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The surprising restoration of Britain’s wildlife

My review of Stephen Moss’s book Wild Kingdom from the Times:

The wildlife of the River Tyne, near where I live, has been transformed in my lifetime. When I went pike fishing on the Tyne as a bird-watching-obsessed boy, it was empty of salmon, sea trout and otters. It had no ospreys, peregrine falcons or kites overhead. Buzzards, goosanders and herons were scarce. All are now regular or common residents.

The Tyne is one of the examples used by Stephen Moss in his book Wild Kingdom of the progress we have made bringing back much of Britain’s wildlife. He watches an otter right in the middle of Newcastle, while listening to the kittiwakes that nest on the Tyne bridge. Elsewhere in the country he documents the extraordinary revival, arrival or return of many species: bitterns, little egrets, great white egrets, avocets, cranes, beavers, marsh harriers, cetti’s warblers, ring-necked parakeets.

He also celebrates the colonisation of our cities by foxes, hedgehogs and myriad species of birds. Just last week, as I took a ten-minute walk through a busy part of central London at seven in the morning to catch a train, I decided to note the species of birds whose songs I heard: wren, goldcrest, goldfinch, greenfinch, dunnock, great tit, blue tit, robin, blackbird, song thrush, wood pigeon, magpie, parakeet, carrion crow and herring gull.

Once there were just town pigeons, starlings and sparrows in our cities. Now these pioneers have been joined by far more species (and it may be no coincidence that sparrows and starlings have declined), with new ones arriving every year. Herring gulls are now largely city birds, not seaside birds. Birds are “learning” through natural selection that cities provide a rich mosaic of habitats, while urban human beings are no threat, as rural human beings were for centuries — and still are if you are a pigeon or a fox.

Lichens too were largely absent from towns and even from much of the countryside in the 1960s, poisoned by the sulphur in coal smoke. Today lichens grow everywhere; those pale blotches on the roads and pavements that people think are chewing gum are actually often lichens — the “chewing gum lichen”, Lecanora muralis.

So we live in a golden age for wildlife? Well, despite the optimistic tones of parts of his book, Moss, a writer, wildlife TV producer and broadcaster, cannot quite shake the pessimism that has so long been the reflex attitude of many naturalists. He is relentlessly rude about farmers chasing “cheaper and cheaper food”, as if that was a bad thing in a world where famine has gone from commonplace to very rare.

Moss also neglects the way improvements in farming technology have helped wildlife: safer pesticides, wild field margins, and above all the fact that higher yields mean less land is needed, releasing large areas for wildlife. This “sustainable intensification”, most ecologists conclude, is vital to the recovery of wildlife populations in rich countries.

He rightly yearns for land management that is good for wildlife yet not confined to small-scale nature reserves. However, when he comes across exactly that he wants it banned. I am referring to grouse shooting, which dominates the economy and ecology of parts of the Pennines.

Unsubsidised, grouse shooting has preserved heather moorland, a habitat rich in plants and insects. It has stopped it from being turned into subsidised intensive sheep grazing, or being buried beneath a subsidised monoculture of sitka spruce trees for commercial timber, or being developed for subsidised wind farms. Instead these moors resound to the cackle of Britain’s only endemic subspecies of bird, a creature found nowhere else in the world and with a unique ecological symbiosis with the heather plant — the red grouse.

And that’s not all. Managed Pennine grouse moors are far richer in birds such as curlews, golden plover, ring ouzel, merlin and black grouse than equivalent upland areas in Wales or Cumbria because in the Pennines gamekeepers control the foxes and crows that otherwise devastate such ground-nesting species. Foxes and crows live at unnatural densities in this country because of road-kill, garbage and a lack of apex predators, so human control of their numbers is vital for other wildlife, as every nature reserve warden knows.

Yet Moss cannot forgive gamekeepers for allegedly persecuting hen harriers, even though he surely knows that they too, as ground-nesting birds, cannot thrive without fox control, which is why their strongholds are fox-free islands such as the Orkneys and the Isle of Man. The hen harrier debate is far more nuanced than Moss realises. According to the government’s answer to a parliamentary question, of 12 hen harrier nests in England last year the seven monitored solely by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (which disapproves of grouse shooting) reared one chick; the five on private land, Forestry Commission or Natural England land reared 17 young. That shocking statistic reflects badly on the RSPB.

Moss has a blind spot when it comes to competition and predation. It is bizarre to blame the decline of the hedgehog on things such as “the destruction of woodland” — when Britain is rapidly increasing its woodland cover, especially the deciduous woodland that hedgehogs like — and not even mention the role of badgers. The huge increase in the badger population coincides perfectly in time and space and detail (and the link is powerfully supported by experimental study) with the decline in hedgehogs.

So there is a disappointing naivety about ecology in this book. Another example is that he blames the decline of puffins on warmer temperatures driving the sand eels they prey on farther north in the North Sea. Yet two paragraphs earlier he admits that the most southerly colonies in the North Sea, off the Northumberland coast, are in rude health, with four times as many puffins as half a century ago. It is the northernmost colonies that have declined.

Still, I should not carp. Wild Kingdom is not a scientific treatise but a personal reflection on Britain’s wildlife and as such it is an easy read, rich with examples of what can be done to help Britain’s wildlife thrive. He ends with the hope that we might one day see pelicans here. He’s right that we should think such ambitious thoughts. Increasingly, a prosperous country can have wildlife that also prospers.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times