Whilst people have been engaged in the frenzy of Black Friday (Saturday, Sunday, Monday….) profligacy, efficiently clearing the shelves of various 'discounted' goods they believe they need, I have been reading a book by Mark Avery entitled ‘Message from Martha’ documenting the frenzy with which the passenger pigeon was even more efficiently cleared from the ecological shelves of North America. It is an incredulous read, at once bewildering, beguiling and utterly depressing. At least I found it a struggle not to become hopelessly sad and deflated over the way in which man drove a bird, once the most numerous on earth, to utter extinction within a few decades. The scale of slaughter is incomprehensible, just as the scale of the passenger pigeon population was incomprehensible; billions of birds darkening the skies for days on end as they migrated across the vastness of the continent we now call USA on a front wider than a mile; breeding colonies that stretched for tens of miles; roosting sites so thick with birds that stout branches from sturdy trees crashed to earth under the accumulated weight. And now they are gone. Gone forever in what is in evolutionary terms a blink of an eye.
I remember being aware of the demise of the passenger pigeon when I was a lad (no, I'm not old enough to have seen them), and naively assumed every one of my generation would have been aware of their disastrous plight. Seems I was wrong. Certainly people I've spoken to recently, including my mum and dad, were ignorant of the story which surprised and rather perplexed me. Surely the phenomenon of mass extermination would be high in the consciousness of anybody born within a couple of decades of the event? Surely it is from horrendous episodes like this that we humans must learn and gain wisdom? My naivety it seems knows no bounds.
But you know what really depressed me more than anything is that the same thing is happening now. Maybe not so dramatically or so speedily, but nevertheless as assuredly.
Let's think about what extinction really means. It means a species that took thousands, maybe millions, of years to evolve is gone forever; never, ever to be seen again. It's not just the death of a single entity; it's the total extermination of a unique organism, one that occupied an important niche in the ecosystem in which it dwelled. Extinction is permanent.
Ok, so the passenger pigeon is history and there is nothing to be done to secure its return, but what of today? It would be heartening to think it could not ever happen again, that us humans simply would not allow such a shameful scene to unravel. Think again. It could well be happening under our very noses to one of our most favoured and familiar animals: the hedgehog. Numbers of this prickly garden inhabitant have been slowly dwindling for the last few decades and nothing has been done to halt the decline. I watched a brief report (and it was brief), on the TV news recently when the drastic slump in hedgehog numbers was treated almost as a lighthearted bit of trivia, a kind of 'well isn't this a fun fact' approach. The word 'extinction' was used, i.e. the species is heading that way, but it was not delivered with gravitas. It should have been because if we allow our hedgehogs to disappear into oblivion God help us all. To compare the way we consider items newsworthy, the hedgehog snippet was followed by a longer piece informing us about a record breaking number of lights decorating a Christmas tree somewhere in Canada. This wondrous phenomenon caused a bit of banter between the presenters: seems to me that priorities are somewhat skewed there.
It really stuns me that we all regard the continued persecution of whales and the obscene poaching of African elephants and rhinos with (rightful) dismay, yet nobody seems to actually care that our own mammals are under just as much threat, albeit from differing causes. And those causes are pretty much down to us. We concrete our gardens, we fragment their habitat, we run over them in our fast cars, we tidy our countryside and gardens so that hibernation sites disappear, we burn them alive in our bonfires and we poison them with slug pellets. Not to mention the effects of human induced climate change which may well be affecting breeding cycles. A lot of pressure on a small vulnerable mammal. It may not cope for much longer. What then? Will anybody care? Will we look fondly at old drawings of Mrs Tigggywinkle and sadly shake our heads? What does it need before people take it all seriously? Something is horribly wrong with our psyche and terribly wrong with our environment.
It's not just hedgehogs of course. Considering the birdlife in our own garden for a moment, the changes over the past thirty years is profound: bullfinches - gone, redpoll - gone, house sparrow - gone, songthrush - gone, and still more recently greenfinch - gone. Five species of once common, even abundant, birds have disappeared from our local environs in such a relatively short time span. It won't be long before starlings join them; a single pair hangs on where once dozens existed. It would be wrong to suggest there have been no gains; sparrowhawks, jays, magpies and goldfinches are more regular now, but in most instances these are simply bouncing back from low points endured through decades of persecution - poisoning, trapping, shooting - that population levels. Only goldfinches seem to have really bucked the trend. There is, by the way, no correlation between increases in predators and demise of potential prey items. Maybe they have some effect, but these species have been coexisting for tens of thousands of years and will always live in a kind of harmony. In any event if predation by corvids and sparrowhawks was destroying songthrushes, why not blackbirds? If greenfinches why not chaffinches? No, there are other, man-made, factors driving declines. And that problem must lie in the wider countryside, particularly with the way in which our environment is managed.
For a species to decline it must suffer from such things as food shortages, habitat destruction, unnatural levels of persecution, interruption of breeding cycles or a combination of these factors. The more specialised the species the more susceptible they become to change. If we take the case of the songthrush, it has shown huge declines in the wider countryside where intensive agricultural practices have degraded nesting and feeding sites as well as diminishing the volume of available food. All this leads to an inability of the species to breed successfully to a degree necessary to sustain the population. Mortality is high amongst birds and it seems year on year the number of fledglings making it through the winter to breed the following spring is too low to replenish those adults and young that die during the harshness of that season. In our gardens we poison slugs and snails, use pesticides to kill insects, tidy away anything we consider unsightly and effectively create a sterile mini landscape. No refuge here for our bespeckled friends. So numbers decline, and continue to decline year on year in a slow inexorable slide to local extinction. Blackbirds on the other hand are much better adapted to garden life, they are bigger, more aggressive and bolder than the thrushes, and will try their beaks out on a wider range of food. And I bet their density is higher in urban and suburban environments as opposed to the wider countryside. It really cannot be coincidence that declines in our wildlife populations - birds, mammals, invertebrates and flowers - over the last 50 years is matched to the changes in land management over the same period. And the maddening thing is we know it is so but are doing nothing about it. More infuriating still is the fact that we know how to fix things but simply don't seem at all inclined to do so.
Without wishing to be at all political (because it applies to some degree to all major parties), I listened to the economic statement given by the chancellor last week and not once was the environment mentioned. Not once was there any indication that nature in any form was valued, not once was there any pledge to plough cash into conservation. Plenty on home building, lots about investment on infrastructure, much about defence: nothing about the environment in which we all play out our lives. Economics and nature should not be mutually exclusive.
So, you may quite reasonably ask, where is this ramble leading? What answers is Madden going to bestow upon us? Sadly I don't have any answers, I'm not sure anyone does. But that shouldn't prevent us from caring, because if we truly care we may be moved to do something, or more to the point may mobilise the powers that be, i.e our government, to do something. Effectively force them to carry out their legal and moral obligations and start implementing the accumulated wisdom of a 21st century society. There are a few things we can do and for what it’s worth here is my take (not an exhaustive list). Sorry if I’m preaching to the converted and for clarity there is nothing in the list that I don’t do myself, so I know these things are very simple and very effective:
· Lobby your MP - we all have an elected MP representing us, why not take a few minutes to write to them on environmental issues you feel strongly about? Persecution of hen harriers, lead shot poisoning our countryside, sustainable palm oil supply would be a good start. They have a duty to listen and if enough people contact them over a particular issue they will be forced to take it seriously. You could also pen a missive to your local paper to document your concern. They seem only too willing to print well expressed letters which are likely to stimulate debate. At the very least you will be bringing an issue into the consciousness of the readership.
· Sign petitions - when an issue of real conservation concern surfaces, it is quite often the case that somebody, or some organisation, will start an on line petition through Gov UK. As I understand it these petitions have a six month life during which they need to attract 100,000 signatures to force a debate within parliament. If you read about such a petition and you agree with its sentiments then you should sign it. Not only should you sign it but you should share it with as many friends, family and acquaintances as possible. These things don't happen by themselves, they need people to make them happen. Good places to start are here and here.
· Join your local wildlife trust - in Norfolk it is of course Norfolk Wildlife Trust, but there is one representing every county. These organisations do a fantastic amount of high impact conservation work and channel their energies into local habitat acquisition and management as well as very important educational activity. It is well worth trawling through a website or two - this will be an excellent start - and you will see the range of activities undertaken by these immensely valuable bodies. Join today and directly help support wildlife in your own neck of the woods. If finance and inclination allows, you could also do much good by joining the RSPB thereby adding your voice to a body that now has real clout.
· Survey work - several organisations rely heavily on voluntary surveyors to help monitor populations of wild creatures. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) probably runs the most comprehensive set, some of which rely on casual observations of birds by members of the public. Birdtrack is one such survey and anybody can contribute. See here for more details. If you feel you have more time and appropriate identification skills there are several other surveys that provide invaluable data to inform government decision making on matters of serious conservation weight. Many other organisations run annual or occasional surveys that are aimed at the general public, i.e, all of us. You should all take part in such things as the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (next scheduled for 30th/31st January 2016) and Butterfly Conservation’s Garden Butterfly Survey, these take little time, are great fun and help collect information on population distribution and abundance that can be used to target conservation activity.
· Feed the birds - any argument along the lines that feeding birds in your garden is wrong because they become over dependent on artificial food sources should be ignored. Birds everywhere are under immense pressure and their natural food supplies are being depleted both in the wider countryside and nearer home. Feeding them regularly with high energy food can only be good. If you are worried about the over dependence argument then you can always stop the feeding for a few days so that the birds forage over a wider zone for a spell. Every day is a matter of survival for wild creatures: find food you live, fail and you die. Feed them, they need it.
It is certainly well too late for the poor passenger pigeon but it is not too late for the hedgehog and many other wild creatures in the UK and around the world. It was an inconceivable notion for the government of the USA that passenger pigeons would ever become threatened, let alone extinct. They were wrong. We must not make the same mistakes.