Our hearts go out when we see one of those awful pictures of a disoriented, lost orangutan in the debris of clear-cut rainforest somewhere in Indonesia, which up to a few hours ago, had been the orangutan’s ancestral home for millennia. And now utterly destroyed, so we can have cheap multipurpose palm oil.
In contrast, when we look at a picture of the rolling British countryside with fields of golden wheat or barley or lush green grass, with an oak tree here or there, most of us are reassured by this vision of an idyllic rural tranquility, seemingly unchanged since antiquity. Unfortunately, there is, in truth, nothing comforting about this British picture, Yes, it’s hard wired into me as a Briton that this is how the countryside should look; the green and pleasant land we dream of when abroad.
Yet the devastation in the British countryside is actually worse than that of the South East Asian rainforests cleared for palm oil monoculture. There are no equivalents of the orangutan left alive in Britain. All the big carnivores and herbivores are long gone, hunted to extinction, their habitat destroyed. The wolves, lynx, bears, beavers, wild boar, bison, aurochs; all long gone. Further back, elephants, lions and rhinos roamed this British land. People assume they only live in warmer climes, but they were all fine in our climate and like almost everything else wild, we probably killed them. Some may think that we’re better off without these potentially dangerous beasts in our land, yet I feel that by removing all traces of our ancestral wildness, we have impoverished our souls.
But far more ominous still, this tamed British countryside is undergoing an insidious extinction right now; one that is far more systemic and catastrophic. And it is largely invisible and unknown to most of us. Much of the countryside has become an ecological desert. The once common and familiar farmland birds are disappearing. Many are not yet extinct but the decline is scary: corn buntings, yellowhammers, skylarks, grey partridge, finches, cuckoos, lapwing, curlew, and many more. Turtledoves and nightingales are heading for extinction and the once common corncrake is gone except in the remote Western Isles.
And looking closer, where are all the insects – the bees, moths, butterflies, crickets, beetles and an infinite number of others? No clouds of insects over wildflowers in hay meadows any more. In fact, hardly any hay meadows at all. Now, no need to stop at petrol stations to clean the car windscreen of a vast number of splatted insects. No ‘moth snowstorms’ at night that older people like me remember from younger days. The insects have undergone an Armageddon of their own. Our pollinators have been decimated. Many of the birds are utterly dependent on these insects, particularly to feed their babies. We too depend on pollinators for our crops.
Look to the skies in summer and they are eerily empty: the once familiar swooping summer swifts and swallows are not there like they used to be. Some are still there, but since they depend entirely on flying insects, there’s little food for them and sleek modern buildings offer no nesting spaces. And the seedeaters haven’t done much better. 97% of our wildflower meadows have gone since WW2. Wildflowers have disappeared, only clinging on in tiny strips on roadside verges, apart from tiny oases in nature reserves. And even these nature reserves are way too small to enable any proper ecosystem functioning.
Yes, but we have National Parks, you may think, and it’s true that National Park designation is increasing. But these are cruel jokes for wildlife since there’s practically no difference to the areas outside that designation. Ironically, studies have even shown that nature does less well in a National Park than in areas outside.
The greatest and swiftest devastation has occurred in my lifetime, since WW2, and particularly since about 1970, when agriculture was encouraged to intensify, with the greatly increased use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Crop yields went up but farmers inadvertently poisoned the whole ecosystem, since everything in Nature is profoundly interdependent. The familiar hayfields of old where birds, flowers, insects and mammals had for many hundreds of years lived alongside agriculture, have now nearly all gone. These were traditionally cut in the late summer after wildlife had raised their young. Now hayfields are replaced by those impossibly lurid green fields of perennial rye grass, chemically dosed and cut several times a year to make silage, that weird slurry which cattle seem happy to eat, stored in those huge tower silos you see in farmyards. No chance for wildlife to breed and coexist or for wildflowers to grow in this chemically fertilized brave new world. The pasture is euphemistically known as ‘improved’ grassland rather than the previously ‘unimproved’ grassland, which enabled a fair degree of coexistence with nature.
Cropland is drenched in pesticides which kill the insect and soil life and hence the whole food chain. Pesticides and fertilisers leach into streams and rivers, with most of our rivers heavily polluted, with much aquatic die off; algal blooms from the excess fertilisers depriving fish and invertebrate life of oxygen. Many of our watercourses are dying, full of excess nitrates as well as pesticide residue. 86% of our rivers fail pollution standards and none are deemed safe enough to swim in. Ditches in Holland were found to have so much pesticide residue that the ditch water itself could be used as a pesticide spray.
Farmers are destroying the farmland they are custodians of. It’s not their fault. The system they operate in, with the pressures of economics and the way subsidies are given to farmers, dictate their choices. Even Michael Gove, the former Minister for the Environment, said that the UK is 30-40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility.” Farmers have been paid in effect to bring ever more acreage of marginal land into cultivation; their subsidies increasing by grubbing up precious hedgerows, ditches, scrub, and ponds. And all these were crucial rich wildlife habitats. Everywhere has been tidied up, with messy scrub – a crucial part of healthy ecosystems – removed. Death by tidiness, aided by that perverse British habit known as ETD (ecological tidiness disorder). Especially in the east of the country, we are left with vast prairies of wheat and barley, which are then harvested with correspondingly vast industrial machines.
In my life I have been witness to this huge loss in biodiversity and also, the often-overlooked plummeting bio-abundance in the British countryside. I’ve walked in the countryside for fifty years or more, keenly observing nature, and the difference between walks as a teenager and walks now, is frightening. I grieve to see the countryside become so empty: what Michael McCarthy has called “The Great Thinning”. When a species becomes extinct there is often at least some notice taken, even getting a small column in newspapers if it is an iconic species. In Britain, it’s largely not a case of complete extinction, but instead this great thinning, so that many once common species are now uncommon, rare or very rare. Unfortunately, many species have or are becoming ‘functionally extinct’, meaning that they no longer play a significant role in the functioning of the ecosystem. The State of Nature Report of 2016 said that the UK is “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”. Hard to believe in a nation which prides itself on being a country of nature lovers.
If you walk in lowland Britain you may feel heartened by the still common pheasants you hear and flush in front of you with a loud flutter of exploding wings. But you may not realise that in the region of forty-three million of these large birds are released into the lowland English countryside every year to be shot by rich landowners and their paying guests. This is greater than the entire biomass of all the other birds in Britain. Pheasants are not a natural species in this country and they have a huge effect on ecosystems.
The uplands of mid Wales, the Pennines and the Lake District seem so wild with their vistas of smooth bare hills and mountains. But there is a terrible lack of biodiversity in these artificially tree and scrub-free places. Walk across this shorn wilderness and you don’t see much apart from an occasional meadow pipit or crow. And of course sheep, sheep and yet even more sheep. These uplands have been “sheep-wrecked” as George Monbiot aptly puts it. The sheep graze everything so thoroughly that no richer and more bio diverse habitats such as scrub or tree saplings can ever emerge. These landscapes are completely unnatural. Of course, I acknowledge that in their bareness, there is a stark beauty, but it is a denuded and empty beauty. Once I let in what is really happening here, these landscapes now appear sad and ghostly. Our ecosystems are not adapted to the particular grazing of sheep, since this pervasive woolly ruminant is not native to Britain, coming originally from Mesopotamia.
Yet many people are fiercely protective of these landscapes, as they represent tradition and countryside and hark back to peoples’ childhoods. Conservation is often fixated in trying to keep or return landscapes to an imagined traditional ‘naturalness’, which is usually a picture from fifty years ago or from childhood. We are lulled into security by those picture postcard images of the countryside, and people don’t realise the dire declines in biodiversity. It’s been termed shifting baseline syndrome, where the new normal and ‘healthy’ becomes whatever we are familiar with. Look back to the writings of Victorian naturalists with the vast abundance and variety of nature that they describe, and this makes my nature-rich 1970’s recollections seem utterly pitiful in their emptiness.
In Scotland, a similarly bleak picture is the norm, with most of the native Caledonian forest destroyed. Here it is deer taking the place of sheep and preventing regrowth by their excessive grazing. And there are far too many deer since there are none of their natural predators left to control their numbers. Instead, increased numbers of deer are actively encouraged for deer stalking, which is the major upland Scottish use of this land, along with artificially managed heather moorland for grouse shooting. The heather moorland is burned regularly for the benefit of a single hunted species (the red grouse) with great damage to the underlying peat and consequent increased likelihood of flooding. These activities are in the hands of a very few landowners who own vast ‘sporting’ estates and keep the land in a degraded state. There are a number of very large unpopulated areas of land in Britain, contrary to what one may think; the deer estates of Scotland alone constitute an area double that of Yellowstone Park, yet it is in a very degraded condition with only tiny remnants of native Caledonian forest left growing.
About 30% of the total land in Britain still remains in the hands of the ancestral aristocracy; it was more like 50%, but about 17% has been sold off to oligarchs and hedge fund managers. The late Duke of Westminster, (owner of 131,000 acres, including much of London’s Belgravia and Liverpool), when asked about how young entrepreneurs might succeed, replied that they should “make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror”.
In fact, more than half of the total land in Britain is used for grazing livestock. Cropland covers the next biggest percentage of land, and more than half of that cropland is used to feed the livestock. And the huge numbers of ruminants contribute mightily to greenhouse gas emissions and prevent tree and shrub regrowth. Britain has virtually the lowest amount of tree cover in all of Europe. And of that tree cover, much of what has been replanted is regimented non-native conifer plantations, which are useless for most of our native creatures.
Then there is the huge growth of industrialised livestock farming, where an ever increasing percentage of farm animals live their short, unhappy lives in vast concentration camps, a horrific life (and death) sentence for these poor creatures. Yes, production has increased, but at what cost? The deluge of animal waste from these factories is a major cause of watercourse pollution, and the huge amount of feed needed for such a number of animals has to be imported from somewhere else – including from crops grown on cleared Amazon rainforest, or even as fishmeal from the oceans – with yet more ecological cost.
This is a very abbreviated story of our green and pleasant land as it stands now. (And I haven’t even touched on the more invisible devastation of the ecosystems of British coastal waters, seabed’s and fisheries). It doesn’t have to be like this, but we need to open our eyes to what has been done to our land. Ironically, legally, this land is not our land; its ownership is concentrated in a tiny elite. We all live on this land, and there is a moral imperative to safeguard the whole ecosystem, this complex and delicate web of Life upon which we all depend. And I’ve hardly touched on the large additional pressures of our climate emergency, which is also playing havoc with our ecology.
What I have described is our very real ecological emergency, which has already happened right here in our nature loving country, and not just in far off places like the Amazon or Great Barrier Reef. This emergency and disaster has come about principally from farming practices and habitat loss. Climate change is ‘only’ the third biggest factor in this collapse. And we are not talking about what may happen in the future if we don’t act. It’s not about what may happen by 2030 or 2050. This is the ecological emergency in Britain right now, in 2020.
(i) Of course, there’s an enormous amount we could do to turn much of this around, if we recognise our ecological predicament – and if we have the care and the will to act…….With the UK leaving the EU, new farming policies ‘could’ potentially remedy much damage.
(ii) This piece is deliberately written without the standard hope or attempt at ‘balance’ usually expected of nature writing. This is because I feel strongly that we have to let in the truth before we can begin to really do something about it. Firstly, tell the Truth, as Extinction Rebellion always emphasises.