Two compelling, if deeply depressing, reports on the state of our natural world here in the UK and globally have been published over the last month: the UK State of Nature 2016 compiled from data on 8,000 UK wild fauna and flora provided by 50 UK nature conservation and research bodies; and the latest Living Planet Report, produced by WWF in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network, which as its introduction states ‘synthesises the mountain of evidence showing the Earth system is under increasing threat’.
Both follow on from earlier versions, the State of Nature 2013 and previous Living Planet reports produced biannually since 1998. The current State of Nature report confirms its predecessor’s statistic of a c. 60% overall decline in UK native species over the past 40 years – but adds the new measure of ‘Biodiversity Intactness Index’ (BII). This indicates whether a country’s biodiversity has fallen below a ‘planetary boundary’ (defined as the threshold beneath which ‘ecosystems may no longer reliably meet society’s needs’). Out of the 218 countries across the world using this measure, the UK’s BII ranks at the 29th lowest – or as the authors put it with rare, uncharacteristic, bluntness,
‘we (the UK) are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’.
The Great Acceleration
Similarly, the latest Living Planet report records a 58% decline in 3,706 vertebrate species monitored from some 14,000 separate populations across the globe over six decades. A decline it attributes to, ‘the exponential increase in human pressure over the last 60 years – the so-called ‘Great Acceleration’. By which the authors are referring to the alarming acceleration in the rate of extinction of or near threat of extinction of large swathes of the other creatures and biomass with which we ‘share’ this planet. A rate calculated to be running at 100-1000 extinctions over a period of 100 years currently, much higher than the ‘natural’ background level for our planet.
The opening introduction by Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, describes the defining concept for this latest report being that our planet has entered (some would say is well along the path of) a new ‘Anthropocene Era’. One in which, rather than the previous Eras marked by geological influences over millennia, the presence and activities of a single species, Homo sapiens, is changing the Earth’s environment and capacity to sustain life on a global level and within a generation. The defining feature of that defining concept, sharing the dishonour of wiping out millions of unique life-forms along with asteroid strikes, super-volcano eruptions or ice-ages is that human ‘activity’, ‘pressure’ and ‘enterprise’ is driving a ‘6th mass extinction’ of our planet’s biodiversity.
Don’t mention the ‘P’ word – at least when talking about us!
Note the use of the qualifying descriptors. Throughout both the State of Nature and Living Planet the word ‘population’ is used extensively – when attached to consideration of every species other than our own. Monitoring the population levels of all those species diligently recorded over decades for the UK and globally is obviously central to establishing their general decline – or in a handful of cases, moderate increases (generally iconic species brought back from the brink of extinction through the expenditure of vast amounts of money and conservation effort): Red Kite; Cranes; European Lynx; possibly the Tiger). But when it comes to considering the impacts that our own species has on other species populations, the lens becomes opaque. Neither report mentions human population as an issue per se – instead using those distancing phrases ‘human activity’, ‘human consumption’, ‘human footprint’, ‘human pressure’, ‘human enterprise’- as if none of those are caused or amplified by the sheer number of our species upon the planet. Five categories of ‘Threats’ to the number and range of wild species are listed: ‘Habitat loss and degradation’, ‘Species overexploitation’, ‘Pollution’, ‘Invasive species and disease’, ‘Climate change’. Again none of these are framed directly as resulting from greater numbers of people demanding more from our planet.
The State of Nature Report uses the words population and populations about 100 times, but only in 5 instances linked to the human species. For the Living Planet report there are around 170 instances of the ‘p’ words, but only on 4 occasions associated with humans. To be fair, the Living Planet authors do posit, although almost as an aside, the obvious conclusion that, ‘If current trends continue, unsustainable consumption and production will likely expand along with human population and economic growth.’ It would be hard to find a more hesitant citation of the equation: ‘I=PxAxT’, first formulated by ecologists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren in the 1970s, which combines the key factors determining the impacts of modern human beings upon our habitat. Where ‘I’, being the Impact on our planet and its ecosystems, is influenced by the interaction of Population numbers (P), Affluence (A), and effects of Technology (T) – both positive and negative.
More Feet, Heavier Footprint
It is absolutely correct and equitable to consider the relative consumption levels of different countries in the world as does the Global Footprint Network. The available global footprint for everyone on Earth, if resources were distributed evenly has been calculated at being 1.7 global hectares (gha) per person – but resources are not fairly allocated, instead following or being appropriated by those with most money and power. So no surprises that the US, Australia, parts of Europe, Scandinavia and the Gulf States consume up to six times their fair share, at 5-7 gha per citizen; whereas the majority of people in Africa and Asia have access to less than that 1.7 gha ‘fair share’. Clearly the most affluent countries need to curb the rampant consumerism upon which their dominant model of economic development is based and reduce the disproportionate global resource grab of their citizens, but that should not preclude any mention or assessment of the impact of the growing numbers of feet. Each US or European newborn will suck harder on the Earth’s teats than their counterparts in Asia or Africa – a child in the UK will be responsible for 35 times the carbon emissions of a baby born in Bangladesh and over 160 times more than one born in Ethiopia. Yet despite the average per person global footprint in Africa decreasing over recent decades, because of the continent’s rapid population growth Africa’s overall global footprint has actually tripled since the 1960s.
A headline figure given in The Living Planet Report’s is that of a 56% decline in populations of monitored vertebrate species, confirming earlier estimates that the ‘total number of wild animals with backbones’ has fallen by more than half within one human generation. Yet one backboned animal has more than doubled in numbers over just 40 years, Homo sapiens. Along with our domesticated animals, chosen for their utility to us, humans have appropriated nearly 40% of the world’s total terrestrial productivity and are ‘heavily affecting’ the remaining 60%(See Vaclav Smil, Harvesting the Biosphere).
Population – the ‘Silencing Discourses’
Conservationists, especially white, middle-aged, male conservationists from developed countries (David Attenborough being a notable exception) have been and still are very reluctant to use or place the words ‘human’ and ‘population’ in any close proximity – with some justification, given horrific human rights abuses linked to some historic ‘family planning programmes’ and for fear of any rational discussion being misconstrued as racist or contaminated by lingering colonial attitudes. This reluctance to mention the ‘P’ word has been well-described by Professor Diana Coole in her paper, `Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question‘ in which she identifies ‘Five categories of silencing discourse’ that forestall and dissuade any serious discussion about population per se. These ‘silencing discourses’: Population-Shaming; Population-Scepticism; Population-Declinism; Population-Decomposing and Population-Fatalism are triggered whenever anyone dares voice any concerns about growing human numbers on the planet and their contribution to socio-ecological problems. So well-rehearsed and accepted are these ‘silencing discourses’ that most conservationists self-censor before the reasonable notion that considering human population growth in parallel with excessive resource consumption by human society solidifies into the spoken or written word!
Unfortunately, such self-censorship appears to have been applied to the otherwise excellent State of Nature and Living Planet reports.
The farming community overwhelmingly voted for Brexit – polls conducted by Farmers’ Weekly, AgriChat and others consistently showed nearly 60% of farmers wanted to leave the EU, giving their main reason as wishing to ‘take back control’[i]. With 55% of total farm income in the UK coming from the EU single farm payment and other agri-environmental support schemes, that majority vote would seem to suggest farmers believe they can survive and thrive, producing goods for sale on the ‘free-market’, without any hand-outs.
Yet post Brexit, the agricultural press has been full of demands from the farming lobby that the UK Government – and so the British taxpayer – must continue to match the £3 billion currently provided annually to UK farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In similar apparent contradiction to the predominant concern raised by those who voted to leave the EU (‘uncontrolled immigration’), farmers’ leaders have also been demanding that the large proportion of migrant workers upon which UK farming is dependent, must continue to be available to them. UK farming’s reliance on EU labour is even greater than its underpinning by EU cash. Whereas UK businesses as a whole rely on 5% migrant labour, for agriculture that rises to 65% (and that’s excluding seasonal workers!) – amounting to over 34,500 non-UK citizens, mainly from EU Eastern European member states, toiling in the fields to fill supermarket shelves with ‘British grown’ strawberries and broccoli – and also as the mainstay of the intensive pig, poultry, dairy and associated abattoir and processing plants.
Many UK farmers seem to have at best an ambivalent, at worst a hypocritical, view when it comes the EU. They want ‘out’ from any constraints on their business and yet ‘in’ on holding onto the freedom to trade within Europe and the wider, world market – whilst still benefiting from cash hand-outs and cheap labour.
A rationale posted on an online farming forum by one producer reveals that for some ‘taking back control’ more accurately meant ‘removing controls’. His post pithily itemised the reasons for wanting to leave Europe:
‘1. Three-crop rule
What he is objecting to, or believes he is objecting to, are requirements or restrictions introduced by the EU on farming practice and on the use of certain agrochemicals. In fact, the ‘three crop rule’ was not something imposed on farmers by the EU, but agreed upon by elected MEPs and which only applies to farms above 30 hectares (c.75 acres and above). To put that in proportion, one of the farms managed by the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), which I do some work for, routinely has between nine to eleven different crops in the ground – adding hugely to the diversity of habitat for wildlife, whilst breaking the monotony of mono-cropping for the farmer. The three pesticides listed by the pro-Brexit farmer have been restricted or are proposed to be restricted due to scientific evidence of their negative impacts on the environment or human health. Whilst there are counter-claims (mainly coming from their manufacturers) as to any impacts being influenced by how the products are applied and what other, if any, mitigating measures individual farmers are or are not employing, when it comes to human health or that of the bees and other pollinating insects upon which most food production depends the precautionary principle (people and planet before product) should surely apply?
It is illuminating to see these objections expressed so bluntly, revealing that they, and the apparently contradictory views above, come from a corporate and solely commercial perspective, which regards the farmed landscape as merely another industrial resource from which profitable outputs can be extracted – assuming key inputs of capital, chemicals and cheap labour are applied.
This narrow perspective from UK Agribiz is not one that considers the wider, complex, living, working countryside. One which is farmed with wildlife in mind whilst seeking to produce good food, at a fair price to farmer and consumer without that being at the expense of human or environmental health. I do not believe that corporate perspective is representative of all farmers, certainly not the ones I work with. Brexit should provide an opportunity not for yet another ‘review of UK farming’, which has been conducted on several occasions by various ‘Commissions’ (generally composed of the usual suspects from the establishment farming bodies and almost equally unimaginative, mainstream conservation organisations), but for more thoughtful consideration of how we can develop systems of farming that produce decent sustainable food, jobs and sustain the ecological services that underpin those every bit as much and more than artificial inputs of agrochemicals.
Interestingly, one of the usually more establishment conservation bodies, The National Trust, and the largest landowner in the UK (excluding the Forestry Commission), has stirred things up by calling for an “ending to the system of Single Farm Payments”, whereby farmers and landowners get money simply by dint of owning land – the more you have, the more cash you get (Hence, the outrage at the NT’s proposals from big farmers and estate owners). The current system has clearly not been helping the type of farming and farmer that groups like the CRT seek to support – smaller, ‘family farms’, typically ranging from under 100 acres to a few hundred acres. Over the last decade, over 20,000 such family farms have gone out of business, amalgamated into bigger, ‘more efficient’ units, but which provide fewer livelihoods in a less diverse countryside.
The National Trust correctly notes that despite the £500 – 600 million annually paid to farmers in alleged agri-environment payments, numbers of farmland birds and other species have continued to crash – with a 60% decline in key species recorded over the past 50 years. Yet the NT and the other big conservation bodies (like the big farming bodies), seem to want to hold onto the basic framework of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, simply shifting the emphasis so payments are only given in return for delivering public and environmental goods. The Trust’s Six Principles are sound, but there is the same flaw in the proposed as the present system. Farmers, like the one above, who don’t want any controls on the practices or products they use, will simply farm outside any support system that the NT or anyone else comes up with. The result being a two-tier system of farming – corporate ‘hell-for-leather, sod soil or wildlife protection and animal welfare’, practised by agribiz on the most productive land with conservation farming holding on in the margins and only viable through public hand-outs. Exactly the bifurcated system, Sir Derek Barber advocated back in 1990, when he referred derogatorily to such conservation farming as “half-cock farming”, preferring what he termed “high pitched buzz farming”. He held no brief for the integration and balancing of commercial farming with wildlife everywhere, including the prairies of East Anglia, “Why clutter up such landscapes with thin green threads of new hedges? Why not let this type of highly efficient grain country get on with its job of producing a tonne of wheat at the very lowest cost?”[ii]
For all its failings, after decades of driving farming in the wrong direction of over-production, intensification and degradation of soil, water and wildlife, the CAP had been making adjustments to attempt to integrate farming with environmental considerations; finally recognising the role of healthy soils, clean water sources and diverse ecological systems in sustaining food security and human health. The last thing needed now is a return to Barber’s bifurcated vision of a farmed landscape dominated by featureless food prairies and factory farms, with Beatrix Potter theme farms preserved for urban day trippers at the margins.
The National Trust is right to state that farmers should only receive public money for delivering public goods and benefits – increasing wildlife on their farms, using their land to hold flood water, improving the structure of their soil so as to store even greater quantities of carbon etc. But like other big conservation bodies, the Trust seems to be forgetting something rather fundamental about farming – its primary purpose to feed us. The CAP must not morph simply into a ‘BAP’ – a Biodiversity Agricultural Policy – focused wholly on wildlife. We need a farming policy that strives to restore ecological complexity in our farmed landscapes because widespread presence and plethora of biodiversity are understood to be the foundations for building a resilient, sustainable farming system – one capable of feeding our Nation in the face of future shocks and challenges. We may no longer be blockaded by the U-boats as during WWII, but climate change, over-reliance on transporting food vast distances, and increasing numbers of hungry people in countries that currently export foodstuffs to us are real, long-term challenges to our food security.
[ii] Barber, D, Anatomy of a ‘Green’ Agriculture, Massey Ferguson Award, January 1990.
In his riposte to Clive Aslet’s Observer piece, ‘The English Countryside has never had it so good’, Tobias Jones unpicks much of that Panglossian perspective that’s had me grinding my teeth over for the past fortnight. Aslet urges readers to celebrate what he sees as an English countryside in a far better state than that which he perceived in previous decades when working for Country Life, first as a free-ranging journalist and then editor. ‘Sees’ and ‘perceives’ – as his view, whilst lyrically expressed, lacks the concentrated focus to penetrate the surface gloss.
Jones quotes Graham Harvey’s dated, but still definitive, book, ‘The Killing of the Countryside’ which, as well as highlighting those often ploughed over figures about ‘140,000 miles of hedgerow grubbed out’ and ‘95% of herb-rich wildflower meadows’ drained and ‘improved’ since 1945, correctly identified that it was (as it continues to be) short-sighted, narrow perspective policy that drove the destruction. In particular of a form of farming that produced both good food and good countryside sustainably – half a century before that eco-buzz term had been coined:
“At the start of the last war there were almost half a million farms in Britain including part-time holdings. The majority were small, mixed units of less than 50 acres with cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry as well as some arable crops. Before the age of state protection, farmers needed to grow a range of products for financial security. If the price of any one product collapsed, there were others to buffer them against ruin.
Economically this mixed-farm structure was extremely stable. It also happened to produce a vigorous and attractive countryside, rich in wildlife and largely free of pollution… Never had the British countryside looked so good. Never had it supported a richer diversity of habitat and wild species. Yet it cost taxpayers nothing.
If the politicians had truly understood agriculture they would have recognized the mixed-farm structure as a national treasure to be nurtured and prized. Instead they set farming on a calamitous dash for intensification that was to put three-quarters of those farmers out of business.”
The statistic contained in that last sentence gets less attention than those routinely rehearsed losses to wildlife – wherein there has been an equivalent attrition of those who made a living from and on the land. In the 25 years between 1964 (before Aslet joined Country Life) and 1989, the number of farms in the UK fell by over 40%:
- From 445,000 holdings in 1964 to 252,000 by 1989 – i.e.nearly 200,000 gone in just one generation
- A further 40,000 farms have gone out of business or been amalgamated into bigger, more intensive units over the past 20 to 30 years.
Clive Aslet appears to have had an enjoyable working life; looking out through the windows of a first class railway carriage en route to appreciate the architecture of some country house or motoring up the M6 for a week-end at a great estate in Scotland. I do the same on my train journeys, albeit with more modest destinations, speculating as vistas of landscape and countryside whizz by, on what and who lives there – and daydreaming as to what I would do if I had stewardship. But knowing that, outside the bubble of that carriage and daydream, a closer, more considered scrutiny on the ground would reveal stresses and fault-lines in the physical places themselves and those seeking to make a living from them.
To recalibrate his vision, Aslet might take the train from London to Cambridge from whence he began his career as a writer. Travelling out from Kings Cross, once past the suburbia of Potters Bar and the pony paddocks of the wider, more affluent London hinterland, the train enters the bleak, fertiliser-soaked, fluorescent-green ‘fields’ of Cambridgeshire, where a few remnant hedges hang on untended and purposeless in a landscape empty of livestock and people.
A landscape turned over exclusively to pumping out crops for feeding factory-farmed pigs and poultry, for adding to highly-processed goods like margarine, or for extraction as industrial oils.
‘Cheap food’? Possibly. ‘Hurrah’? Probably not.
My father, a keen amateur naturalist, died some years ago and on a recent trip down to my mother’s home I finally took the time to sift through the various items he’d bequeathed me. Being the ‘environmentalist’ amongst my siblings, these amounted to his modest, but broad-ranging natural history library, various fishing rods, boxes of flies & curious home-made lures (many more successful at attracting moths in the loft than they ever had fish in a river!), and a cabinet containing his collection of butterflies and moths gathered through his childhood and the early part of mine.
That cabinet jolted me from my obvious musings on the changes between the countryside’s rich and diverse mosaic of my father’s childhood to today’s monotone green and yellow blocks – jolted me into the realisation that though lifeless, the moths and butterflies he’d methodically arrayed held a coded message. The purpose-built display cabinet of recycled English oak had twelve drawers, six each side with removable glass panes for adding other impaled specimens to the regimented rows already pinned to the cork-lined base, and exuded a sickly sweet smell of the lethal moth balls my father had placed in each drawer – with no apparent sense of irony – to protect his specimens from attack by… moths.
The majority of the specimens are British species ‘collected’ from North Staffs where he grew up, and then later from Devon and Flintshire, where we lived through my childhood and into my teens. ‘Collected’ is, of course, a euphemism – the butterflies were netted alive on the wing or for the moths drawn down from the night by the seductive glare of a paraffin lamp illuminating a sheet smeared with a sticky concoction my father boiled up from cherry tree resin and sugar. Whichever their method of capture, both butterflies and moths met a common fate from the cyanide infused plaster of Paris set in a kilner jar.
My introduction to the diversity and beauty of nature, the stirring of my instinct and increasingly present urge to be outside amongst and in nature, and the painful awakening of my more adult consciousness of the threats to and vulnerability of that natural connection all started with death. What startled me awake from my superficial skimming was finding myself staring at Death itself – the first specimen pinned at the top left corner of the first drawer being a Death’s Head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos) – more a visitor from the Continent than truly a native British species, although it does breed here.
What pricked me alert was the realisation that my father must have made a conscious decision to pin that specimen precisely there in its primary, conspicuous place. For that drawer and its specimens were out of order with the overall meticulous design and classification of the cabinet – British butterflies followed in the next five drawers, ordered in their families. Then the right-hand drawers returned to moths – with the last two marked up as ‘Foreign’, reserved for the exotic species he’d purchased overseas. He must have placed the Death’s Head Hawk Moth there deliberately – not a perverse, mocking message as from the fictional serial-killer, Hannibal Lecter, of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ – but rather a coded acknowledgement of the contradiction and his innate, growing unease of killing something he loved.
My father was given the cabinet on his 12th birthday in 1935. The collection stops at the end of the 1960s, when I too was 12. Over those 35 years, we had caught, poisoned and pinned some 240 specimens – with the native numbers boosted by those bought-in exotics. The ghostly Moon moths (Acticas selene) and huge Atlas moths (Atticus atlas) were like pins in the map of his wartime postings through India and the Far East. Something stopped us both, seven years on from the publishing of Rachel Carson’s seminal ‘Silent Spring’. It was also on the eve of the environmental movement’s birth that Carson’s book gestated – and which I became part of fifteen years later, when I first began working for Friends of the Earth. It was not any social stigma attached to being a butterfly collector, although the collecting of birds’ eggs had been made illegal in 1956 two years before I was born – but simply an awareness that there weren’t as many butterflies or moths about.
It had always been an unspoken rule that we didn’t collect ‘too many’ of any one species. When he was a boy and still well into my childhood, collecting butterflies and moths, if not birds’ eggs was seen as a perfectly respectable hobby, marking one out as a ‘naturalist’. Not today, as this contemporary comment on a conservation organisation’s website makes plain: “Why would you have a cabinet full of dead butterfly specimens? Many ‘collectors’ will strongly argue their case, but in general, their behaviour is one of selfishness, greed and obsession. No collector could ever claim to be helping wild butterflies by killing them in their prime – often before they have a chance to mature and lay their eggs for future generations.”
As intended, those words hit home. But I can’t characterise my father’s love and knowledge of nature or my own as being nurtured and motivated merely by selfishness, greed or obsession. Nor do I want to taint those archetypal summer childhood memories of chasing through a meadow – nothing of ‘special scientific interest’, just the common-place farmer’s field next door or along a woodland ride with butterfly nets in pursuit of a Silver-studded Blue, Meadow Brown, Purple Hairstreak or Silver-washed Fritillary.
But then there are very few wildflower and herb-rich meadows left for children to chase through and butterflies to flutter over – as the tired but true statistic which I’ve repeated, written, typed, stencilled onto banners too many times to remember tells us: ‘97% of our wildflower meadows lost since 1945’. Not ‘lost’ – but destroyed, drained, ploughed up and re-sown with monochrome mixes of non-native grasses, predominantly rye-grass. The Silver-studded Blue, and many of the fritillaries are no longer commonly or even occasionally found, but listed as ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’ and even if described as being of ‘less concern’ as to their numbers and distribution, still sit on the ‘Red List’ – the annex and waiting room leading to extinction as inevitably as the ‘killing jar’.
Three-quarters of British butterflies are in decline – with 4 out of our 56 native species becoming extinct over the past hundred years. Of our much more numerous native moth species (2,400 plus), 62 have become extinct and the ‘catch-rates’ recorded by the Rothamsted field station have fallen by a third since the close of the 1960s; the point at which my father made the unspoken decision to halt our unconsciously ‘selfish, greedy and obsessive’ pastime.
Apart from the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, one specimen of a Clifden Nonpareil moth or Blue Under-wing, described as ‘the Victorian collector’s classic all-time favourite’ and the ‘Foreigns’– our cabinet contains no butterflies or moths that at the time or until very close to the time we stopped, would have been considered anything other than ‘common’ or ‘frequently found’– beautiful, exquisite, extraordinary in their detail and specific arrays, but not national rarities, scarcities or even regionally remarkable. Yet when comparing the contents of the butterfly cabinet to the official Red List – of the 30 or so species pinned in semi-immortality, three-quarter are on that list, and a third are described as ‘threatened’ or ‘near threatened’. The yellow and orange Garden Tiger moths, which my boy’s mind conflated as half world war one fighter plane, half leopard, regularly drawn down from the night on a lighted flare-path into our moth-trap, have suffered a 92% decline.
The blame for these nose-dives in the range and number of Garden Tigers and many other species of butterfly and moth should not be laid at the door of dead amateur naturalists or boys past or present bearing butterfly nets (ideally today, digital cameras rather than killing jars), but rather with the post-war and subsequent policy makers and their agribusiness advisers. It was they who set in train the wholesale destruction and dismantling of the type of mixed-farming that created the rich mosaic of habitats which supported such plentiful wildlife (and the farming community too), alongside and inherent in the production of crops and livestock, a past plenty that could stock a million such butterfly cabinets as the one I inherited without compromising nature’s capacity to replenish herself.
Robin Maynard, October 2014