Why am I a pessimist?


I have regularly written about the declines in wildlife, http://www.worldlandtrust.org/news/2017/07/moving-baseline-syndrome  and feel compelled to do so yet again. This year we have had two pairs of swallows bring off single broods of young, and a pair of spotted flycatchers are now rearing a second brood; and we had two purring turtle doves this year, last year only one.  This seems very positive. However, it is the first time for five years that the flycatchers have nested, and normally the swallows have at least two broods. Despite this apparent small success, the bigger picture is much, much worse. I can recall cycling between Halesworth and Bungay in mid-summer in the late 1970s (I was on the Council of Philip Wayre’s Otter Trust, http://www.worldlandtrust.org/news/2014/07/philip-wayre  and going to a meeting). En route, along the Roman Road connecting the two towns, I recall very vividly the huge numbers of hirundines (swallows and martins) as well as swifts, feeding over the fields on the west side of the road. The air was thick with them. But over the past few weeks I have driven that same route half a dozen times and seen only a handful of birds feeding. And then last night, a warm, balmy evening, I took our dog out at around midnight and switched on our exterior lights. When I came back, there were just a couple of small moths, when thirty or more years ago there would have been a cloud of moths, beetles flies and other insects.  But this is what the current generation of conservationists see as normal. They do not expect to see mixed flocks of several hundred, or even thousands of finches feeding on stubbles in winter. They do not keep windows shut at night to keep insects out. They do not expect to see lapwings nesting in almost every ploughed field in spring.  As recently as thirty years ago, almost every small pond in Suffolk would have a resident pair of moorhens. No longer. The public are now aware that turtle doves are in pretty well terminal decline (or at least birders are aware), and that we are losing cuckoos at an alarming rate. But very few birdwatchers under 50 will be aware of how serious many of the declines are. And even those geriatric birders such as myself, were starting from a pretty reduced base line.  I have noted how ill-informed about the historical past most young conservationists are. Very few have read W H Hudson, Richard Jefferies or any other of the early 20th Century writers, let alone the diaries of Col. Hawker https://archive.org/stream/diaryofcolonelpe01hawk/diaryofcolonelpe01hawk_djvu.txt .  Perhaps it is best not to, otherwise you might end up like me, a depressed pessimist, when you realise what the real abundance of birdlife should be, or could be. Another factor that obfuscates the declines is the fact that some (mostly resident and larger species) have increased dramatically – vide Marsh (but not Hen) Harrier, and Red Kite, as well as Little Egrets, and Collared Doves.

Why a pessimist? Because for some species, try as we may, they are probably doomed to extinction. Virtually all migrant birds that use the western migration routes are probably doomed, and have probably been declining ever since the Sahara began to expand. And now that sub-Saharan Africa is being deforested, and the use of pesticides increases, particularly in the Sahel, the problems get ever greater. And it is not just those habitats. The Mediterranean coast of Andalusia, is increasingly being covered with plastic and urbanisation as a quick look on google earth will demonstrate. And the Gulf of Cadiz, is also intensively cultivated, and urbanised. These are (or were) vital stopping off and feeding areas for long distance migrants going in both directions.  Even those areas not covered with plastic or intensive agriculture for growing vegetables for northern Europe, or urbanisation, are often monocultures of pine and Eucalyptus. And the same is happening across the Mediterranean in North Africa; urban sprawl and intensification of agriculture.

So every time you buy tomatoes, lettuce or other salads out of season, look at the country of origin. The chances are it will be Spain or possibly Morocco. And think: is this one of the reasons that cuckoos are disappearing? And will not buying them make any difference? I try to avoid produce of certain countries, but realistically while it might make me feel a tiny bit better, it does not actually change anything. While humans want economic growth, and human populations continue to grow, there is no possible reason to be optimistic about the future of wildlife.



One thought on “Why am I a pessimist?

  1. andrew leng says:

    Have you seen this report https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23531380-500-back-to-the-wild-how-nature-is-reclaiming-farmland/ about abandoned farmland. I guess it is poor quality land(and not one of the established flyway stop overs in the case of Portugal) but is it cheap and worth acquiring for conservation before someone decides its ideal for some forestry project with inappropriate species. Unfortunately I have not subscribed to either journal so have not read the whole article. Argentina is mentioned and Kazakhstan.


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