Shifting baselines


The idea of shifting baselines is an important one.  We tend to be trapped in our own memories – our imaginations fail to grasp what we haven’t seen for ourselves further back in time. We all have our baselines and they affect what we feel about everything, what we regard as normal and acceptable.

In most areas of human existence, each generation grows up with higher expectations than their parents – they started higher up the ladders of material wealth, education, health and, generally speaking, civil liberties. But in the environment it works the other way around. The danger is that every generation starts life with an impoverished natural world compared with that of its parents – and doesn’t really realise what it is missing.

Photo: Hansueli Krapf, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Hansueli Krapf, via Wikimedia Commons

In talks, I give the example of Red Kites here in east Northants – my kids were the first generation for over 150 years to grow up with these beautiful fork-tailed birds in the skies above their school playgrounds. And they and lots of other children and grown-ups love those birds. Before they were reintroduced no-one knew they were missing them at all (they weren’t). But suggest that we rid the Northants skies of Red Kites and the people would rise in protest.

The mark of a radical is to escape the trap of one’s own memories and imagine what might be. The distant past is sometimes a good guide to what a better future might be. And this is an example of where travel does broaden the (ecological) mind. How come the French have so many birds in their farmed countryside? Or you can just think hard about what might be.

One of the reasons I wrote A Message from Martha is that the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon was an example of a biological phenomenon that had slipped beyond our collective memories.

But the idea of shifting baselines applies elsewhere too.

Man vyi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Man vyi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I was talking to someone the other day and we both realised that we were thinking about the statutory agencies.  They have lost many of their good, and many of their senior, staff. Which means that they are losing the collective memory of what their role used to be – and what it could be again. The days when English Nature led (yes! an unfamiliar word in the agencies these days) the opposition to an unregulated introduction of GM crops into the UK are long gone. Would Dibden Bay be repeated these days or would NE find it had to balance all sorts of economic factors against nature protection?

There are shifting baselines of organisational memory too.

This government has cowed its agencies – deliberately I’d say. How easily will they be rehabilitated? And how? Are rescued maltreated dogs ever returned to full mental health?

And the NGOs have cowed themselves…

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23 Replies to “Shifting baselines”

  1. Most of the NGO’s have managed to get trapped in big partnership projects which involve lots of money and employing more staff. The problem is that government is usually one on the biggest partners. The Government then has a big influence on the NGO’s…. step out of line and the funding dry’s up.

    1. Quite, all part of the control strategy?

      Sad but maybe they [Defra agencies, NE especially] are beyond rehabilitation, a humane cull might be best?

      I’m sure all these project handouts keep career conservationists in jobs, which is good. But, it takes the likes of Mark (ex-NGO and therefore able to speak out) to push sufficiently hard to get environmental issues on the agenda, but he needs all our help to get them mainstream. So, gagged NGOs sad but true?

  2. Any one see the ‘harvest’ programme last week on BBC 2? The dairy farm in Cumbria was a prime example of a farm having no wildlife breeding at all due to its system of grazing and silage. 1 species of grass on the whole farm! No hedges in view! Guardians of the countryside!

    1. Gagged NGOs? I’m not convinced and think the situation is more nuanced but I’m struggling to formulate my ideas. However, the presenters on this show surprised and appalled me; I suppose they have to eat and feed their families but given the previous background of at least one of them I do hope they are just a little bit ashamed.

  3. Its interesting that the ‘all species’ line sits above all the other lines, though it presumably includes all the species involved in the lines for the separate categories. There must therefore be a lot of increasing species out there, presumably dismissed as ‘generalists’ and so not included in any of the habitat based indices.

    1. IC – the all species line, the black one, doesn’t sit above wetland species or seabirds. You can see that the ‘all species’ line includes 131 species (which is most but not all regularly occurring UK species – some aren’t surveyed annually and so are difficult to include) and the four ‘habitat’ groups comprise 96 of those 131 (so, most of them).

  4. The black ‘all species’ line finishes above all the others. It is outperforming all the other lines if I can put it like that!

    1. I presume you were being rhetorical but no the word ‘finishes’ is not correct in the real Newtonian world where time moves on.
      It looks like it might be relevant that generalist birds have been doing better than specialists since about 2008 especially if the trend continues.
      For example stewardship schemes could be benefiting generalists more than specialists.
      The BTO are looking at all this very carefully.

  5. Anand – yes I was going for ‘finishes’ as in the information presented in the graph rather than the end of time. I think you are right to be concerned about positive spin. The ‘all species’ index suggests that things haven’t changed much in the last 25 years which would surprise most observers and I’m sure doesn’t reflect the true picture.

    1. Thanks IC for being so considerate.
      The all species line does look like it is nose-diving on the latest count but we’ll have to wait another decade or so to see if that continues although it seems likely (even generalists need some kind of environment).
      The overall numbers have been declining since at least about 1977 from about 110% (of baseline) to about 85% in 2015. That is still quite a decline.

      1. Yes, the ‘all species’ graph might look good in comparison with the woodland and farmland graphs but if it was the only graph we had its decline since the mid 70’s would certainly (or should certainly) be worrying us. The truth is that whilst there may be a few species that seem able to thrive in the modern landscape, they are in a minority and far too many species are heading downwards and struggling seriously. Sadly this tend is not confined to birds (though it would still be more than sad enough if it was).
        It is true that the shifting baseline phenomenon makes it easier for us to not realise quite what is being lost but there is plenty of evidence available to us if we choose to see it, that things are not going well and those of us who care about this have a responsibility to keep on trying to ensure that the government and its agencies are not allowed to gloss over it or pretend it is not happening.

  6. Can only answer your question about maltreated dogs,assume that is a serious point and not intended as something else.
    Yes definitely maltreated dogs can be brought back to full mental health,we have a couple locally who took on what seemed a impossible task with a dog,do not think any dog could have been in a worse state and with the help of two others who have the dog on days when owners work means they need help with the dog they have a most perfect obedient dog with none of the previous nervousness and problems it had when they took on the project.It is simply amazing and unless seen before and after unbelievable,think love conquers everything.

  7. Shifting baselines syndrome is a critical factor holding us back from full nature recovery – I like the way you mention French farmland to illustrate what might be – rather than near-naturally-functioning nature – and have a photo of a domestic ungulate rather than a wild one.

    I’d like to see a bit of a shift back to a baseline full of beavers living in connected river-floodplain systems, parklands full of native grazers and browsers, the odd lynx and wolf pack……

  8. Farmland birds seem in a desperate state then,obviously the schemes that are supposed to help them are not working and of course why bother anyway we can get more members from Give Nature A Home publicity than trying to get schemes that would give the Farmland bird numbers a boost.A bit of a clue there Martin.
    Conservationists seem obsessed with always seeing modern farming as one crop farms or at least few crops well they would do better I believe to not bother about that as that is very unlikely to change for economic reasons such as more crops more different types of machinery used very little and costly to buy just to stand around most of the time.
    This machinery would never be the most efficient as the acreage would not make it economical.
    Accept that we are never going back to things like they were when Horses were the horse power.
    Concentrate instead in a positive way in getting relatively small areas of wild bird areas on as many farms as possible.
    It will be more beneficial than trying to change modern farming for sure,it should not be that difficult as RSPB say they put lots of advisor’s on farms,this must be a good opportunity to see if farmers will try it and in the meantime we need conservation bodies to try and get the schemes to pay for the things that would help farmland birds.
    For all the emphasis given on hedge trimming every second year the graph shows in my opinion that in the case Farmland birds it seems a complete failure.

    1. Entry Level Stewardship had just about every option needed to start to recover farmland bird populations, and it was available – and taken up by farmers – at the scale needed to recover farmland bird populations. The trouble is that everyone (including RSPB) assumed that farmers would pick the correct mix of options. They didn’t. They adopted lots of hedge management and field edge options (which are good) but didn’t pick in-field options (such as spring crops/weedy winter stubble/wildlife cover crops) on anything like the scale needed to help farmland birds. But if you go and visit farmers (as I did, a lot), you’d find that they’d be happy to pick some of those more beneficial in-field options. It just doesn’t occur to them so they go with whatever is obvious – focus on hedges and margins.

      We could have seen the beginnings of a recovery of farmland bird populations if only the right sort of advice had been made available at the right scale. It wasn’t.

      1. Messi – well, that’s one version of what happened. It was the NFU who persuaded civil servants to rig the options like that.

    2. I am struggling to understand your point Dennis, but – correct me if I am wrong – you seem to be suggesting that the RSPB is somehow to blame for the state of farmland birds and that it would prefer to “get more members from Give Nature A Home publicity” than to do something to solve the problem of declining farmland birds. Do you have some evidence to support that view?? By definition, the RSPB is failing farmland birds given that its remit is to protect birds and these birds are getting scarcer year by year but is that really the fault of the RSPB or is it rather because the odds are simply stacked against it? I would suggest that it is largely the latter.
      I am sure that you are right that British farming can and will never return lock, stock and barrel to the practices and methods of the early twentieth century and before but I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that it should or could. Rather, as you suggest, we have to find ways of re-inserting space for birds (and other wildlife) into modern farms. The RSPB at Hope Farm, some enlightened farmers (who are making their living from it, so can’t be accused of ‘playing at it’) and – dare I say it – the Game Conservancy at Loddington, have shown that there are measures that can successfully encourage more wildlife on working farms. Unfortunately the more effective measures have not been as widely implemented across the farming landscape as a whole as would have been hoped but that does not mean they cannot be. Given that subsidy makes up a significant proportion of farm incomes surely the way forward is to make those subsidies more contingent on implementing more wildlife friendly practices than is the case at present and even on the successful outcomes from these?

  9. Jonathon,no I am not blaming the RSPB for less farmland birds but they do seem more interested in Giving Nature A Home and all the effort spent on that inevitably means less effort on farmland birds.Both yourself and Messi unfortunately think that farmers will do the more difficult things to improve farmland birds.
    Sorry that will never be the case with any human nature and farmers are always going to take any easy options open to them if by fulfilling those easy options they get the money.
    The only option open is to get the largest amount of money on the things that will bring results.
    They will not in general go for spring crops as they are much less economic so winter sown crops mean no winter stubble and wildlife cover crops,just a fact of life.
    I fail to see why if the subsidy was at the right amount many farmers might take the option of small areas of wild bird mixtures,fact is it must be worth a try as soon farmland birds will be close to extinction in England.
    One fact is for sure lots of us farmers were persuaded this bi-annual hedge trimming was the panacea to solve the problem and as far as farmland birds are concerned nothing it seems is further from the truth but it did mean we could meet the requirements relatively easily by a very small tweak to what we did normally.
    No one should berate farmers for taking the easy option,like everyone else they will not do more than they have to for the same money.That fact has been proven in every walk of life.
    I like the fact that Hope Farm have shown practices that would help farmland birds but have not been taken up by most farmers so my take on it is that although those practices seem to give a good return then in practice more emphasis money wise needs to be put on those things.
    Economically Hope Farm would not be viable in my opinion for a ordinary working farmer,having studied there accounts over a reasonable period of years,it is in fact farmed by a neighbour who takes a substantial set amount out of the profit unless that has changed recently.All farmers could farm quite differently if a million people contributed enough to give us our farms free but almost all of us had to pay a mortgage or quite a high rent.
    I do not wish to knock it but it would be better if they concentrated on all the good points they have proven rather than telling us it is a economic farm,just for instance ask them how much the farm is worth today and what their return on capital is after taking out the share farmers part of it.

    1. I don’t know if you read my comment all the way through Dennis or if I simply did not make myself clear. Just to be clear I don’t expect farmers, out of their own good hearts to start doing unprofitable things for the sake of the birds. I fully understand that farmers are running businesses whose purpose is to provide them and their families with a living and which often have high overdrafts with the bank. In these circumstances it is always going to be the case that they will run the farm in the way that they believe to be most economically efficient and it is an unfortunate consequence that this tends to push nature out of the way. That is why I suggested that the way forward is to reform the subsidy system so that it puts a greater emphasis on implementation of effective measures. Unless I misunderstand you, you seem to be saying the same thing yourself. Entry Level Stewardship did not produce the desired results but that was because, across the country, the mixture of options actually taken up by participants was not right. That was a failure in the design of the scheme but does not mean that it is impossible to design a scheme that more effectively motivates farmers to do the most wildlife-friendly measures.
      I really don’t understand why you think the effort on fund raising by the RSPB means that they expend less effort on saving farmland birds. The fund raising is necessary to provide the means to do anything at all and, as far as I know, the people engaged in fund raising are employed full time to do that – they don’t fit in a bit of farmland bird saving here then a bit of fund raising there – so that the conservation staff can be fully dedicated to their own tasks. Whilst farmland birds continue to decline it is of course possible to argue that the RSPB is not doing enough to save them but we have to recognise that farmers actually control most farmland and the RSPB cannot just march onto the land and impose its will. We all have to try to persuade farmers to adopt bird-friendly measures as widely as possible and the best way to do this I would think is through reform to the subsidy framework. I believe that the RSPB is playing its part in doing this. Unfortunately we have a government that seems to care little for nature and which seems intent on throwing away whatever goodwill we have in Europe so it is going to be an uphill battle.

  10. Jonathon,I do not think I can make it much clearer that what I want for farmland birds is the right amount of money in the schemes for two things most likely to help farmland birds.
    (1) Skylark patches in cereals(2)lots of small acreages spread over the country of Wild Bird Food Mixtures,some people doubt this will work.What they need to do is visit Arne RSPB and see what does happen.
    Yes I am more than disappointed in the RSPB as they do seem to rather have neglected the issue of lost farmland birds in favour of lots of issues in other country’s even sending top people abroad on some issue or other for years at a time.
    A bit like Tesco going all over the world while there is plenty at home to sort out.
    Oh we know the old argument it is farmers fault,well not necessarily so as in the hedge trimming case it just has not worked and this loss of birds is not deliberate it just crept up on us.
    Problem is whatever people think profit is not that great from farming and all that I would ask for is for the RSPB to lobby for those two things that I mentioned to get equal payment from the schemes as they would for the crop they would replace.
    As they can find so many things to do around the world they ought to be able to find time to sort out farmland bird problem.
    This bit is a guess but think it was probably RSPB lobbying that got us bi-annual hedge trimming that was a waste of time for farmland birds.
    The schemes desperately need changing,one fact is farmers definitely cannot do it as individually they are more or less laughed at by those running it if they should dare to suggest improvements.Very much doubt the NFU are likely to try and get the necessary changes needed,so afraid all hopes of changes has to be on the RSPB shoulders to use that one million membership lobbying for the changes needed.
    Yes really unfair but no other alternative but further farmland bird losses.How crazy this is now that we have gained several species of birds(not farmland birds of course)in this country either because of climate change,re-introductions and management such as for the Bittern,last one obviously not a gain but certainly a massive gain in numbers,just needing the right help,the last bit is probably all that farmland birds need.

  11. Shifting Baselines is a really interesting area, sounds innocuous, but is hugely important. It is also one of the biggest contrasts between the conservation of cultural heritage and of natural heritage.

    A centrepiece of cultural heritage protection is the idea of Spirit of Place (google Icomos Quebec Declaration). Now I am not knocking Spirit of Place as a framework – its about understanding and valuing what meaning a place might have to people. However, by its definition it is very vulnerable to shifting baselines.

    Why does this matter in a nature blog? Well any decision to reintroduce Lynx, Beavers, or create feral landscapes is as much a cultural decision as it is a scientific one.

    We need to understand that shifting baselines not only blind the eye to environmental degradation (“the scrub on this down has always been here”), but they make it harder to conceive what might be possible or even desirable.

    I remain convinced that progress on rewilding type work needs progress on the spirit of place front to gets the breakthroughs many of us want to see: the cultural value of our big mammals is tricky when they are no more than a folk memory or a place name. That does not mean they are culturally unimportant in our landscape.

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