Conservationists object to housing in one of UK’s key habitats for the birds. The Independent reports
Plans for one of Britain’s biggest housing developments, of 5,000 homes worth hundreds of millions of pounds, may have to be abandoned because of the presence of nightingales, the birds which sing in the night and have long been a favourite of poets.
The case, which centres on a disused army site in Kent, presents the conflict between the need to build new houses and people’s wish to preserve Britain’s threatened countryside and wildlife in its sharpest possible form. It is likely to lead to a bitter struggle.
The site at Lodge Hill, Chattenden, on the Hoo peninsula north of Chatham, has been earmarked by Medway District Council for what is in effect a new town, which besides its enormous housing quota is intended to provide 5,000 new jobs. The main developers are to be Land Securities, Britain’s biggest commercial property company.
Yet last year scientists discovered that Lodge Hill is probably the best site in the country for the nightingale, which is rapidly disappearing from Britain – its numbers have dropped by more than 90 per cent in the last 40 years.
Today the case came to a head when Natural England, the Government’s wildlife watchdog, declared Lodge Hill to be a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of its nightingale population, which means that development will be much more difficult, and may ultimately be impossible.
The move provoked a furious response from Medway Council, which said it was “deeply unhappy” and was considering its options.
“This is very disappointing news to receive from unelected quangocrats at Natural England,” said the leader of the Conservative-controlled council, Rodney Chambers. “As a local authority we are eager for this scheme, which is on Government-owned land, to progress and deliver the houses and jobs we badly need.”
He added: “What hope does the country have of beating the economic downturn when infrastructure and housing projects like this are being stalled all over the country by the Government’s own agencies?” Land Securities also said it was disappointed with the decision.
However, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gave the decision its full backing. “Natural England is right to designate Lodge Hill as a SSSI in the face of extreme economic pressure,” said Martin Harper, the RSPB director of conservation. “We think it is time for Medway Council and Land Securities to go back to the drawing board and think about where they should build their houses.”
The case is likely to raise strong feelings because the nightingale is one of Britain’s most beloved birds, famed for the midnight song which males sing to attract females, from mid-April to June, after their migratory return from Africa.
So many poets have written about it, in many countries and civilisations from the classical world onwards, that it has been called “the most versified bird in the world”. In English literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Clare and most famously, John Keats, all wrote nightingale poems.
But in England – the nightingale is not found in the rest of Britain – the bird has been undergoing a remorseless decline. The latest estimate is that its population dropped by 52 per cent between 1995 and 2010, yet an examination of earlier records by the British Trust for Ornithology has suggested that over the last 40 years, the bird’s population has actually fallen by more than 90 per cent.
In a recent paper, scientists from the BTO said the nightingale would have been placed on the Red List of birds of conservation concern if this figure had been known about when the list was last revised.
The bird’s range is steadily contracting and the nightingale is now concentrated mainly in the south-east corner of England, especially in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.
It was known that Lodge Hill held nightingales, but its real importance was not discovered until last year, when the BTO carried out a national nightingale survey. It was found the core of the site held 69 singing males, and in total the figure was 84.
BTO scientists estimate that Lodge Hill contains about 1.3 per cent of the total national nightingale population, which the survey provisionally estimated to be between 6,250 and 6,550 pairs.
“If there is a better nightingale site in Britain, we don’t know of it,” said the BTO’s Dr Chris Hewson.
Mr Harper said: “Lodge Hill is probably one of the most important sites in the country for nightingales. We expect more than 80 singing males to return to this site in less than a month ready for the breeding season, and they need to have a secure home to come back to.”
- Thousands quizzed over future of airport (kentonline.co.uk)
- Sharp drop in bird poisoning cases (bbc.co.uk)
- WILDLIFE UPDATE : Budget cuts may trigger ‘perfect storm’ of threats to UK nature (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Britain’s wildlife facing ‘disastrous’ threats over budget cuts (telegraph.co.uk)
Invertebrates, the key monitors of the health of habitats, are – still – in trouble … When will those with backbone – us – ever learn? Your thoughts here or at NAEEUK
A startling 20 per cent of world’s invertebrates, including insects and worms, are now endangered. The Independent’s Michael McCarthy reports
One-fifth of the world’s invertebrates, “the little things that run the world,” may be heading for extinction, according to the Zoological Society of London.
The society (ZSL) suggests that about 20 per cent of the world’s insects, spiders, worms, crustaceans, molluscs and other animals without backbones are endangered, for reasons ranging from pollution and over-harvesting to the effect of invasive species.
The report, entitled “Spineless”, and produced in conjunction with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles the Red List of threatened species, is the first attempt at estimating the global conservation status of invertebrates.
Invertebrates constitute almost 80 per cent of the world’s 1.9 million known species and display staggering diversity, ranging from microscopic zooplankton to giant squid which can reach 18 metres in length.
But much less attention is paid to them than to vertebrate animals, which include mammals, birds, fish and reptiles, and are far fewer in number (totalling about 60,000 species).
And this is the case even though invertebrates are crucial in maintaining ecosystems – without insects, for example, we would lose much of the pollination services upon which agriculture depends, and without earthworms, the processes that spread organic matter through soil would be disrupted.
Two years ago, an earlier study suggested that a fifth of all vertebrates were facing extinction, and today’s report puts the conservation status of the smaller and more numerous invertebrate animals at the same level.
Threatened species in Britain include the brilliantly-coloured ladybird spider, once thought extinct and clinging on in Dorset and the freshwater pear mussel, famous for its pearls and now confined to a handful of rivers. Also at risk is the white-clawed crayfish, which has been ousted from many of its haunts by an American crayfish species. Others at risk in the UK include the shrill carder bee, the tansy beetle and the bog hoverfly, found only on Dartmoor.
The new report was carried out by analysing the 12,000 invertebrate species whose conservation status has been investigated and assessed by the IUCN, and projecting the threat across all species. It found that the highest risk of extinction tends to be associated with species that are less mobile and are only found in small geographical areas.
For example, vertebrate amphibians and invertebrate freshwater molluscs both face high levels of threat – around one third of species. In contrast, invertebrate species which are more mobile like dragonflies and butterflies face a similar threat to that of birds, and around one tenth of species are at risk.
“Invertebrates constitute almost 80 per cent of the world’s species, and a staggering one in five species could be at risk of extinction,” said Dr Ben Collen, of the ZSL.
The society’s director of conservation, Professor Jonathan Baillie, added: “We knew that roughly one fifth of vertebrates and plants were threatened with extinction, but it was not clear if this was representative of the small spineless creatures that make up the majority of life on the planet.
“The initial findings indicate that 20 per cent of all species may be threatened. This is particularly concerning as we are dependent on these spineless creatures for our very survival.”
At risk: Bugs’ lives
Bog hoverfly (Eristalis cryptarum)
A rare hoverfly that in recent years has been found only within a restricted area of Dartmoor.
Shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum)
Threatened by loss of the extensive flower-rich areas and suitable nesting sites of long tussocky grass it needs to survive.
Freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera)
Facing threats from illegal pearl fishing – 75 per cent of the species’ sites have been damaged by criminals.
Tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis)
Once widespread, but dependent for its sole food source on the tansy plant, which is declining.
- The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: Facing disaster: the little things that rule the world (selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com)
- One-Fifth Of World’s Invertebrate Species Face Extinction (sott.net)
- Invertebrates said at risk of extinction (upi.com)
- Spineless Creatures under Threat, from Worms to Bees (scientificamerican.com)
- Butterflies ‘more endangered than tigers’ (junkscience.com)
- Q&A: Sustainability Now a Matter of Life and Death (ipsnews.net)
- At-Risk Species Still on U.S. Menus (news.discovery.com)
- The Future Of Fish Extinction: Sooner than you think (greenerideal.com)
- Rare mussels almost ‘wiped out’ (bbc.co.uk)
Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide, is one of Australia‘s most popular tourism destinations, thanks to its profusion of native wildlife, which includes koalas, kangaroos and the world’s smallest penguin species.
But lately there have been dark goings-on in the animal kingdom: the New Zealand fur seals have been devouring the fairy penguins.
Penguin numbers have dropped by half on the island, according to some locals, who want the seals to be sterilised, relocated or even culled. Now they have come up with a new suggestion: shoot them with beanbag rounds – a method more commonly used to control riots – if they approach penguin colonies.
John Ayliffe, who runs nightly penguin-spotting tours, said five penguins had been taken by seals near the town of Kingscote in recent weeks. He warned that the seal population was booming and that, unless drastic measures were taken, the penguins on the rocky island could be wiped out. The lead shot “hits the seals like a punch and it will not penetrate the skin provided it’s fired from sensible distances”, he said, after which the seals would simply move away.
Conservationists, however, are horrified, and the state environment department says that “interactions between New Zealand fur seals and penguins are a natural phenomenon over which humans have little control”. It adds that the seals – a protected species native to Australia as well as New Zealand – are only now recovering from commercial sealing in the past.
Sealing, which was Australia’s first major industry after colonisation, nearly eradicated the fur seal. Although it was banned in the 1830s, fishermen were still allowed to kill seals deemed to be “interfering with fishing operations” until 1983.
In recent decades, the Kangaroo Island population has bounced back to about 25,000 – and the number of penguins has declined in tandem, claim tourism operators. One of these, Simone Somerfield, told The Australian last year that visitors to her penguin viewing centre had seen the birds ambushed by seals in the shallows and even chased on to the shore.
“Every now and again you would see one penguin being taken, and I would say, ‘Gee, that’s amazing, it’s like David Attenborough‘,” she said. “But then it was more and more and more, and then mass kills in which the seals were not even eating them. It was happening within a hundred metres and you have a complete view – it was like watching a horror movie.”
Seal populations are believed to have grown partly because of a decline in numbers of sharks and killer whales, their natural predators. Mr Ayliffe, manager of the Kangaroo Island Penguin Centre, said that in South Africa and Namibia seals were “harvested” because there was not enough food for them. “Harvesting is a major tool used internationally to manage numbers. It’s only a matter of time before we implement some control measures here.”
However, measures such as culling and relocation have been rejected by environmental authorities, who say they have proved expensive and largely ineffective elsewhere. New seals move into areas from which others have been removed, and relocated seals swim long distances to return to familiar feeding grounds. Moreover, penguins form only a small part of the fur seal’s diet, according to marine biologists.
Tim Kelly, of the Conservation Council of South Australia, said while he could understand the frustration of tour operators, the growth in seal numbers was a welcome development. He added there were other threats to the penguins, such as attacks by dogs and nest predation, which also had to be taken into account.
Fifty years ago, few people cared about pollution, deforestation or whaling. Then a remarkable book came along. In the first in a series charting the environment movement, Michael McCarthy looks back to its inspiration – Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring
The book that changed the world is a cliché often used but rarely true, yet 50 years ago this week a book appeared which profoundly altered the way we view the Earth and our place on it: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
This impassioned and angry account of how America’s wildlife was being devastated by a new generation of chemical pesticides began the modern environment movement: it awoke the general consciousness that we, as humans, are part of the natural world, not separate from it, yet we can destroy it by our actions.
A middle-aged marine biologist, Carson was not the first to perceive this, to see how intimately we are bound up with the fate of our planet; but her beautifully-written book, and the violent controversy it generated, brought this perception for the first time to millions, in the US, in Britain and around the world.
Down the centuries many people had expressed their love for nature, but Silent Spring and the furore it created gave birth to something more: the widespread, specific awareness that the planet was threatened and needed defending; and the past half-century of environmentalism, the age of Green, the age of Save The Whale and Stop Global Warming, has followed as a natural consequence.
When it began serialisation in The New Yorker on 16 June 1962 (it was published in full the following September) Silent Spring revealed to a horrified America – or at least, to those who did not know already – that its wildlife was being wiped out on a staggering scale by use of the new generation of synthetic pesticides, compounds made in the laboratory rather than from naturally occurring substances, which had followed on from the forerunner of them all, the chlorinated hydrocarbon DDT.
In particular, the songbirds of America’s countryside and small towns were everywhere falling silent. They had been killed by colossal pesticide spraying programmes, usually from the air, sanctioned in the 1950s by the US Department of Agriculture, individual states and local authorities, and aimed at insect pest threats which turned out to be largely illusory.
There was no need for them; their real driver was the American chemical industry which had managed to convince US agriculture that its bright new range of deadly super-poisons, organochlorines such as aldrin and dieldrin, organophosphates such as parathion and malathion, were just the wonder drugs that farming needed – in huge doses.
Even now, it is hard to read Rachel Carson’s account of these mass sprayings without incredulity, like the 131,000 acres in Sheldon, Illinois, sprayed with dieldrin to get rid of the Japanese beetle. “It was a rare farm in the Sheldon area that was blessed by the presence of a cat after the war on beetles was begun,” she wrote.
Tens of millions of acres were covered in poison in campaigns against the spruce budworm, the gypsy moth and the fire ant, none of which succeeded in eradicating their targets, but all of which exterminated countless other wild creatures – the American robins on suburban lawns, the trout in forest streams – to the bewildered dismay of the local people watching it happen around them.
Carson’s achievement was to bring the situation to national notice in a remarkable synthesis of dramatic reportage and deep scientific knowledge, explaining exactly what the new pesticides were, how their catastrophic side effects were occurring, and how senseless were the mass spraying campaigns (although she recognised that agricultural pesticides were necessary and did not advocate banning them all). To a reader today, her account is compelling and entirely convincing.
Yet it produced an explosion. The US chemical industry, and parts of the US scientific establishment, lashed out in frenzy against this presumptuous upstart holding them to account, with a long and bitter campaign of criticism and personal denigration; and it seemed as if what aroused their ire more than anything was the fact that their opponent was a woman – “An hysterical woman”.
A professional biologist from Pennsylvania who had worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, she was 55 when Silent Spring appeared. Unmarried and childless after a life spent looking after her mother and her young nephew, she had found emotional solace in a deep friendship with a neighbour at her Maine holiday home, Dorothy Freeman, about which there has inevitably been speculation; certainly, they were very close. Yet Carson was more than a scientist, she was also an acclaimed author, having written a trilogy of highly-praised books on the marine environment, one of which,The Sea Around Us of 1951, had been a best-seller.
Thus when Silent Spring appeared, she already had a substantial audience, and the furore stirred up by the US chemical industry only served to boost it a thousandfold; by the end of 1962, three months after full publication, the book had sold half a million copies, and public opinion was solidly behind her. (It did nothing to hinder her cause that President John F Kennedy took her side and referred Silent Spring to his Science Advisory Committee, which the following year vindicated her stance.)
So the madness of the mass poison sprayings came to an end, and the robins and their song returned to America’s spring; DDT was banned for agriculture in 1972 (although it remained in use for malaria prevention), and bans on dieldrin, aldrin and other substances followed.
Rachel Carson did not live to see it: she died of cancer in 1964. But her achievement was much more than to end a crazy and murderous assault upon nature, enormous though it was.
What she introduced to a mass audience for the first time, in explaining how the catastrophe was happening, was the idea of ecology, of the interconnectedness of all living things, of the connectedness between species and their habitats.
The pesticide falls on the leaf, and the leaf falls to the ground where it is consumed by worms, who also consume the pesticide; and robins consume the worms and consume the pesticide too, and so they die.
In showing how everything in the natural world was linked, she showed how humans were part of it too, and how human interference could wreck it, could wreck the balance of nature built up over billions of years.
That is a commonplace insight now, but in 1962 it was a new one. It was truly radical, because it implied – for the first time ever – that scientific advance and economic growth, closely linked as they were in America, might not be endlessly a good thing. There was the Earth itself to consider. And that perception has been at the heart of the movement that Silent Spring inspired, which is 50 years old on Saturday.
Spreading death: the new pesticides
Insecticides made from natural products, such as pyrethrum from chrysanthemum flowers and naturally occurring arsenic, had been known and used for centuries, before the more powerful effects of synthetic lab-produced pesticides became apparent during the Second World War.
The first was dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT – synthesised in the 19th century but whose insect-killing properties were only discovered in 1939. DDT was used with success in disease prevention during the war and was followed during the 1940s and 1950s by a family of similar organic chemicals.
However, the new organochlorines and organophosphates were not just more deadly, they built up in body fat and the accumulated dose could be passed on. “One of the most sinister features of DDT and related chemicals is the way they are passed on from one organism to another through all the links of the food chains,” Rachel Carson wrote.
The deadliest of these chemicals have now largely been banned, but controversy over pesticide use and its effect on wildlife has not gone away. It now focuses on the neonicotinoids, one of which, thiamethoxam, was banned by the French government last week after research showed it affected the homing ability of bees.
- Quiet Spring: Fifty Years Since Rachel Carson (ecology.com)
- Rachel Carson: The green revolutionary (independent.co.uk)
- The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: Rachel Carson-50 years on and the DDT debates continue (selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com)
- Rachel Carson and the legacy of Silent Spring (guardian.co.uk)
- 50 years on and the DDT debates continue (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: In recognition of Rachel Carson-the green revolutionary (selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com)
- Silent Spring ~ Rachel Carson (evolutionarymystic.wordpress.com)
- Original Green Goddess 50 Years on (socyberty.com)
- We humans dislike facing up to unpleasant truths (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- Rachel Carson’s redwood dreams, and 50 years of “Silent Spring” (hcn.org)
- Happy Birthday Rachel Carson (ecology.com)
Neglected, cramped, and now fatally ill-kept – the animals in these zoos are dying. Where are they? Indonesia, a nation famous for its wildlife and wilderness. Kathy Marks reports from Jakarta
In a remote corner of Jakarta‘s Ragunan Zoo, a Malayan sun bear is pacing back and forth, shaking its head in an agitated manner. There is no shade or shelter in the tiny, dilapidated enclosure – just a stagnant pond full of rubbish. The bear, which is riddled with mange, rears up against a concrete wall and howls.
It’s a scene that is not uncommon in Indonesia, where zoos have come under scrutiny following the death of a giraffe in Surabaya, East Java – later found to have a 40-pound wad of plastic in its stomach. In a country known for its rich biodiversity, many rare and threatened native creatures – such as the honey-eating sun bear – are kept in squalid and cramped conditions that appal animal welfare experts.
Conservationists, who have been lobbying for standards to be raised, were horrified by a recent announcement that Indonesia and China plan to exchange emblematic animals as a mark of friendship. The former will receive some endangered pandas, the latter some rare Komodo dragons.
At Surabaya, dubbed the “zoo of death” by The Jakarta Post newspaper, more than 700 animals died prematurely – mainly from disease and malnutrition – between 2008 and mid-2010. While the mortality rate has decreased since Tony Sumampouw, secretary of the Indonesian Zoo and Aquarium Association, was drafted in, Surabaya – where the giraffe swallowed plastic packaging thrown into its enclosure – remains chronically overcrowded.
According to Mr Sumampouw, enclosures have not been updated for 50 years. “We have 167 pelicans in a 40-metre by 20-metre cage, so they can’t even open their wings,” he says. “We have more than 20 lions and tigers, and most of them never see the sunlight, they never enjoy the fresh air, they never exercise.” One rare white tiger, a gift from the Indian government, has been outside so rarely that, as a result of back problems, it can barely stand up.
Across the country – particularly in zoos owned and run by municipal governments – listless and unhealthy animals are kept in ageing pens, looked after by keepers with no training and little interest in the job. Diet and veterinary care are poor. “The people managing our zoos only think about profit,” says Made Wedana, an internationally respected biologist who ran the primate centre at Ragunan Zoo for five years. “They don’t really care about animal welfare, or understand zoos.”
One of the biggest obstacles is cultural. In Indonesia, zoos are regarded as cheap entertainment for the impoverished masses. Admission is as little as 4,000 rupiah (27 pence): a trifling sum even for working-class Indonesians.
On a recent public holiday, Ragunan Zoo – in Jakarta’s teeming southern suburbs – was already crowded at 7.30am. Dangdut music (a local brand of pop) blasted out of radios, and motorbikes thundered around the sprawling zoo’s sealed tracks. Dozens of roadside stalls sold food, soft drinks and souvenirs. Two children fed popcorn to a striped deer, and visitors laughed as a critically endangered Sumatran elephant slapped itself repeatedly with its trunk.
The primate centre – a modern complex established with a multimillion-dollar bequest from a Dutch conservationist, Pauline Schmutzer, who hoped it would encourage Indonesians to value their native wildlife – was a contrast to the rest of the zoo. There, gorillas roamed on a large, jungle-clad island festooned with dangling ropes and tyres, and a female orang-utan reclined in the shade, eating a starfruit, with her outstretched arm around her baby.
However, Mr Wedana believes that even that centre – which was modelled on John Aspinall’s Kent zoo, Howletts, and where staff were trained by Howletts – has deteriorated since being handed over to local management.
Indonesian zoos have been accused of fuelling the illegal wildlife trade – and the plundering of wild populations – by acquiring animals from dubious sources. Within zoos, theft and corruption are rife. At Surabaya, keepers are believed to have stolen and sold Komodo dragons, and even to have pilfered meat destined for the emaciated tigers.
Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme, and a former zookeeper at Jersey Zoo, now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, says Indonesian zoos should breed their own animals and swap them with other institutions. Instead, uncontrolled breeding takes place – unlike in Western zoos, contraception is rare – creating in-bred populations and massive overcrowding.
Mr Sumampouw is at his wits’ end. His efforts to euthanize surplus animals or transfer them to other zoos have been blocked by Surabaya’s board. In Indonesia, a mark of a good zoo is having a large number of animals.
In many government-run zoos, Mr Wedana says, keepers just feed the animals and – occasionally – clean the enclosures. “It’s not enough for the animal welfare,” he laments. “What about their enrichment? What about exercise? What about population management?”
He used to run workshops, teaching zoo staff from around Indonesia how to keep animals healthy. But they failed to practice what they learnt, he says – out of apathy, or because their superiors were uninterested. After being trained in the UK to look after gorillas, some Ragunan keepers were put in charge of tigers on their return.
Mr Wedana also tried without success to persuade the Governor of Jakarta – who has responsibility for the zoo – to upgrade enclosures.
“But the attitude is that if an animal dies, we’ll just get another one,” he says.
Writing in The Jakarta Post recently, Mr Singleton said: “Managing a zoo is not rocket science. Many animals will survive and even breed if simply given a safe and sheltered enclosure, clean drinking water and adequate nutrition.” He believes entry fees for Indonesia’s 50-plus zoos should be increased, enabling them to re-invest in infrastructure and animal care – and engendering more public respect for wildlife.
At Ragunan, most of the information boards have worn away. “In the West, the idea of zoos is conservation, education and entertainment,” Mr Singleton says. “Here it’s entertainment and nothing else. The education is pathetic, and conservation – forget it. The last place you’d want to put an endangered species is an Indonesian zoo, because it will die.”
- The Disturbing State of Indonesia’s ‘Zoo of Death’ (newsfeed.time.com)
- Morrissey calls for shut down of notorious Javan zoo (telegraph.co.uk)
- URGENT TO ALL NGO’s – WE ARE BEING ASKED FOR OUR HELP – SURABAYA ZOO, INDONESIA (greatcatsoftheworld.wordpress.com)
- 20 kgs of plastic in dead giraffe: Indonesian zoo (ndtv.com)
- Nightmare zoo in Indonesia shaken by giraffe’s death (mercurynews.com)
- Surabaya Zoo Giraffe Death Brings Indonesia Animal Abuse To Light (preciousjules1985.wordpress.com)
- 20 kgs of plastic in dead giraffe (nation.com.pk)
- Twenty kilograms of plastic inside dead giraffe (news.com.au)