The Wildlife Trusts recently released a little film based upon The Wind In The Willows, designed to show how our precious British wildlife is in trouble and calling us to rally together to act to save it.
It is powerful and very well done. But something (other than Ratty’s accent) has been bothering me. It’s taken me a while to put my finger on what it is exactly, but I think I have it:
The film begins with typical scenes from the story, Mole and Ratty having a picnic in a beautiful lush riverside meadow, Badger at home in his underground house, Toad speeding down verdant country lanes on his latest fad, a motorbike… and then all changes. Bulldozers move in, the countryside is laid to waste with roads and the earth churned up to build more. The river, once lush and clear, is now dirty brown with obvious pollution pouring in and litter everywhere. The animals are left stranded.
It certainly highlights in dramatic fashion how our nature is losing its homes.
But. This is not our experience, is it?
When we go outside, generally all seems fine if we are honest. The countryside and parks are still lush and green. Our rivers run clear. The sun shines, the birds sing, flowers bloom. Sure, there is rather too much litter in places, and the odd road or housing development is going up here and there, but it is not the scene of utter devastation the film depicts.
That vision, to me, feels too disconnected from reality. I struggle to connect what I see with my eyes with the message that nature is losing its home here in our land. It would be all too easy to see the film, take a look out the window, shrug and carry on. It can’t really be all that bad! Not here.
That disconnect is the big problem.
Nature is in absolute crisis. In spite of green appearances, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the entire world, ranking a shocking 189th out of 218 countries studied in terms of how intact our nature is. The vast majority of the country has lost its natural habitat and balance of native wild species; whereas once the country was largely woodland, today just 13% of the country is wooded and much of that is under a century old. We have lost 98% of our wildflower meadows* in under a century. Over half our species have declined since 1970, the figures similar even if we just look at this century, and 15%, that’s 1.5 out of every 10, are either extinct or threatened with extinction in the UK. Of the almost 8,000 species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish and invertebrates studied for the State Of Nature Report 2016**, 56% are in decline.
It’s true that the British landscape does not look all that different from when I was a kid growing up in the 1980s.
I visit my parents, who still live in the same place, and things are apparently almost unchanged in all that time (barring a few housing developments of the outskirts of the city that have encroached onto what had been farmland). It is entirely recognisable and familiar, still green and pleasant semi-rural England, not a trace of post-apocalyptic wasteland.
But then I cast my mind back.
My earliest nature memories are of my parents’ fairly ordinary suburban garden. It had tall deciduous hedges running down both sides, and a couple of apple trees at the far end. We had a patio, flower bed, lawn and veg patch. The neighbouring gardens were not dissimilar, though they differed in the amount of open lawn. I remember song thrushes bashing snails on the rocks in the flower beds, blackbirds and robins nesting in the hedges (on one dramatic occasion a blackbird nest was raided by a magpie and ‘I’ aged about 4, presumably with a certain amount of help, wrote in to a TV nature programme about it and had my letter read out!), and being frequently startled by frogs jumping out of the vegetation at me as I walked past in the summer! I remember having to scare off the rowdy flocks of starlings that descended if we tried to feed to birds to make sure the other birds got a look in. Occasionally, a lesser-spotted woodpecker called in and sat on our peanut feeder, shyly edging round to the back if it thought it was being watched. And sadly I remember having to get my parents to check up and down the road in the mornings for dead hedgehogs so I knew when to look away as I walked to school each day. Thankfully we often saw the live animals snuffling about the garden on summer evenings too, but the sad sights on the street were all too frequent. Every year we knew spring had arrived when we woke one morning to the sound of a cuckoo singing somewhere nearby, most usually in the trees of a neighbouring garden.
Out and about, our favourite local walk took us out down the back lanes from our large, suburban village into the countryside, where as a child I liked to see all the different farm animals. Along the lanes we would see flocks of swooping swallows, hear yellowhammers singing for bread and no cheese, a song I learnt very early on, and frequently spotted owls and partridges. Drive anywhere and the skies were full of lapwings, year round, a sight so everyday I blanked them. And on summer evenings, even as a teenager in the 90s, the car would become liberally decorated with insect remains, the lights often picking up small animals darting across the road or swooping bats or owls. A walk along the canal in early summer almost always guaranteed you the sight of a cuckoo, and the waterside hedges were alive with warblers singing away.
It all looks much the same today. The village, fields, lanes, canals and hedges are all still there, even if some of the hedges are now rather sparse in places. But if I compare my experiences back then with my experience of the same landscapes now, something has changed.
The song thrushes, hedgehogs, cuckoos and lesser-spotted woodpeckers are gone from the neighbourhood. There are still thrushes out there, but they are shy woodland birds, no longer the common garden snail-bashers that children would grow up familiar with. I don’t recall the last time I even saw a hedgehog dead in a rural area, much less in a town or village, or a live animal. Today it seems unthinkable that the latter two species would ever occur in a suburban garden at all, much less within an ordinary agricultural landscape like the one I grew up in. It’s an exciting day when a frog is spotted; they no longer spawn in the pond. Starlings are seen in small numbers in the winter, but are gone by spring; the great winter murmurations I used to watch from my bedroom window are now something to travel to a nature reserve or seaside town to witness, the noisy bird-table-raiding summer flocks a thing of the past. And it is now a rare neighbourhood with gardens as green as those I grew up with. Perhaps slug pellet use may have gone down in that time – but so has acceptance of trees, hedges and ponds. Most gardens are still green, but that green is typically lawn, low maintenance ornamental planting, or even plastic turf, walled in by solid, wildlife-proof fences.
Last time we walked out along the lanes, to my delight we did indeed see swallows and a yellowhammer – but I certainly don’t see so many these days. Most of the time I am out and about in the countryside in summer these days I would expect to see a few swallows, but would get excited if I encountered a yellowhammer as a rare treat. If I see partridges now, they are the introduced red legged partridge, and usually they are present in large numbers with the equally introduced pheasant – any there is always a game release not far away. The native grey partridges are gone. In contrast to my childhood experience, I have perhaps seen two in this country in my adult life, despite being a keen birder. I no longer see lapwings at all when I visit my parents unless we go to a wetland nature reserve in winter or happen to see a few passing high overhead. It’s been some time since the farmland in their area played host to the flocks it used to. Where I now live in the south west I do see them – but I know I am privileged to live in cycling distance of one of their last two breeding grounds in the region, a nature reserve where the field they breed on has to be protected from predators by use of an electric fence, so precarious their existence here has become. Driving about on a summer’s evening no longer requires screenwash, and rarely affords the sight of an owl or a small shape running across the road, unless it is a rabbit or fox. And to see a cuckoo these days requires a special trip to one of their last strongholds; here, that means hunting about on Dartmoor, where small numbers cling on, or a visit to the nature reserves of the Somerset Levels. They are gone elsewhere, and certainly would no longer be seen or heard by the canal near my parents. Lesser-spotted woodpeckers? Wow. Ancient woodland only, and only if you listen and look very carefully.
All of this in my short lifetime in a landscape still so green and familiar. Nothing seems to have changed, yet casting my mind back, everything has.
The disconnect goes deeper too.
I believe the British public care about nature; the current outrage over single-use plastic generated by Blue Planet is an obvious sign of this. But here is the problem; because of the visibility of this issue, I get the impression most people think that this is the biggest threat nature faces. This was highlighted in a recent survey by Surfers Against Sewage, asking their members what they thought the biggest threats to the ocean were and what they should therefore focus their campaigning on. Plastic*** topped the poll. In reality, as visibly disgusting as plastic pollution is, it is only one small aspect of pollution affecting our land and marine environment, and pollution itself as a whole, though important, is having a much lesser impact on nature than other less visible issues. In the oceans, climate change and over-exploitative and damaging fishing practices are by far and away the biggest causes of loss, whilst on land, agricultural change, climate change again, and other forms of habitat loss such as wetland drainage or changes in forest management are driving the declines. Unlike plastic, none of this results in a sea less blue or a countryside less green, but catastrophe is unfolding nonetheless.
The barren nightmare vision of the Wildlife Trusts’ film is not what ecological crisis really looks like, most of the time. In all honesty, whilst most our nature is declining imperceptibly, there are a few evident species we can see bucking the trends, as species like buzzards and otters recolonise and the occasional conservation success is rightly heralded, making it even harder to see the underlying problem. In spite of the shocking declines nature is experiencing, more than half of the British public actually think that nature is in a better state today than 50 years ago.
Ecological crisis in reality looks deceptively green and pleasant, whilst our expectations of our experience of nature gradually, imperceptibly erode.
We look out on a countryside that still feels delightfully lush to ourselves. But what we can’t easily see is that to nature, the landscape is becoming a green desert, fields being cropped and harvested at the wrong times of year for ground nesting birds, hedges left to grow straggly and sparse or cut or flailed so hard back that they no longer afford safe nesting cover, and wild plants, ‘weeds’, being so near eradicated from arable land, pasture, verges and gardens that there is very little food available across vast swathes of landscape for pollinating insects, seed eaters, or the creatures that eat them. Invasive species have invaded, our riverbanks now festooned in beautiful Himalayan balsam and buddleia, leaving no room for wildflowers or the invertebrates that rely on them, whilst in the water signal crayfish and mink prey upon native species. Even pasture land has changed – from species-rich grassy meadows full of different grasses and wild plants, supporting all manner of other species and grazed by a range of different cattle breeds, much pasture now is a near monoculture of pure grass, grazed by high milk-yielding, intensive breeds of cattle. Still green, even more lush – but unwelcoming to nature.
I might well still be able to go out and have a nice picnic by a verdant riverside – but I would be accompanied today by fewer singing birds, blooming wildflowers and buzzing insects than I would 100 years ago, and would be very unlikely to bump into Ratty or Toad.
We need to wake up to what we’ve lost, in spite of appearances, and lift our expectations. Somehow we have to scratch the surface and see how impoverished we have become, and turn things around. Whatever the shortcomings of the Wildlife Trusts’ film, we should step up to its challenge to get involved and call for greater action to protect our nature. There is still time – where we make an effort and intervene we can and do turn declines around, and examples like the RSPB’s Hope Farm have shown it is possible to run a profitable modern farming business in a way that still benefits nature – but we must wake up and see what we are not seeing.
*That is, real species-rich grassland, a habitat vital to a huge diversity of species, which is not the same as beds planted with annual flower mixes. Most of our wildflowers are not even annuals at all! This figure comes from the Save Our Magnificent Meadows project.
**All other stats in this paragraph come from this report, pulled together by over 50 different conservation and research organisations.
***Most marine plastic is in fact not single-use plastic such as bottles and carrier bags, but microplastics from a range of sources (including the synthetic fibres of our clothes), and fishing gear.