Society, The University of Reading, The University of Exeter & The University of Sheffield would agree with your interpretation of their research not constituting ‘evidence’"

            You may well not be sure Keith.

            Do you think the below (all lifted from the papers or reports you link to) constitute evidence, or even better (worse?)... "damning and stark evidence" (your words, not mine, not theirs.... yours).

            From the mammal society:
            "Our estimates [of the total numbers of animals brought home by cats throughout Britain] should be treated with requisite caution and these figures do not equate to an assessment of the impact of cats on wildlife populations. "

            "Despite [the] relative paucity of unequivocal evidence of a negative effect on prey populations".

            "…this [evidence] is currently limited to a relatively small number of studies that have been conducted primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, where cats are a relatively new introduction."

            And finally, Rebecca's excellent most recent effort (not thankfully based on gross extrapolations, although at present unfortunately lacking in any mesopredator data):

            "In summary, our data suggest that the numbers of birds killed by pet cats in some localities within urban areas may be sufficiently large that they could be negatively affecting prey populations.

            You say you're "not sure...."

            What I am absolutely sure about is that the scientists behind these reports and papers would be horrified to have you or anyone else point to their work and shout "THERE! SEE! DAMNING AND STARK!"
            They've even had the good sense to adhere to proper scientific protocol to let unscientific readers know that their results are anything but damning and stark and not to broadcast them as such.
            But you’ve done so anyway.

            Leaving briefly aside your "peer review" defence (irrelevant a counter in this regard); science, REAL science is a very cautious discipline and good scientists (Rebecca is certainly one) are always extremely cautious in any conclusions.

            You say: "Perhaps you (I) ought to let The Mammal Review, The Journal of Applied Ecology and PLOS One know of your concerns about the efficacy of their respective peer-review processes……"

            See above (peer review has no relevance here), but I'd add... perhaps you'd like to contact Reading and let them know you're broadcasting their correct, cautious and very scientific inferences as "damning and stark evidence".

            They would not be at all impressed.

            I know that much.


            As an aside, I'd personally like to see far more proper scientific research (as with Rebecca's paper above) on the effect of domestic cat predation on our massively declining frog population in particular.
            That perhaps with "garden bird" spp. that have suffered worrying declines (dunnock/song thrush/starling - all ground feeders (a coincidence or not?!)) rather than just "birds" in general, many of which are not presently suffering population declines in our British gardens infested with c.8M cats.

            It would also be good to see Rebecca (or another qualified scientist) research any effect of feral cats' predation on farmland specialists as a hypothesis to be tested regarding these birds’ worrying decline.

            Finally. For balance. It would be great to see some detailed scientific research into the effect of dogs-off-leads in the countryside, as a possible contributory factor to the decline in some of our ground nesting birds in the wider countryside.

          2. Doug,

            Good Grief! Er, thanks for the reply – don’t have time to address all of this, but following your selective quotation lead, some points follow:

            • Mammal Society – ‘It therefore seems likely that the total cat population in Britain is in the region of 9 million (in 2003). By comparison to native carnivores, this is nearly 20 times the estimated pre-breeding population of stoats and weasels and 38 times the estimated pre-breeding population of foxes.’ and ‘a British population of approximately 9 million cats (in 2003) was estimated to have brought home in the order of 92 (85-100) million prey items in the period of this survey, including 57 (52-63) million mammals, 27 (25-29) million birds and 5 (4-6) million reptiles and amphibians’.

            • Uni of Reading – ‘Population modelling studies suggest that such predation rates could significantly reduce the size of local bird populations for common urban species’. and ‘Overall, cat predation did appear to be of sufficient magnitude to affect some prey populations, although further investigation of some key aspects of cat predation is warranted.’

            • Unis of Sheffield & Exeter – ‘Domestic cat models reduced subsequent parental provisioning rates, a strong indicator of sub-lethal effects, by one-third relative to a non-predatory control. There was no compensatory increase in food load size. Previous experiments demonstrate that this magnitude of reduced food delivery will reduce nestling growth rates by c. 40%.’ and ‘The brief presence of a domestic cat at avian nest sites reduces subsequent provisioning rates and induces lethal trait-mediated indirect effects. We provide the first robust evidence for these latter effects in any avian predator–prey system, although they are likely to be common in many avian assemblages with high predator densities. It is imperative that future assessments of the impact of predatory species on avian prey species take lethal trait-mediated indirect effects into account, as so doing will prevent biased estimates of predator effects and facilitate the design of more effective control strategies. Full mitigation of the sub-lethal and indirect effects of domestic cats would problematically require permanent indoor housing’.

            Remember these are non-native, domestic animals – our pets for goodness sake! - that we are talking about. They are killing an estimated 210 Million wild birds & animals every year! Whatever the real figure is, and other estimates are much higher, the numbers are huge. You’re not a cat owner with a guilty conscience by any chance are you?

            You appear to be 'getting it' in your Comment towards the end – with your wish to see to see far more proper scientific research eg on ‘garden birds’ such as dunnock / song thrush / starling, on frogs and on declining farmland birds with respect to ferals. Hear - bloody - hear!

            And let's not forget the native Scottish Wildcat while we are about it - on the brink of extinction principally due to introgressive hybridisation with non-native domestic (especially feral) cats, see here -

            Agree also about free-roaming dogs – many hill-walkers with dogs on Grampian & Cairngorms plateaux a couple of weeks ago, most seemed well trained (the dogs that is), but a couple were definitely not – not good for nesting Golden Plover, Dunlin, Ptarmigan, Dotterel & Mountain Hare, amongst others.

            Have also seen mountain bikers whizzing around on fragile arctic-alpine heaths as well in the last couple of years!

            Anyway, let’s leave Messrs Packham & Attenborough with the last word here:

            • He (Packham) estimated cats currently account for 60million songbird deaths and 210 million animal and bird deaths in Britain a year, which is 'exacting a demanding pressure on Britain's wildlife'.

            • "Cats kill an extraordinarily high number of birds in British gardens," the broadcaster (Attenborough) said.

            Stark and damning indeed……

            BTW like the photos on your website - good stuff - particularly the G C Grebes!

          3. Keith - I don't have a cat and don't want a cat. and i don't really want other people's cats in my garden but...which species of bird in the British countryside is the best candidate to be declining because of cat predation?

          4. Mark,

            Good question – I don't have a cat and don't want a cat. And I don't really want other people's cats in my garden either, though I have had to endure it for the last couple of years sadly. Lost a wren’s nest this year, deserted, probably due to cat attention, and possibly others as well.

            I don’t know what the best candidate to be declining because of cat predation is either. I expect it will vary from region to region and locality to locality. Take your pick. Clearly areas where the density of cat ownership is greatest will be worse for certain species. I suspect Doug is probably onto something with his concerns about ground feeding ‘garden’ birds. I would add to that open-cup nesters and those whose naïve fledglings leave the nest before they can fly strongly, so consequently spend time skulking in cover until they are fully capable.

            So, are cats (partially) responsible for the recent decline in Dunnock numbers, or longer term Song Thrush or Starling decline? Possibly – I’m with Doug, we need more targeted research into the issue of ‘garden’ bird decline. For example, ‘Churcher & Lawton (1987) calculated that in a single English village, cats were responsible for up to 30% of mortality in a house sparrow population and concluded that domestic cats were a major predator in a typical English village’ – ‘Mead (1982) ascribed 31% of recoveries of ringed robins and dunnocks to cat predation, but believed that there was no evidence that cats affected the overall populations of these species’. Both from The Mammal Society paper, and the latter from 1982 when cat numbers and density were probably around half of present day levels. These research findings should be followed up.

            As for ferals, well who knows what damage they are causing to countryside or suburban bird populations? More research required here.

            I doubt we will find any smoking gun to say that the decline of X species is due solely to cat predation. However, the cumulative and constant unnatural, additive, adverse impact on the populations of certain vulnerable and declining species, through both direct predation and lethal indirect effects, particularly in areas of high cat density, may trigger that tipping point and inexorably drive some birds to local and regional extinctions. Therefore, let’s do the research and follow up on the leads provided by the researchers so far.

            And in the meantime, efforts should be redoubled, or legislation introduced, to persuade cat owners to become more responsible – your next e-petition perhaps……

          5. Keith - long answer but you don't even have a tentative suggestion for a species whose national population is declining because of cats. Probably not the Robin eh? Since it isn't declining...

            Your organisation, Songbird Survival does appear to have a vested interest in saying everything needs more research.

            When are you going to write your Guest Blog here about what you are actually about? What is the point of Songbird Survival? What are your aims? What are you trying to achieve? It sometimes seems you are paid to comment on this blog...

          6. Keith,
            ignoring your patronising (or just simply incorrect) comments...

            You seem to be making the basic, schoolboy, unscientific, illogical, unintelligent mistake of looking at (admittedly huge) estimates (60M) and swooning?

            I also note that you still haven't answered my question about what Chris Packham and Sir David Attenborough think of "Songbird Survival" (note the quotes and capitals) rather than survival of songbirds.
            You are under no obligation to answer of course.

            You are also under no obligation to respond to Mark's invitation to write a guest blog on this site.

            But I wish you would consider it.

            I'd certainly be interested to read it - and it might give you a great platform to defend your organisation from all its many, many detractors.

          7. Mark,

            "It sometimes seems you are paid to comment on this blog..."

            I wish! I quite enjoy reading the blog, for a bit of light relief, and very happy to Comment on it in a personal capacity (often late at night, or when on holiday, and always in my own time) if I feel so inspired – this was written during my lunch hour! Postings at 20:32 and 22:52 last night – not exactly regular office hours!

            Equally happy to cease if that is what you would like.

            I notice you haven't (openly) offered many other of your regularish contributors the opportunity to write a Guest Blog - John Miles, Trimbush, Jonathan Wallace, Dennis Ames, Filbert Cobb, Hippo-something-or-other, Lazywell to name but a few Why not? Why me?

            I’m not here to do to your job for you, and although you may not know it, or like it, your blog is not the most important thing in my life/schedule – it is a bit of light relief, often entertaining, often educational, sometimes irritating – bit like any other written media really.

            Question - Why would you, as a former research scientist, not wish more research to be carried out where interesting and revealing studies have recommended that it should be, such as the case with the aforementioned cat research? Curious.

            Which species, if any, do you think are declining nationally (partially or wholly) because of cat predation – Tree Sparrow? Turtle Dove? House Sparrow? Song Thrush? Dunnock? Which species, if any, do you think are being adversely affected by the unnaturally abundant cat population in some areas? Tree Sparrow? Turtle Dove? House Sparrow? Song Thrush? Dunnock? How should we find out?

            What action, if any, do you think we should take to minimise the demanding pressure exacted on Britain's wildlife and the extraordinarily high number of birds killed in British gardens by cats?

            I may get round to writing a Guest Blog someday, in my day job capacity, but it is (still) not anywhere near the top half of my pretty extensive ‘to do’ list, and I am far too busy at this time of year - ‘birding with a purpose’ as you so aptly termed it – in my spare time.

            Off to Scotland again next week, perhaps slog up a couple more hills to provide a bit more assistance to the NERC PhD researcher’s work into possible Dotterel decline, perhaps a visit to some other Scottish moors en route etc Did my late BBS visit last weekend, but still need to do a couple more BTO 2014 Peregrine Survey visits and some more Cornish Corn Bunting survey work this weekend before departure – it’s all go……

          8. Doug,

            Last time round the buoy on this from me – I really do have more important stuff to be getting on with.

            If you don’t feel that the issue of direct cat predation and indirect lethal trait-mediated cat effects are important, and that they are not exacting demanding pressure on Britain’s wildlife and killing an extraordinarily high number of birds in Britain’s gardens (and elsewhere), that is of course entirely up to you.

            It’s SongBird Survival by the way – note the capitals.

            As above, I have considered Mark’s invitation to write a guest blog and may do so in due course.......but thanks for letting me know that I am under no obligation to do so.......

            Finally, let's take it back to where all this started and reflect upon Colin Rees' exhortation above..........

            'Meantime, it should be the responsibility of each of us to reduce our cumulative impact on avian and other wildlife populations. For example, we should support regulations to control domestic cats — lethal hunters, killing at least 200 million mammals, 55 million birds and 10 million reptiles and amphibians a year in Britain and preying on a number of declining and endangered species'.

          9. Awwww...
            I didn't expect you to answer the direct question re Packham and Attenborough, Keith.
            But I hoped you might have done.
            Aw well.

            By the way. Should you ever enter into a debate (although not much of a debate was it?) with me again I'd very much appreciate not being misquoted.

            "If you don’t feel that the issue of direct cat predation and indirect lethal trait-mediated cat effects are important, and that they are not exacting demanding pressure on Britain’s wildlife and killing an extraordinarily high number of birds in Britain’s gardens (and elsewhere), that is of course entirely up to you.

            Nowhere in any of my posts did I say anything like that.

            Please don't put words into my mouth or give me my opinions.

            I merely responded to a sensationalist comment made by you or your organisation to another bit of science which you are clearly unqualified to comment on.

            Everybody has a right to an opinion they say.
            But NOT when it's an opinion based on their own logical inconsistencies.

            Good luck with telling rebecca how you're broadcasting her research (don't worry... I'll let her know for you) and good luck should you actually decide to take the owner of this blog up on his invitation.

      2. And with a General Election coming up, which Party is going to commit political suicide by saying they're going to make pet cats illegal? This line is a complete waste of time and energy. Try to pick something "the public" can get behind and feel good about, rather than something so hopelessly unpopular. Portraying the "environmental movement" as people who want to stop people owning cats will kill us dead in the water.

    2. John- your views on vicious little predators are a bit contradictory aren't they? Personally I'd be much happier seeing stoats and weasels running about (which are another thing that I very rarely see nowadays) than having a multitude of cats digging up anything recently planted and then shitting on it...

  2. The statistics certainly bear out what Colin says but few of us are able to compare pre 1960s British wildlife with present day wildlife without having lived here through all the intervening years. For many people - perhaps particularly those in government, the starkness of the losses is therefore not fully appreciated; each year is only a little bit different to the one before so the losses don't seem so bad. But the reality is that they are truly awful and Colin is absolutely right that this should make us mad and spur us into fighting to do something about it.
    Of course, readers of this blog will scarcely need to be told that British wildlife is declining badly but what we need to do is to ensure that the rest of the population knows too. Politicians, both local and national need to be constantly reminded that the policies they implement have impacts on our fauna and flora and that we care about this and expect them to adopt policies that protect wildlife whether it be in relation to agricultural subsidies, transport infrastructure, planning and development, energy policy, drainage and flood management and so on.
    Much of what has been lost is probably gone for good but we do not have to accept that what is left will also inevitably be lost.

    1. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that the thing that impressed him most apart from the Theory of Relativity, was compound interest. Think about this in relation to your comment "each years is only a little bit different to the one before, so the losses don't seem so bad" This certainly explains the losses, but as you say, we need to take action now to pressurise lawmakers to save what's left.

  3. Congratulations on a very interesting blog. It was very brave of you to suggest that pet cats might be a problem, whenever I do that I get abused. I like cats and I believe that the massive problem they pose to wildlife would be simply solved by giving them the same legal status as the dog. Cats are currently treated as wild animals under the law, where as dogs are 'cattle'. The distinction is important because dogs, being 'cattle' are protected as property, and as property any damage they do is the responsibility of their owner.
    As the law stands we have to put up with cat owners shedding crocodile tears about baby rabbits, blue tits, nightingales and wrynecks, and claiming that there is nothing they can do, because the cat likes to go out.
    Nothing will of course be done as the conservation movement wants nothing to do with an issue that might alienate potential supporters. The official view is that the 55million birds that are killed annually are not a problem as they are mostly just fledged and would probably starve to death or be killed by natural predators before they could breed. Personally I find that quite unconvincing.

    1. Ian that's because the 'official' view has been that species abundance is solely controlled bottom up by resource and space availability. However much ecological thinking now contends that this is not true.

      1. ps @ mark you will be overjoyed to learn I now have a fully functional 'k' and 'u' - there'll be no holding me back now!

      2. I don't think there is an official view that species abundance is solely controlled by bottom up resource and space availability. In some circumstances alien predators can clearly have a massive impact on prey species that have not evolved to cope with them. That's why organisations such as the RSPB and others have invested efforts into trying to rid various islands of introduced rats, cats, snakes and even hedgehogs to relieve the pressure on native bird species. Having said that, Ian is surely not suggesting that the declines of the Spotted Flycatcher, the Yellow Wagtail, the Corn Bunting, the Turtle Dove or the Cuckoo (to name but a few) are due to predation by the domestic moggie. I don't enjoy seeing the neighbours' cats taking blackbird fledglings every year but despite the apparently high losses the blackbird seems to be doing fine. I am not suggesting that cat predation can never be important but in general terms and away from certain specific, limited situations it does not seem to me to be a conservation priority.

    2. As a cat owner I certainly don't deny the impact they have on garden wildlife, but it isn't necessarily garden wildlife that has declined the most, is it? There are certainly other pressures that have also exerted a major impact on countryside wildlife, including cars, decline of extensive management, overuse of insecticides and prophylactic livestock treatments, as well as human disturbance. Cats are only part of the problem; humans a much bigger one.

  4. What garden owners should do is an interesting question I was (partly) jokingly tweeting at Mark suggesting we should ban lawns. Maybe that is a little draconian but it seems to me that some of the same arguments apply to what people should and should not be permitted to do on their smaller properties as apply to farmers and indeed owners of land in the uplands.

  5. A very interesting Blog. I am older than you Colin and feel the loss too. It is accelerating rapidly now in my opinion. I don't think you mention the food production aspect. We live in an apple / soft fruit growing area. Spraying is a nightmare and we regularly lose beautiful mature shrubs from, we assume, drift. We also have game birds raised nearby so predators are shot. I used to see jackdaws - they have gone. The house martins no longer nest here, nor do the pied wagtails. It is supposed to be a 'good' year for butterflies, but I haven't seen so many so far. I used to see lapwings, but have not seen any locally for years.
    Good luck with your lobbying.

  6. I was born in the 1950s and agree totally with Colin’s observations of the birds and wildlife around us. Not a day goes by where I don’t dwell upon the loss of our native flora and fauna and the indifference of so many of my fellow citizens. Extinction of species, habitat degradation/fragmentation/destruction and failing ecosystems on a global basis must surely signal that conservation efforts are failing. Whilst there are small local successes, study after study indicates that the underlying trend is a negative one. Reducing our impact on avian and wildlife populations by controlling cats, planting native trees and shrubs and shunning pesticides is all very laudable but surely so small scale as to be meaningless. I fear that because the real drivers of the loss of the natural world are such hugely complex issues such as human population growth, poverty, industrialisation/urbanisation, climate change and a capitalist system centred on infinite economic growth and wealth creation, the conservation movement busies itself with documenting the declines around us without any real idea of what to do about it.

  7. I'm not sure if you are planning to post on this topic Mark, but in the context of this guest blog on long-term decline in biodiversity it may be worth drawing people's attention to this: It's an extremely ill-thought out policy, and I sincerely hope it doesn't make it out of starting blocks. I've written to my (tory) MP who was quick to reassure me that it won't happen like that in Wales because planning is a devolved matter, but some letters to English MP's might help!

    1. Totally agree Adam. The 'green field bad - brown field good' approach to planning is dangerously simplistic and every development proposal should be assessed on its merits. Some brown field sites are of high importance to wildlife, especially invertebrates.

  8. Gloucestershire Bird Report 2008 under Wryneck, 'Wotton-under-Edge: one killed by a cat on 20 May'. Cats kill some very rare stuff, that was one of only two records that year for the county.

  9. A thought provoking blog. I'm old enough to recall seeing breeding red backed shrikes, and the shocking - at the time - 1969 whitethroat crash. Different species, different reasons. Generalised public anger may be justified, but perhaps evidence based understanding of what is needed for each species or groups of species has improved. Look at success of some targeted reintroductions or the exciting spread of wetland reserves and related species. Enthusiasm for re-wilding, wilderness areas, landscape scale conservation, give me some optimism nationally and (my experience is limited) internationally. I have to say that if I had to choose an issue on which to lobby politicians I would go for this country's hopeless marine conservation zone efforts rather than calling for a blitz on lawns and domestic cats.

  10. Is it only me that sees this blog by Colin Rees as a "call to arms"? I am guessing that Mark would see the blog in that light and I heartily agree. NGO's are not prepared to get angry enough it would seem so is there some way in which people who feel the same way can be brought together to discuss a more aggressive stance? I know a few people for example who are as angry as me, Colin and Mark, and others must do so as well, probably more than I could attract. The question really is, how do we pull this collective anger into some kind of constructive force not hindered by NGO caution that can make itself felt? Perhaps by first collecting a register of those willing to discuss other ways to give conservation a much higher profile?

  11. I think you have to go back in history to see why cats were domesticated. This was reduce the mice and rat population not to mention House Sparrows protecting grain stores. Even today mice and rats are top of the list even though many people on here will use poison to do the job even if means calling in the council to do the job for them. The same poison that wipes out Barn Owl, Red Kite, Kestrel and Polecats and causes cancer in cats. I love watching Stoats and Weasels but the cat has this 'high hierarchy' common in mustelidae. It's not a 'animals of Farthing Wood' out there.

  12. Whilst I absolutely agree with the overtone of Colin's piece (far less on the specifics) I can't help thinking similarly about this as I've thought about many of our contemporary issues.

    As the (god awful) "Living Years" (Mike and the Mechanics) track went:
    "Evvvery gennnnerayshun. Blames the one beforrrrrre....."

    So here I go:

    I think members of previous generations, whilst (absolutely) admirably calling the next "to arms"... might like to display a little more humility and admission of culpability before calling the next generations to arms.
    Often missing - it would be well received.

    See below:

    Previous generations of the Western world using so much fossil fuels that they started to destroy the world and then telling future generations in the modern western world and more importantly the developing nations they really shouldn't become any more technologically-advanced on fossil fuels.
    Thanks (they all must be thinking)?
    Thanks a lot!

    The previous labour government allegedly leaving a "There's no money left!" note for the new Treasury staff.
    Cor! Thanks! they must have thought. Thanks a lot!

    The baby boomers (and beyond) enjoying widely-available air travel for the first time,jetting around the world and then telling their grandchildren... you should holiday in Britain now. Or you'll ruin the world we've left you.
    Thanks Grandpa. Thanks a million.
    By the way, where did you get that nice rug on your floor? The one that looks like the magic carpet from Aladdin?

    The self-same baby boomers (and beyond) buying up property (indeed properties in multiple countries often) as money-making investments rather than simple homes and then suggesting to the next generations that they really should not have lawns for their grandchildren to play football on safely and easily. And even dictating what type of plants to plant.
    It's not as if many in the UK can even afford a house these days, thanks to previous generations' "investment strategies" (greed?) let alone the luxury of a house with a manicured lawn!

    The self-same booby-bamers (deliberate typo) demanding cheap food post war, from across the world as well as home grown produce, leading to the devastation of farmland ecosystems under clouds of herbi- and pesticides, the pulling up of hedgerows and much more (pollution from air freight etc) - and then telling their grandchildren that they really should do without bananas and cheap food, as... well... that will just ruin what's left of the world we've left you.
    But Grandma - I really want one of your banana milkshakes. Mummy says they were the best!

    Look, I'm not saying Colin is not admitting culpability in his piece above.
    The " I feel that as a nation we are greatly diminished by our squandering of this treasure, this natural patrimony" is admission enough I guess.

    But it does regularly seem to be the older generations who have had it all (and taken it all often) who whilst like I say, admirably call next generations to arms, forget in their hurry to have us draw our swords, just who ultimately caused this sorry mess anyway.
    I sometimes wonder if it is forgetfulness though?
    Or is it that they cannot bring themselves to apologise through guilt or shame?
    Hey ho. It matters not does it.

    Respect your elders I was always taught and I adhere to that mantra.
    But a little respect back wouldn't go amiss, now and again.

    If we have to live in and clear up your mess that you've left behind then at least tell us you're sorry.
    We can do it and we will do it... but this is no thanks to you.

    Yes - This really shouldn't be a generation battle and blame is ultimately unimportant, as long as we learn from our mistakes.
    But there's not a lot of humility from a lot of previous generations and the Kids are getting pretty peeved in case that had been missed.

    That all said.... I'm ready to get nasty on HMS Conservation.

    Of course I am.

  13. YET ANOTHER list of what is wrong. From a World Bank employee.

    Irresponsible economic development has destroyed our wildlife, yet we want our big TVs, holidays and flash cars

    So, make changes to your lifestyle instead and have less "stuff" and consume less - or control your cat while you wait for someone else to make the changes?

    you decide

    1. Steve - I promise not to build a coal-fired power station myself (and yes, i am signed up to a green energy scheme - but I can't sign anybody else up to that).

    2. Steve,

      How about changing your lifestyle, having less stuff, consuming less AND controlling your cat? It's not an 'either-or' choice you know......

    3. NGOs want much of the world to live in "picturesque destitution" in order to perpetuate the need for wealth creation in developed countries so that there is surplus income to fund NGOs that want much of the world .... ad infinitum.

  14. I wonder what kills the most wildlife in the UK? Cats? Cars? Windows? Disease? Natural predators? Pesticides? Windmills? Rain? Plastic bags? Climate change? Building? Farming? Children? Game keepers? Blogging?

    We could find out with more research, or we could act on what we already know; economic growth and consumption is destroying nature, fast!

    Making changes to what we do in our gardens does make a difference; the Tree Sparrow colony in my garden has fledged 60 more young than last year. I'm really proud of this, but is it going to make much of a difference if the global population keeps growing, climate change really kicks in, natural resources are depleted on an ever increasing industrial scale, and my wife gets a cat.

    Raising awareness and educating people would be my weapons for shifting public opinion and government policy, as so long as mothers spray tan their children for beauty pageants, there is little hope for the environment. It'll take strong arguments, expertly delivered, consistently through mass media. It will cost lots of money so we'll all need to put our hands in our pockets, maybe pawn our binoculars. Let's be passionate, clever, and nice.

    We need to be focused on radically changing the way we live, not on neutering puss next door; an economy that isn't based on growth, and that values the natural world. Most leading scientists recognise this but they are not in power. They need to be, as those they currently advise are locked into the status quo.

    We must get political. Don't vote for any politician that believes in economic growth and badger culling, and if you can't find one, either educate them, or get more votes than them in the next election. If you get into power you will have the opportunity to be the passionate, and knowledgable environment secretary we so desperately need. Your environment needs YOU!

    There, I've had my say on here and I didn't even need an invite 🙂

  15. Great blog Colin, I completely agree that conservationists need to take a slightly more 'aggressive' approach as you put it.
    My local council recently told my estate that they would be reinstating a children's park as a turfed (grass) area. So I replied to them and told them that, actually, they weren't going to turf the patch because they'd continue to fail reaching their BAP targets, and that they were instead going to allow me to work with young people to create a wildlife area. As well as agreeing to my 'proposal', the council have since asked me to coordinate the management of verges and roundabouts to better contribute to biodiversity in the town. My point is that I took an outspoken stance and told a figure of 'authority' that their decision was wrong, and that they needed to reconsider their ill-informed choice.
    I would encourage others to do the same if they want to ensure the dawn chorus and diversity of life remains vibrant in their towns.
    Thanks very much for sharing your inspirational blog.


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