Author Benedict Macdonald and Pelagic Publishing have given us kind permission to share an excerpt from Benedict's acclaimed book 'Rebirding', to mark World Rewilding Day 2022. The book is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in understanding #WhyWeRewild. If you don't yet have a copy, you can take advantage of a 30% off discount code being offered by the publisher, only available until 08:00 Monday 21 March (see foot of this page for how to claim it).
About Benedict Macdonald
Benedict Macdonald is a television producer, award-winning nature writer and conservationist. Having studied wildlife since a very early age, he pursued a career in natural history film-making and has worked on series including The One Show, Springwatch, The Hunt and as a field director for the Emmy-award winning Our Planet; a conservation series narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which premiered on Netflix in 2019. Since then, Ben has worked as a producer on international wildlife shows for Apple (Tiny Worlds, Earth at Night) and Disney.
His first book, 'Rebirding', was the winner of the Richard Jefferies Prize & inaugural winner of the Wainwright Conservation Prize 2020. His second book, 'Orchard: A Year in England's Eden', co-written with Nicholas Gates, was published by Harper Collins in August 2020. As a conservationist, Ben has remained at the forefront of public discourse on rewilding, nature restoration, regenerative farming and the widespread reintroduction of lost species to the UK.
Wildlife in freefall: 2020
When faced with such rapid, devastating declines in our wildlife, the temptation can be to see Britain’s problems as part of some international malaise – the inevitable consequence of a changing climate, or a growing population. Across the world, these are indeed two key drivers of wildlife decline, but they do not offer an adequate explanation for the unique desert we have created in Britain. One problem in coming to terms with the sheer sterility of our own country, national pride aside, is the syndrome of ‘shifting baselines’, whereby we have adapted our expectations of the countryside to the standards of just the last couple of decades. Most often, a conservation baseline will simply reflect what has been lost in the last generation. If you read a press release on insect loss, for example, it usually mentions the 1970s as the ‘start’ of a decline. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, a huge amount of Britain’s insect abundance and diversity was lost before any record-keeping began. True butterfly clouds vanished from most places before any of us were born. So did wood-pastures fizzing with enormous anthills, and wrynecks. So did mile after mile of beetle-filled meadows, and red-backed shrikes. Beetle declines began at least around the mid nineteenth century with entire species vanishing before 1900. Now, our long-forgotten natural history lives on not in any living memory, but in the living countryside still seen in large parts of eastern Europe and other areas of our continent that have yet to be turned into factories.
Many press releases tell us that Britain’s bird declines are ‘being seen across Europe’ – but this is not entirely true. Western, industrialised, intensive Europe has seen these declines. Pre-intensive far eastern Europe, yet to feel the full destructive force of policies such as the CAP, has not. Whether it’s a turtle dove from Africa, or a partridge native to a Norfolk field, the loss of weeds in farmland achieves the same result: extinction. The farmlands of eastern Poland, Romania, Latvia or Lithuania – where the CAP has yet to wreak its worst devastation – are still alive with much of what we’ve lost.
Across Europe, the degree of decline in many birds correlates not with where those countries are, but with quite how intensively their countryside has been managed or cleansed. In hay-meadow-rich countries like Hungary, its 64,000 or more pairs of turtle doves are considered to be stable. The 120,000 or more pairs in the ancient farmlands of Romania have been found to fluctuate – but not, as yet, to decline. In countries with intensive farming but a large amount of less intensively farmed land, like Germany, turtle doves have declined by a half. In Britain, as described above, they’ve declined by 96%. Germany, a nation of intensive farming that feeds its own, still has 8,500 more pairs of wrynecks than Britain’s average of zero. Comparative studies show that as early as the 1970s, mixed farmland in Suffolk held 2.2 pairs of spotted flycatcher per square kilometre. In the same period, parkland in West Germany held 100 pairs per square kilometre.
Germany is home to around 630 pairs of white-tailed eagle, but 150,000 pairs of red-backed shrike. That ratio, between a large predator and a bird happy with a spiky bush and beetles, is consistent with a modern landscape that has kept room for some of its insects. In 2014, the Netherlands, highly developed and populated, still held enough insect- rich pastures for 33,000 pairs of black-tailed godwits. Britain, with more acreage of low-lying farmland, had, in the same year, just 50. The causes for bird decline lie in the unique silence of the British landscape. We have tidied and removed life with greater zeal than our neighbours, as we did in both Tudor and Victorian times. Today, 99% of walks in the wider countryside will take you through a landscape that is not only free from wolves but free, at last, from most birds and insects too.
In addition to our collapsing insect food chain, another factor leading to our current wildlife freefall in Britain is something called ‘extinction debt’. Once populations have become isolated, you don’t need to do anything wrong. Such pockets of birds are already too small to survive the typical fluctuations of a normal population. With no recruitment of new birds, it only takes a few unfortunate events for each of those island populations to vanish. A bad winter, a wet summer, a persistent fox at a colony of curlews – and those birds will vanish, one island at a time. For example, 80% of our remaining turtle doves have vanished since 1994 alone. But that doesn’t mean farmers started doing anything much worse after 1994 – extinction does not, after all, work in a straight line. You cannot, for example, watch birds starve in the nest unless you study them each year. But suddenly, one year, your population of these birds will vanish, like some awful magic trick, because not enough chicks have been able to find food. Resident birds such as willow tits can sing for years – then go silent. Behind the scenes, their terrible yearly survival rates guaranteed extinction: these birds were the living dead.
In reality, ecosystems and their inhabitants do not respond to damage straight away. You punch them and they often react years or decades later. Not only do chemicals take years to fully sink into food chains, but birds do not fall off their perches overnight. It is only through successive years of nesting failure that birds are left unable to replenish their populations. Extinction debt is a term used for where future extinction is already guaranteed, as an inevitable result of events in the past. And sadly for Britain’s birds, a huge number of our bird populations are extinct – even as you watch them.
Freefall is under way, and has been for twenty years. It would be naïve to think that many species in serious decline will be here at all within a human generation. At least six of these – turtle dove, wood warbler, willow tit, lesser spotted woodpecker, nightingale and curlew – are extinction-critical. And still other birds are just beginning their declines. Who would have thought we’d worry about pied wagtails, bobbing around our motorway service stations in their dapper pinstripe suits? Since 1994, they have declined by 11%. As even our chaffinches fall silent, we make a dangerous mistake if we think we’ve reached the bottom. But we have also the ingenuity and opportunity to turn things around.
Britain has millions of wildlife-loving minds who – acting intelligently, differently than before – can restore our wildlife to amazing heights, provide protection against climate change, and ensure a future for rural jobs.
Copyright 2019 Benedict Macdonald, reprinted with permission from Pelagic Publishing.
Twitter @Rebirding1 and @pelagicpublish