And what can we do about it? Abundant wildlife is the first sign of a healthy planet. For far too long (like since the birth of chemical agriculture in the late nineteenth century) we have thought humans can control Planet Earth. Previous retrograde steps would be the enclosures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For Scotland, the Highland clearances spring to mind.
Any intelligent management of the land and our ability to live from it recognises the need for Earth Care. The Earth will care for us if we care for it. We are people and therefore need People Care. But we do not care for ourselves by a misguided belief that we can dominate the rest of nature and win.
Here’s a small example. Aphids are widely regarded as ‘a problem’. They are vectors (carriers) of various diseases e.g. Virus Yellows. Aphids are prolific insects if uncontrolled. But we don’t need to control them. All we need to do is encourage their natural predators. For example, blue tits, ladybirds, lacewings. These native species are a delight to see and eliminate the need for chemical sprays if we have them in profusion. So all we need to do is create the right habitat and leave the natural cycle of life to deal with itself. Aphids aren’t the problem. Keeping nature in balance is the challenge. Wide field margins that attract invertebrates and songbirds assist.
The idea that agriculture and forestry are separate activities is the next mistake we have made. Nature operates in five dimensions. Over, under, sideways, down in the words of the old pop song. The three dimensions of physical space. Our farmers do a fantastic job on the two dimensions of flat space. But the third dimension of vertical space requires two things: creating living organic soils (impossible with chemical farming which destroys life in the soil) and trees. Trees offer us the best chance of permanent habitation. They ameliorate climate, build soils, offer useful products and create habitat for wildlife.
The fourth dimension is time. Under the supermarket culture we have lost our respect for seasonality, expecting abundant harvests of everything we consume every day of the year. Our commitment to uniformity is destroying our understanding of the value of diversity. Different things happen at different times of the day, and of the year. If we respect this then we need to work much less and make less inputs. True yield is outputs minus inputs, not tonnages achieved. Let nature take its course and we’ll progress further for less work and cost.
Monocropping does not favour wildlife. Managing our salmon rivers to extinguish coarse fish is not going to increase our national wealth, just the wealth of a few. Mono – anything is anathema.
Everything in nature has a right to life. If you don’t like a particular (native) plant, invertebrate, animal or bird, just consider what its role is in the system. Without detritus eaters (slugs, snails, rats etc.) we’d be feet deep in rotting vegetation. I exempt invasive exotics (Giant Hogweed, Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam, New Zealand Flatworm, Mink) because they were never part of our natural environment and they don’t, therefore, have natural predators.
But I despair to see people who want to eliminate raptors and badgers. They are part of the beauty of our natural world. If we abandon nature we abandon life. Badgers are ‘bad’ because they give bovine tuberculosis to cattle. The Government’s own research shows that 80% of the time it’s the other way round. Makes sense if you think about it. Badgers trundling around pass through cattle at ground level (cowpat territory). Cattle don’t spend time hobnobbing with badgers.
Many people are intolerant of wasps. But they serve lots of useful functions – pollinating, breaking down dead wood, infesting slugs and keeping their populations under control. Thistles and nettles are pioneer plants repairing our damaged soils and great food plants for a wide range of butterflies and moths. And for us if we know how to use them.
This is the fifth dimension. Relationships. In this zone we find the true foundation of natural abundance. How does all creation work together to provide our needs? As you enjoy our countryside ask yourself whenever you look at a plant, and insect, or an animal or bird – “How is it helping me.” Without earthworms we couldn’t live. Fantastic soil creators. Fungi serve us massively in ways we are barely beginning to understand. Weeds? Well they create new soil and all our food crops were weeds once.
Every tree on planet earth, capturing carbon dioxide and giving us back oxygen is a gift to our ability to live on planet Earth. A life we would not have without abundant wildlife.
The great ecologist Frank Fraser Darling described Scotland’s bare moorlands as ‘a wet desert’. He wasn’t wrong. Let’s stop our lowland agriculture going the same way, and regenerate woodlands on our uplands. The inevitability of carbon descent (oil running out) means we’ll have to get much better at managing our land and using organic production to produce the food we need. Our wildlife are our principal ally in this. Balanced ecology will serve us well, build soil fertility and give us all a more joyful experience of our landscape.
We live in a garden of 800 square metres with thirty-five resident species of bird, twenty who come for their lunch and twenty who come on their holidays. A few hundred of species of invertebrates (including eighteen species of bees). Hundreds of trees and plants. Mostly by allowing it to happen rather than trying to control it. Oh, but still get over a tonne of food a year. Organic with hand tools yielding over sixteen tonnes a hectare pro-rata. So, it’s not just a theory.
Graham Bell is Chair of Permaculture Scotland, and internationally respected teacher and author, gardener and nurseryman. https://www.grahambell.org