There was a suggestion of haughtiness about these Svalbard Barnacle Geese, sitting apart from the other wildfowl and well away from the human visitors at WWT Slimbridge. Like many black-white birds their plumage is nevertheless striking.
These birds have been a focus of WWT since the 1950s, when their worldwide population had declined to 300, an alarming level. Peter Scott began an activity that became one of the world’s longest running migratory studies, and WWT has provided winter refuge for these birds, most notably at WWT Caerlaverock in the Solway Firth. In summer they live in the Svalbard Islands (includes Spitzbergen) between Norway and the Arctic. By 2010 there were 35,000 of these birds – a remarkable success story. (Other populations of barnacle geese migrate between Novaya Zemlya/Baltic states and Netherlands, and between Greenland and Scotland/Ireland.)
It shows that the worldwide efforts of conservation organisations can be vital in averting possible extinction of highly visible species. But the pressures are increasing, the number of threatened species inexorably rising, so ever more efforts are needed to maintain nature’s diversity in the face of the relentless onslaught of modern human life.
And what about the smaller organisms where there is no such highly visible focus? Amazingly, it is requiring almost superhuman efforts to even protect the vital bees from ‘the system’. We really do need a step change in our attitude to the natural world. We and it are one interrelated ecosystem – there is no backup.
I awoke thinking about birds again. The BBC makes some excellent programmes on the natural world and the 2-episode BBC4 series The Last Seabird Summer? , finished last night, was no exception.
Presenter Adam Nicolson has spent much of his life on the Shiant Islands in the Minch between the Outer Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland, one of the most important bird places of Europe. First, Adam traced our long history of dependence on seabirds – puffins, guillemots and razorbills – thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers. More recently the emphasis has moved to conservation.
But now there’s a crisis – in the last fifteen years, 40 per cent of Scotland’s sea birds have gone, graphically illustrated by relatively recent photographs of cliffs full of birds, but now empty. The Shiants are currently an exception, and the birds appear to have plenty of food. The excellent RSPB is helping for the future by exterminating rats from the islands (they arrived from shipwrecks) – rats eat eggs and young birds.
Adam travels to Iceland, home to over half the world’s puffins, to try and gain insight into what is going on. This is a story of two halves – to the north of Iceland, sea birds still prosper, puffins are still hunted and eaten – to the south, in the Westman islands, formerly prolific seabird colonies appear to be in terminal decline with no young birds. Crazily, some are still hunted and eaten for a few days a year, in the name of tradition.
After talking to ornithologists and marine scientists, Adam suggests that the root of the problem lies in the lack of suitable food for the birds. Kittiwakes are particularly vulnerable because they are essentially surface feeders. Puffins rely on sand eels, and where these are not present populations cannot survive.
Cyclic changes in the gulf stream and related water circulations in the atlantic appears to cause warmer then cooler water to appear around southern Iceland. With the warmer waters come huge populations of mackerel – good for fishermen, but these fish out-compete the birds for their food, so bird populations decline and then recover on a timescale of decades. This has happened since records began. However, global warming is increasing the baseline sea temperature. The result appears to be more severe decline in bird populations. The worry is that they may be driven beyond the point of no return. The Icelandic hunters are not helping.
It seems that, as global warming progresses, we must live with the spectre raised by these programmes of The Last Seabird Summer, in southern Iceland and a lot of Scotland at least – and notably for the iconic puffin.
But, as ever, there will be winners as well as losers. As Adam points out, some seabird populations, such as the gannet, which is very flexible in its food needs, are thriving – for example the huge colony on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth – and may well continue to do so.
Do watch these programmes, available for another three weeks if you have access to BBC catchup. But you’ll have to not be squeamish about watching puffins caught, cooked and eaten.
I woke up thinking of the skylark, how common it had been in my youth, how rarely heard today – how missed that sublime sound when in the open fields that are obvious skylark land.
What is more sublime on a clear blue spring day than the trill of the skylark as it hovers and flutters up and down over its territory – the inspiration of poets, notably Percy Bysse Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark and George Meredith’s The Lark Ascending. I give the first few lines of each:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert – That from Heaven or near it Pourest thy full heart In profuse strains of unpremeditated art…
He rises and begins to round, He drops the silver chain of sound Of many links without a break, In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
Meredith’s poem was of course the inspiration for Vaughan Williams in producing one of England’s most popular classical music pieces The Lark Ascending, as described in Wikipedia.
The RSPB tells us that “skylark populations are declining in almost all countries of northern and western Europe. In the UK, the population halved during the 1990s, and is still declining. In the preferred habitat of farmland, skylarks declined by 75% between 1972 and 1996”.
The main cause of this decline is considered to be changing farming practices: “the widespread switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals”, “the absence of stubbles, which are favourite feeding places” and “increased use of insecticides and weedkillers… likely to remove an important part of the food source”.
In grassland habitats “increased stocking densities on grazing land have made the grass too short for skylarks, and increased the risk of nests being trampled” and “a switch from hay to silage has resulted in many nests being destroyed by the cutting machinery, since the period between cuts is often too short”.
Fortunately the RSPB has been on the job since the 1990s and has successfully piloted on its own farm ways of managing the crops in a skylark-friendly fashion, produces information on good farming practice, and government is helping with incentives for farmers to do the right thing. The story is told in Back from the Brink.
The skylark population has now stabilised in some areas, but continues to decline in some cereal-growing areas. There’s a long way to go before, if ever, it gets back to the level of my youth. Farming would have to recognise that the job of growing food cannot be prioritised over the complementary job of maintaining the natural environment that enables it to be sustainable and sustains the spirit of the rest of us.