‘Fled is that music’: following the nightingale

One evening last week I listened to a nightingale sing. It was about 8.30pm, and almost dark, in a block of scrub surrounding rough grass on the edge of a wood. The sky was mostly clear, and as the light fell it seemed to be backlit, with the moon up and the first stars appearing. All very romantic, except for the lights of airliners, the fields of flowering rapeseed, and the vaulting arch of high-tension power lines overhead. This is lowland England after all, not Keats’s ‘melodious plot of beechen green’. But it was still a nightingale.

This was not a chance encounter. A campaign called Nightingale Nights draws attention to the decline in nightingale numbers in the UK. I had never heard a nightingale in Britain, and it seemed a good challenge.   It is not too easy. The website lists a set of places where you have a good chance of finding a nightingale. But they only sing from mid April to mid-May, and there are not many left. Numbers fell by 91 per cent between 1967 and 2007. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) volunteer survey in 2012 and 2013 recorded 3300 territories.   With adjustments for areas not surveyed, this means there are 5,850 Nightingale territories in Britain, almost all in the south and east of England (with one hardy singer in Cleveland). How many singing males find a mate, and how many of these raise young, is anyone’s guess.

With less than six thousand nightingales, Nightingale Nights points out that there are more people with Nightingale as a surname in the UK than there are live male birds. Does this matter? They think so, and I think they are right. This is a small example of the wider extinction of experience that seems an inevitable part of contemporary life.

Between 1924 and 1942, the BBC broadcast nightingales singing every year live on the radio. This was done in part to demonstrate technical prowess and cutting edge technology, but they became culturally significant events. Nightingale Nights has set up an online petition to persuade the BBC to re-start them (it featured in Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day last year, but not live). The logic is simple: what you do not now know you will not care about.

But what does caring about nightingales achieve? Better conservation might be one answer. The BTO has a long list of possible reasons for their decline. One big factor is the lack of suitable habitat: the south of England is a busy and intensively managed place, full of people and infrastructure, set among the clinically efficient fields of industrial agriculture. And in the scattered and small areas set aside for nature, there are problems of habitat deterioration, particularly increased browsing by deer, which the BTO decrees ‘bad news for birds’.  Nightingales are picky and secretive. They like managed coppice woodland or scrubby thickets, and both need intensive management: all very expensive, and to be done in an era of catastrophically shrinking conservation budgets and conservation employment. Tricky.

Of course, nightingales are not really British birds at all. They only spend a few months here, refueling and raising young. They spend most of the year in subSaharan Africa, or en route in between. Lots of birds wintering in Africa and breeding in Europe are in decline, revealing glaring gaps in knowledge about the conditions they experience en route (hunting for example, nightingale pie anyone?), or when they reach Africa.   How do nightingales get on in winter? Nobody really knows, although the BTO is on the job, catching breeding birds and fitting geo-locators to see where they go.

Agriculture in Africa is intensifying, just as it has in the UK, and for the same reason: farmers want a decent living, and demand for food is high. International policy pressure pushes to increase the efficiency and intensity with which farmland is used, in pursuit of food security. Traditional systems of land fallowing are being swept away by intensive production using fertilizers and high yielding seeds. Modern agriculture has no more reason to leave space for birds in the Sahel or Sudan Zones of West Africa than it does in the UK. And an already difficult and variable climate, where periodic droughts are the norm, is likely to become more difficult and more uncertain for both birds and people in the future. None of this is good news for birds that migrate, like the nightingale. They need conservation investment not just in the UK, but also in Africa. The lesson is clear: caring about nightingales means caring about African farmers too.

But it is interesting that since the 1970s, nightingale populations have been relatively stable in the rest of Europe. So a big part of the problem lies at home. And we do not seem to value nightingale habitat as we should. One example is Lodge Hill, a 300 ha block of abandoned Ministry of Defence land in Kent, where it is proposed to build 5000 houses. Lodge Hill has 66 pairs of nightingales, and enthusiastic local people who go there to listen to them. Cue a big row about planning, and a scheme to let the developer build the houses, but make them pay for new nightingale habitat somewhere else (in fact in Essex, across the Thames Estuary): a leap into the unknown for nightingales, and an impossible journey for the people of Lodge Hill.

In February 2015, the Lodge Hill planning application was ‘called-in’ by the Secretary of State, so the development will now be examined at a Public Enquiry. Maybe these nightingales will keep their home, and local people will continue to be able enjoy to them, or maybe not.

The case raises lots of questions about the project, and about the idea of ‘offsetting’ (compensating for damage here by the creation of habitat there). It also raises a fundamental question about what matters with respect to nightingales: Just their number? Or the possibility that people can hear them?

In a provocative article calling on conservationists to begin ‘rethinking extinction’, Stuart Brand urges against seeing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat, because it ‘introduces an emotional charge that makes the problem seem cosmic and overwhelming rather than local and solvable’. Like so many other conservation issues, the decline of the nightingale is a profoundly local problem, albeit replicated across the country.

Is the real problem of the nightingale that it is heading for extinction, or that the chance to hear one is lost to so many people? Or is the real tragedy revealed by the nightingale’s decline that their presence or absence is so remote from everyday life that people do not even notice or care? These issues are closely related. The loss of nightingales is a biological fact, but also a cultural tragedy, and their conservation is as much about the people we wish to be and the kind of world we want to live in as it is about ‘preventing extinction’.

So, go and find a nightingale if you can, and sign the petition for a live broadcast for those who cannot.

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4 thoughts on “‘Fled is that music’: following the nightingale

  1. I arrived in England some years ago for the first time, aged 17. Having read about the alluring song of the nightingale, I kept an ear out for much of the next decade over which I was, on and off, based there. By the time I left (more or less permanently), the idea of hearing the song had largely faded as, unlike the people of Lodge Hill, I hadn’t actively sought it out. It was not until last year (and almost 30 years later) – when lying under a bright moon on the Turkmen-Iranian border – that I was kept awake most of the night by the song and I finally realised what I had been missing. Hearing even a live broadcast would instil an emotional response that would help those who haven’t heard the song appreciate the cultural (and biological) tragedy.

  2. Great blog post – really fascinating and a beautiful read. The idea of catastrophic threats as overwhelming and presenting people engaging in a practical day to day way seems to have purchase in public health contexts (and perhaps in the area of climate change politics) so it makes sense to think it through here too….

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