PETER FROST reviews 2016 in nature, a year in which Britain’s native flora and fauna have been under attack like never before.
AS THE year comes to its end our countryside can be really spectacular and full of surprises.
Over our coastal marshes, huge honking skeins of geese fill the spectacular if grey’s skies. Migrant swans in huge numbers arrive on the Ouse washes.
The earliest of delicate blossom braves the frost far too early and blood red holly berries announce Christmas is near. Bunches of mistletoe are dragged down from the orchards and taken to market.
A fall of early snow gives us the chance to realise just how many mammals have visited in the night and left their tracks. Is this a deer? A badger? A hare? I love the chance to play nature’s Sherlock Holmes.
Seals still brave winter’s storms all around our coast and winter waders arrive battered but unbeaten by their epic journeys.
Yet for all these wonderful sights and sounds all in the countryside is not well. A recent report is ringing warning bells and they are ones we ignore at our peril.
Today more than one in 10 of our native wildlife species are threatened with extinction. Overall the numbers of the nation’s most endangered creatures have plummeted by two-thirds since 1970 and that horrific decline continues apace.
Over that half a century, one in six species of our native British animals, birds, fish and plants have all been lost.
Deforestation, industrialisation and increasingly unsustainable methods of agriculture — greedy for profit and subsidy — have left Britain among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
Add to that the long term effects of climate change and the outlook becomes even darker. Many of our ecosystems have gone past the threshold at which they may no longer reliably meet society’s needs.
Earlier this year 50 of our most serious and concerned conservation organisations got together to produce a massive report that spells out the destructive impact of intensive farming, urbanisation and climate change on habitats from farmland and hills to rivers and the coast.
The State of Nature report assessed 8,000 UK species and found that one in 10 are threatened with extinction.
Among those species under threat are more than half of farmland birds including the turtle dove (below) and corn bunting that are in danger of extinction. The report found that the fall in wildlife over the last four decades cannot be blamed only on historical harm. The destruction of our countryside and wildlife continues and the pace is sharpening.
“It wasn’t just all back in ’70s and ’80s, it is still happening now,” said Mark Eaton, a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the lead author of the report.
Sir David Attenborough, in his foreword to the report, says: “The natural world is in serious trouble and it needs our help as never before. We continue to lose the precious wildlife that enriches our lives and is essential to the health and wellbeing of those who live in Britain.”
Overall, the new report found that 56 per cent of species declined between 1970 and 2013, and 53 per cent between 2002 and 2013. If that carries on we will end up with just half of our natural wildlife to populate our landscape.
Insects and other invertebrates, which make up 97 per cent of all animal species, are particularly struggling, with 59 per cent in decline since 1970. As pollinators they are key in the success of both wild plants and cultivated food crops. Just as important is the role that invertebrates play in keeping soil healthy. Healthy soil is literally the bedrock of a healthy environment and the basis of the complicated food chains that are such a feature of a thriving natural system.
In past Ramblings I have commented on some specific species in decline, like the great crested newts, hedgehogs and water voles that have suffered from changes in the countryside.
We have also reported how so-called country sports like grouse and pheasant shoots have destroyed natural moorland with burning and draining and encouraged the murder of rare birds of prey by unscrupulous game-keepers.
The draining of bogs and fens has harmed many species including the large marsh grasshopper, while the degradation of heaths has caused the sand lizard population to fall.
The toad, skylark and beetles such as the wonderfully named wormwood moonshine (below) are among the species of special conservation concern in the UK that have fallen in number by 67 per cent since 1970 overall, and by 12 per cent between 2002 and 2013.
There are some successes however, some bats, including the soprano pipistrelle, have increased thanks to new legal protection and the creation of new reed-beds has enabled bitterns to recover from just 11 booming males in 1997 to 156 in 2015.
Some species have also been reintroduced, including the hazel dormouse, the large blue butterfly and the short haired bumblebee.
Organisations like the RSPB, the National Parks and the county based wildlife trusts are fighting hard to protect both wildlife and landscape but Tory government policy means they are fighting with one hand tied behind their back.
Our new minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Andrea Leadsom has done nothing apart from making some encouraging noises to the shooting and hunting lobbies and allowing the fracking industry to continue to ravish the countryside.
I suppose that could have been expected from a Tory lady who despite what she claimed in her polished-up CV had a total lack of top-level political experience and a complete absence of track record in farming or environmental areas.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is one of the ministries that will feel the greatest impact from Brexit. Leadsom and her department have a wide brief — from farming to fishing to floods and from pollution to protection of the natural world. But how will she handle it?
The entire future of our countryside is far too important to be left to an ignorant and inexperienced minister and her greedy farming and shooting pals.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 16 December 2016.