Compensation culture, part 1

If you ever come across an octogenarian, life-long birdwatcher buy him – for it will almost invariably be a chap – a drink and ask him to tell you about birdwatching in his youth. He will, I’m sure, amaze you with tales of common encounters on countryside walks with birds such as corn buntings, tree sparrows, turtle doves and grey partridges, all of which can be very hard to find today. And his tales won’t be just the creation of nostalgic yearnings for a golden past: data from field surveys published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reveal that, over the period from 1970 to 2014, the overall decline of a group of twelve bird species that are “restricted to, or highly dependent on, farmland habitats”, which include the four that I have singled out, was 69 per cent. The position regarding those four species is, however, significantly worse; populations of all four having declined by 90 per cent, or more, between 1970 and 2013 (see footnote 1).

More easily encountered farmland birds have fared little better over the same period: lapwing has declined by 66 per cent, linnet by 60 per cent, skylark by 60 per cent, and yellowhammer by 55 per cent (see footnote 1).

Defra concedes that these large declines “have many known and potential causes” (see footnote 2). Pinpointing the reasons is difficult enough for resident birds, but for migrants such as turtle dove changing conditions on their migration route and in their wintering grounds are likely to be contributing factors as well as what is happening in the UK. Nevertheless, migrant birds spend the critical breeding period in the UK and the UK population of many “resident” species is swollen in winter by visiting birds seeking our comparatively mild climate, so the hospitableness of the UK’s environment is crucial to the future of many bird species.

The Defra publication identifies “land management changes and the intensification of farming” in the UK as the cause of “many of the declines” in farmland species abundance and also implicates human activity, including its putative connection with climate change, in declines in the populations of other avian classes (see footnote 2).

According to Defra, “bird populations have long been considered to provide a good indication of the broad state of wildlife in the UK” (see footnote 3): if so, then our natural environment is clearly not doing very well, and it would appear that humans must take much of the blame for this.

Indeed, a key study published by a partnership of more than fifty organisations involved in the recording, researching and conservation of nature in the UK and its Overseas Territories, styling themselves the State of Nature partnership (see footnote 4), indicates that there has been a widespread loss of nature in the UK. This study collated UK population trend data from 3,816 different freshwater and terrestrial species over the period 1970 to 2013 – dubbed the “long-term” – and found that 56 per cent of those species exhibited a decline, with 40 per cent showing strong or moderate declines. A similar analysis for the period 2002 to 2013 (the “short term”), but using data from 3,794 species, revealed very similar results: 53 per cent having declined, and 41 per cent exhibiting strong or moderate declines (see footnote 5).

A technique that the State of Nature partnership’s report describes as “a new measure to assess how intact a country’s biodiversity is”, the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BIL), puts the UK twenty-ninth from bottom in a list of 218 countries for which BIL estimates are available. It has been proposed that the minimum BIL level for ecosystems to “reliably meet society’s needs” is 90 per cent, and the UK, with a BIL estimated at 81 per cent, is clearly some way short of meeting this threshold. The report also warns that, due to limitations in the methodology that has been employed to assess BIL, “the UK’s true BIL may be even lower” than has been stated (see footnote 6).

The State of Nature partnership’s report also makes an assessment of 7,964 terrestrial and freshwater species for the likelihood of their extinction from Great Britain, using the “Red List” standardised approach: of these, 1,057 (13 per cent) “are thought to be at risk of extinction from Great Britain”, and 142 (2 per cent) are “known to have gone extinct from Great Britain”. Of course, some degree of “natural turnover” is to be expected – according to Mr Darwin that’s what leads to evolutionary improvement (although he, I believe, envisaged imperceptible change over eons, rather than decades) – so it is, perhaps, difficult to judge how alarmed we should be by these figures. Nevertheless, that there is clear cause for concern is indicated by another recent assessment, albeit relating only to 247 bird species and using a different methodology, that red-listed 67 species (27 per cent) in 2015, showing “a substantial increase” from the 52 species that were identified in 2009 (see footnote 7).

In his foreword to the State of Nature partnership’s report, Sir David Attenborough (see footnote 8), whilst acknowledging that “our wonderful nature is in serious trouble”, sees “cause for hope” in the conservation and restoration work that has answered “the rallying call” that the partnership issued with its previous report in 2013. Whilst I understand why Sir David is keen to encourage this work, I feel that he is being unduly optimistic and is out of step with the body of the report, which opines (see footnote 9):

“The loss of nature in the UK continues. Although many short-term trends suggest improvement, there was no statistical difference between our long and short-term measures of species’ change, and no change in the proportion of species threatened with extinction.”

Clearly, whilst one can point to conservation successes in individual species, overall current efforts are achieving little more than to maintain rates of decline, and this is clearly not good enough.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. For the overall decline see Figure 2b of the report Wild Bird Populations in the UK, 1970 to 2014 Annual statistical release, Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, 29thOctober 2015. Data for each of the twelve species are tabulated in Annex A to that report, on page 28.
  2. See the section Factors affecting bird populations on pages 2 and 3 of Wild Bird Populations in the UK, 1970 to 2014 Annual statistical release.
  3. See the section Why monitor bird populations? on page 2 of Wild Bird Populations in the UK, 1970 to 2014 Annual statistical release.
  4. The partnership members are listed on pages 84 and 85 of the report Hayhow D B, et al, State of Nature 2016, the State of Nature partnership.
  5. See the section Our key findings on page 8 of State of Nature 2016.
  6. See the section A UK-wide perspective on “biodiversity intactness” on page 71 of State of Nature 2016. I have also used a quote that appears on page 6.
  7. See the subsection National Red Lists on page 9 of State of Nature 2016.
  8. Sir David Attenborough has amassed far too many honours, awards and distinctions to list his post-nominal letters in the text, but to give him the respect he deserves they are OM CH CVO CBE FRS FRSB FLS FZS FSA.
  9. See pages 3 and 6 of State of Nature 2016.
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