GIVING WILDLIFE A CHANCE

BRITISH NATURE CAN RECOVER IF IT IS GIVEN A BREAK FROM HUMAN DEMANDS, REPORTS NICHOLAS SCHOON

Think of endangered wildlife and the tiger or the rhino springs to mind, or burning tropical rainforests. It's highly unlikely that you will reflect on the fate of the orange-spotted emerald dragonfly, or a fish called the burbot, or a sweetly named orchid called summer lady's tresses. These three are all species which lived in Britain until a few decades ago, but have become extinct because of human actions.

We in these islands have done more harm to our wildlife in the past four decades of economic growth, intensive agriculture and sprawling development than we did in the four centuries before that. And if we, in one of the richer, better educated, nations on the earth can't look after the fauna or flora in our own backyard then how can we expect people in South America, or Africa or South East Asia to look after theirs?

That's not to say that we should give up caring about endangered creatures and habitats overseas - far from it. But our priority ought to be to get conservation working properly here, because we know we have the knowledge and resources to succeed if we want to - as reports in this supplement will show. We in Britain also ought to be setting an example because for many years these islands have been what most of the developing nations are on their way to becoming - a densely populated, intensely urbanised land where the bulk of the remaining countryside is intensively exploited for food production. Like it or not, that is what most of the planet's land surface (excepting the polar regions, the great deserts and high mountains) will be like in the next century. Nature will have to cope with that; we have to find out how to help it along, for its sake and ours.

Being part of nature ourselves I don't think most of us can live satisfying lives without it. Imagine a world in which all the essential, life-support services now provided free of charge by the wild - things as diverse as erosion control, pollination of crop and fruit plants, water storage, regulating the balance of different types of gases in the atmosphere - were all taken over by humanity using genetically engineered plants and animals. What a nightmare! We need wildlife and the wild to keep us sane and content, and to provide us with beauty, inspiration and tranquillity. Our longing for views of open countryside and water, our fascination and fear for other species, are probably stitched into our genes.

But isn't nature here in Britain a bit tame and boring for a nation reared on a diet of all those brilliant tropical wildlife documentaries? We have no great coral reefs, no rainforest, no great savannahs crowded with wildebeest, antelopes and zebra hunted by lions and cheetahs. On the other hand, much of what we do have in these islands is immediately outside our front doors and in our back gardens. As long as you don't insist on your wildlife being huge and potentially man eating, it cannot fail to be as fascinating as anything the tropics have to offer. Everyone knows that the British suburbs now teem with a cunning predator, the fox. But did you know that otters, now enjoying a remarkable comeback, regularly pass through our towns and cities in the dark?

In my corner of London suburbia pipistrelle bats flit through the gardens on a summer evening. You might easily see Britain's second largest insect, the stag beetle, waltzing erratically through the darkening skies at rooftop height (I have a couple of times, and I'm neither very observant nor a good naturalist). It is an impressive creature, over two inches long with massive jaw extensions shaped like a stag's antlers, which the males use in wrestling matches. I'm a useless bird watcher, but even I could not fail to notice when two ring necked parakeets made a couple of passes over the garden one morning.

This really was a slice of tropical wildlife. Having been introduced as cage birds, some escaped and began breeding in the wild around London and Merseyside. Now these bright green parakeets are spreading, one of several species which owe their presence in these islands solely to man. True, several of the exotic creatures we have introduced with criminal carelessness have done great harm to our native wildlife - think of the devastating impact of grey squirrels on the native reds. But somehow that thought did not prevent me delighting in the parakeets passing my house.

Eleven thousand years ago most of the British Isles were covered by mile- thick ice sheets and very little was able to live here. But when the Ice Age ended wave after wave of plant and animal colonists swept up here from Europe and soon most of Britain was covered in great forests. Humans arrived some six thousand years ago, and immediately began clearing the trees to grow crops, graze their animals and aid their hunting. By the time the Romans arrived more than half the forests had vanished. These clearances depleted the animals and smaller plants which need woodland habitats, but they created great opportunities for other species which we regard as quintessentially British. The skylark is believed to have evolved on the steppes of central Asia, but this bird of open country was able to build up a huge population in deforested Britain. People's traditional, varied uses of the land created and maintained big areas of semi-natural habitats such as lowland heaths, sheep- and cattle-grazed chalk downlands and coppice woodland. Each of these supported their own characteristic wild plants and animals. So while people shaped and exploited almost every square foot of Britain some 88,000 different species have lived here alongside us in our mild and damp oceanic climate.

Since 1900, however, more than 100 species are thought to have become extinct in Britain, many because of our activities. A much larger number of species have had their populations drastically reduced since the Second World War, because their habitats have been destroyed by modern farming, forestry and development. The speed of change, the ruthless, mechanised intensity of land exploitation, which characterise the post-war years, have been overwhelming. Wildlife, always flexible, simply could not cope with us moving the goalposts this quickly.

But we should not despair. We know that nature seizes every opportunity and can make a rapid comeback. Look at how abandoned industrial sites are soon smothered with grass, flowers and shrubs. Look at how the otter and our birds of prey have returned once we stopped using the man-made chemicals which poisoned them. We just have to give the wild a break.

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