Site Search

text size
Search in section
Grouped pubs nav
Natural Environment
Peter Marren
Extinction Rebellion (XR) burst onto the streets of central London in November 2018, when protesters blocked bridges across the Thames, and again in April 2019 when they occupied prominent sites in the capital, including Parliament Square. Backed by a core of activists, academics and public health officials, XR initially gained considerable public support for its programme of ‘non-violent, disruptive, civil disobedience’. XR wants Britain to become a net-zero carbon economy by 2025. Climate experts point out that achieving this would require our giving up air travel, most car travel and disconnecting all gas boilers.
The media focused on the visit by the Swedish schoolgirl striker, Greta Thunberg, but at least as influential behind the scenes was the report of the Committee on Climate Change, whose chair, Lord Deben, urged us to adopt new climate change targets as soon as possible. His report was based, in turn, on that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which noted that to limit global warming by even 1.5°C by 2100 would require ‘rapid, far-reaching changes in all aspects of society’. XR put its case more pithily: ‘Government must tell the truth and act now!’
The political response was astonishing. Before stepping down as prime minister, Theresa May committed us to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, making Britain the first member of the G7 group of industrialised nations to legislate with this aim. However, the policy sits uncomfortably with others, such as the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, the mothballing of a new nuclear power station in Cumbria and the scrapping of the Swansea Bay tidal-lagoon project.
Overall there is a sense of shifting continental plates. One sign of a growing green consciousness was the sudden scrapping of plans to build a six-lane motorway relief road across the Gwent Levels. This long-planned scheme would have damaged the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), an area of wet fields divided by wet ditches supporting a rich variety of wildlife – and made wandering there a significantly less pleasant experience. For those of us that have spent much of our lives fighting to preserve what is left of our wildlife, very much against the grain of public opinion, this sudden new paradigm will take some getting used to. We must hope that this popular green consciousness will not only endure, but bear fruit.
A report backed by the United Nations (UN) released in May 2019 warned that a million species are at risk of extinction worldwide. The cumbersomely titled Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services drew on 15,000 scientific papers and government sources by 145 authors and 50 countries. Hence it is the most definitive analysis of man’s impact on wild species yet made, and the first such for 15 years. Its conclusions make grim reading. It found ‘overwhelming’ evidence that human activities – land conversion and deforestation, overfishing and poaching – are driving the decline of wild species everywhere. These activities are driven in turn by a massive rise in human population and consequent land-hunger, especially in Africa, Asia and South America. The effect is exacerbated by climate change and competition from invasive species. The authors believe that the window of opportunity to ‘safeguard biodiversity and a healthy planet’ is rapidly closing.
For the UK and its dependent territories overseas, the report could draw on the detailed information contained within the 2016 publication, State of Nature. Using data and expertise from 50 organisations, it found that of the 8,000 species monitored in sufficient detail to make an assessment, about 15 per cent are threatened with extinction. This is roughly in line with the UN report’s predictions. Of 218 countries on earth, the UK is ranked 189th on its record of wildlife preservation (Greenland is ranked first, Macao – a totally urban statelet – last). Perhaps our low place is unsurprising given that three-quarters of the land is managed for food production, and is mostly wildlife-unfriendly.
The government had set targets to improve this dismal record and try to halt net habitat loss by 2020. We failed to deliver on all counts bar one. Natural habitats continue to be destroyed or mismanaged, farmland birds and butterflies continue to decline, only half of our fish stocks are sustainably caught, and fewer than half of our protected sites are in ‘favourable’ condition. The single delivered target is scientific knowledge, which has improved largely thanks to Britain’s army of unpaid wildlife recorders. On this showing, it seems that we can do processes but not outcomes.
Most of Britain’s carnivorous mammals are flourishing. The range of the once much-persecuted polecat and pine marten, for example, has more than doubled, aided in the marten’s case by re-introductions. The exception is the Scottish wildcat. Only a tiny population of purebred wildcats remains, in a remote corner of western Scotland, where their numbers are estimated at no more than 115 to 300 individual animals. A study by researchers at Edinburgh Zoo concluded that the Scottish wildcat is now ‘functionally extinct’ in the wild. The cause is not persecution, as before, but interbreeding with domestic cats. Beyond their last sanctuary, virtually all ‘wildcats’ turn out to be either hybrids or feral tabby cats. The species is now considered to be critically endangered in Britain.
Wildcats were once widespread throughout Britain, in well-wooded parts of the lowlands as well as the Scottish Highlands. But as a threat to gamebirds and rabbit warrens, the cat was trapped remorselessly, and by 1800 had become restricted to the hill areas of Scotland and the borders. Even in Scotland it became threatened, although it made a partial recovery once some gamekeepers became more tolerant towards predators. Derek Gow, a leading specialist in the reintroduction of lost native animals, believes that the time is now right to return the wildcat to England and Wales. He believes that certain well-wooded areas, including Grizedale Forest in Cumbria, and the New Forest and the Forest of Dean in southern England, retain enough habitat to support wildcats. The problem of interbreeding with domestic cats remains, but Gow points out that this does not seem to be a problem in Germany or the Netherlands, and may be a peculiarly Scottish issue. All the same, under the rules, the project would need a full assessment of the likelihood of success before it could go ahead. An additional problem is that the Scottish population of purebred cats may already be too small to risk donating animals for a reintroduction attempt.
One British animal that has slipped into extinction quietly and unmourned is the black rat. Also known as the ship rat, it reached Britain on trading ships and became well established in dockyard areas. It was blamed for introducing bubonic plague via the rat flea and so became the vector of the Black Death and subsequent plagues. Later on the black rat was largely replaced by another immigrant, the larger brown rat. In modern times it persisted mainly on some offshore islands where it became a different kind of nuisance, preying on ground and burrow-nesting seabirds, such as puffin and Manx shearwater. Trapping has now eradicated the rat with surprising ease from its last strongholds on Lundy and the Shiants. At that point the black rat was listed as ‘critically endangered’. The most recent review by the Mammal Society concludes without further comment that its ‘population size has been reduced to zero’. Although the odd black rat will probably still reach our shores in the holds of ships, it is effectively extinct as an established species. By contrast, there are an estimated seven million brown rats in Britain.
One of the saddest consequences of intensive agriculture is the gradual silencing of once-familiar bird sounds. While skylarks are still common in some areas, many of us no longer witness the call of the cuckoo in the spring or listen to the dramatic song of the nightingale from a nearby wood. The rich purr of a singing turtle dove is seldom heard, while the bubbling ‘coo-looee’ of the curlew has all but vanished from Ireland and may soon vanish from most of Britain. The latter two birds are now at the top of the risk list, but helping them is proving difficult.
The turtle dove is the most rapidly decreasing breeding bird in the UK, and it has also declined over its whole European range. Only 20 years ago, the dove was still widespread across eastern England, but today there may be fewer than 2,000 pairs, mainly in the south-east and East Anglia. Knepp Castle, the ‘rewilded’ estate in Sussex, is the only place which has witnessed a modest increase in turtle doves in recent years. At the present rate, the species may cease to nest in Britain within the next 20 years. The cause of decline is reduced productivity. Clutch sizes are smaller and fewer birds are fledged. This is probably linked to farm intensification and especially the loss of weeds, such as groundsel and fumitory, to herbicides. Many turtle doves are also shot or trapped in the course of their migration across the Mediterranean, despite EU-wide legal protection. Local attempts to retain it depend on cooperation between bird experts and farmers to keep hold of the weedy fields needed by the birds.
The fall of the curlew is less precipitous but equally concerning. This is our largest wader, as big as a pheasant, with its remarkable curved bill and long legs. Britain has around a quarter of the world’s breeding population of this species, a number that doubles in winter when Scandinavian birds visit our shores. Yet the number of nesting British curlews has been falling steadily, especially since the 1990s. The 2011 ‘bird atlas’ recorded a fall of 17 per cent in Britain since the previous census in 1972, but a remarkable 78 per cent drop in Ireland – and numbers have certainly fallen significantly since then. The destruction of peat bogs was the primary cause in Ireland. In Britain afforestation has wiped out much curlew habitat while farm intensification, especially the loss of traditional wet meadows, has also played a part. More controversially, increased predation by foxes and crows may also reduce the curlew’s chances of raising a brood. The curlew is a site-faithful nester and so once its traditional breeding site has gone, it may desert the area.
Considerable efforts are being made to preserve our curlews. In the way of conservation there are partnerships, forums, workshops, task forces and ‘curlew champions’, all striving to ensure that the bird still has a chance locally. Mary Colwell’s book Curlew Moon (2018) describes the bird’s cultural magnetism and efforts to save it. There are only eight species of curlew in the world and two of those – the slender-billed and the Eskimo curlew – are globally extinct.
The white-tailed eagle, also known as the sea eagle, is Europe’s largest bird of prey. It feeds mainly on fish and carrion. In the distant past the bird, which has a wingspan of 1.8 to 2.3m, was widespread around Britain’s coasts. The last pair in England nested on Culver Cliff in the Isle of Wight in 1780, while the last Scottish bird was shot in 1919. Since the 1970s, the bird has been reintroduced to Scotland from Norwegian stock and there are now around 130 pairs nesting in the wild, centred in the Western Isles.
Natural England has now issued a licence for the release of up to 60 young eagles, taken from nests in Scotland, on the Isle of Wight. The captive birds will be released in batches over the next five years, beginning in June 2019. They will be fed at first, and fitted with tracking devices. The cliffs and waters around the island are judged suitable for the eagle, and the proponents of the release hope that the birds will colonise other parts of the south coast of England in due course. The eagles are expected to attract tourists, as the prospect of seeing them has done on the isles of Mull and Skye. A proposal to release the eagle in East Anglia ten years ago met considerable opposition and was abandoned.
Another large bird which enthusiasts hope to establish in England is the white stork. This bird last nested in Britain hundreds of years ago, and may never have become fully established, although it is widespread in nearby continental Europe. Storks with clipped wings supplied by zoos were kept in an open pen at Knepp Castle estate in Sussex in the hope of attracting wild storks from across the Channel. In 2019 this duly happened, and a pair of storks built a nest on top of a tall oak and laid three eggs. The clutch failed to survive but further nesting attempts are likely, and the proponents hope to establish a self-sustaining British population of storks by 2030.
At the opposite end of the size scale, the tiny chequered skipper is one of England’s lost butterflies (though it persists in western Scotland). Always restricted to woods between Bedford and Lincoln, it became scarcer after the war when many of its haunts were replanted or allowed to shade over, destroying the butterfly’s habitat of broad, sunny rides and glades. The last time an English chequered skipper was seen was 1976. An attempt to reintroduce it in Lincolnshire failed. In 2018, some 40 butterflies caught in Belgium were released into a specially prepared, undisclosed site in Rockingham Forest, Northamptonshire (the Scottish butterflies are of a separate race and have a different larval foodplant, and so were deemed unsuitable). Telltale signs of caterpillar feeding have been noted there this year, and a small breeding colony seems to have established. More Belgian chequered skippers will be released at the site in batches over the next two years to boost the population. If the reintroduction is successful, the location will be revealed publicly.
The European beaver, extinct in Britain for the past 400 years, is well on the way to becoming British once again. The Scottish government has formally recognised the beaver as a native species, and legal protection came into force on 1 May 2019. The original trial release of beavers at Knapdale in western Scotland, in 2009, has been judged a success and the animals can stay for good. The established population there is also being reinforced. There is another small population on the River Otter in North Devon, and a much larger one on the River Tay in Scotland, both originating in animals escaping from captivity (or from illegal deliberate releases). There are reports of beavers being shot on the Tay by local farmers and landowners.
Captive beavers released inside a 4-hectare pen at Spains Hall estate in Essex in 2018 have built a number of dams from mud and sticks. More beavers have been released inside an enclosure near Lydbrook in the Forest of Dean. In both cases, it is hoped that the animals’ activities will alleviate local flooding. The Welsh Wildlife Trust is leading an investigation into the feasibility of releasing beavers at an isolated catchment in Carmarthenshire, and has applied for a licence to do so. Proponents of the British beaver claim that the animals help to improve water quality, decrease the risk of flooding and create habitat for wildlife. They are also a potential tourist attraction. Some farming and fishing interests are much less enthusiastic, claiming that beavers will cause economic damage. There have been more than 100 releases of this once-endangered animal on the European mainland, most of them successful.
The laws protecting marine wildlife are separate from those governing land fauna. There has been little meaningful conservation activity recently, largely because of resistance by fishing interests. In consequence, only one Marine Nature Reserve, around Lundy, has been established in England, with one more around Skomer in Wales.
The Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009 enabled the government to establish limited protection to certain parts of the seabed that are of exceptional interest for their marine life or geology. These are called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). Some 27 such MCZs were set up in 2013, followed by a further 23 in 2016. In May 2019, 41 new MCZs were added to the list, bringing the total in English and UK offshore waters to 91. The new MCZs include Bembridge, off the Isle of Wight, home to Britain’s two species of seahorse; the sand banks of Solway Firth, much used by seals; the Camel Estuary in Cornwall, with its species-rich mudflats and cockle beds; and the offshore seabed at Holderness in Yorkshire, a spawning and nursery ground for fish. Although many MCZs still lack a management plan, it is hoped that, with the cooperation of fishermen and other stakeholders, they can be protected from further damage and in some cases nursed back to ecological health.
In Northern Ireland, just five MCZs have been designated so far. Scotland and Wales have preferred to pin their faith in the older international system of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) within their inshore waters. Scotland has 31 of these, established from 2014 onwards, while consultations continue on several more, plus a potential ‘deep sea marine reserve’ off the Outer Hebrides. Wales is currently undergoing an assessment of the effectiveness of its own 139 MPAs, seeking to manage them as a network rather than in isolation.
Although wild birds in Britain have been fully protected since the 1950s, some 16 species were excluded because they can cause damage to crops, lambs or gamebirds, and so need to be controlled. These include crows (including rooks, jackdaws, magpies and jays), some gulls, woodpigeons and feral pigeons, and Canada geese. For these species, landowners could be issued with a general licence allowing them to shoot as many birds as was deemed necessary. In England, the licensing authority is Natural England.
In February 2019, a campaigning body called Wild Justice, headed by TV presenter Chris Packham and Mark Avery, formerly conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, challenged the legality of general licences, claiming that they did not comply with animal welfare requirements. The objectors added that it seemed odd that the body charged with the protection of our wildlife should be the same one that licenses the shooting of wild birds. Rather to everyone’s surprise, Natural England responded by immediately revoking the general licence. It attempted to assuage the resulting uproar from farmers and landowners by promising to serve individual licences as quickly as possible. Meanwhile DEFRA has been obliged to review the whole system of general licences. But, for the time being, the precise legal situation of, say, a grouse moor owner wishing to control crows, is uncertain.
Coul Links is a heavily protected system of sand dunes, wet meadows and intertidal sand near Dornoch on the coast of Sutherland. It is a nesting and feeding ground for many waders, terns, ducks and wild geese, both in summer and winter. It is rich in plant diversity and is exceptionally well-preserved. Nonetheless part of Coul Links is set to become another golf course. The proposers, US developer Todd Warnock and golf course tycoon Mike Keiser, made a planning application for an 18-hole golf course there in 2017. It was approved by Highland Council a year later, against the recommendations of its own officials, as well as numerous objections from wildlife bodies and the public. The council was persuaded that the creation of a promised 200 jobs and £60m of investment in the area outweighed their responsibility to protect the site. In August 2018, Scottish ministers called in the application, and a public inquiry was held in February 2019. Objectors argued that the golf course would not only damage or destroy part of the dunes but would also affect fundamental natural processes and effectively stabilise the movement of sand that creates the dunes. The outcome was delayed due to the lateness of the applicant’s closing submissions. Scottish ministers are expected to make a decision later in 2019.
That the ecological impact of golf courses can be worse than expected, and the economic benefits rather less than are often initially touted, is suggested by recent experience at Menie golf course. This large international course, built on the dunes at Balmedie north of Aberdeen by the Trump Organisation, opened in 2012. It too was part of an SSSI, part of the fifth-largest dune system in the UK, stretching from the outskirts of Aberdeen to the Sands of Forvie on the Ythan estuary. In June 2019, Scottish Natural Heritage decided to remove the area containing the Trump development from the SSSI on the grounds that a third of the dunes had been destroyed, and the rest ‘significantly fragmented and ecological processes disrupted’. The Trump Organisation condemned the decision as a ‘stitch-up’, claiming that it had been ‘politically motivated’.
One of the year’s non-fiction bestsellers – about one of conservation’s biggest talking points – was Wilding by Isabella Tree, the story of a farm in the Sussex Weald that has been transformed into a natural-looking refuge for wildlife. Knepp is the largest re-wilding project in lowland England. Until 2001, the 1,400 hectare estate was a typical mixed farm on stiff, heavy clay. The owners, who have a background in ranching in Australia and South Africa, took the decision to turn much of the land into an open park for free-ranging animals. Hardy breeds such as longhorn cattle (which will browse as well as graze), Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs stand proxy for the long-vanished prehistoric aurochs, wild horses and wild boar. Over the years the estate has grown to look less and less like a normal farm and more like a small-scale, temperate version of Serengeti. Scrub has invaded many former fields from hedges and woods; areas puddled by the pigs have become weedy fields beloved by farm birds, and the formerly canalised river is being turned into a more natural watercourse. The response from wildlife has been spectacular. The estate has attracted most of the British species of raptors and bats; the diversity of insects is vastly higher than on neighbouring farmland, and Knepp has become the best British site for the purple emperor butterfly. The owners have been guided by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, whose ideas helped to establish the Dutch nature reserve of Oostvaardersplassen, a quasi-natural wilderness established on land reclaimed from the sea.