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The State of Nature and the Sixth Great Extinction

Ben DolphinOn 14th September the national TV stations, airwaves and social media were buzzing, obsessed with just one massive headline. The story had broken two days earlier but every subsequent day brought new earth-shaking revelations that required still more analysis and discussion as to the potential impacts on the nation. This was, after all, something major and something serious, something that affected millions of people. Yep, a weekly marquee-based show about cakes was moving from BBC1 to Channel 4!!

<faints>

Little else got a look-in that week. Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address got a passing glance, as did the odd war here and there, and buried deep beneath the mountain of macaroons was the minor sideline that one in ten British species are now at risk of extinction. It met with little more than a shrug outside of conservation and agricultural circles, and I was left disheartened by the response.

Trying to make sense of it I wondered whether we’re now just desensitised to bad news where the environment is concerned, as doom and gloom seem to be the norm these days. Then I wondered to what extent nature is relevant to our daily lives when more than 80% of us are living in urban environments. How likely are we to notice that the species around us are sliding into extinction? How many of us care?

Cute and furry enough to save? (Photo: Walkhighlands)

Cute and furry enough to save? (Photo: Walkhighlands)

I pondered how we’re undeniably predisposed to caring for particular types of organisms over others – the beautiful, the cute, the feathered and the fluffy. All of which deserve protection in their own right but it does mean that the vast majority of less attractive, less visible species are at greater risk of falling through the cracks and into oblivion.

The red squirrel is almost universally adored and its plight moves us into action, but how many of us are similarly moved by the plight of oil beetles? Or the pine hoverfly, now found at only one or two sites in Scotland? It’s easy to love cute and furry critters or beautiful butterflies, but slimy fish? Creepy crawlies? Wriggly worms? And yet these are the building blocks of our ecosystems. If we lose them, the impact cascades all the way through the food chain and before we know it we start to lose some of the beautiful, the cute, the feathered and the fluffy higher up in the chain. The disappearance of one species can certainly be felt more acutely than another, but nothing is superfluous in nature and this news should worry us all.

 Too ugly to save? Three of the UK’s eight oil beetle species are already extinct. Glen Uig, Cairngorms.


Too ugly to save? Three of the UK’s eight oil beetle species are already extinct. Glen Uig, Cairngorms.

The State of Nature in Scotland

The ‘one in ten’ extinction figure was the attention-grabbing headline from the State of Nature report, a snapshot on the health of the UK’s habitats and species that had been compiled by 53 conservation and research organisations. The first State of Nature report, forwarded by David Attenborough, was published in 2013 and served as a rallying cry to safeguard our environment, and this year’s report is something of an update to maintain momentum.

Extinction is the obvious headline grabber in the report but it is not written as a prophecy of inevitable doom. There is much to celebrate and the report draws attention to the myriad conservation projects, both large and small that are underway across the country. In Scotland, 46% of plant species, 61% of butterflies and 56% of birds are on the increase. Those figures are mirrored across the wider UK, and while some of those species are undoubtedly exploiting vacuums left by those that are declining, a great many will be doing better because of conscious efforts to improve their habitats and therefore their prospects.

So much has changed over the past 70 years or so since we started developing a conscience about our guilt-free exploitation of the natural world. Species long extinct from these shores are being returned via ambitious reintroduction programmes, invasive species that don’t belong here are being removed, and GPS technology is being employed to track species migrations. Landscape-scale rewilding projects are underway, fragmented remnants of habitats are being reconnected via green corridors, woodlands are being restored, non-native conifer plantations are being removed from blanket bog, and artificial drainage channels in lowland raised bogs are being dammed to restore their water levels.

Community tree planting in Bathgate, West Lothian. 7,500,000 volunteer hours go into monitoring the UK’s wildlife every year

Community tree planting in Bathgate, West Lothian. 7,500,000 volunteer hours go into monitoring the UK’s wildlife every year.

Legal protections for wildlife and habitats have been enshrined in law and environmental regulations are wound into the fabric of planning applications. Water and air quality are monitored, and waste disposal is regulated. In the construction and housing industries, Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) are incorporated into developments to filter pollutants out of the water before they reach watercourses and, to alleviate flooding downstream rivers that were artificially straightened are having their meanders restored. Conservation in Scotland is incredible in its scale and ambition, involving thousands of professionals and even more volunteers. It certainly depicts a society with a more enlightened environmental outlook than in the preceding centuries, and yet somehow this colossal effort just isn’t enough, because for all the gains there is still a net loss of biodiversity and it’s impossible to ignore.

In Scotland, of 6000 species assessed against IUCN Red List criteria (an international standard that evaluates extinction risk), 520 (9%) are at risk of extinction. This includes 8% of our fungi and lichens, 5% of invertebrates, 13% of plants, 18% of butterflies, 15% of dragonflies and 12% of bryophytes (mosses, liverworts etc). Of 218 Scottish bird species assessed, 59 have experienced such severe contractions in abundance or range as to be classed as threatened. That’s 14 more than in 2009, and among the new additions are family-favourite the puffin, and cherished Scottish upland species the dotterel and curlew. And it’s not a trend unique Scotland or the UK. A recent report by the Royal Botanical Gardens sees one in five of the 390,000 plant species in the world threatened with extinction. It’s grim, hence the assertion that humans are driving a sixth great global extinction, with species disappearing at a rate 100 times faster than would normally be expected.

The State of Nature report identifies ten main drivers of change in the abundance or distribution of species, but the picture isn’t straight forward because either deliberately or inadvertently most of those drivers have both positive and negative impacts on wildlife. Climate change for example, one of the key drivers of change, will benefit some species and force others out, whereas changes in hydrology created by water abstraction or the drainage of fens are shown as having almost exclusively negative impacts on wildlife.

Though the report lavishes praise on sympathetic farming methods and agri-environment schemes, it identifies intensive agriculture as the biggest driver of negative change since 1970. Collateral damage caused by pesticides and fertilisers, loss of hedgerows, field enlargements, and switching from spring sowing to autumn sowing are cited, but the National Farmers Union argues that intensification slowed in the 1990s, and that the trend is now in reverse.

Death by nibble

Apportioning blame to one particular sector isn’t entirely fair, however, because it effectively absolves us of any collective responsibility for the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed. You can try to blame farming, windfarms, deforestation, urbanisation, climate change or whatever else takes your fancy, but the powerhouse behind them all is our insatiable appetite for consumption. And with every passing year, as Homo sapiens increases in both number and distribution, the pressures exerted on our fellow species are compounded.

The population of Scotland, formerly declining, is now projected to rise by around 400,000 to a record high of 5.7 million by 2039. The UK is projected to increase by 4.4 million in the next decade, reaching 70 million by 2027. That’s 15 million more than when I was born! The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050. It’s little wonder that everywhere I look, everywhere I go, I see the natural world being nibbled away via a steady process of attrition.

A field in the English Cotswolds. Soon to be 90 houses.

A field in the English Cotswolds. Soon to be 90 houses.

It takes the form of housing, infrastructure, utilities and services, industrial complexes, business parks, waste disposal, leisure facilities, schools, hospitals, retail parks, cemeteries, the list goes on. And while it can certainly be said that only a small percentage of our land area is ‘built up’ (as little as 10% of the UK, 2% of Scotland), our ancillary needs have a footprint that extends way beyond our built up areas. As our local, national and global populations increase we need ever more land turned over to agriculture and food production, to forestry, to the collection and retention of drinking water, to energy generation. Where does nature fit into this shrinking picture? Into our nature reserves? As the State of Nature report itself acknowledges, simply designating a site does not guarantee nature’s protection. Some are poorly managed, threatened by adjacent developments or, in the case of one particular exemplary site in Aberdeenshire, wilfully destroyed and sacrificed to golf because the economic benefits apparently outweighed all other considerations.

I worry that environmental designations like Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) won’t offer any guarantees of protection when local authorities come under pressure to give more of their land over to housing and infrastructure, or when perceived national need for jobs or connectivity demands it. HS2 and the southeast England airport debate spring to mind.

This harsh reality is something no political party or leader wants to face down, because while part of their job is to safeguard the environment, it is not their job to safeguard the environment at ANY cost. Their job is to grow our economy, create jobs, increase the value of our pensions, build more housing stock and encourage growth of a young population who will be able to support the ageing one ad infinitum like some bonkers pyramid selling scheme. And after the juggernaut of economic growth has powered through, their job is to protect whatever is left of the environment. Maybe.

Growth without end

This is growth without end, which we like to think we can do sustainably but ‘sustainable development’ is a contradiction in terms where the environment is concerned. As a society we know this, but we still ignore it because our lives are made easier or more pleasant as a result, with every generation expecting to be able to have what the one before had….and more. But how realistic is that expectation when the remaining available land shrinks with every passing year and the finite resources we exploit dwindle still further?

 Elvanfoot, South Lanarkshire. A green salvation? Or business as usual?


Elvanfoot, South Lanarkshire. A green salvation? Or business as usual?

There are of course all manner of arguments about how our adverse impacts on the natural world can be reduced by redistribution of wealth or even doing away with capitalism. But given what we know about our species, about our dogged instinct to better ourselves and our stubborn inability to redistribute wealth, it’s hard to envisage how this exponential, relentless population surge can be anything but negative for the natural world. Truth is, we find it hard to make radical changes unless there’s a clear, profitable reason to do so. And as such we’re unlikely to change our ways until the natural world and resource depletion leave us no choice, by which time it will surely be too late.

It reminds me of a two-image cartoon I saw only last week. The first image showed a man standing on a podium in front of an assembled crowd. “Who wants change!?” the man shouts, and everyone in the crowd raises their hand. “Who wants to change?” the man shouts in the second image, and the crowd lower their hands and look down at their feet. Depressingly I’m as guilty of that as the next person. I welcome the new Forth bridge despite knowing it’s destroying 100 hectares of farmland and is likely to impact upon three SSSIs. Like many others I will be delighted that the dualled A9 gets me to the hills in quicker time, and I’d be lying if I said I won’t use the Aberdeen bypass once it’s constructed.

I’m complicit in nature’s demise, as are we all, because so long as Homo sapiens increases in both number and distribution then the sixth great extinction will continue, both here and overseas. And so long as the point at which things get truly dire is so far off in the distance that we feel we can afford to ignore it, we’ll continue to pass the problem down to the next generation. And the next. And the next. But we can’t build forever. We can’t expand forever. We can’t grow forever. And so the seemingly futile question to anyone and everyone has to be……where does it end? It’s a difficult one isn’t it, so perhaps it’s best not to think about it at all. Hmm, I wonder what’s on telly.

<switches TV on>

Oooo, cake!




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