What is really, truly happening to wildlife across the UK? Is wildlife disappearing, or are the reports of disappearing insects, road-verge dwelling wildflowers being mown to destruction, and swifts vanishing from our skies, merely agenda-driven doom-mongering by extreme environmentalists, hell bent on taking us all back to the Stone Age?
Some in the farming community are deeply sceptical that Nature is in trouble, let alone in trouble on their land. There are undoubtedly many farmers who care deeply about the wildlife on their land, are fiercely protective of it, proud of the way that they farm, and reject claims that their farms, which may be rich in wildlife, are in any way unusual. But the evidence, gathered across the country, over a period of many decades, by professionals and amateur naturalists alike, tells us an incontrovertible truth: while a small group of species are doing well, many are doing very badly indeed.
Butterflies associated with particular types of land (known as habitat specialists) are down by 77% since 1976, while those which live in the countryside are down by half. Farmland birds numbers continue to decline, with some species, such as the Turtle Dove down by as much as 95% over the past 50 years. Formerly common plants like Ragged Robin or Harebell are now classed as “near threatened” because they have disappeared from large parts of the UK. There is just 2% left, of the wildlife-rich grasslands that once clothed these islands with a riot of colour and fragrance – as highlighted by the charity Plantlife just last Saturday on National Meadows day. And cornfield weeds that were once regarded as the bane of farmers’ lives, like Corncockle and Cornflower, are now extinct or surviving in the wild, in just a handful of places.
We know these things to be true, because people go out and collect data. They monitor butterflies with a well-established method called the butterfly transect. Volunteers working for the British Trust for Ornithology use a variety of approaches to measure which birds are breeding where (the Breeding Bird Census), and which birds are over-wintering in our coastal wetlands (WEBS). Volunteers from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), as well as other learned societies covering everything from seaweeds to millipedes, record the presence (and absence) of species – often using a standardised grid of squares created by the Ordnance Survey. This allows the distribution of species to be monitored over a long time period, showing how they are disappearing, or indeed spreading into new territory, in response to things like climate change.
Another approach to finding out what is happening to Nature is to focus effort into one small area and attempt to identify as many species as possible on one day, or over a few days. This is known as a Bioblitz and has become increasingly popular over the last few years. Bioblitzing a site enables a snapshot to be taken of the wildlife on that site. It’s great for getting everyone involved, and includes experts on different aspects of Nature on hand during the day to help people who want to come along and help.
And it’s in this context that Chris Packham will be touring the country over a 10-day period this month, starting in the north of Scotland and finishing here in Poole Harbour (on a boat.) He’ll be visiting a wide range of different sites, many, but not all, of which are nature reserves. Having gathered together a group of experts to identify species and habitats on each of the sites being visited, Chris will be able to create a snapshot assessment of the state of Nature on each site, comparing what is found this year with what had been recorded in the past.
I would fully expect new species for the site to be discovered – who knows, there may even be species previously unknown to the UK being recorded. Equally, it would not be surprising if species and habitats which used to occur at these sites are shown to be no longer be present. Where species or habitats have disappeared from a site, it’s always worth exploring why this has happened, and hopefully there will be an assessment of the reasons why the biodiversity in a place has changed, declined, or even increased. If you’re interested in going along to a bioblitz near you, check the list of locations Chris is visiting, on his website. Many are open for the public to join in the bioblitz on the day.
It occurred to me that it might be salutary for Chris and his experts to visit some typical farmland to explore its biodiversity – or indeed lack of it. Arable farmland- where artificial fertiliser and pesticides are used regularly – is often devoid of anything other than a few species of wildlife, which is also the case with intensively managed pastures where a single species of grass is sown, fertilised and sprayed with herbicides. But then which farmer would enthusiastically invite Chris Packham and a group of wildlife experts along to their farm, to confirm that no wildlife remains there? Probably very few.
One reason behind the Bioblitz campaign is to raise funds for the conservation projects that Chris is visiting on his journey across the UK. If you would like to help Chris raise funds for these projects (and the National Autistic Society) then please do via his JustGiving page.
this column first appeared on Lush Times