Britain’s paradise has been lost – but there’s still hope for our wildlife

Chris Packham tells us : In my lifetime our wonderful wildlife has been decimated. We need to up our game and mobilise the millions who care. The Guardian reports

I never imagined being 52. As I grew up catching lizards and newts, rummaging through hedges to find birds’ nests, or prodding flattened hedgehogs with my scuffed Clarks lace-ups, the world was ripe with natural riches. Every scrap of wasteland revealed yet more gems: tadpoles, fox cubs and a confetti of butterflies. And when at the weekends the family Ford Anglia trundled off to the countryside, I strode in shorts into a wildlife nirvana, a utopia, and I explored what I imagined would be a never-ending world of beautiful and exotic creatures.

Well, I made it. On a cold, rainy day in May the cards arrived and, after reading and wincing at the birthday wishes, I went out with my binoculars. And that world wasn’t there any more: in my lifetime that paradise has been lost – the wonderful complex of creatures has all but vanished. I rambled with the same fervent curiosity I had as a child, but with only a fraction of the rewards. I looked for a Brimstone butterfly to brighten the naked glades, I trod the edges of tadpole-less ponds, I listened for a cuckoo but heard none. Today, the British countryside is pretty vacant.

And just in case you think these are the subjective and maudlin mumblings of a nostalgic naturalist, an amalgam of our finest nature conservation bodies this week published a report entitled State of Nature. It is a frank audit of the UK’s wildlife in 2013 and an account of its misfortunes over the last 50 years. And it’s accurate – the result of rigorous data-collecting from our finest naturalists and scientists, followed by clear and concise analysis. If you have even the tiniest interest in nature, I strongly urge you to read it. Because it needs to achieve its objective: to shame us over our disastrous disregard of the horrifying decline that it documents; and shock us into some urgent action to stem or redress it.

In precis, the population and distribution trends of a representative set of 3,148 species across the UK’s major habitat types show a catastrophic 60% decline over the last 50 years. Of these, 13% are in danger of extinction. Regarding butterflies, 72% have declined over the last 10 years. We have lost 44m pairs of breeding birds since the late 1960s; and destroyed 97% of our meadows, 90% of coppiced woodland, and 80% of heathlands.

There are optimistic elements peppering the dismal downward-sloping graphs, but for once in too long a while the conservation community have summoned the courage to concisely tell it like it is, not hide behind the isolated tales of success that typically crowd the covers of their membership quarterlies and sow cosy contentment. This is a brave and damning indictment of our continued abuse of wildlife and it puts the ball firmly in the conservationists’ court, because for the moment at least it’s up to us to sort this out. We have weighed it, measured it and found it wanting. But can we fix it?

Yes we can. Because neatly listed alongside this abject catalogue of woe are the reasons for it. We know how, why and where species have vanished, and we also have an arsenal of tested abilities and technologies to recover or reinstate them. In practical terms, we have turned carrot fields into reed beds brimming with birds; we have reintroduced raptors and rails; we can captive-breed and release dormice and water voles, and re-seed rape fields with wild flowers. And thus I, and all the others who set their alarm clocks to rise and scour the ruins of our land for the things that make our hearts skip beats, can be fuelled by an optimism that we can really still make a difference. Indeed, the fundamental mantra for the BBC’s Springwatch series is to say to our 3 million viewers: this is beautiful, brilliant, and in your backyard; look at it, love it, don’t lose it.

However, while our wildlife is free to access, the problem is it’s not free to keep. In fact, it has become very expensive, way beyond the budget of conservationists, way beyond the scope of our piecemeal projects and statistically insignificant progress. The critical missing ingredient is the political will and courage to radically reform agricultural, forestry and fisheries policies and practices. The financial costs would have to be borne by us all too, so it is crucial that we generate a real sense of value in our wildlife so that when the bill comes, we don’t wince at the price.

Achieving a sea-change in governance through better-informed and genuinely motivated decision makers is a challenge, and to date the meek and passive approach of conservationists has failed to make significant progress. We need to up our game, exercise our muscle, and mobilise the millions who care. If we don’t face the grotesque reality of our failure, our grandchildren will never hear a cuckoo, and one swallow will have to make their summer.

This week it was revealed that the government’s advisory body, Natural England, granted a licence to destroy buzzard nests and eggs in order to protect pheasants. The buzzard has full legal protection and is making a sustained recovery after years of persecution and pesticide poisoning. The pheasant is a non-native bird, artificially introduced, and 38 million are bred annually to satisfy the shooting fraternity. In terms of our grandchildren’s ornithological ambitions, I think we have a tough job on our hands.


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