Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The tragic loss of British wildlife

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Some truths are never voiced because they are virtually impossible to perceive. For example, I have never heard anyone declare how appallingly impoverished Britain's wildlife is. That's not the subject of a national debate (although it ought to be). That's not even a national perception. In fact, I don't know if it's anybody's perception. But it's no less than the truth.

I have spent most of my life hearing time and again a peculiarly smug proposition, which is that "Britain's xxxx is the best in the world." Fill in the exes at your leisure from a long list: civil service, dinner-party conversation, breadth of heritage, movie technology, sense of humour, overseas broadcasting, gentlemen's tailoring, armed forces, you name it. It's a statement which trips ever so comfortably off the tongue. But how would you like to be told: "Britain's wildlife is among the poorest in the world"? How would that look on a tourist poster?

Not that what we have isn't wonderful in itself, not that we don't cherish every feather, every flower, every footprint of it. But the fact remains that our wildlife today, British biodiversity, is but a mean, miserly fraction of what its true, "natural" level is, of what it has been in the past and what it really ought to be. And we are blind to the fact.

The reason is a curious one: every generation tends to take what it finds around it to be the norm. American marine biologists have coined an evocative term for this: the shifting-baseline syndrome, first applied to the management of fish stocks. You may think that the baseline, or natural state, of a stock is what it was at the start of your career, yet actually it may once have been very much greater. And of course this applies right across the natural world – to poppies, to skylarks, to tortoiseshell butterflies, of which your grandparents saw thousands, your parents saw hundreds, you saw dozens, and your children will see the odd one and never apprehend there is anything amiss. They will gaze on impoverishment and take it as standard.

I have felt this for a long time, yet my sense of it was triggered anew this week when I found myself in the delta of the River Mississippi, covering the BP oil spill. The Louisiana marshes are swirling with sparky life, graced with clouds of exotic herons and egrets and birds of prey, even at the side of the road, and I was put in mind of the Norfolk Broads or the Fens, wildlife showpieces of our own, and thought how little they had in comparison.

Louisiana is sub-tropical, of course, and species richness increases as you move towards the equator, so let's do a comparison in more temperate zones. How many wild bird species do you think have been recorded in St James's Park in central London? About 65. How many in Central Park in New York? More than 200. Or we can bring it back to Europe. We have about 60 butterfly species in Britain; go to France and you will find 250. We have but three woodpecker species and one, the lesser spotted, you will be lucky to see in a lifetime now; go to France and you can find seven. And it's the same story with mammals and reptiles and amphibians and pretty much everything.

This is partly geographical accident; since we are cut off at the end of Europe it is impossible for many species to replenish their populations from the continent. But why do we often seem to have so little of what we do have? Why is there so little abundance?

Three years ago, in a groundbreaking book, Silent Fields, the biologist Roger Lovegrove provided the answer: he revealed in detail how, for the best part of 400 years, an unremitting campaign of organised slaughter was waged against wildlife in Britain. From the time of Henry VIII until the First World War, systematic killing on a scale unthinkable today was directed at most of our familiar wild animals and many wild birds: badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, otters; green woodpeckers, jays, kingfishers, bullfinches. Millions were slaughtered, first, by country people, from about 1530 to 1800, to claim bounties under the Tudor vermin laws, and second, by gamekeepers controlling predators on aristocratic shooting estates, from about 1800 to 1914.

Besides "thinning out" wildlife everywhere, this drove to the edge of the abyss, and to the remote corners of the land, a whole series of creatures which in Shakespeare's day were familiar to everyone in the countryside: polecat, pine marten, wild cat, hen harrier, red kite. We have never recovered; and since the arrival of intensive farming 40 years ago the situation has only worsened: half the birds in the fields of England have disappeared since the Beatles broke up. Britain's wildlife is one of our dearest assets and a balm for our souls, but it is very far from what it ought to be, and its impoverished nature seems to me now to be its most striking attribute.

Got those Mississippi geography blues

As a one-time aficionado of folk-blues, I had heard and listened to many of the famous singers who came from the Mississippi Delta – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson – so when I got to the mouth of the great river this week I was hot to find their traces. It took me some time to realise that the delta of the Mississippi river, and the Mississippi Delta, are two quite separate locations, the latter (where the bluesmen came from) being a plain in the north-west of the state. Just thought I'd pass it on.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

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