Saturday 4 December 2010

The end of abundance

A Cotswold scene - charming, but biologically depauperate.
We take the excellent news magazine The Week, which summarizes interesting news and stories from the media around the world. In the current issue one of its selections of best British articles is a feature written for The Independent last week by its excellent Environment writer, Michael McCarthy. Entitled 'The end of abundance' it can be read online here. McCarthy's thesis is that, sad though it is that the British countryside has lost a number of interesting and attractive species in the past fifty years, the real loss has been in terms of abundance. Populations of so many once-abundant species, whether mammals (e.g. the Brown Hare), birds (e.g. Lapwing, Starling), insects (especially Lepidoptera) and plants have crashed dramatically through the impact of intensive agriculture. It is true that actual extinctions are rare at the national level, and that there are some success stories such as the reintroduction of raptors to their vacant niches, and some habitats, especially woodland, are less affected, but this should not be allowed to mask the fact that most species of the open countryside are now present at a fraction of their former abundance.

Roadside verges are often the only places in
the Cotswolds where wild plants can survive.
In this area, although it looks green and pleasant, there are vast tracts of land with minimal biodversity: tens of acres of wheat for example, with barely another living thing amongst it. Every available inch of former set-aside land is back under the plough. Pasture land is grazed by vast flocks of sheep on a tight rotation, and what they don't eat is fertilized until the only non-grasses left are thistles and nettles, which are then sprayed with broadleaf-specific herbicide.  Grassland wildflowers are confined to roadbanks and the steepest slopes. Without foodstuffs for their larvae to eat it is not surprising that insect abundance is low and thus that the numbers of Swallows and House Martins breeding are falling each year. It can be, and is, argued that intensive agriculture is needed to feed the world's absurdly large human population, and perhaps the British countryside is already so ecologically depauperate that its continued intensive exploitation can do comparatively little further damage.

Blue Wildebeest - a symbol of abundance, now under threat in the Serengeti ecosystem.
One ecosystem that is largely intact is the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania - an area almost synonymous with wilderness and vast abundance, whose spectacular wildlife is brought to our screens on a regular basis. Yet even here, abundance is under direct threat from the proposed construction of a major highway that would cut directly through the most sensitive areas of the park, bringing a major trucking route through the wildebeest migration route. This scheme appears to be the personal project of the President, Jakaya Kikwete, although it is at variance with his previously expressed views on the importance of conservation, and against the ethos of a country that has more than a quarter of its land area designated for conservation and that benefits very greatly from tourists visiting its wildlife areas. A much less damaging route could be found to the south of the Serengeti, and this would serve a very much larger human population, but this does not seem to have been considered, nor does the implication for tourist revenue. As a result of the influence of the Big Man, the National Parks Authority has been effectively muzzled, and the campaign to save the Serengeti has passed into the hands of conservation bodies, scientific and public opinion. There are several organizations, such as Serengeti Watch, and an active Facebook group Stop the Serengeti Highway, where one's voice can be registered. A letter to the Tanzanian High Commissioner or Ambassador would not go amiss either.

Thomson's Gazelle
It seems to me that if we are ever to draw a line on the loss of biodiversity and abundance on this planet the boundary of the Serengeti National Park is a frontier that must remain sacrosanct.


  1. Dr. Grimshaw,

    My inquiry may not completely pertain to this posting, but it does pertain to habitat loss from invasive species. I would like to know if you have any news of the success of the Japanese Knotweed Psyllid introduction program begun in the UK this year. Perhaps it is too early to tell. I am anxious to see an end to this pest plant here in the US and would welcome any news.

    Thank you,

    Paul Bowden

  2. Paul - I've not heard anything further about it since the first news of its success. One can only hope that it really works on a large scale.


  3. Thanks for such an interesting post - there is much food for thought here

  4. I discovered E.O. Wilson's lucid writings on biodiversity a few years ago, and have been browsing (like a mental wildebeest) through his brilliant pastures: your post is right on! Biodiversity is the cornerstone of life itself. I like to think of gardens as a sort of laboratory where we explore ecology and biodiversity in an artistic alembic, as it were, so that we can determine how to better appreciate and protect the tattered fragments of nature that remain, and restore more in the face of still growing human population pressures.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.