Thursday, 13 June 2013

The state of nature - a call for action

Have you noticed changes in our natural world over your lifetime? Without keeping records it’s difficult to know what nature is doing… I grew up in the heart of the Derbyshire hills, with a pond full of great crested newts & frogs and a garden full of birds & wildlife.  I would lie in the grass watching the birds perching above my head, watch little newly hatched froglets leap from the grass as I walked through it, collect the caterpillers from the swept up dead leaves in autumn & put them out for the birds & watch them all feast on them (cruel?), I’d feed sugar solution to ants (and occasionally the odd insect out of curiosity). If I’d stayed in the same place would I have noticed declines in the species found in our garden? I now live in a city, so it’s difficult to compare.  I can say that we clearly have a local abundance of clothes moths, and with all the wonderfully wet summers, an abundance of snails & slugs (even in the house!). I see the small group of swifts above the city with a mix of joy (such a wonderful sound of summer, the sound of swifts overhead), and depression (it seems such a small group of swifts – surely there should be more?).

An abundance of snails in Ford Park Cemetary, Plymouth :)
So how is nature doing?  Well recently the nature NGOs released a report called ‘The State of Nature’ examining all available data to look at how nature is doing in the whole of the UK. It is based on the best available data for detecting trends in species abundance and distribution – whether by scientists, or the UK’s huge network of nature enthusiasts who volunteer their time to help survey or simply report their sightings*.  Reading the report is pretty depressing reading.  For all habitat types (marine, coastal, wetland, farmland, uplands, lowlands (e.g. heaths), woodlands & urban) 60% of all species have declined over the last 50 years & 31% have declined strongly.  I don’t need to examine the science behind these statements – the statements are based on science.  I guess the only thing that should be emphasised about the report is that (as it says itself) it is only examines trends for species with enough data – this is just a fraction of all the species found in the UK.  For example, as a marine biologist, I know that very little is known about the trends of most marine species: they are difficult to study being below the sea, and many species range over large distances making it even more difficult to monitor their status (more on this in my next blog post).

Why should it matter?! I’m sometimes asked this question – why does it matter that we lose 70% of our invertebrates (flies, beetles, spiders, moths, butterflies…)? – because inverts have fared the worst according to the report. Well inverts are easy – they are essential for pollination – there’d be no crops if we didn’t have our pollinators (or at least we’d have to hand pollinate our crops… and I don’t know what that involves but it sounds pretty labour intensive). Every species has its place in the ecosystem, helping it to function, and providing value to us in the form of food (fish, crops, food for our cattle…), maintaining climate (trees lock away large amounts of carbon, so helping control climate change), and a multitude of other functions. 

You can evaluate how much value nature provides us with in economic terms & it is enormous (this is called ecosystem services).  For example, there is a really neat paper recently published looking at the economic value provided by streams passing through plantation forests. Plantation forests tend to be pretty lacking in value to nature (densely packed trees, lack of variety in species…), & there tends to be a lack of dead wood that would be natural in any other wooded or forested ecosystem.  Dead wood plays a really important role in forests and woods, providing clearings for smaller plants to thrive, providing and abundance of food and homes for a host of fungi, plants and animals to thrive.  And dead wood in streams is vital for a range of purposes including water purification (as well as increased number of stream life!).  Water flowing through intensively managed forests does not have the dead wood input which reduces food to river fish, and the water flowing into reservoirs is unfiltered so any organic material (eg. leaves) are just swept into the reservoirs, fall to the botttom & rots, polluting the drinking water (this is a rather brief oversimplified description!).  Their simple study showed that just by adding dead wood to streams in managed forests provided huge value simply for ensuring a pure source of water for us to drink, nevermind the other benefits on biodiversity, fish, and recreation.  They showed a 10 to 100 times increase in the economic value of the stream with the increase of dead wood.

This type of study (this is one of many on this growing field) shows the value of nature in terms of monetary value (since this is the way that our society functions). But on a personal level, for me nature is something that I could not do without on an emotional level. I, like many, love walking through the woods, hearing the birds sing, hear the wind rustle through the trees, hear the buzz of bees around flowers, watch the breeze ruffle meadows of grasses and flowers, delight in hedgehogs snuffling around, even delight in watching a snail unfurl its tentacles and make its slow progression across the lawn… and nature has been shown to have huge benefit to children. I spent my childhood running around outside, escaping out the bottom of the garden to run around in the fields. Nature is an adventure ground for children… and I don’t know about other parents out there, but my girls are happiest when they are outside enjoying the fresh air & most tetchy when cooped up in the house. [good link here for article on reconnecting children with nature]

So nature is important, both economically and emotionally. Thus the 'State of Nature' report (well worth a read) should be a wake-up call, a call for action… in my view, a call for change. The report is littered with positive stories, stories of actions that we have taken that have rescued species from the edge, reversed declines. We can make a difference, both at an individual level (manage your garden for wildlife, put a pond in your garden, report your nature sightings, lobby government to change policies), and at a government level (e.g. giving protection to all 127 marine conservation zones, giving our protected areas more protection e.g. not allowing development on SSSIs or other important areas for nature, protect our pollinators…).

Bluebells in National Trust owned Plymbridge woods & ploughed up to make the new mountain bike trail :(
My personal view is that in the longer term there also needs to be a total change in culture, to one where nature is valued as a necessary commodity, where the value of the services that nature provides us with is included in decision making… an ecological economy.  However culture changes take time, so for now let’s use the ‘State of Nature’ as a call for action, and cheer ourselves with the thought that with nature, even one person can make a big difference :)

To follow: a focus on the state of our seas (Marine conservation zones, fisheries management & effects of climate change)

…& I think a guide to wildlife gardening, since alongside protection of rare and important habitats, gardens can make a huge difference to many of our UK species, and provide an interconnected web of patches of habitat for a range of species (& its about time I put a pond in my garden… I miss my pond life!).

* Have a smart phone? Then there are lots of Apps available for reporting sightings! E.g. on my phone I have ‘Tree Alert’ & ‘AshTag’ for reporting tree diseases, ‘Magpie Mapper’ for reporting any magpie sightings, ‘BirdTrack’ for reporting any bird species sightings, and report all my reptile & frog sightings to ARGuk via the web.

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