Philip Lymbery | SILENT FIELDS AND EMPTY SKIES
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SILENT FIELDS AND EMPTY SKIES

Today, 3rd March 2020, is World Wildlife Day #WWD2020.  A day to celebrate the wonders of nature.  All the wondrous wild animals and plants that exist in the world, but so often only glimpsed on television thanks to the efforts of dedicated wildlife cameramen and women.

Every year, it becomes ever more important to agree a new deal for nature. We cannot continue to plunder the natural world in the way that we have been doing for far too long. Almost a quarter of all species are at risk of extinction with more and more species joining the list every day.

Never before has it been so vital for us all to act to save, not just wildlife, but humanity too. 

The enormity of the task is hard to take in. Perhaps one way to make the task seem less insurmountable is to consider the challenges of species close to our homes and more familiar to us. 

Barn Owl taken at East Meon | Credit: Philip Lymbery

Birds have been my passion since I was seven years old. I was off school with chickenpox, when my Mum gave me my first bird book. I have always been particularly fond of barn owls and I still feel the same excitement when I remember seeing my first barn owl more than thirty years ago.

That first bird book and that first amazing barn owl fuelled what has been for me a lifelong fascination with the natural world. But tragically, in my lifetime, Britain has lost 44 million birds at the rate of a pair every minute.  It’s a story that is shared the world over. 

Once upon a time barn owls were a common sight over fields and farm buildings. Most farms had a pair. Now, just one farm in seventy-five has a nesting pair of barn owls. Like the farm animals who have slowly disappeared off the land, to be reared inside factory farms, so the birds have also been vanishing.

It’s a sad situation. Wildlife across the globe will continue to decline whilst we continue to intensively farm the majority of our land and, in the process, destroy the habitats, the grasslands, heaths and woodland that provide much needed cover for wildlife and, of course, their prey.

What we need is a long-term approach that nourishes people in a way that ends farm animal cruelty and allows nature to thrive; after all, we depend on the natural world as our life-support system, for our future.

Turtle Dove | Credit: Les Bunyan

For the time being, Britain’s barn owls are holding their own and red kites are on the comeback, but other once common farmland species have been decimated and remain at an all-time low. Birds including turtle doves, grey partridges, corn buntings and tree sparrows have declined by 90 per cent or more over the last forty years. The skylark, lapwing and even the common starling have dwindled by at least 60 per cent. In recent decades, 2 million pairs of skylarks and a million pairs of lapwings have simply disappeared.

These declines are not confined to Britain.  European bird census results for 1980–2010 show that farmland birds have fared particularly badly, with 300 million fewer birds today than in 1980. Grey partridge and crested lark have been particularly hard hit, with declines of more than 90 per cent. Ortolan buntings, turtle doves and meadow pipits have seen their numbers slashed by more than two-thirds. In the US, where farmland birds are called ‘grassland’ or ‘shrubland’ birds, many species are also in deep trouble. Those suffering include eastern meadowlark, lark bunting, mountain plover, short-eared owl and burrowing owl.

Again, industrial farming is largely to blame. The declines in Europe are widely accepted as being driven by agricultural intensification and the resulting deterioration of farmland habitats.  US farmland bird losses are thought to be in response to the loss of small farms, declines of shrub habitat and expanding ‘industrial agriculture’’, reports Birdlife International.

As we celebrate all that is wonderful with our wildlife today, let’s also pause to think of the dreadful losses that have taken place and make a pledge to do something about it.  It’s not difficult because we can all make a difference through our food choices (by eating more plants and choosing meat, dairy and eggs from pasture fed, organic and free range farms) and by supporting nature friendly farming.

We know the solution to so many of the challenges facing us are to be found in nature, so let’s work together towards a better future for nature and put back the birds in our skies, the insect noise in our fields and the life in our soils.