25 May 2013

No Answer to Nature's Decline

The above photo is of a blogger, Rebecca Hosking, as a child in the early 1980s looking for fish in a local stream. She now runs a farm in Devon "using ecological practises that go way beyond just organic". In a post, Wildlife through the eyes of my forebears, she talks about the loss of wildlife each generation witnesses. In the 1920s salmon, trout and eels swam in the stream. By the 1950s, when her father was dabbling in the water, the salmon had gone. In her childhood the trout had disappeared and only small eels were left. Today, she says there are no fish at all.

I think we all have similar stories. My experiences of wildlife must have been different from those of my parent's, and I know for sure my children haven't been as deeply immersed in nature as I was on my holidays in the 1970s.

In this post I want to say something about the recent report, 'State of Nature', published by the RSPB and 24 other wildlife organisations. You might have heard about it on the radio or seen an article in a newspaper. The headline findings are that 60% of wildlife populations have declined since 1968. The details are too depressing to go into, so I won't, but what I do want to do is highlight the report's conclusions and recommendations ... in that there aren't any.

The first I heard of the report (having kept away from environmental news because it's such a downer) was a gentle discussion on the BBCs Breakfast programme. A toad (when was the last time you saw one of those?) had been brought into the studio for Bill and Susannah to giggle over, and the report authors were all smiley and reassuring saying 'yes, things are bad, but if you plant some wildlife friendly plants in your garden all will be well.'

I spluttered into my shredded wheat.

Why wasn't anyone angry? Why was no one saying this is a nationwide (in reality worldwide) tragedy, and these are the actions we have to take to stop it?

The report is a PDF online, 92 pages, with a foreword by David Attenborough, some nice photography ... and no final conclusion or list of recommendations for government and business to take action on.

The achievement is in the compilation of a large number of surveys in a wide variety of habitats, and it does make interesting reading. The RSPB have done a good job. There is now a baseline of information from which experts can work further.

This is a good thing, but gathering and analysing numbers doesn't in itself provide answers.

Wouldn't the publication of this report have been an ideal time to push influential people into making changes or at least promises?

So where could changes be made? If research has discovered the causes of population decline these areas must be the basis of any changes. Here are the causes the report highlights:
  • "ultimately due to the way we are using our land"
  • climate change
  • poor management or neglect
  • recreational disturbance
  • coastal development, cliff stabilisation 
  • changes to agricultural practises
  • loss of green spaces
  • fragmentation of habitat
  • tidier gardening
... apart from climate change (and that is debatable) the cause is solely down to the activities of humanity.

Hidden in the text, but not presented in a final chapter, are some recommended actions:
  • targeted conservation
  • provide space for nature in your garden
  • reduce your carbon footprint
  • volunteer at a local nature reserve
  • take part in identification surveys
  • agri-environmental schemes
  • designation of nature reserves
  • protection of sites in the planning system
  • landscape-scale conservation projects
... a hodge-podge of very smallscale (and ineffective?) personal actions to large projects that require the goodwill and coordination of state and business interests.

I suppose the authors would say the final aim of the report was not to provide answers, but to supply information.

But I wonder if the people in the field, who witness the hollowing out of our natural world, can't clearly articulate methods to stop the halt, then who can? And, more importantly, who has the will to do so?

That, I think, is the key. The problems are multiple and complex. At a local level local people can work hard to maintain the health and diversity of their local wildlife, but this problem is of a national scale. If laws are to be made and large amounts of money spent then it is people of power who need to be persuaded. This report does not do that. It has managed to worry people interested in conservation (and viewers of breakfast TV), but does it have the teeth to force any significant engagement with these issues by the people who can affect things on the large scale - who can change the way we use the land?