It is sunny and warm in the garden. My poodle Scratchy is lying in the shade of the chestnut tree and I can hear him snoring. He is 15 now and spends more and more time sleeping – and snoring.
I listen to his gentle wheezing and smile. I love him, and his contentment makes me happy. But then I love life, all life – animals have always brought me joy and have fuelled a lifetime’s curiosity and interest. And concern.
I sit down and look over a wildflower patch I’ve sown. It is pretty colourful – plenty of flowers, plenty of nectar – but I realise there is not much buzzing going on. There are no bees, no hoverflies, no butterflies flitting – in fact I haven’t seen a butterfly all morning. I get up and go searching but I find nothing. Not a tortoiseshell, peacock, or even a cabbage white.
Environmentalist Chris Packham, pictured, said 50 years ago when he clambered into wasteland near his home in urban Southampton he would see hundreds of butterflies from several different species
Just 50 years ago, as a child I could clamber over a fence into some wasteland behind my home in urban Southampton and see hundreds of butterflies and tens of species: the always-nervous wall butterflies, sparkling small coppers, jewel-like blues, and big and bolshie red admirals.
But now, even though my garden looks wonderful, lush, green and rich, there’s nothing much here. And there is a very real – and very sad – parallel between it and our countryside. Our land is green, but it is not nearly as pleasant as it might be.
Somehow we’ve all grown used to this. We know our hedgehogs and water voles have all but vanished. Some of us are armed with piles of depressing statistics but we’ve seemingly forgotten what they actually mean. Astonishingly, 44 million birds have disappeared from our fields and woodlands since 1966.
A child growing up in England today is unlikely to ever see a sparrow. Why? Their numbers are down by a shocking 90 per cent. We talk about ‘losses’ but nothing has been ‘lost’. Lost means inadvertently misplaced – instead, our wildlife has been killed, starved, poisoned, ploughed up or concreted over.
How you can make a difference for…
Swifts: These fast-flying birds are struggling to find nest sites in new-build houses and homes where the eaves and soffits have been modernised. Put up a nest box this winter. For more information, visit swift-conservation.org
Bees: It is not just honeybees that are in trouble – more than 250 native species are also under threat. Plant some nectar-rich flowers and put up a bee box. friendsoftheearth.uk/bees
You can help frogs and toads by putting a pond in your garden
Hedgehogs: If you have hedgehogs in your garden, provide them with a quiet, overgrown corner, install a hibernation box and stop using slug pellets.
Trees: Urban trees are so valuable, providing shelter, beauty and making the environment better for both our physical and mental health. Many trees are under threat, so resist their removal by liaising with your local council.
Frogs and toads: These amphibians are having a tough time in the countryside due to a lack of ponds and drying out of rivers and streams. Help by putting a pond in your garden.
We are orchestrating an ecological apocalypse in our own backyard, and worse, we are trying hard to ignore it.
Well not any longer. On Saturday, I’ve organised the first People’s Walk For Wildlife in Hyde Park, London, and I am inviting everyone who has any sort of concerns about the health of our landscape and the creatures that live in it.
It’s an invitation to those who may not agree on the detail of how to fix things but who agree that things need fixing. Together we will stand shoulder to shoulder and peacefully ask for change.
Of course, we would like to see a more urgent response from the Government, with both more incentives and mandatory requirements for everyone to help protect species and their habitats.
For example, why do we persist with the removal of hedges from our countryside, which immediately deprives wildlife of food and shelter through winter?
But I don’t believe it’s all about ‘them’ doing things.
It’s about all of us doing things for ourselves, whether that’s the conservation movement as a whole or us as individuals.
The greatest difficulty may be people’s reluctance to change what they think and do on a daily basis – even when it becomes clear that it’s wrong. I think all gardeners know that if they use lots of slug pellets they won’t have any hedgehogs, song thrushes or slow worms because these animals, once so common in gardens, need slugs and snails as food.
Yet trying to break this habit seems difficult. Responding to new scientific findings, ideas and techniques will be key to us surviving ourselves, let alone protecting our wildlife.
So please come and walk with me and Scratchy – dogs are welcome of course, but no barking!
According to Chris, some species of birds have almost become extinct over the past 50 years
I’d like every last person who has a real interest in the health and wellbeing of our landscape, and who wants to engender a proper respect for the life that tries to live there, to down tools and join in.
- And if you can’t be with us, here are a few other things I urge you to do:
- Introduce a child to nature. Let them touch and feel it, take them for a walk and give them the freedom to explore, climb a tree, catch a bug, eat blackberries, or even find a feather and take it home. Simple things can inspire a lifetime of interest.
- Stop using pesticides in your garden. Find other ways to control ‘pests’ without killing them. Research their ecology or behaviour and manage them passively. Alternatively, just become more tolerant and learn to love all life – not just the cute and cosy things.
- Take advantage of any opportunity to visit a farm. Learn about where our food comes from, how it is grown and about the difficulties farmers face. We must build effective partnerships with good farmers, so understanding their business is important.
- Join in with social media campaigns, share your concerns, explore new ideas and discoveries, sign petitions, find a voice and join others who are using theirs to spread awareness and make a difference. Numbers count – be counted.
- If you are a member of a conservation charity, communicate with them. Don’t just pay your membership fee – get involved, volunteer if you can, and tell them what you think they do well and where they should try harder. You are a shareholder in conservation.
For more details about the People’s Walk For Wildlife, visit chrispackham.co.uk
20 birds fighting for their lives
During the People’s Walk For Wildlife that Chris has organised on Saturday, birdsong will be played as a reminder of the 44 million birds that have disappeared since 1966. Here, Chris highlights 20 in peril and Dr Martin Fowlie of the RSPB explains what makes them special and where you can find them
Grey Partridge: Down 96 per cent since 1966. Strictly a ground bird, never likely to be found in pear trees! Look out for them in ploughed fields or farmland and hedges on the edge of fields
Willow Warbler: Down 44 per cent. Small songbird which breeds in UK, appears in April and migrates at the end of summer to sub Saharan Africa. Lovely descending song
Tree Pipit: Down 69 per cent. Look out for this bird in the south of the UK, such as Surrey heaths and Dorset. They have a distinctive display flight that looks as it they are parachuting
Linnet: Down 55 per cent. This little bird can be seen on farmland, in hedges and on the edge of suburbia. You may spot them feeding on seed heads in winter
Song Thrush: Down 50 per cent. A once-familiar songbird in gardens and parks. Decline due to our gardens becoming too tidy – they like messy areas – and the use of slug pellets
Tawny Owl: Down 37 per cent. You will rarely see this owl in urban areas but you may hear them. Their call is a duet: ‘cwit’ is the female and ‘twoohhoohh’ is the male
House Sparrow, down 66 per cent. Numbers have tanked due to removal of outbuildings in parks and gardens and fewer holes in houses for nesting. Fewer insects for them to feed on, too
Corn Bunting: Down 89 per cent. Head for rural farmland to see this lowland bird, which is most usually seen perched on a wire or post
Kingfisher: Down 17 per cent Found near slow-moving rivers, lakes and ponds. You’ll hear a distinctive single call before you see them flash by – rarely seen perching
Lapwing: Down 64 per cent. You’ll see flocks of this distinctive farmland bird in winter, while in spring you’ll see them in fields with males performing a tumbling display
Spotted Flycatcher: Down 66 per cent. Watch them and you’ll be charmed by their fly-catching antics. They dash from a perch, grab a flying insect and return to the perch. Often seen in churchyards
Skylark: Down 59 per cent. Try to spot them when you hear their song. Males fly really high up and stay there singing – an inspiration for poets and composers
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker: Down 83 per cent. The least common of the three woodpeckers. When feeding it creeps along branches and flutters from branch to branch. Undulating flight in the open
Turtle Dove: Down 98 per cent. Near UK extinction. For those who grew up post-war, its sound will be a childhood memory. Would have often been seen in gardens
Starling: Down 81 per cent. One of the most common garden birds. Famous for the patterns created by the huge flocks they fly in as they migrate here from Scandinavia and Europe
Yellow Hammer: Down 56 per cent. A quintessential farmland bird – look out for it atop hawthorn hedges. Their decline is due to changes in farmland practices
Cuckoo: Down 56 per cent. You’ll hear a cuckoo call but are unlikely to see them. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and target one particular species – reed warblers
Willow Tit: Down 67 per cent. Seen in scrubby woodland, gravel pits, willow thickets and marshes with small trees for them to feed in. Unlikely to see in the South
Yellow Wag Tail: Down 67 per cent. A summer visitor, migrating to winter in Africa. It breeds in a variety of habitats in the UK, including arable farmland, wet pastures and upland hay meadows
Tree Sparrow: Down 90 per cent. Smaller and shyer than house sparrows. Spot in farmland. Decline due to fewer old farm buildings to nest in and fewer grain spillages to eat