It was 50 years ago today...

Peter Brittonin Conservation & Ecology

In the nearly fifty years since The Beatles called it a day, the UK has lost over fifty percent of its biodiversity, whilst the populations of birds, butterflies and wildflowers has been utterly devastated. In this article, Peter Britton suggests that, whilst the safeguarding of small pockets of land is important, the wider picture needs to be addressed now, before it is too late

Golf clubs are often cited by conservationists as ecological dead zones where manicured turf all but wipes out the local wildlife. As we in the industry know, this is simply not the case, with the majority of clubs considering their wildlife habitats (and the residents) in the general scheme of all things golf.

Enormous strides have been taken in the past decade to introduce sustainable management practices, cutting back on chemical use, introducing and enhancing wildlife areas and much more.

There are champions within our industry who have now become highly regarded for their conservation efforts. The STRI's Bob Taylor, BIGGA's James Hutchinson, John O'Gaunt greenkeeper Steve Thompson and beekeeper Eddie Ainsworth are well known to many, whilst I like to think that Pitchcare does a decent job of spreading the word through our various and varied articles.

New golf course builds are often the subject of debate surrounding 'conservation' with national and local ecology groups railing against any proposals.

Coul Links is one such recent and ongoing example. This proposed new development on Scotland's rugged north east coast has seen Scottish National Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and the RSPB oppose the development, citing protection of rare habitat as the main reason for their disapproval.

Views of Coul Links. It is pleasing to report that the project has now been given the go-ahead

However, studies have shown that the sympathetic course design and layout will cause very little, if any, damage to the topography, whilst the locals support the project on many levels, not least because it will bring much needed job opportunities and ongoing tourism income to this remote area.

The Coul Links developers highlighted several environmental initiatives regarding invasive species management, remediation of a felled tree plantation, expansion of the habitat adjacent to the SSSI toward the coastal village of Embo, as well as public access and education/information plans, all of which will improve the environmental integrity of the site.

In a Biodiversity Net Gain report, written by the highly respected ecologist Dr. Peter Cosgrove, it was noted that one of SNH's aims for the Loch Fleet SSSI is to "maintain non-breeding populations of waterfowl and avoid significant disturbance", yet the organisation allows for winter shooting of wildfowl to continue! This is the same SNH that has issued a licence to cull 500 ravens in Perthshire to 'protect waders'.

Coul Links will put a stop to the shooting thereby ensuring that both native and migrating birds will regard the site as a safe haven which, in turn, will see numbers increase. Additionally, they will manage the neglected site in a sustainable way, beginning with rooting out invasive species and returning the area to a more natural habitat.

Clearly, there's some joined-up thinking required by conservation groups. Not all new development is a bad thing and, in the case of Coul, there's a very strong argument in favour of the project, both ecologically and economically.

Now, I am a strong supporter of these conservation groups and, whilst it is vitally important to protect small pockets of environmentally sensitive land, the 'bigger picture' needs addressing, otherwise all those efforts will be in vain.

Writing in The Guardian, journalist and naturalist, Michael McCarthy commented that modern farming has wiped out billions of insects and birds and that plans to restore them will only work with public pressure.

Here is a precis of his article:

"No one, young or old, marches in the street to protest about the impoverishment of our countryside; no one hoists banners crying out against the turning of our green fields into sterile wildlife wasteland. Yet, in the past fifty years in Britain - since the Beatles broke up - through the intensification of agriculture, we have destroyed well over half of our biodiversity, and the populations of birds, butterflies and wildflowers that once gave the landscape such animation and thrilling life have been utterly devastated; the figures are there.

Left: Pearl Bordered Fritillary. Right: Cornflower

Most notable is the case of farmland birds which, by the government's own admission, declined by 56% between 1970 and 2015; it is estimated this represents a loss of at least forty-four million individuals. Over huge swaths of the land, once beloved species such as the lapwing, the spotted flycatcher, the cuckoo and the turtle dove, as well as many once common butterflies, such as the pearl-bordered fritillary, and once familiar blooms such as cornflowers, have simply vanished. The fields may still look green in spring, but it is mostly lifeless scenery, apart from the pesticide-saturated crops: it is green concrete.

This is a quite remarkable historical event; it has altered the character of Britain just as profoundly as the other changes of the past half-century, such as the end of social deference, the rise of multiculturalism and the coming of sexual equality. Yet its most remarkable aspect is this: people still do not perceive it. In the past decade, specialists in conservation have come to understand the magnitude of the loss but, for the public at large and indeed for most politicians, it is simply not on the radar; we are faced with a sort of mass cognitive dissonance, a nationwide unawareness of what is obvious.

Recently, the French woke up in a dramatic way to the fact that their own farmland birds, their skylarks and partridges and meadow pipits, were rapidly disappearing: Le Monde, the most sober of national journals, splashed the fact across the top of its front page. French bird populations in general, two reports indicated, had fallen by a third just in the past fifteen years, and the next day scientists said that this was symptomatic of a future facing Europe as a whole, of "biodiversity oblivion".

Left: Spotted Flycatcher and, right: Skylark

Intensive farming is the problem. Three generations of making agriculture more industrial has given Europe cheap food on a mammoth scale, but a terrible environmental price has eventually been paid, which we are only now understanding.

The heart of the matter is universal pesticide use: we benefit from farming wholly based on poison, which has exterminated more and more of the insects at the base of myriad food chains in the natural world.

In the recent past, few have cared about insect decline, because people in general don't care about insects, but the numbers are becoming too big to ignore. The startling disclosure last October that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the number of flying insects on nature reserves in Germany had dropped by at least 76% - more than three-quarters - went round the world.

Can anything be done to get us off the road to biodiversity oblivion? The perhaps surprising answer is that yes, it can. We can reorder the basis of our farming, and here we stand at a major crossroads, because that is what the present Conservative government has just promised to do. On 11th January it launched a 25-year environment plan, and followed it up on 27th February with a consultation on the future for food, farming and the environment.

Both these documents offer to put British agriculture on a wholly new basis (partly made possible by the anticipation of Brexit): the state will continue to pay farmers, but not according to the amount of food they produce, as the EU's common agricultural policy first ordained, or according to the amount of land they own - the situation at the moment.

They will, instead, be paid according to the amount of environmentally friendly measures they can put in place on their land. The new philosophy is "public money for public goods", and the environment is explicitly recognised as the principal public good.

Senior conservationists are enthusiastic about these proposals. If you're on the left, you might allege that this is mere greenwashing, a renewed attempt to detoxify the Tory brand and, of course, there will be votes in this - those vital young votes especially. But you only have to read the documents to see that this is in no way a political stunt, a crude photo-op like David Cameron with his huskies in the Arctic. These are proposals that have been deeply thought through.

As they stand, they're great. The principal problem will be holding the government to them. For instance, the £3.1bn in EU subsidies that British farmers currently receive, if converted into payments for agri-environment measures, would go a very long way to reversing the destruction of our wildlife; but that sum is only guaranteed until 2022. What happens after that? What's to stop the Treasury clawing a huge chunk of it back?

Left: Pearl-bordered fritillary. Right: Lapwing

What is needed is political pressure on the government to stand by these promises. It has to come ultimately from the base, since ordinary people's feelings are the beginnings of political will. So what must happen first is that long overdue recognition, by the public as a whole, of just how terribly our countryside has been devastated."

Michael concludes by saying that we all enjoy singing William Blake's Jerusalem - with its reference to our green and pleasant land - at the Last Night of the Proms, England cricket internationals and the like - but the time has now come to acknowledge that, whilst it may still be green, much of it, alas, is now a lifeless landscape, pleasant no longer.

His article is clearly a 'call to arms' and, if the reaction to the BBC's Blue Planet II series is anything to go by, then the public will exists; it just needs to be triggered. It is beholden on our media outlets to highlight the above concerns, not in a sensationalist way, but in a clear and educated manner, as was the case with David Attenborough's empassioned final episode.

That one man has the power and, indeed the love of a nation, to trigger action by the government here in the UK (and also further afield) is remarkable.

Sadly, David may not be around too much longer to act as our voice; our conscience. It is surely time to stand up and be counted, before it is too late.

Michael 'Mike' McCarthy

Michael 'Mike' McCarthy is a British environmentalist, naturalist, newspaper journalist, newspaper columnist and author.

He worked as a journalist first on the Bolton Evening News and then on the Daily Mirror. After seventeen years in local and tabloid journalism, he moved first to The Times, then to The Independent on Sunday, and then to The Independent; he worked twenty-seven years for those broadsheet newspapers. He was Environment Editor of The Independent until 2013.

He is passionate about nature which, he says, has many gifts for us, but perhaps the greatest of them all is joy; the intense delight we can take in the natural world, in its beauty, in the wonder it can offer us, in the peace it can provide - feelings stemming ultimately from our own unbreakable links to nature, which mean that we cannot be fully human if we are separate from it.

In his book, The Moth Snowstorm, Mike proposes this joy as a defence of a natural world which is ever more threatened, and which, he argues, is inadequately served by the two defences put forward hitherto: sustainable development and the recognition of ecosystem services.

Drawing on a wealth of memorable experiences from a lifetime of watching and thinking about wildlife and natural landscapes, The Moth Snowstorm not only presents a new way of looking at the world around us, but effortlessly blends with it a remarkable and moving memoir of childhood trauma from which love of the natural world emerged. It is a powerful, timely, and wholly original book which comes at a time when nature has never needed it more.

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Conservation & ecology

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