‘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.

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The Wild Wood and the Railway

I’m sorry, Mole old chap, but it just won’t do you know’.

The Mole lifted his gaze from the golden coals of the fire. ‘What won’t do Ratty?’

‘There’s something going on in the Wild Wood. We haven’t seen Badger for months. I am starting to worry about him’.

The Mole looked round at the honest face of his friend, brow furrowed and whiskers twitching. Outside the light was already going from the sky, and the windows rattled in the wind. It was a day for firesides, and crumpets. With great fortitude he stood up. ‘Well’, he said bravely, ‘why don’t we go and try to find him?

‘Would you?’ said Ratty, ‘it’s no kind of a day for a walk’.

‘Of course it is’, said the Mole, moving now with bustling decision, ‘now where did I put my stick?’

Some time later, the Mole and the Rat drew close to the edge of the Wild Wood. It was not a place either of them liked very much: dark and forbidding, especially on a cold blustery November afternoon.

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Conservation poetry: a field guide

Is there such a thing as conservation poetry? This question has been running through my mind since I talked with a Masters student who was doing a project on ‘conservation art’. I asked exactly what that meant. This led to an interesting discussion about different artists (primarily in graphic art or sculpture) whose work spoke of themes central to conservation. There are lots of examples, either of projects (the Ghosts of Gone Birds for example), organisations (such as the Artists for Nature Programme), or individuals (like the wonderful murals of my friend Rory McCann).

Yet while I can think of many artists whose work inspires me as a conservationist, I hesitate to say that my response necessarily matches their intention: the question for me is whether my feelings should be allowed to label their art? To me, artists do what they do, expressing what they see or hear in their heads. The notion that the resulting art, even if it portrays some aspect of nature, should necessarily be thought of as ‘conservation art’, seems wrong. Art just is. Its effects lie with the response of those who engage with it.

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The Conservation Game

Watching the football World Cup in recent weeks, I was struck again and again by the images from cameras roaming the stadium, pulling out faces from the crowd. As matches moved into extra time, or the torture of penalties, they showed close ups of people in extremes of excitement, torment, delight or grief. I was reminded of my Mother’s dismissal of football on the television: ‘how ridiculous, it’s only a game’: perhaps the passion was less visible in those black and white days. Or perhaps she, like many people faced with televised sport-fests today, saw games as a distraction from more important things. Certainly the poet Rudyard Kipling, despite his romantic portrayal of the ‘Great Game’ in Kim, was dubious about their significance. In The Islanders he castigated those distracted from national needs by ‘the flannelled fool at the wickets or the muddied oaf at the goals’. For Kipling some things were too serious for games.

Is conservation something that is too serious for fun? Chris Sandbrook, Bruno Monteferri and I did a bit of work back in 2011 to explore this idea, looking specifically at the field of computer and online digital games. Perhaps predictably, we concluded that there was a lot of potential for conservation games: and certainly that conservation needed to be fun if it was to appeal to anyone who did not share the ascetic inclinations of a monastic ecology graduate foreswearing a city career.

We have now written some of our thinking down in a paper in Conservation Letters. This is a Wiley publication, and our employers will not pay to make it open access, but the gist is easily reported here. Basically, we got very excited by three things.

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Lament of a Lawn Person

Last weekend I spent the best part of two hours mowing the lawn. This is not my favourite task: it comes ahead of using the vacuum cleaner or cleaning the bath (just), but way behind washing up or mending a puncture. Maybe somewhere around answering emails: a necessary evil. Why? Well, for one thing, it is quite tiring, without as far as I can see being very good exercise: a walk would be better for body and mind, and cycling to work beats mowing hands down. Also it is unpleasantly noisy: at this time of year, English suburbia rings to the throb of powered garden machinery, a kind of evening chorus, as solitary males display their fitness by competing to be loudest, sometimes flying off in a speeding courtship circuit on sit-on mowers.

But the main reason I dislike mowing is not its unproductive consumption of time, its ineffective burning of calories or the noise. It is that it seems such a stupid thing to do. Grass likes being cut. The more you cut it, the more it grows. If you fertilise it, and drill holes in it to aerate it, and kill weeds, it grows even faster. The alert gardener mows it every week, perhaps more often: especially as Spring turns into Summer, when days are long, the air warm, and the ground still moist (in May in Cambridgeshire you can almost hear grass growing). This is the challenge to which the eager gardener rises: you cut the grass and make it beautiful; it keeps growing, so you keep cutting so it remains beautiful.

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Give Me Back My Greens

This is a hard time to be green. Since the financial crash in 2008, British government policy has been fixated with ‘growth’, and action for the environment has become profoundly out of fashion in the UK with politicians and media alike. No more dogsled rides for David Cameron to highlight climate change, and deep burial for his promise to run ‘the greenest government ever’. In November, the Sun reported that the Prime Minister had ordered aides to ‘get rid of the green crap’ to reduce household bills. It was, said the Daily Mail, all part of Opposition leader ‘Red Ed’s’ ‘green obsession’. In December, the Daily Mail ran an article on ‘fat cat Ecocrats’, identifying a ‘web of ‘green’ politicians, tycoons and power brokers’, profiting from these green levies.

But what does it mean to describe something as ‘green’?  The word has become so loosely used that its meaning is debased. Seemingly, it is ‘green’ to establish protected areas, restore ecosystems or protect rare species. At the same time, it is ‘green’ to oppose nuclear power, buy organic, promote renewable energy, oppose a new runway at Heathrow, try to control speeding on motorways, oppose housing development in the ‘Green’ Belt or build wind farms. Continue reading

Taken at the Flood

In southern England, January 2014 was the wettest since records began (the 1760s in the case of the Oxford Radcliffe Observatory).  Thousands of homes have been flooded, and large parts of the Somerset Levels have sat under water for weeks.  In a week of storms (‘stormageddon’, announced the Daily Mirror), a stretch of the sea wall at Dawlish in Devon was destroyed, cutting the only rail route to Plymouth and Cornwall. The Environment Agency was accused of ‘putting birds before humans‘.   In the Daily Mail, the Environment Agency was likewise accused of favouring conservation by failing to dredge Somerset rivers ‘and then spending £20m on bird sanctuaries’.

These headlines are perhaps no worse than we have come to expect from public debate about the environment in the UK, driven, as they are, by a combination of ignorance and outrage.  Indeed, by some standards they are quite sensible. A councillor for Henley–on-Thames (from the UK Independence Party), blamed the storms and floods on an act of God because of legislation to legalise gay marriage.   Meanwhile, The destruction caused by floods and storms have triggered that favourite British sport of pass-the-blame: victims blame the government for not doing more, the Local Government Minister blames the Environment Agency, whose Chairman replies by accusing politicians of ‘playing politics’ with the crisis, and for cutting his organisation’s staff. Continue reading

Tigers or Transition?

Is biodiversity conservation part of the environmental movement? To what extent is the protection of species like tigers an integral part of wider concerns about transition to more sustainable lives on earth?  These questions came up at a recent meeting Conservation and Sustainability: Do We Practise What We Preach?, organised by the Cambridge Conservation Forum. The questions are simple enough.  The answers turn out to be a bit more complicated.

Historically, it’s a no-brainer.  The birth of the modern conservation movement in the late Nineteenth Century was strongly environmentalist, in that it was a broad-spectrum reaction to the depredations of capitalism and industrialism. In colonised territories like North America or Africa, the extinction of species (blaubok, quagga or passenger pigeon) and the settlement of frontiers drove a wave of sentiment for wilderness.  Yet in countries like the UK, conservation had broader roots: the founders of organisations like the National Trust and the RSPB and the Open Spaces Society were people who opposed the impacts of industrial pollution, urban sprawl, hunting and collecting, even if they enjoyed certain of its fruits.

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Zombie ecology

Garden centres are portals to the world of the undead.  Zombies stalk their orderly aisles, moving awkwardly in a strange world of fragrances and soft music.  You can see them any weekend – the near and post-retired generation, harassed parents with young children, and young couples trying out lifestyles. They shuffle past the displays, scented candles and hanging baskets, hosepipes and bird food, jams and cushions; or roaming the endless patio outside, with serried ranks of plants, all exactly sized and perfectly in flower, pallets of compost and stacks of pots, and a builder’s yard of trellis, fencing and posts.  Groups of them cluster hungrily around the restaurant, eyeing up the chilli and the bakewell slices.

Garden centres in the modern sense are relatively new on the UK retail scene.  Once, gardeners bought their plants from nurseries, a label suggesting green-fingered plant lovers carefully tending their charges. Some specialised and local nurseries survive, but most have changed beyond recognition. Prior to the Sunday Trading Act 1994, garden centres were one of very few retail businesses allowed to open on a Sunday in England.  In Margaret Thatcher’s ‘free market’ Britain of the 1980s, consumers ruled.  Garden centres welcomed Sunday shoppers with open arms, becoming outdoor superstores, selling anything from strimmers to soft furnishing, tropical fish to fashion.  Many are now part of national chains, and big supermarkets and DIY stores have joined the bonanza. Continue reading

Ecosystem Services: Conservation’s Babel Fish

The Babel fish is one of the more inspired forms of fictional biodiversity. It features in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (sadly no relative), and allows his antihero, the ape descendant Arthur Dent to traverse the universe with only his speaking handheld digital assistant, the Hitchhiker’s Guide, for company (forget Siri, Douglas Adams got there first).  The Babel fish is described as ‘small, yellow and leech-like’, and when it had slithered into Arthur Dent’s ear, he could understand anything that was said, in any language of the universe.  As usual in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, this turns out not to be entirely a good thing.

Many conservationists seem to hope that ecosystem services will work like a Babel fish for them.  For decades they have hammered on about how valuable nature is, and nobody has paid much notice.  Humanity blithely goes on strip mining the earth’s stock of natural capital and burning it getting rich, or just keeping alive. But the ecosystem services Babel fish promises to change all that.  Insert it into public discourse, and when conservationists speak of wildlife, biodiversity, endangered species or habitat loss, their listeners will hear human wellbeing, natural capital, nature’s supply chain, the stuff humans get for free.   When we speak about the importance of conservation, everyone will automatically understand what we mean. Continue reading