I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Silent Summer

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.          

8 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Well said Robert. Lots of our wild flower meadows are under threat around here. I do agree about raptors though - we have a pair of buzzard for the first time since I have lived up here and a barn owl had two babies on one of our barns this year. We just hope they survive this bad winter.

Anonymous said...

For some reason the visual verification is not showing up for me so I haven't made any recent comments - I'll try post this comment anyway and see if it works!

Gleaner

George said...

Another sad state of affairs. I simply don't know what one can do at this point. I wonder if those who will someday experience the total silence of spring and summer will know what they have missed. It's rather chilling to hear your comparison of the Lincolnshire countryside of your childhood versus today. Hang a feeder, put up a birdhouse, plant a butterfly bush — it won't save the world, but it will make us feel better.

Vagabonde said...

It was after reading Silent Spring that my husband decided to get a Master’s Degree in environmental planning. At the time he said that water pollution and overpopulation would be our biggest threats. He says the same thing now. At the time he was called an environmental extremist but many of the problems he predicted are now here. I am not too optimistic for the future unless we make it a priority, ahead of financial gains.

firreweed meadow said...

This is only too true, but it seems to me like there is collective denial going on. Did you see the Alan Titchmarsh series "The Nature of Britain" a few years ago? It was dissapointing and worrying, because it seemed to be painting this picture of natural vibrancy and abundance in a bizarrely nationalistic way and didn't acknowledge or even hint at the threatened state of species and landscapes in Britain. It felt a bit like propaganda, to tell you the truth, and so much of what he said was blatantly untrue and absurd. My jaw dropped several times when he said things like, "there is more biodiversity in the average English back garden than in the Amazon rainforest." What is that?

And more recently I watched a program, BBC again, wish I could remember what it was called, it had to do with the history of Britain from the first neolithic agricultural settlers to the present. At the very end it went off on this tangent about how wildlife was thriving as never before, coexisting in harmony with man in English urban landscapes . . . where is this coming from? Is it just what people want to hear and tell themselves? I don't get it.

Ruth said...

It is alarming to read this. It must really have been so to witness the difference in your own life experience. Our thoughtlessness is catching up with us. I hope it won't be late to reverse these terrible trends.

Tramp said...

Worrying indeed, SW. Without diversity Nature is less able to cope with variations such as slightly colder, warmer, drier or wetter seasons.
...Tramp

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for everyone's remarks.

Yes, I did see a bit of that Titchmarsh series, Fireweed, and felt very much like you about it. We have to be very careful when watching such programmes, and always keep a critical eye and ear. It's the same with so many wildlife programmes and magazines. To see all those pretty shots of apparently copious numbers of giraffes, elephants, hippos and big cats in Africa, and those underwater films and photos of sharks, whales and coral reef fish - it gives you the impression the world is teeming with limitless supplies of these creatures and that everything's just hunky-dory. And of course that just isn't the case.