The decline in flora and fauna is undoubtedly a world-wide issue. With the now heightened onset of global warming, relentless deforestation in developing countries and continual pollution of our oceans, conservation groups are increasingly on the frontline around the world fighting to reverse the damage. The issue of habitat loss and species decline recently made headlines across the globe when 7 species of Yellow-Faced bees native only to Hawaii were added to the US Endangered Species list for the first time. Bees are the single most important species of animal for human survival, responsible for over 80% of pollination worldwide including agricultural commodities that we depend upon which equates to a staggering amount of the foods and drinks that we consume every day and often without thought.
The plight of bees is a subject that I am passionate about and is one that in recent years has found its way onto political agendas and into the minds of ordinary people across the world. This is of course a good thing; education is the most invaluable tool in the armoury of conservation. It is however no coincidence that some of this rise in concern for bees is heavily driven by self-preservation attitudes. The loss of bees has a clear impact on man, on farming, trade, industry and therefore the issue inevitably transcends the usual barriers of conservation work, the ‘does anybody really care?’, ‘does this affect me?’ or ‘haven’t we got more important things to do?’ attitudes and receives attention from global media and Governments. Do not misinterpret me, I am thankful of the new-found attention for bees though the battle is not yet won whilst Governments, ours included, still condone the use of neonicotinoids and deny the obvious detriments its use incurs. What irks me is if it takes this self-preservation attitude to raise the plight of our natural world onto the political stage then there is something fundamentally wrong, something that leaves me saddened and is something that will continue to see many species miss out on the help that they need.
Closer to home the recently released 2016 State of Nature report makes for some uncomfortable reading. The report is a culmination of work and research undertaken by more than 50 leading conservation groups across the UK. Astonishingly the report reveals that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world with a staggering 1 in 10 species now under threat of extinction.
Herein lays another conservation conundrum and something I find difficult to level in my own mind. In the UK we are now more familiar with overseas wildlife than ever before thanks to some wonderful television documentaries and with this we are now far more aware of the plight of animals in decline and under persecution such as the big cats, Rhinos and Elephants. Has this appetite for the exotic and extraordinary rendered our own wildlife too ordinary or less interesting? The big predators, crocodiles, cats, wolves, bares, the exotic snakes, spiders and tropical birds are what draw in the crowds and so we rightly cater for it, any awareness is good awareness, but has our perceived lack of such beasts in the UK diluted our appetite for our own native wildlife, beige in the public imagination? Alongside this, international ad campaigns created by high-profile international charities highlighting the struggle of these animals have become common place on our silver screens requesting donations for causes ranging from the protection of Tigers to the sponsoring of Polar Bears. Recently Prince William became the first member of the Royal Family to feature prominently in an advertising campaign alongside David Beckham designed for Chinese television appealing to consumers of the ivory trade in an effort to quell the demand for Rhino horn and Elephant tusk. We can all agree that this is a worthy cause but I’m yet to see a star-studded advert for the protection of Hedgehogs or Tree Sparrows. In fact I’m yet to see an advert at all. Should there be more documentaries raising awareness on the effects of intensive farming, habitat destruction and the use of pesticides on the High Brown Fritilary butterfly, the Marsh Grasshopper or Great Crested newt? Something to engage the public with the plight of wildlife on their own doorsteps? I’m not blaming film makers, the job they do is invaluable. I suspect our lack of appetite for native wildlife makes creating successful documentaries and ad campaigns a difficult task.
I am not in the business of turning my back on animals of the world. It is an international issue and requires an international response. The world is an ecosystem in itself, ever at the mercy of the butterfly effect. We are committed to spending funds raising awareness or scientifically studying the fauna of the Amazon or the aquatic life of the Indian Ocean yet 1 in 10 of our native species is facing extinction and much of our wildlife is understudied and misunderstood. If we could tackle our own conservation needs to greater success then a president is set for the rest of the world and at the moment we may just be neglecting our own doorstep for the big stars of the jungle. Before we know it, another species has dropped off the list, disappeared without a trace, worse still without a thought. Without a care.
I strongly believe that education is pivotal in the success of conservation. In this technological, fast-moving age where time is a commodity fewer and fewer of us possess it is all too easy to forget that a natural world exists beyond our computer screens, our office desks, our car windows. With global warming and habitat loss now receiving more attention who will carry the fight forward if we do not educate properly the next generation? Environment and environmental issues should be on the school curriculum in a big way. It is a modern cliché to say ‘well the kids don’t care, they are busy on the Xbox, the Playstation, the Ipad, their mobile phone’ but it is a cliché that carries some weight. Seemingly gone are those hazy summer days of pond dipping, tree climbing, bug catching that many of our generation remember so fondly yet have neglected to pass along. Wouldn’t education in the outdoors with muddy fingers be more engaging than from behind a desk in a whitewash classroom?
Phil Aglands current documentary series China: Between Clouds and Dreams has beautifully captured Chinese children becoming engaged with nature and ecology set against the backdrop of, in Phils own words ‘China grappling with the reality of global warming and ecological collapse in its pursuit of an ambitious new future’. In a global superpower where air and water pollution alongside habitat destruction is still rife and rising, these children have taken on the role of conservationist with embrace and passion. The moments of realisation at the destruction of their homeland and its wild inhabitants are heart-achingly sad to watch but their dedication, commitment and understanding of what is at stake is powerfully heart-warming. The children, through education, are now so well-informed that they have become teacher to their parents and grandparents.
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. Success stories are starting to emerge. Just today the Beaver has been granted ‘native’ status following its successful reintroduction to Scotland. Red Squirrels and Red Kites have become the poster-boys of our conservation successes, our marker in the sand.
Last week the charming Cirl Bunting made headlines in a good way. It is a story that has brought significant hope and satisfaction but also a story of the power of education. The number of farmland birds in the UK has declined by 54% since 1970 due to intensive farm and agricultural changes but this little bird has shown that bucking the trend is possible. By 1989 the Cirl Bunting numbered just 118 pairs across the whole of Britain and extinction became a distinct possibility but thanks to some incredible work by the RSPB, Natural England and local farmers in the south-west of England numbers this year have peaked at 1078 pairs. The success is thanks to a 25 year project between these groups which encouraged farmers to take up the Country Stewardship Scheme, offering financial incentives to manage their land in a more Cirl Bunting-friendly way, leaving crops to go to stubble after harvest and provide seed food during colder months as well as planting and maintaining grassland field margins to encourage insects for summer feed. The initiative saw a boom in other farmland species too, with Linnets, Skylarks and Yellowhammers all thriving.
The State of Nature report has undoubtedly revealed some awkward truths. Public and political attitude has been slow to recognise the frailties of much of our natural world and slower still to recognise that nature is not a commodity to be owned, tamed or traded, a separate and unconnected entity below the pecking order of our own human existence. We have spent so long destroying so much of it that we owe it to our future generations to make recompense. Gandhi said that ‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.’ It is easy to forget that the world isn’t ours. We do not own it. Thankfully, with a little education, attitudes are changing.