Compare the vast amounts spent by the nation on the health of the human population of these islands with what is spent caring for and preserving our dwindling wildlife and on maintaining those few remaining areas of unimproved countryside vital to many species. This includes the banks and beds of our streams and rivers.
Contrast the thousands of healthcare professionals who train for years and are then employed at the tax payers expense, with those “employed” in the wildlife sector of our economy (if there is such a thing!).
The health of our wildlife actually rests largely with charitable trusts which use mostly volunteers who go out into the countryside to inspect and report on the populations of wild birds and mammals (and occasionally insects like butterflies). I am involved in this work locally but very recently was lucky to be able to observe a group of bird ringers at work near the Fold’s willow plantation. Here was a group of enthusiasts who were spending a good part of their free time inspecting and measuring the local bird population. Unpaid.
WHY? I hear you ask. Well, only by recording faithfully and regularly in a highly standardised method, year after year can anyone measure how wild populations are faring in our increasingly industrialised and chemically drenched countryside. The figures such groups have been recording in recent years can make depressing reading.
For example, once common birds such as starlings and sparrows are now officially endangered species. I could go on with many examples but the recent report on the State of Nature in the UK 2016 is very authoritative and well researched. You can download it from the RSPB website at www.rspb.org.uk. At the end of this report, which is introduced by David Attenborough, there is a list of the many voluntary and charitable organisations which contributed. It tells how over 50% of the species of the UK that were looked at, have declined seriously and many face extinction in the near future, whilst 3% have actually become extinct.
A well recorded example of how scientific research initiated by amateurs that has ultimately contributed to the health of all living things including humans is the case of the Peregrine Falcon. These impressive birds were widely distributed around the UK, breeding mainly on cliffs and eating mainly pigeons. At least two pairs live and nest around the quarries of the Malvern Hills nearby.
In the 1960’s peregrines and other raptors were observed by amateur birdwatchers to be frequently unsuccessful in hatching their eggs and so populations were declining rapidly, having expanded significantly after the end of the war. Seeking the solution, studies were then launched by government funded agencies that discovered that the main agricultural insecticides being used at that time (organochlorines) were very persistent in the environment and so they built up in the food chain from seeds to prey species and then became concentrated to much higher levels in the bodies of long-lived predators. Such toxins, whilst rarely lethal to the adult birds, would disrupt the reproductive cycle and in particular made the eggshells so thin that the female falcon would break all or most of them during incubation so now chicks were rarely hatched.
This led in turn to many other studies that showed how DDT and dieldrin which were the the main pesticides, were being widely spread around the planet even though the chemical was only invented in the 1940’s (to control malarial mosquitoes and lice). In fact organochlorines could be found in nearly all living things, even human breast milk. As you can imagine, this was then seen as a human health problem and DDT and most other organochlorines were ultimately banned for many (but not all) uses.
All this important work began with just a few concerned birdwatchers looking closely at a particular species. There have been many examples since that time of chemicals being released into the environment and becoming concentrated up the food chain. For instance, Diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory medicine used as a treatment for cows in India) has wiped out nearly all the vultures that once fed on the carcasses of dead cows in that country, in just a few years.
DDT was also a factor in the decline in the otter population, although river management and a variety of other environmental factors were important as well. It is very pleasing to say that the populations of both peregrines and otters have now largely recovered from the crashes, and along with some other iconic species such as the osprey, sea eagle and red kite can be seen and enjoyed by everyone again.
So without the work of amateur naturalists in the UK, most of the data recording of what is happening to our wildlife would not exist. And also much research on the nature of the environmental threats we face and the monitoring of the effects on populations of our changing climate. If you don’t already belong to one of the many charitable trusts dedicated to the conservation of wildlife, then this Christmas would be a good time to join up – after all you are probably interested in wild nature or you wouldn’t be reading this?