Remember Rachel Carson's seminal book, Silent Spring, about the disastrous effect of chemical pesticides on the environment? This book, which came out in 1962, helped launch the whole environmental movement. Have things improved since then? Certainly Silent Spring was instrumental in the banning of DDT. But the use of pesticides is still a major factor in the destruction of our fragile ecosystems, as a new book, Silent Summer, edited by Norman Maclean, makes clear.
The book's subtitle is: The State Of Wildlife In Britain and Ireland. And it's evident from its pages that the state of our wildlife is parlous and gives much cause for concern. Populations of bees, flies, snails, butterflies and moths are in severe decline. These smaller creatures form the very basis of our ecosystems. Without them populations of larger animals - fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians - will also decline. It's happening already. Numbers of starlings and swallows, for instance, both insect eaters, are down by two-thirds since the mid-1970s. And hedgehogs are disappearing so quickly that they could be extinct by 2025. Fish stocks are also under threat because of overfishing and the destruction of seabed habitats by trawl nets.
I was brought up in the Lincolnshire countryside and remember flower-rich hay meadows teeming with insects, hedges alive with songbirds, ponds full of pike and roach. On a recent revisit I found this area completely dead, hedgeless and pondless, the small hay meadows now large arable fields. I'm painting a gloomy, one-sided picture, of course. To balance things out: birds of prey are on the increase, which shows that something must be OK along the food chain. And a number of farmers are now protecting our diverse landscape heritage under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. But will this be enough?
Relentless urbanisation, intensive farming, the use of pesticides and the extraction of water from rivers - all these human activities are transforming huge swathes of the British countryside and wiping out wildlife faster than we think. It's time to act now or many species will be lost to us forever.