A wing and a prayer
It's been a tough year for many species. But others have thrived in 2007. Peter Marren reports
Thursday 20 December 2007
Winners and losers 2007
Where have all the eels gone? One of the staples of Cockney cuisine seems to have gone up in smoke. The slow rivers of eastern England, once a world stronghold for eels, have seen a 95% fall in eels since the 1970s. This is not only a misfortune for the eel, but also for rare species such as the otter and bittern which feed on it.
No one knows why eels have stopped visiting British rivers from their spawning grounds in the western Atlantic. Their journeys upriver are full of obstacles, such as weirs and dams, but many of these were there before. They are known to suffer from a parasitic worm that infests their swim bladders. But the most likely reason is changes in ocean currents triggered by climate change. Migrating eels are being fitted with satellite tags to find out.
It's enough to make a cat cry. Despite decades of legal protection, hundreds of studies, and millions of euros, this beautiful animal faces extinction in the wild. As recently as the 1980s, there were an estimated 1,000 lynxes in Spain and Portugal. Today there are just 100 left. Worse, there are only about 30 breeding females. Worse yet, their numbers are scattered, and only two small populations are viable.
Many lynxes are casualties of Spain's increasingly busy roads, but the main reason for the precipitate decline is starvation. Iberian lynxes are dependent on rabbits for food. But Spain's once-teeming rabbits have been reduced by disease: first myxomatosis, and now the VHD virus. Over large parts of Spain there are few, or no, rabbits left. Ultimately no rabbits means no lynxes. If it does die out, the Iberian lynx will be the first big cat to become globally extinct since the sabre-toothed tiger.
Many people find recordings of the haunting song of the humpback whale strangely therapeutic. Gatherings of this vast and friendly whale are favourite destinations for wildlife tourists, and bring in welcome income. Very much against world opinion, Japan has decided to resume hunting them. Last month, a Japanese whaling fleet set sail for South Pacific waters with instructions to kill up to 1,000 whales, including 50 humpbacks.
Japan is exploiting a loophole in the international rules for whaling, which allow countries to kill a whale or two for the purpose of scientific study. Since 1986, Japan has harpooned 7,656 minke whales, including 1,234 last year. It has also resumed hunting the officially endangered fin whale. The meat and other whale products are sold to consumers at market.
Japan claims that humpback numbers are back to levels that can sustain hunting. This is disputed, since humpbacks live in close-knit pods, and even one death can damage their social structure. Years ago, Peter Scott pointed out that whales are the easiest animal on the planet to save. All we need to do is stop hunting them. But that, it seems, is too much to ask.
Yangtze River dolphin
This strange-looking animal is one of the oldest animals on earth, the last survivor of a family that split from other dolphins 20 million years ago. It hunts fish in one of the world's great rivers, the mighty Yangtze. But the last definite sighting of one was four years ago, and in 2007 it was declared extinct. This bad news may be premature. Last August a probable survivor was spotted and videotaped. But, say scientists, even if a few individuals are still out there, the species is "functionally extinct". The last Yangtze River dolphins are too old to breed.
Some 12 per cent of the human race live within the catchment of the Yangtze. The river is a major highway, with many dams, and is in places badly polluted. The Three Gorges Dam, to supply China's growing energy needs, may have been the last straw. The Yangtze River dolphin is the first large mammal to be declared globally extinct for 50 years.
The distinguished jumper (UK)
Meet Britain's unluckiest spider. A dashing little beast, its buggy eyes and fur might remind you of a teddy bear, except that the distinguished jumper is only half an inch long. It is confined to two brownfield sites, both of them threatened by development. At one, the West Thurrock Marshes, the Post Office wants to build a giant warehouse and a lorry park. This, remember, is the institution that bases its publicity material on friendly little red ants.
Talk to a birder about lapwings and watch their eyes go moist. Not all that long ago it was an unusual farm that didn't have at least a couple of lapwings in the summer, and many more feeding on the stubble later on. But numbers are plummeting, especially in the lowlands. The RSPB believe it may soon be confined to nature reserves.
It seems everything has gone wrong: land drainage, drought, loss of mixed farms, over-grazing and all-autumn sowing. With such a comprehensive range of problems, turning the situation round will not be easy.
A flock of tinkling, yellow-flashing goldfinches has always been known as a charm: a charm of goldfinches. They are visiting our gardens in greater and greater numbers. This year the goldfinch overtook the starling as the 11th-commonest garden bird. At this rate there will soon be more goldfinches than sparrows (there already are in my garden).
What has caused this meteoric rise? The answer is probably the changing ways in which we feed our birds. A traditional bird table with scraps held little interest for this seed-eating finch. That changed with the rise of sunflower heads, and, especially, those narrow, black niger seeds that are now available in every pet shop. These oil-rich seeds are exactly the high-energy food a busy goldfinch needs, especially in the winter.
Not long ago it was billed as the world's rarest parrot (a title for which there is, unfortunately, stiff competition). It is the last survivor of a group of parrots inhabiting the Indian Ocean islands off Madagascar. 30 years ago it looked set to follow the others into oblivion: at one point there were only 10 ageing birds left. Introduced pigs devoured their favourite native fruits, and introduced rats ate their eggs. Not that the parrots had many places left to lay them in any case, since, thanks to clearances, the island was also running out of suitable old trees.
A dedicated effort was made to save them, and the solution was nest boxes. Designed to resemble a cavity in a hollow tree, the boxes are hung up on specially trimmed trees, with plastic sheeting stapled to the trunk to deter rats. And to make absolutely sure, rat poison is sprinkled on the ground below. There are now more than 300 Mauritius Parakeets and this year its status was changed from "critically endangered" to merely "endangered".
The Adonis Blue (UK)
All right, 2007 was among the worst years ever for British butterflies. But after the dull, rain-drenched summer things started to pick up in late August. And if you were walking on the downs, especially near the sea, you might have seen hundreds of these brilliant butterflies, coloured somewhere between lapis lazuli and the Mediterranean sky. To see even one Adonis Blue makes your day; to see them in large numbers is unforgettable.
Being rare, pretty and a butterfly guarantees you a lot of attention. Nature reserves have helped, as have farm stewardship payments. Together they mean more land is managed in ways that suit this very fussy butterfly than in the recent past. But the Adonis Blue also seems to be benefiting from climate change, and moving into places where it has not been seen for decades.
North Sea cod (UK)
Cod and chips is back on the menu. This week it is likely that quotas for North Sea cod will be lifted. For the first time in decades British fishermen are to be allowed to catch more cod. Stocks in the North Sea have shown a modest upturn, say fishery scientists, sufficient to sustain an increased fishery. European ministers will no doubt give themselves a pat on the back that our cod stocks have not followed those of Newfoundland into oblivion.
If so, the rejoicing may be premature. Numbers of mature cod are still only half of what they were in the 1960s. Some fear that raising the quotas will start a fishing bonanza that may wreck the progress made in the past 20 years. Still, in 2007 at least, cod is among the winners.
For an animal that is rarely seen except as a squashed corpse on a country road, the polecat is doing remarkably well. Closely related to the ferret, but distinguished by an appropriately bandit-like black marking across its eyes, the polecat is among our least-known animals. In the past it was persecuted ruthlessly by gamekeepers, and if it had not had the uplands of Wales to hide out in, it would probably be extinct by now.
A recent survey carried out by the Vincent Wildlife Trust shows that polecats have reclaimed much of their former range in the English Midlands and south. Like the buzzard, it has benefited from a more relaxed attitude to predators. As well as fewer gamekeepers.
Canada goose (UK)
When you watch this noisy, sociable bird at a gravel pit or in a park it's hard to imagine it as anything other than a honking, screaming success. Yet a century ago it was a seriously endangered bird. In its native North America, where everyone had a gun, it was almost shot out of existence.
What saved the Canada goose was conservation. What turned it into one of the most successful large birds on earth is its tolerance to man. It likes our parks, lawns, golf courses and gravel pits. It likes the low numbers of predators in towns and even likes the bags of stale bread fed to it by urban goose fans. Pound for pound, this is the winner of winners.
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