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Deserts in the British countryside

A personal view

There are two types of desert commonly found in the British Isles. Yes, indeed, there are deserts here, green ones and golden ones. OK I have stretched the definition of desert a little from:

 

"any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost or absence of soil"

to:

"any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, absence of soil or human management".


 


You might think that this is extreme, but here's the thing. It is a sunny afternoon in early July and the two of us are taking a stroll across a field that runs across the top of a recently disused aerodrome. We are walking across a desert of the green type. It is a massive field laid to Perennial Rye-grass. The internal hedgerows are gone. There are no swallows, no lapwings, no other farmland birds, no butterflies, no bees nor other insects and no wild flowers to speak of.

I suspect that most people doing this walk would see beautiful green British countryside, nicely groomed by the farmer and, in their minds, a scene unchanged for years. But boy has it changed.

Here is another example. We (a different we this time) walked over a field, a big one, one where again the internal hedgerows had been removed and it had been seeded with a lay of Perennial Rye-grass. In this case a pond had also been filled in. There were nine of us, all botanists to varying degrees, including two county recorders. The challenge was to find any species other than the rye-grass. We found one, a solitary Broad-leaved Dock. Clearly the farmer hadn't been doing his job properly!

And finally an example from close to home. The messy, marshy field in which I once saw a handful of Golden Plovers and on which there had always been Lapwings has been drained and laid with, yes you guessed, Perennial Rye-grass. It is now well groomed and growing beef. A green field with families of white cattle - cows and calves and the occasional bull. I'm guessing to many people this is an improvement but the Lapwings are gone and there will be no more Golden Plovers. It is no longer possible to take an atmospheric winter walk along this quiet road and see waders through the foggy morning light.

Compare these modern meadows with any of the very few traditional, "unimproved" meadows that still exist in, say, Swaledale or Teesdale. In the traditional meadows the sward is rich with broad-leaved herbs. In the spring and summer they are a blaze of colour. Of course at other times of the year when they are a rich green they are indistinguishable from a rye-grass desert to a passing motorist.


Green Desert
A green desert

And, because there are always hedgerows lining the road, the loss of internal hedgerows is not apparent either. Actually, even these lining hedgerows are often just a shadow of what they used to be. This becomes very obvious in the autumn when the leaves have fallen. The hedgerows that line the roads are often cut thin and are never laid so they begin to take on the look of espaliers and need wire fences to make them stock proof. You'll have a job to find an old bird's nest in such hedges. They're just not suitable for nesting. Gone are the days when you drove down a quiet country lane and masses of small birds flew out ahead of you.


All of this nibbling away of bits of the complexity in the countryside has added up to a huge loss in quantity and diversity of the plants and animals. But the change has been slow enough that most people in the older generations don't notice or have forgotten. For youngsters the current countryside is all they have ever known; this countryside is their baseline. This condition has a fancy name - Shifting Baseline Syndrome. It is a collective amnesia such that current condition is seen as something that is timeless. Shifting Baseline Syndrome has recently become all the rage in conservation talk, although actually the term has been around since the mid-90's, and commercial interests, planners and, especially, politicians have understood and exploited it since time immemorial.

Scientists, being scientists, have felt the need to study Shifting Baseline Syndrome to confirm that it is real, for example Papworth et al (2009), but I think it is self-evident. It was brought home to me when I retired a year or so ago and thought it would be fun and interesting to start all over again with bird, plant and insects lists. I know exactly what the top five birds would have been in our garden in winter back in the sixties. Put out a bit of bread and a peanut feeder and the lawn would have been full of House Sparrows and Starlings with a handful of Blackbirds and the peanut feeder would soon have squabbling Blue Tits, Great Tits and Greenfinches. Now in my winter garden, in the same sort of habitat (but a different part of the country) there are no House Sparrows or Starlings and bread will eventually be carried off by Magpies. In fact I haven't seen a Starling in the garden for 30 years and House Sparrows ceased to be regular visitors 10 years ago when neighbours did some house improvement work and the little colony that was hanging on died off. On the other hand, on the feeder Blue Tits and Great Tits are just as common, and now we have regular visits by Long-tailed Tits and Goldfinches, which would have been incredible back then. Back in the sixties Magpies and Wood Pigeons were also a rare sight in the suburbs.

Although I am not a great fan of citizen science, because I think that human nature is always going to lead to an over estimate of numbers, over the last forty years the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch shows very similar trends:


Species

Rank 2019

Mean per garden 2019

Mean per garden 1979

Percent change

House Sparrow

1

4.4

10

-56.0

Starling

2

3.1

15

-79.3

Blue Tit

3

2.6

2.44

6.6

Blackbird

4

2.3

4

-42.5

Woodpigeon

5

2.3

0.2

1050.0

Goldfinch

6

1.8

-

+Infinity

Great Tit

7

1.5

0.9

66.7

Robin

8

1.3

2

-35.0

Chaffinch

9

1.3

3

-56.7

Magpie

10

1.2

0.44

172.7


The loss of Sparrows and Starlings was probably well underway by the time the Big Garden Birdwatch got underway in 1979. Another bird that the Big Garden Birdwatch has shown to be in steep decline is the Song Thrush. It was in the number ten spot in 1979 and has declined by 70% since. Overall bird numbers have greatly decreased. Percentages very are deceptive - Woodpigeon numbers have increased by a whopping 1000% but the actual number of birds has only increased by 2 per garden on average; Starlings have decreased by 80% but there are 12 fewer of them per garden on average. To look at it in another way, if the proportion of a bird species decreases by 80%, it must then increase by 400% for the number of birds to get back to its original level.

Insect numbers are in similar decline. Who remembers back in the 70s having to give the windscreen and headlights a good clean to remove all of the insect corpses after a long car journey, or even having to do it half way through? These days it is quite unusual to collect an insect kill on the windscreen at all. Similarly a walk through a field of cows would have raised clouds of flies from the cowpats, but now it is unusual to see a pat covered with flies. In fact the RSPB have evidence that commonly used veterinary treatments of cattle significantly reduce the number of insect larvae in dung (RSPB 2019) and they fear that this may be having detrimental effects on some farmland birds. Indeed a study in German nature reserves indicated a decline of over 70% in flying insect biomass over 27 years (ending in 2016). This covers the flying insect community as a whole, not just the butterflies, moths and bees that other studies have tended to focus on (Wiki,2019) Nonetheless is does mirror very well the long-term (40 year) study of British butterflies (Fox et al, 2015), which reported a decline in 60 to 70% of species (the variation depending on the type of measure) and, significantly, the rapid decline of several widespread species, which suggests that environmental conditions are deteriorating for all. The same trend has recently been reported for riverflies (S&TC, 2019) and for bees and hoverflies (CEH, 2019).


I mentioned two deserts at the beginning of the article, green and golden. We've talked about the green type a lot, mainly because they are what I see most of at home in Cheshire. The golden deserts are found more in the south and east of the country. These golden deserts are, of course, fields of cereals. They start green but turn golden as the crops ripen in the summer sunshine. Golden deserts tend to be even larger than green deserts. Last year in the Cotswolds we passed a farmer sowing winter barley. He was using a massive piece of kit to drill the seed, it must have been 5 or 6 metres wide and, of course, it needed a very large tractor to pull it. Using such large machinery only makes sense if the fields are huge, and the economic reality of modern ultra efficient farming means that to remain competitive you must use such big kit. So gone are hedgerows, and now one person can easily drill hundreds of acres, and only two or three people are needed to harvest them. It is the same economics that is driving the trend towards bigger fields of rye-grass. We watched a farmer brushing cut rye-grass hay into rows ready for bailing with an equally big tractor towing an equally wide spinner. Except for a few corvids there are no birds on these fields. It is even unusual these days to see birds following the plough.

Golden Desert
A golden desert

According to the latest statistics (Dept Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2018), 18 percent of the 17.5 million hectares of utilised agricultural land in the country is used for cereals and 46 percent for grass (excluding rough grazing). So a total of 64 percent is either green or golden desert. No wonder the number of farmland birds, insects and wild flowers has plummeted. It is the market and government policy that have brought us to this state - farmers have to a make a living.

And lest we suburban types point the finger too accusingly, remember we have made our own significant negative impact. The housing stock is all nicely tidied up. There aren't many nooks and crannies left for nests, and the number sparrows, Swifts, Starlings and martins has crashed. We have paved large areas of gardens for parking and patios. Areas that were once green and floriferous now do not have any plants, insects or birds, and, pertinent these days, nowhere for water to soak away and reduced capacity for carbon storage.

Beyond Shifting Baseline Syndrome there is a further problem because for most of the population there is a lack of engagement with nature. Of our 66 million people, less than 10%, about 6 million, are members of the RSPB, wildlife trusts and/or the National Trust. For plants the figures are even more stark. The total combined membership of Plantlife, the Wild Flower Society and BSBI is about 15000. Springwatch only gets about 2.5 million viewers each year and Countryfile averages around 5.5 million. Primary schools do not have natural history on the syllabus, secondary schools are more likely to roll biology into a general science course rather than teach it separately and there are no universities offering a degree in botany and only 11 degree courses under the general category of plant science. The Oxford Junior Dictionary has purged words relating to nature from its pages. Gone, for example, are acorn, bluebell, buttercup, dandelion, heron, kingfisher, newt and otter.

This is not only a regret for those of us who do remember what has gone and sad for our children who may never get to see it, it is also pretty dangerous for humanity. There is a fundamental law of nature that can't be changed by clever science or engineering. The second law of thermodynamics. We all know it from school physics lessons - everything tends to disorder. There is nothing more ordered than a neat and tidy countryside growing vast acreages of a single species or variety, and to keep it that way requires a huge amount of energy input to overcome the pull of the second law of thermodynamics. And the collateral damage to the 'good' part of the biota caused by the liberal use of pesticides and herbicides, which are a part of that huge energy input, only makes the system more unstable. The natural checks and balances inherent in the complexity of highly diverse ecosystems is slowly eroded away by these chemicals. Ironically, in the long term pests and diseases are only encouraged by pesticides and herbicides.

Can anything be done? Did we in the older generation take our eyes off the ball or did we do well to keep the world from being in a worse state than it is? Perhaps both. After all there was a great environmental consciousness in the 60s and 70s. Remember Silent Spring, Small Is Beautiful and the songs of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the rest, and conservationists and conservation-minded scientists have worked hard across the decades to maintain biodiversity and inform and persuade politicians of the risks. But whilst we have been fully focussed on this coal face, it has become clear that the real problem is elsewhere. Over this period, the great mass of the population has become more and more removed from nature. How can people who have never been given the tools to understand complexity of nature or experienced its wonders be expected to make any sacrifices to help it out or even appreciate why it is important to make them.

If we want to protect the environment we have to get way more than 10% of the population interested in it. Then politicians will be inclined to pay more than lip-service to environment issues, and policies, grants and research might be better directed at solving them.

References

CEH (2019). Widespread losses among pollinating insects in Britain. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. https://bit.ly/2WcDPf1

Fox, R., Brereton, T.M., Asher, J., August, T.A., Botham, M.S., Bourn, N.A.D., Cruickshanks, K.L., Bulman, C.R., Ellis, S., Harrower, C.A., Middlebrook, I., Noble, D.G., Powney, G.D., Randle, Z., Warren, M.S. & Roy, D.B. (2015). The State of the UKs Butterflies 2015. Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wareham, Dorset.

Papworth, S.K., Rist, J., Coad, L. & Milner-Gulland, E.J. (2009). Evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation. Conservation Letters 2:93100

RSPB (2019). Medicated cowpats threaten choughs, Nature's Home, Autumn 2019, page 39

S&TC (2019). Riverfly Census - National Outcomes, Policy Recommendations. Salmon and Trout Conservation. https://bit.ly/2WbZ5Ss

Wiki (2019). Decline in insect populations, Wikipedia. Decline in insect populations